Liars, Atheists, and Libertines: The Politics of Dishonor in the Wars of Louis XIV


The Tavern Scene — A Rake’s Progress series, by William Hogarth, 1732-1735 / Sir Jon Soane’s Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Calling the French liars, atheists, and libertines, undoubtedly evoked a general sense of immorality and disrepute.


By Kristen Cooper
PhD Candidate in French History
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


In 1684, an anti-French propaganda pamphlet featured a conversation between a German and an Englishman, who were both curious to hear the latest news from a French acquaintance. Their conversation began with a parody of French politeness and refined sociability that included several, repeated, exchanges of pleasantries, until the introductions finally ended as so:

German: But, with your leave my good sir, we would like to stop with this complimenting, and may I ask what is good and new?

Frenchman: My sir eez quite correct, not wanting to continue ze complimenting. Zey know quite well, zat ey do not enjoy eet.

Englishman: My good sir will certainly excuse us, his ability is quite well known to us, and is that which is drilled into the French nation—to surpass all others with pretty expressions and compliments.[1]

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701 / Louvre Museum, Wikimedia Commons

This remarkable satirical sketch evinces a keen familiarity with both strong French accents and the reigning styles of French civility, which the German and Englishman ostentatiously exaggerate in order to converse with their French acquaintance. This pamphlet was just one of a massive corpus of propaganda published during Louis XIV’s reign, protesting the Sun King’s international belligerence. [2] In Germany, as elsewhere, political powers turned to the printed word to delegitimize French actions and further their own political claims. These pamphlets often consisted of learned juridical, religious, and philosophical arguments, but, as here, they just as often did not. In addition to scholarly disquisitions, pamphleteers often engaged in vindictive personal and moral attacks against Louis XIV, as well as against “the French” as a people. This sort of “national” slander ridiculed and criticized through stereotypes and insults. Among the insults deemed to be particularly intrinsic to the French character were a trifecta of invective: the French were nothing but liars, atheists, and libertines.

At first glance these attacks might seem like standard fare in terms of polemic. None of these critiques were new, and each had its own history of pejorative use. They each evoked a sense of general immorality that would have been understood by any early modern reader. This series of critiques, however, also represented an internal understanding of French mores. As the opening example shows, in the late seventeenth-century, the literate elite of Germany exhibited a confident familiarity with France and French culture. The pamphleteers facing off against Louis XIV used this to their advantage. I argue that these critiques were not just arbitrary slander, but rather the intentional inversion of qualities deemed refined and honorable in contemporary France. Authors engaged with prevailing ideals of sociability – galanterie, and honnêteté – to create political rhetoric that delegitimized the French in the eyes of “outsiders,” and also dishonored the French on their own terms.

In the second half of the seventeenth century a new culture of sociability arose in France. Centered on concepts such as politesse, galanterie, and honnêteté, there was an explosion of prescriptive literature detailing how one should behave. In general the ideal of honnêteté privileged sociability and discourse, personal virtue, and merit over birth-rank. Refinement, education, and social experience were central to these ideas, as was an indefinable je ne sais quoi.[3] The honnête homme was supposed to have a “gentle, gracious and accommodating demeanor,” and avoid at all costs manners that could be considered self-interested, severe, provincial, or too serious and pedantic.[4] Galanterie was connected to this honnête ideal, but placed particular emphasis on the art de plaire, “the art of captivating, enrapturing, [and] enchanting others.”[5] Contemporary dictionary entries defined galant in the following terms:

GALANT, ANTE; adjective, Honnête, civil, sociable, offering good company and pleasant conversation. [Dictionnaire de l’Académie of 1694]

GALANT, GALANTE, adjective. Possessing graciousness, wit, sound judgment, civility and gaiety, all without affectation. [Furetière’s Dictionnaire of 1690][6]

L’honnête homme / Creative Commons

But there were also pitfalls to these ideals. Louis C. Seifert, in his study of marginal masculinities, has illustrated the inherent fragility and precariousness of the social capital acquired by such sociability. Honnêteté was not something one possessed, but rather “a never-ending quest for an elusive goal.”[7] Failure was always a possibility, particularly through the twin pitfalls of excess or want. An excess of erudition made one pedantic and boring. A want of self-restraint led to braggery and offense. An excess of attention to appearance made one overdressed. A want of authenticity made one false. The key was to find the “golden mean” of honnêteté, but also to know how to use these inversions as markers of incivility within the social game.[8] As Seifert explains, these markers were “available as weapons in an arsenal that can be deployed in the struggle for ‘civilized’ masculine dominance… the honnête homme can attempt to assert his status as such by qualifying other men as fanfarons [blowhards] and hommes trop ajustés [overdressed men],” in other words for having failed to achieve that combination of refinement, authenticity, naturalness and je ne sais quoi.[9] Contained within every interaction, then, was the possibility of asserting one’s social standing through effective mastery of the honnête mean as well as the subtle subjection of your rivals to ridicule, shame, and dishonor through the use of inversions.[10]

