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 what did aristocrats do all day? 
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Post what did aristocrats do all day?
I apologize if this question has already been answered elsewhere on the site, but...

What did 18th century French aristocrats actually do during the average day? (I'm not referring to courtiers at Versailles, but an aristocrat in Paris, say, or his/her chateau in the country.) Watching movies, one would think they only 1) engaged in romatic/erotic diversions, and 2) had themselves splendidly dressed. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. I would think a gentleman/lady would actually have some responsibilities to attend to during the day...

If you can refer me to any books, websites, (preferably in English, but I will attempt French ones) I would appreciate it.


Tue Mar 03, 2009 2:07 am
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
You might look on Gallica for the Seconde et Troisième Suites d'Estampes, which illustrate the manners,
customs, and costumes of the French nobility in the eighteenth century. Paul Lacroix's nineteenth century work "France in the EIghteenth Century" exists in English, and covers various aspects of life at the time. There are no doubt numerous works on "French Nobility in the EIghteent Century", etc. if you look about.

The short answer is that they tended NOT to be on their estates (they had people for that), since Louis XIV did his best, after the troubles of the Fronde, to make Paris and Versailles the places to be, and to tangle the nobility so much up in fashions, etc. that they didn't have time to plot against the monarchy. So even nobles who weren't received at court wanted to be near it. When they were in the country, anywhere, hunting (think today's fox hunts) was a major one. Young men wanted to be soldiers (Lafayette came to America for the chance at glory). Gambling and keeping mistresses were big, as were going to balls, etc. Women concerned themselves with fashion, drawing, embroidery, theater (Pompadour had her own amateur troupe), but also, to some degree, with writing and reading (novels especially).

Their lives, in other words, really were as idle as is sometimes caricatured, paradoxically because status was displayed by the ostentatious ability to not work. (I've known aristocrats in several countries over the years, and many, even as they discreetly run businesses, try to maintain the general air of not having to do anything even today.) In France, too, unlike in England, nobles weren't supposed to go into business, and it could cost them their titles (some found ways around this). As for money, well, part of the problem, for peasants and nobles alike, was that it was supposed to come from your lands and other holdings, and if for some reason that wasn't working out, one couldn't just go out and start a business (see above). One thing an impoverished noble COULD do (being humiliatingly confined to their land) was to hunt (which peasants weren't allowed to do, even when rabbits were overrunning their crops.)

Hence the Revolution (people get SO shirty about supporting others who are living way better off than them) and the ferment among the better classes that helped facilitate it.

This being the Enlightenment, too, you had people like Condorcet who delved into science, but the philosophical crowd probably can't be considered too typical of the minor nobility.

You can find all kinds of exceptions, and some aristocrats did manage to do some very useful things. But it was somewhat despite themselves and their class in most cases.

Though it doesn't at all focus on your main question here, you might want to read Arthur Young's Travels in France During the Years 1787, 1788, 1789
http://books.google.com/books?id=NqoMAA ... t=ALLTYPES

One of the big points he makes is that the English nobility DID live on their land, and hobnobbed with their own farmers. He was struck by the distance between those classes in France. Significantly, too, one could get the London papers almost everywhere. The lack of current news - and the resultant rumors - caused all kinds of havoc as the Revolution approached in France.

The introduction to the version linked above quotes this from his work:
"Whenever you stumble upon a grand seigneur, even one that is worth millions, you are sure to find his property desert"
Puts it neatly, eh?

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Tue Mar 03, 2009 8:39 am
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
If the revolutionaries had something to say about the nobles then they should be angry at Louis XIV! Louis XIV created an idle aristocracy. The problem is that Louis XIV in my opinion reduced the real power of nobles such as matters of state, warfare. Louis XIV did not want the nobles involved with government. He only kept middle class advisors for war far etc. Gambling was means to replace the thrill of warfare. Louis XIV also made ettiquite so complex that the courtiers' attention was diverted and it made the aristocrats fawn over the king. However by the reign of Louis XVI this was outdated and change needed to take place.

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Tue Mar 03, 2009 10:10 pm
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
Many of the problems under Louis XVI - including huge war debts - went back to Louis XIV. Though the latter can't really be blamed for having wanted to divert the nobles into trivial pursuits. It might even be considered a rather enlightened way of avoiding bloodshed. Unfortunately he was neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, and had no way of predicting the down side to it all. Still, there was already sufficient poverty in his time that the Czar of Russia, after a visit, expressed his fears of an upheaval in France.

On the main subject here, Gallica just put up Hervez's Galanterie parisienne sous Louis XV et Louis XVI (in French). It revels in the scandalous goings-on (including such treats as a letter from Mme. Epinay bawling out a young idealistic lover who was shocked, simply shocked, to discover she got around), but does give some idea of how at least part of the nobility was spending their time.

