Bellegarde: The Etiquette Manual of Absolutism

Jean-Baptiste Morvan de Bellegarde, Réflexions sur ce qui peut plaire ou déplaire dans le commerce du monde.

Second revised and extended edition. Printed by the heirs of d’Antoine Schelte in Amsterdam, 1699.

Let’s be honest: do people like talking to you? I’m sure they do! In that case you certainly have a successful career. And if they don’t: do not despair, there are ways to learn how to converse successfully. At the court of the absolutist ruler Louis XIV, being popular determined whether your life was to be successful or to end prematurely. In 1688, the Jesuit Jean-Baptiste Morvan de Bellegarde nicely summarized everything one needed to know about being popular in the story of two friends, thus joining the fashionable genre of moralist literature.

Jean de La Bruyère was a nobleman who lived around the same time as Bellegarde. He is considered one of the main representatives of the French moralist literature genre.

Moralist – Not Moralizer

No one wants to be a moralizer today, one of those know-all sourpusses who know exactly how to behave and constantly reprimand others with a moral pointing finger. But that has nothing to do with our topic nor with the mostly abstract discipline of ethics. Things were quite different with the French moralists of modern times. Between the late 16th and the 18th century, moralists established themselves as the founders of a new genre that is unique to French literature.

The courtly world was not as idyllic as this engraving suggests. To survive at court, you had to know exactly how to make friends and how to avoid stepping on the wrong people’s toes. Bellegarde explained that.

Prominent authors such as La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère and Blaise Pascal were aristocrats who frequented the court – and neither of them studied philosophy. They followed an essayistic approach and did not aim to systematically investigate “the one and only” morality. Instead, they wanted to limn people and their characteristics, observe what they did and bluntly reveal their behaviour. Abbot Bellegarde also stands in this tradition.

Jean-Baptiste Morvan de Bellegarde was born in 1648 in Nantes, joined the Jesuit order and later switched to the order of Francis de Sales. Bellegarde was to make a name for himself as a translator of many ancient writings and as a philosopher whose works repeatedly revolved around the human being and his behaviour towards other people. He made his literary debut in 1688 with his “Reflections on what may please and displease in the world”.

Six Discourses and Five Dialogues

Bellegarde divided his work into six discourses and five dialogues. It is dedicated to Louis-Auguste, the Duke of Maine and outside-marriage but legitimate son of the King – who obviously did not need such a book. For, as Bellegarde duly emphasises in the dedication, the Duke did not rest on the laurels of his blue-blooded birth but earned his excellent social position due to his virtuous nature. And such a nature was what it took – Bellegarde quotes his patron here – to please at the court of Louis the Great. “Plaire” – to please – is a key word in the work. The book was aimed at aristocratic readers who did not want to get caught in the pitfalls of court intrigues.

Bellegarde sends two friends with the Greek names Euthyme and Theagene first to the countryside, then back to Paris. They do what French noblemen of the time used to do if they had taste and education: the talked and discussed about how to behave properly, how to make friends and how to keep them. You may well think of the modern classic by Dale Carnegie: “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

For Bellegarde, too, it is not about abstract ethical considerations but about the practical issue of how to survive in the shark pool of the Versailles royal court. It is about how to “please”, i.e. how to become popular, but also about how honest one should be with their friends. Of course, one should not regard friends merely as a means to an end. But are you allowed to refuse them a favour? And Bellegarde discusses again and again how one should behave in case a friendship breaks up. One should not seek revenge right away, is his moderate advice. After all, you do not want to have enemies at court. There is a reason why praise is a permanent topic. We all want to be praised and a kind word is an ideal way to start a good relationship. And those who could not fall asleep because they had committed a faux pas at court could simply browse through the index until they found what they were looking for. Just like a modern how-to manual.

Being “polite” was the only way to keep doors and options open. Bellegarde repeatedly sprinkles in anecdotes about historical persons who serve as role models. These examples give a lightness to the manual that distinguishes it from moral treatises. If we wanted to buy the book in a modern bookstore, we would not have to look in the deserted “Philosophy and Theology” section, but would have to fight our way through the popular “Advice Literature” section.

Adolph Freiherr von Knigge, the author of the most important German etiquette manual, was sort of following in Bellegarde’s footsteps. He too wanted to smoothen the relationships between people as much as possible. But not only at court.

Polite Society – And What Is Left of It

This book might sound familiar to many German readers as they are familiar with the famous Freiherr von Knigge. In Germany, the name Knigge has come to equal rules on perfect behaviour, knowing which spoon to use to eat oysters, and when to wear what kind of suit to avoid exposing oneself as mannerless. However, Knigge’s main concern was making living together easier by means of rules – and not only at court. If you know which rules apply when, you can follow them. The consequence: everyone behaves correctly which makes life easier for everyone. At least in theory.

But Bellegarde’s book was already quite popular during his lifetime and was published many times even before the indirect reception by Knigge and other authors. Our edition is a second revised edition, which – as the frontispiece emphasises – is based on the Paris original edition. Apparently, not all later editions followed this approach. The sad thing about this is that although Bellegarde wrote and published many works, the abbot was widely forgotten after his death in 1734.

This is also evidenced by the fact that a digitized version of his work cannot be found online.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Johann Christian Lünig also wrote on this subject – however, his work on court ceremonial of 1719/1720 was a bit more formal.

Speaking of Louis XIV: the first thing that comes to mind are surely his magnificent wigs. But do you know how this special fashion came about? Read here what the wigs of the court of the Sun King had to do with the sex life of the time.

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