Elite Germans, along with those across Europe, increasingly sought to gain access to these spaces of sociability and the education they provided. Since the end of the Thirty Years’ War, France, and specifically Paris, had become the favored destination for young Germans on their Grand Tours, a standard component of pedagogic practice on the road to becoming a truly ‘accomplished gentlemen’.[11] Critics complained about the immense sums of money spent in France every year as the result of such travels popular among German youth.[12] Across the Holy Roman Empire, even those Germans who could not afford such trips adopted French fashions, manners, and rules of sociability.[13] Through both personal experience and cultural exchange, there was a close familiarity with, and often a wholehearted embrace of, French culture. It is from this familiarity that the pamphlet critiques of the French as liars, atheists, and libertines stemmed. Pamphleteers crafted their invective to appeal to an audience that was both on the “outside,” in the sense that they were not French and ostensibly enemies of Louis XIV, but who were also most likely often on the inside, embedded within the prevailing system of sociability and honorable comportment. Each of these terms – liars, atheists, and libertines – acted as general critiques of French immorality, but can also be understood as inversions deployed within the social game of honnêteté, to undermine and dishonor the French.

To start, pamphleteers constantly portrayed the French as untrustworthy and perfidious. Partially this was a characterization based on the politics of Louis XIV, supported with cherry-picked examples of dishonorable and untrustworthy French monarchs from the past.[14] But pamphleteers also voiced this critique in a different way: the French were by nature frivolous, unserious, flippant, and inconstant. They thrived, in particular, on dissimulation. In preparing for their conversation with the Frenchman in the opening example, the German warned his English companion that they had to be careful to be sure the Frenchman spoke the truth, otherwise their Gallic acquaintance would simply dissimulate and they would never learn anything of use from him.[15] Another pamphlet asserted that while everybody knew the French in general were not to be trusted, the “flippancy of those today has incomparably overtaken that of their ancestors.”[16] A third pamphlet maintained that there were “certainly no people in the world more faithless than the French… When a Frenchman makes a false oath, he does nothing but [treat] the perjury as a turn of phrase… and, on top of it all, laughs.”[17]

This image of the carefree perjurer is one that reflected domestic French anxieties over sociability. Within the system of honnêteté, one was supposed to avoid serious subjects of conversation, to be lighthearted and always pleasing, and to engage in a style of politessethat aimed to create harmonious and enjoyable discourse. This was the art de plaire that every honnête homme was to aspire to. In the words of the Chevalier de Méré, the honnête homme was to create “the most perfect and most agreeable interaction among people” by not shocking or upsetting any of his companions, and thus “spread joy everywhere.”[18] Even within the bounds of French society, there was anxiety over politesse, specifically a suspicion about where politeness ended and falsity or superficiality began. When one must always be pleasing, it is perhaps easiest to do so by lying, by hiding one’s true feelings and thoughts, by dissimulating. The true honnête homme must paradoxically act his part in society while truly feeling and identifying with those same roles.[19] His acting must nevertheless be genuine. To suggest otherwise, to criticize the honnête homme of falsity, deception, and dissimulation would be to accuse him of failing the honorable ideal. German pamphleteers embraced this inversion of politesse and the art de plaire to strike at the heart of these anxieties. Through this rhetoric they exposed all of France as inauthentic and therefore dishonorable and ridiculous.

The French also regularly faced accusations of sexual licentiousness and infidelity, owing utmost to their unending galanterie. One German-language pamphlet from 1689 presented the reader with a room full of “elegant and expensively arrayed gentlemen and ladies.” Each of the women, although they “seemed indeed quite old,” was still “galant[e] and gracious enough to allow themselves to be adored.” And to that end each had her own gentleman seated near her to provide caresses.[20] This sexual openness would perhaps have been shocking enough to an early modern audience, but the narrator then proceeded to explain that each woman was already married and known to have had multiple other affairs. Such infidelity was common in France, according to the Portrait de la Nation françoise (1704). Both men and women “promise eternal fidelity, [but] they reserve in secret the right to love all that appears amiable with no detriment to the first attachment.”[21] The narrator of another pamphlet reported to “have known French nobility, who boasted, and . . . how they went out together with their sons to the brothels, and found their greatest pleasure in the alacrity of their children, because each wanted to be the first to engage in illicit sexual activities.”[22] This sexual licentiousness was supposedly so widespread and common in France that it was all Germans learned during their travels there. One unlucky character, upon arriving in France, “was far more disposed to pursue his studies with the female sex, and so put most of his time and energy into perfecting his courting and complimenting.”[23] His reward, and the most concrete evidence of French sexual corruption: “he caught the French galanterie or Spanish Pox” – by which they most likely meant syphilis.[24]