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Tue Mar 03, 2009 10:35 pm
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
Thank you Jim, for your erudite contributions; I am really enjoying them.

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Wed Mar 04, 2009 12:38 am
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
Thank you for your thoughts and the sources you suggest. I have looked at some texts in English (including Olivier Bernier "Pleasure and Privilege" and some book by Evelyn Farr, I can't recall the title right now). I was just wondering if I was missing something.

Perhaps this will help with a fiction piece I hope to finish someday... :)


Wed Mar 04, 2009 1:22 am
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
Thanks, fleur, for the flower.

For the subject:

A check of my own bookshelves reminds me of the following:
Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret - The French Nobility in the EIghteenth Century.
Pierre Goubert - The Ancien Regime: French Society, 1600-1750
John Lough - An Introduction to EIghteenth Century France

This might be of interest too:

Jay M. Smith - The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century: Reassessments and New Approaches, Penn State Press, 2006

Honestly though, having struggled with a period novel myself, if you do launch out on those waters, you'll probably find yourself reading numerous memoirs (a whole other subject) and lots of articles from the Encyclopedia.

Finally, it's always worth perusing Mercier's dictionary-like "Tableau de Paris", which has been partially translated in English, in 1817
http://books.google.com/books?id=uIceJv ... #PPA288,M1
and most recently as "Panoramas of Paris".

But only the French version I think is complete:
http://books.google.com/books?id=NIcGAA ... #PPA380,M1

Should you ever use this for research and reference, you might want to download Gallica's all-text versions, to simplify searching.

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Wed Mar 04, 2009 7:06 am
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
Thanks again, Jim. You're a one-man library!

I'm curious...did you give up on the novel, or are you still working on it?


Thu Mar 05, 2009 1:27 am
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
I believe "put it aside" is the common euphemism. :)

I decided I needed to learn as much about story structure as I had learned about the 18th century, and read all of Dickens' novels as a start in that direction. Otherwise, I wrote a number of short stories about the period and a few monologues (some of which are on my site).

I'm torn right now about starting a completely different period novel (already partially outlined) or trying to review my near-complete first draft with fresh eyes.

The thing any writer of fiction, historical or not, needs to keep blazoned before them is "It's the story, stupid". All else is but fodder for the end result.

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Thu Mar 05, 2009 3:12 am
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
I know it's a little off topic for this forum but this is my first time back on in a while. But anyway does anyone know how long the nobles were at Versailles during the year? I mean was it a short period of time such a few months or was it a majority of the year if anyone could please just give me a little insight on this one I would be most gracious.


Wed Mar 18, 2009 3:43 am
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
People didn't have vacations then, but they could retire to each other's country retreats, and of course they were often the major dignitary of a town where they had their estate, so they would return to that from time to time. But the Court was really always in attendance, to varying degrees.

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Wed Mar 18, 2009 8:08 pm
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
Note that being "at court" did not necessarily mean being at Versailles. "At court" was wherever the King was, which in the autumn could be Fontainbleau, for instance:
http://books.google.com/books?id=TV5EAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA17&dq=Versailles++FOntainebleau&lr=&as_brr=1

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Wed Mar 18, 2009 8:40 pm
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
As the opening song of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette aptly states - "The problem of leisure: what to do for pleasure" :biggrin:

Provided one's income and the means in which it was generated remained constant, painting, hunting, and indulging, in effect, one’s hobbies for which we today scarcely have the time, is the height of living well. In many ways sweating the minor details which all too easily pass us by, could to 18th centaury – or any – nobility, become all important. A life with every possible need and desire carefully administered and managed

Life so lavish, that odd simplicity becomes luxury. I’m referring the Marie Antoinette’s Trianon muslin 'gaulle' dress phase. No matter how apparently boring, life really couldn’t be better behind the gilded gates of Versailles.

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Mon Dec 07, 2009 12:52 pm
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Post Re: what did aristocrats do all day?
Bear in mind that still today an air of insouciance and of having time and money for things like yachting, horseback riding, futile get-togethers whose main point is to show one frequents the right crowd are all hallmarks of a certain kind of aristocracy (whom I've had occasion to frequent, even if my only aristocratic relatives are distant Spanish lords, long forgotten.) Charity balls are often the most useful activities in these circles, and the very fact that one has to put on an expensive, glittering soiree to attract money for charity shows where the priorities are in these events.

I've enjoyed brief interaction with these worlds, but the idea of living in them for life.... Brrrrrr..... Which is why a number of people from such families become eccentric or bury themselves in some obscure corner of study.

But the basic principle - prove you're too affluent to work by ostentatiously and expensively playing - is a pretty enduring one.

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Mon Dec 07, 2009 5:20 pm
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