For Love or Money: Upward Mobility in France at the Turn of the 18th Century

Making over Paris and the middle class during Louis XIV’s reign

Louis XIV crossing the Pont Neuf in Paris, 1660 (Source: Wikipedia)

Onstage November 8 through December 16, 2018, at Lantern Theater Company, The Heir Apparent is set in Paris at the turn of the 18th century. But this is not the City of Lights that enchants and delights us today, and France was only starting to become the center of fashion and culture that it is now. The country was purposefully remaking itself, in much the same way that the characters of David Ives’ raucous comedy hope a sizable inheritance will allow them to do for themselves.

Louis XIV (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica)

It was a very expensive proposition to be in the wealthy or noble classes in 1708, the year in which The Heir Apparent is set. King Louis XIV was dissatisfied that other European countries like Spain and Italy were the centers of culture, fashion, and art. He undertook a concerted effort to make France the arbiter of taste and luxury in Europe by sponsoring (and enforcing) a luxury goods market. The French government brought foreign artisans into the country and subsidized their work. Louis refused all imports that could be made in France, and forbade French artisans from leaving. He made over French culture and industry, focusing on refinement and luxury.

The manufacture of luxury was not enough to make France the jewel in Europe’s crown, though; there had to be a market for it. To create one, Louis and his government made the purchase of luxury goods a de facto requirement for those around him. New fashions came out twice each year, with expensive fabrics and patterns appearing in the spring and fall. Accessories came with them; each fabric was complemented by new parasols, shoes, fans, and all manner of luxury items.

To ensure this biannual wardrobe refresh, Louis enforced codes of dress and conduct at court that made the purchase of these goods a necessity. It was not just fun to be fashionable; it factored into court life and social advancement. Louis kept a close circle of advisors and favorites, who could fall out of favor at any moment and be replaced by any number of nobles waiting to pounce. Maintaining his good graces could keep you in power and out of prison; knowing the dos and don’ts of fashion meant staying in the inner circle.

A variety of late 18th century textiles from a French fashion plate (Source: Victoria and Albert Museum)

But it wasn’t enough for Louis to remake the clothes and manufacturing of his country. He wanted to remake Paris. The Paris of 1708 was the second largest city in Europe, but much of the city was muddy, overcrowded, and dangerous. Louis himself never liked Paris, and he distrusted its people. He famously moved his court from the capital to a minor rundown palace twelve miles outside the city: a little place called Versailles. He remade it, turning it into the monument to gilt and glamour it is today. But despite leaving Paris behind, Louis wanted it to be a shining example of his reign.

In 1666, Louis took steps to improve the city by appointing Paris’ first police chief. Street lamps were installed for the first time, and its exterior walls replaced with celebratory arches. Some of the city’s most famous attractions, including the Champs-Élysées and the Louvre, were built or renovated during this time.

Despite all the new construction and attempts at cleaning up the city, it was still dirty, with little access to clean water or air. The city was hit with a harsh winter and crop failure in Winter 1709. It is in this climate of widespread famine that France’s merchant class was rising, aspiring to nobility while racing to leave the working-class origins behind.

Louis’ remaking of the French economy into one based on luxury opened up avenues for enterprising members of the middle class to build businesses and earn capital. And while France’s stock market was still in its infancy, there were millions to be made in investing, both in France’s burgeoning industry and in the more advanced financial markets elsewhere in Europe.

What happened at Versailles trickled down into Paris. Because the nobles needed to constantly refresh their wardrobes, so too did the upper middle class of Paris, striving toward nobility from their humble beginnings. Wealthy Parisians congregated in one neighborhood, isolating themselves from Paris’ mud and disease in fancy, glittering enclaves. To maintain this newfound wealth and social capital, money and property had to be consolidated. This is where death and marriage played their roles.

Marriage was another market for rich Parisians to amass and consolidate wealth. Matches were made by parents, and were usually based on economic considerations: the suitor who brought the most wealth, land, or social position got the girl. Complicated contracts were drawn up, signed by the intended but hashed out by the parents, detailing the transfer of wealth and the parameters concerning its disbursement. Love matches were out of the question without parental consent and a signed contract; in fact, the French government made it illegal for priests to marry couples without the written consent of living parents. And forget about divorce — in all but the most outrageously unhappy cases, no such thing was allowed.

Detail from a 1599 French marriage contract (Source: The Newberry)

Marriage was one way to amass wealth; inheritance was the other (and both are central to The Heir Apparent). Just as weddings came with many a dotted i and crossed t, death was a complicated legal matter. French inheritance law varied by region, meaning that a person’s wealth might not stay within the family if there was no will. Wives would retain control of their dowries, but anything else was subject to their husband’s will. Just as Louis XIV’s courtiers needed to stay in his good graces to maintain power, so too would a child of wealth need to curry favor to be assured a windfall after a patriarch’s death.

While this might not seem like prime background for a comedy, the hilarity and hysteria of the play blossoms from a newly wealthy family’s cash craze. The Heir Apparent takes the greed and guile of the time and makes merry magic with it, spinning it into gold.

The Heir Apparent is onstage at the Lantern November 8 through December 16, 2018. Visit our website for tickets and information.

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Lantern Theater Company

Lantern Theater Company

Creating intimate and engaging theater in Philadelphia since 1994.