The pamphlets repeatedly attributed this sexual licentiousness to galanterie. The Potrait de la Nation françoise, in describing again the prevalence of infidelity among the French, exclaimed, “the manner of loving among the French is nothing more than a galanterie.”[25] The pamphlet continued, “the libertinage of the giddy youth [in France] is… intolerable,” and “the French nation is far too free, such that their freedom is verging, it seems to me, on the edge of excess.”[26] This negative use of the word galanterie reached back to an older historical meaning of the term galant: a womanizer or a rogue. Alain Viala highlighted how these ambiguities, “the two galanteries” as he called it, persisted in the definitions of the time.[27] The same entries that defined galant as an ideal model of comportment also stated:

GALANT is also said insultingly of one who entertains a woman or a young lady with whom he has some illicit relation [Furetière’s Dictionnaire]

….. He who makes love to a married woman, or to a young lady who he has no intention of marrying. [Académie][28]

Beyond this, even the ideal practice of galanterie was predicated on holding the concept of the woman and women’s company in high value. Women provided a model of ideal sociability, but they were also the object of the galant homme’s exertions.[29] Interacting with women in polite society was a requirement, not an option, and to captivate a woman, and thereby inspire envy in one’s rivals, was the highest goal.[30] To have be seen to pursue this goal slavishly or improperly, that is to not have adequately married the “seductive graces of galanterie” to the virtue, “solidity and durability of honnêteté,” as Seifert described it, was to transform into the libertine and the rake. From without, the pejorative association of galanterie with libertine womanizing and sexual licentiousness colored all of France as immoral and perverse. From within, the use of the pejorative critique could signify one’s inability to successfully achieve the golden mean of honnêteté and galanterie, and therefore an incomplete achievement of the accompanying honor and social capital.

Libertine and libertinism as scholarly categories are difficult to pin down.[31] Most of the pamphleteers used these terms in their colloquial sense, to mean sexually licentious and hedonistic. James G. Turner also identified two other semantic fields that the term could signify in early modern Europe: philosophical materialism and antireligious skepticism. According to Turner, use of the concept in any of these three fields, could reciprocally call to mind the other two. This correlation is evident in the pamphlets as critiques of sexual immorality were often tied to accusations of atheism. In the words of one pamphlet, “in Paris lived a horrifying mass of atheists, whores, [and] adulterers.”[32] Atheism in the seventeenth century connoted unbelief, heterodoxy, or blasphemy, but the critique of “atheist” explicitly denounced immorality – “godlessness in the sense of evil living.”[33] As Michael Hunter described, “a kind of circular connection was presumed between theoretical irreligon and bad behaviour,” such that the one was both symptom and evidence of the other.[34]

This circular logic is rife in the pamphlets. While Louis XIV was regularly criticized for being unchristian and irreligious, accusations of atheism applied to the French people as a whole, usually in the context of vice and immorality. One publication declared that in Paris alone one could find 50,000 atheists, “or people who believe in no god,” because it was a city in which “everything wicked, all sins that otherwise occur in the rest of the world, are nothing but a puff of smoke against all that our eyes saw daily in Paris.” The author continued, “Paris is a bottomless pit of all the bad fortune that can occur under Heaven.”[35] Another pamphlet made the connection even more clear: “Out of such a vile abyss of atheism emanates a terrifying swarm of devilish vices… with which sins the French surpass all other Christian peoples.”[36] Vice, depravity and immorality – the deception of dissimulation and the sexual deviance of galanterie – were symptoms of French godlessness and also proof of the same.

