All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Tales from the Alcove

In the Loire Valley you are never far away from the French kings who built and occupied the chateaux we now visit as historic monuments.

Bare as they are after the excesses of the French Revolution and the sale of buildings and contents for paper money it can be hard to envisage the same  buildings in the days of their splendour, but the stories bring them to life.

What more evocative than the fates of the chateaux of Chaumont and Chenonceaux....the one given to a despised wife, Catherine de Medici, by Henri II, the other to his mistress Diane de Poitiers.
Once the king dead and the despised wife Regent of France she obliged the mistress to exchange the properties and made a jewel of the chateau on the banks of the Cher.

Here she introduced the festivities so common in the Italian scene...masques, plays and ballets, her version of the festivities otherwise offered by towns to their overlords...the 'Joyeuse Entree' where fountains ran with wine, learned professors gave speeches in Greek and Latin and pretty girls posed as nymphs while the essential ceremony...that in which the mayor and burgers offered cups of gold coins...clouded its mercenary nature in a veneer of culture.

My first acquaintance with the Renaissance courts of France was via Jean Plaidy.

Mother was fond of historical novels....Georgette Heyer in particular....so a friend suggested she try Jean Plaidy...remarking darkly that mother might find them a bit, well, 'you know'.
Try Jean Plaidy she did, and lighted on one of her books about Catherine de Medici. I don't know whether she found it a bit, well, 'you know', but it was certainly lurid even if written so clunkily that it was hard going.
Poison, astrology and intrigue have never sounded so dull.
Still, I remembered this vaguely when making a further acquaintance of the period....and recognised the reference to Catherine de Medici's flying squadron......l'escadron volant......
Her maids of honour, though never was a word so misused.

Nor does the translation do justice to the function of the ladies concerned.
Rather than being the predecessors of those magnificent men in their flying machines, as the image implies, 'volant', flying, is a euphemism for light...as in light of love...of somewhat free morals...having, in that unforgettable French phrase, 'la cuisse legere'.

The death of Henri II left Catherine de Medici Regent of France while her children were young....and her aim was to maintain power in her hands on their behalf, while the aim of the powerful nobles was to seize it for themselves.
After all, she was only a woman...and foreign at that.

So she used the rivalries of the various noble factions to keep them divided rather than united against herself and to this end her maids of honour played their part.
At her command they would make advances to, or accept advances from, the powerful men about the court....and report back to the Queen on the state of the power play.
While in everyday life their morals might be deplored - and were in particular by Protestant ministers (this is the age of John Knox) - she gave them her full support...unless they became pregnant...in which case they exchanged the court for the convent in very quick order.

And as it was easier to keep the nobles under supervision at court rather than at liberty on their own estates, it was necessary to offer entertainment of a more public kind....where, again, the maids of honour would feature in the danses and ballets which kept the mind of the courtiers fixed on learning their steps under the tuition of Italian dancing masters, distracting them from the steps to the overthrow of the royal power.

Was she successful? Given that this is the period of the St. Bartholomew massacre, the age of the Wars of Religion, you might say not.
But she did succeed in maintaining royal power though her eldest son Francois II, husband of the young Mary, Queen of Scots, died young, his younger brother Charles IX reigned only a few years and neither he nor his younger brother Henri III, produced heirs, the kingdom going to Henry of Navarre, that most pragmatic religionist.
Had her daughter in law used her example she might not have ended on the block at  Fotheringhay.

A woman who did follow her example was Francoise Giroud, editress of her lover's newspaper l'Express in the 1950s and 60s.
Despite her revulsion at the way in which she had been used by men when making her way in the film industry of the 1930s, she saw nothing wrong in developing her own escadron volant...women journalists whom she would form as to dress and manners to interview the powerful men of the day.
Just as Catherine de Medici needed to know who was plotting what to ensure her family's survival in power, Giroud needed to have scoops for her newspaper......and to have the drop on these powerful men by means of another French phrase...'les secrets d'alcove'....pillow talk.

None of which prevented her lover...who had refused to leave his wife for her....finally marrying her secretary when Giroud proved incapable of having children.
Clear case of the wrong alcove.

There are faint echoes of the escadron volant to this day....
Valerie  Trierweiler, companion of Francois (Moije) Hollande and political journalist, is taking legal action - again - after it was reported that she had had a relationship with a senior right wing married French politician at the same time as having a relationship with Hollande - who was at that time living with Segolene Royal - while she herself, Mme. Trierweiler was still living with M. Trierweiler.

Now, while this may be normal behaviour in the brothel atmosphere of Parisian society and thus counting as her private life, which should be left undisturbed by publicity, it might be thought...as the reporters concerned maintain....that the nexus of journalists and politicians should be exposed...in which case publication is justified.

I would just note that when she was employed at Paris Match her boss gave the  rules of the publishing house as follows..
Get me results...I don't care by what means, but get me results...'

Sounds like Catherine de Medici to me..



 

41 comments:

  1. "...faint echoes ...to this day..."
    Are you sure you have the right adjective,Fly!

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    1. One tries to maintain a certain detachment....

