Friday, February 27, 2015

Dancing to the Precipice: The Affair of the Minuet

From the outset, Marie Antoinette's famously graceful steps into France became tangled in the web of jealously guarded honors and privileges of the French subjects who, often disingenuously, bowed and curtsied at her feet. Before she alighted upon French soil, serious negotiations had taken place over issues like who would sign the marriage document first, who was allowed to host the Dauphine, to whom should the Dauphine graciously decline her head and to whom should she not, etc., etc..

Author Stanley Loomis comments upon the ludicrous, laughable to the modern mind, immense gravity of 18th c etiquette in his book, Du Barry.:  "Immeasurably more important than affairs of State in the wasps' nest were the intricacies of etiquette.  Every small privilege:  the right to sit where others stood, the right to enter where others couldn't, the right to keep on a hat where others must remove it, was a deliciously public affirmation of one's superiority over someone else.  Such petty distinctions were guarded by their proud possessors with a ferocious jealousy."

Time and time again, Loomis' assertion (universally shared by historians) was demonstrated.  One of the first instances in which protocol caused a misstep was The Affair of the Minuet.

Here's a synopsis...

Among the celebrations following the wedding of the Dauphin, Louis-Auguste, and the Austrian Archduchesse, Marie Antoinette, in May 1770, was a ball to be held in the newly built Salle de l'Opéra at Versailles.  In a gesture of goodwill towards the bride's mother, Empress Marie-Therese, Louis XV decided to break precedents and offer the right of the second dance, after that of the Princesses of the Blood, to the Princesse of Lorraine, a French relative of the Empress' deceased husband, Francis of Lorraine.  The King's intention was a gallant demonstration of inclusion of the relatives of his new Austrian in-laws and, at the same time, a gracious bow toward their newly formed alliance.   In making this gesture, though, he was, figuratively speaking, stepping on the toes of the French Princesses and Duchesses who held the rights, by birth, according the laws of etiquette, to dance the second dance.  Most of the Court and, indeed, most of the country was against the alliance with their long time enemy, Austria. They objected to a member of that family being elevated by this exception to the established rules, though Mademoiselle de Lorraine was French and much of the Royal Family was some mix of French and Austrian because of centuries of intermarriage between the two.  So, some of the objection was for political reasons, but most, it seems, was of the time-honored personal jealousy variety.

Oh, non, that will not do.  Unacceptable.  Versailles was in an uproar at the very idea of this belittling dismissal of the rights of the higher-ranking Princesses and Duchesses of the Court.  "Bickerings without end," reported Madame du Deffand.  "The minuet is to be danced by Mademoiselle de Lorraine and it is vexing a great many people."  A shrill cacophony of insulted French voices rose in indignation. A solemn midnight council made up of the Peers of France and Duke of France met at the residence of the Bishop of Noyon in Paris.  Outrage and grave discussion led to the drawing up of this petition.:  "Sire, the ranking lords of your realm lay at the foot of the Throne the just alarms that have been awakened in them by the widespread rumor that you have ordered that at the ball of Monsieur le Dauphin's marriage Mademoiselle de Lorraine shall dance a minuet preceding the other ladies of the Court. Your lords believe, Sire that it would be lacking in what was due to their birth if they did not manifest..."

As, Loomis wrote, "The greatest names in France were accordingly affixed to this ridiculous document and it was duly presented to the King."

Louis XV was notorious for his dislike of squabbling and his avoidance of dealing with conflict.  At this point in his life, in particular, he seemed to simply want to be left in peace with his delectable new Mistress, Madame du Barry.   He probably didn't even want to go to the damn ball.  But, go he did, and without caving on the dance line-up.  Mademoiselle de Lorraine, acutely aware of the turmoil, might've found walking on coals more comfortable than dancing on the arm of the Monsieur de Lambesc in splendid surroundings, as rancorous courtiers, required to attend, sneered, turned their backs and, even, left the room.

This sort of insubordination would've never passed unpunished by XV's predecessor, Louis XIV, who'd created the web of rights and privileges as a way to control his courtiers.  It's easy to trace, in retrospect, the slippery slope toward the French Revolution beginning with the deterioration of the respect for the King.  Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile, as my mom often said.

Loomis, as usual, said it well...  "Despicably petty, but dangerously significant is The Affair of the Minuet. The time was approaching when the disaffected and spiteful nobles would have it in their power to destroy more than a party."

Post title was borrowed from my bookcase.

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