Pamphleteers then took this critique and re-injected atheism as a supposedly fashionable ideal. Germans coming back from France allegedly dazzled their companions with the atheistic maxims and other galanterie they had picked up.[37] Unbelief was presented as a matter of pride among the worldly, honnête French. To return again to the opening example, the German warned his French interlocutor that God would punish him for his unbelief. The untroubled Frenchman responded:

O’ bagatelle. Ey belief, my good sir ‘as too much intelligence, zat ‘e should belief God ‘as anyzing to do with wordly zings…. Ze common peuple belief zat; zey ‘ave no understanding. I ‘ave ze opinion, zat ze soul ees dead, like ze ‘orse, ze bird, ze cow. Eef eet should not be dead, I would not want to be such a great fool, as to search with so much work ze fortune and pleasure in zees world. No, No, believe not, Sir, zees fantasy. Eet ees bagatelle.[38]

The Frenchman dismisses the German’s concerns by portraying belief in God as something only the common people do, those who do not have “understanding.” As a refined, elite, gentleman he can confidently say that it is all nothing more than “bagatelle,” nonsense, merely a trifle. Antireligious skepticism certainly did exist in elite French circles. Even more widespread was the belief that it was very uncouth and pedantic to discuss serious, weighty subjects. In this pamphlet, the German and Englishman had been having a serious discussion about current events, but then had to play off their discussion before the Frenchman as merely a necessity for several idle gentlemen to pass the time. This aversion to pedantry taken to its extreme could easily lead to the impression that the French honnête homme was not bound by weighty things such as religious devotion and truth. The Frenchman in this pamphlet took this trait to excess. Freed from worry over his non-existent immortal soul by skepticism and unbelief, he is able to pursue fortune and worldly pleasure to his heart’s content. His atheism clears the path for his libertinism. He proves himself to be the excessive, inauthentic, parody that the German and Englishman expect.

Calling the French liars, atheists, and libertines, undoubtedly evoked a general sense of immorality and disrepute. Each of these concepts, however, also corresponded to parallel positives in the realm of ideal French sociability: lighthearted politesse, pleasing galanterie, and the carefree, unpedantic skepticism of the honnête homme. By using such critiques, German pamphleteers were able to invert prevailing ideals of sociability, to work within the system of honnêteté and galanterie, in order to dishonor the French on their own terms. To imagine this in the framework of a Parisian salon, the pamphleteer would have just one-upped the French noble, established his own honor and supremacy and presumably won the esteem of the nearest court lady. This multilevel invective functioned for both an “in crowd” and outsiders. For the latter, the French were simply deplorable—and that was that. But, at least a portion of the audience for these pamphlets was undoubtedly the same elites who so eagerly embraced French culture and norms. Initiates to the world of honnêteté. The pamphleteers needed to speak their language as well and so they carefully worked inside the system in order to undermine its French authors. Alain Viala argued that sociability was tied to an assertion of French political and cultural hegemony in Europe: it was “placed at the head of an international model, a triumph reserved for a nation capable of developing a taste without equal.”[39] The insults of the pamphleteers struck at the heart of this assertion. This was an active challenge, a pushback against France’s growing cultural hegemony in the process of opposing its expanding military might. Pamphleteers wielded this rhetorical inversion, this politics of dishonor, as a weapon against the growing power of Louis XIV.

