Friday, May 05, 2006


I've been reading about Marie Antoinette. You may have seen my earlier post about the Conciergerie in Paris and my lack of knowledge about that period of history. I bought this book (Marie Antoinette - The Journey by Antonia Fraser) there and then and have been reading it since I got back. It's heavy going although very interesting. I don't normally read histories or biographies and find the large numbers of Ducs, Princesses and Baronnes difficult to follow. However, the book has painted an interesting picture of court life in Versailles, and indeed Europe, before the French revolution and of Marie Antoinette in particular.

What I have found fascinating are the parallels between that life and modern western society. The nobility of Europe at that time seemed to lead a fairly wasteful life. They had gold, riches and flunkies by the score and yet few of them had anything useful to occupy their time. They sought diversions: gambling, the opera, parties, affairs. They had too much money and too much time on their hands.

Does that sound familiar? There are many people in the modern western world who act like they are royalty - spending money on frivolity, expecting other people to clear up after them, living life for fun.

Where there is a difference is that eighteenth century nobility were born like that. They knew no other life. They could no more concieve of a life where they had to work for a living than an ant could understand what it's like to be a fish. Some of them actually thought that the peasants had a better life! There's an illuminating quote from Baronne d'Oberkirch in the introduction comparing a party of nobility returning exhausted from an all-night ball to the peasants outside the carriage calmly and happily getting on with their jobs.

Eventually the peasants, who really weren't having that good a time, decided that enough was enough and invented the guillotine.

We are living like eighteenth century nobility and yet we are the peasants at the same time. We don't have the excuse of not knowing an alternative. Hopefully no-one is going to start thinking that the guillotine would be a nice new retro fashion statement.

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