Notes

  1. Hanß Knorr. Der Teutsche, Quackerius. Der Engeländer, Fitzliputzli. Das Frantzmännichen, und der Holländische Muff. Uber die gegenwärtige Unruhe am Nieder-Rhein-Strohm, (Hague: 1684), 29-30. The original text is printed in German, but, while there is no difference in fluency between the German and Englishman’s sections of dialogue, the Frenchman’s intentionally reproduced a painfully bad French accent and numerous stereotypically French grammar and vocabulary mistakes. The text later explicitly makes fun of native French speakers of German, sarcastically praising the Frenchman’s ability after he reveals he has already lived and worked in Germany for 18 years. I have done my best to maintain the style and intention of the original in this translation. 
  2. For a concise introduction to pamphlet critiques of Louis XIV see Peter Burke, The Fabrication of Louis XIV (New Haven: Yale UP, 1992), 135-149.
  3. Within French discussions of honnêteté at the time, there was always a heavy emphasis placed on personal experience; only through exposure and time spent within polite society could one truly develop the characteristics of the honnête homme. Peter France, Politeness and its Discontents: Problems in French Classical Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), 55.
  4. Louis C. Seifert, Manning the Margins: Masculinity and Writing in Seventeenth-century France (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2009), 32-34.
  5. Ibid., 25.
  6. As cited in Alain Viala, “Les Signes Galants: A Historical Reevaluation of Galanterie” translated by Daryl Lee, in Yale French Studies, No. 92 (1997), 20.
  7. Seifert, Manning the Margins, 29.
  8. Ibid., 27.
  9. Ibid., 9.
  10. Ibid. See also Viala, “Les Signes Galants,” 25. This form of sociability grew out of previous models, most notably Castiglione’s courtier. But unlike the Italian precursor, the French honnête homme was not a character confined to the court. The goal of the honnête homme was not simply career advancement, but rather sociability and pleasure in and of itself. This meant that honnêteté was not, by definition, tied to rank or aristocratic status, and was theoretically open to all those who had access to the elite social spaces, primarily of Parisian salon life. 
  11. Thomas Grosser, Reiseziel Frankreich: Deutsche Reiseliteratur vom Barock bis zur Französischen Revolution (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1989), 13; Der Teutsche Frantzoß, Worinne Mit sinnreichen Lehren und lustigen Exempeln gründlich vorgebildet wird, der Teutschen allzubegierigen Nachahmung in denen Frantzösischen Sitten, Kleydung, Sprache, Reisen, und andern Vanitaeten; So dann Der Nutz und Verlust, Welcher dem Römischen Reiche Teutscher Nation hierauß erwachsen (1682), 2.
  12. Das neugierig und veränderte Teutschland… Absonderlich aber von desselben verschwenderischer Neugierigkeit in Ausländische Dinge… (1684).
  13. T.C.W. Blanning, The Culture of Power & Power of Culture: Old Regime Europe, 1660-1789 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002); Veronika Hyden-Hanscho. Reisende, Migranten, Kulturmanager: Mittlerpersonlichkeiten zwischen Frankreich und dem Wiener Hof 1630-1730 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013).
  14. See for example, L’Esprit de la France et les Maximes de Louis XIV. Decouvertes à l’Europe, (1688).
  15. Hanß Knorr. Der Teutsche, 28.
  16. Der Frantzösische Mord-Brenner , oder dieser feindseligen Nation historischer Laster- und Kriegs-Spiegel, darinnen Deroselben unbeschreiblicher Ehr-Geitz, Atheisterey, Untreu, Falschheit, Verrähterey und Tyranney… (1678), 24.
  17. Die Waagschale der Frantzosen, oder das auff die Schaubühne gestellte Franckreich… dieser beschriehenen Nation grosse Untreue, erschröckliche Gottlosigkeit, Höchststraffbarer Meyneyd, Hochmuth, Tyranney, und andere dergleichen abscheuliche Haupt-Laster… (1689), 25.
  18. As quoted in Seifert, Manning the Margins, 25.
  19. Ibid., 54.
  20. Das an der Teutschen Colica Danieder liegende Franckreich, Worinnen der heutige Zustand dieses Königreichs, nebst kurtzen iedoch aber gründlichen Entwurff der merckwürdigsten Intrigues des Frantzösischen Hofes aufgelöset und vorgestellet werden… (1689), 9.
  21. Portrait de la Nation Françoise par C.G.d.M. (1704), 6.
  22. Hanß Knorr. Der Teutsche, 58. The speaker in this instance is the German character.
  23. Der Teutsche Frantzoß, 178.
  24. Ibid., 206.
  25. Portrait de la Nation Françoise, 6.
  26. Ibid., 4, 11.
  27. Alain Viala, La France galante: Essai historique sur une catégorie culturelle, de ses origines jusqu’à la Révolution (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2008), 203-225.
  28. As cited in Viala, “Les Signes Galants,” 19-20.”
  29. Seifert, Manning the Margins, 41. See also Viala, La France galante, 128; France, Politeness and its Discontents, 56.
  30. Seifert, Manning the Margins, 42-44. See also Viala, La France galante, 128.
  31. Not only has the term been used in a number of different ways over the centuries, it is also used by scholars for a variety of different contexts and time periods with little standardization across subfields. See James G. Turner, “The Properties of Libertinism” in ’Tis Nature’s Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality during the Enlightenment (1985), 75-87. On the term specifically as invective in the early modern period see, Thomas Berns, Anne Staquet and Monique Weis, eds. Libertin! Usage d’une invective au XVIe et XVIIe siècles.,(Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2013).
  32. Die Waagschale der Frantzosen, 47.
  33. Michael Hunter, “The Problem of ‘Atheism’ in Early Modern England” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 35 (1985), 139.
  34. Ibid., 142.
  35. Die Waagschale der Frantzosen, 79, 78.
  36. Der Frantzösische Mord-Brenner… historischer Laster, 10.
  37. Das von Franckreich verführte Teutschland, worinnen klärlich vorgestellet wird, Wie Franckreich bißhero Auswärtige Nationen, Sonderlich aber die Teutschen, Durch allerhand Ankörnungen, Galanterien, und andere ersinnliche Staats-Streiche, an sich gelocket… (Frankfurt and Leipzig: Christian Weidmannen, 1686), 51.
  38. Hanß Knorr. Der Teutsche, 68-69.
  39. Viala, “Les Signes Galants,” 26.

Originally published by the Journal of the Western Society for French History 44 (2016) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.

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