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  2. Plus ça change.... This is great stuff, Fly - so interesting and revealing about some of the attitudes and actions that have shaped French society. More, please....:-)

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    1. The extent to which women in the upper league of French society are prepared to prostitute themselves has never ceased to astonish me....and the self deception involved in that they call this 'mature behaviour' never ceases to amaze me either.

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  3. Fascinating post, Fly, thanks so much for sharing.

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    1. A litle bit of history brings the stones alive...

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  4. It most certainly does!

    Very interesting. Where are the UK parallels?

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    1. Probably to be found in the vicinity of what Private Eye might refer to as a flame haired temptress....

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  5. Still, you have to admire her energy: three men simultaneously on the boil at the same time as holding down a job. Some people must have more hours in the day (and more patience) than me.

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    1. I have to admit that when it comes to men the boredom factor would be hit long before listening to three of them...
      although it might be different in France - Chirac's encounters were said to take only five minutes including the shower.

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  6. Really interesting stuff Fly. You know how I am with history, but you make it so easy to read. I don't know how any woman could keep three men on the go. Like you, boredom would set in very soon for me!

    (Now...I've fiddled about with cookies...I think...so I'm wondering if this will post)

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  7. Ahhh...so far so good. "Your comment will be visible after approval" has appeared, which certainly hasn't happened recently.

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    1. Victory! (Very appropriate for Trafalgar Day...how the mind digs things up astonishes me sometimes.)

      It's how things are taught, I think...I loathed science at school and became fascinated by it later through reading the history of science.
      Needless to say, history was very well taught when I was at school....

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  8. Quel mieux que des petites morales claires à ces jours d'obscurité et de colère ?

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    1. J'ai les mots qui tuaient at les mots qui ne tuaient pas....

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  9. Oh lordy -- Georgette Heyer. I think I read most, if not all of them around the age of 14 :-) One of my better history teachers turned out to have all of them. She was slightly embarassed to be 'found out' but I was allowed to borrow them.

    As for keeping 3 chaps on the go -- it would take far too much energy and I'd lose the will to live.

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    1. When I went for an interview for a place at Oxford the interviewer said I should read something like Heyer for fun...!
      No wonder I went to the LSE instead!

      Yes...listening to three of them droning on - and two of them politicians! -would certainly sap the will to live!

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  10. Don’t mention that de Medici woman to me thank you very much. Damned Huguenotphile. The budgies are still forbidden utterance of ‘her’ name here in our cave. Even good old Henry 4 of Navarre, sold us out for a Vatican shirt, in exchange for all the Kings bling, and then once he’d been bumped off by that crazy Catholic jihadist Ravaillac, along comes his son Louis (Unlucky for us) 13, and then in turn ‘his’ son Louis 14, and the Edict of Nantes became nothing more than toilet paper for that truly original Darth Vader of the Bourbon dynasty, the Rt Hon S.O.B. himself…Cardinal Richelieu. And thus caused about a third of my Huguenot ancestral blood lineage to have to up spinning wheels from the grace and beauty of the Eure-et-Loire and thence swim across to Blighty to start weaving for their porridge in Bethnal Bluddy Green on Thames. Not exactly a fair rate of exchange.

    As for all the incessant reportage concerning the more licentious, seemingly de rigueur inter party night games that occupy most of Paris’s politico shagarazzi, well nothings really changed there over the last millennium or so has it. You just don’t have to get up close and personal to poison dagger your love rivals anymore. You just Tweet them to ruination and public shame instead. Far more efficient. Especially when you can carry out the coup de grace whilst still mounted astride your rivals post-coital, now blissfully passed out and snoring…uzband, in some discreet, party funded love nest on the other side of town.

    Funny, I always used to think the phrase ‘affairs of state’ was a term used to describe ‘important government matters’. Just took me quite a while to divine what it actually really refers to amongst the established political social elites of gay Paris. Mere citizens? Who needs them!

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  11. Always good to hear from the Huguenot Front for Liberation from the French Antichrist....France's loss was England's gain....and just think what the property would be worth now if you'd kept it in the family...you could probably have let it to an M.P....

    Affairs of state...and what a state of affairs!

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  12. Re your - “Always good to hear from the Huguenot Front for Liberation” Made me laugh did that. Brilliant idea. Think I’ll tweak that into ‘The HLF’ – ‘The Huguenot Liberation Front’ if you don’t mind. All I need now is a bright woven beret and a selection of red silk T Shirts emblazoned with a black motif depicting a spinning wheel crossed with a couple of daggers and it’s Facebook and the Twitterati here we come!

    Thinks… If it was ‘your’ first public protest for your own fledgling radical reformation organisation, would you choose to chain yourself and your spinning wheel to the gates of say, Sacre Coeur or Notre-Dame initially? I mean the views are more scenic from Sacre Coeur I know, but then the public toilets are much closer to hand outside Notre-Dame. Could be a bit of a sticky one this…

    Can we spam ourselves on your blog too? We’ll throw in a years subscription and a badged up beret, and you can defend us all in as many courts as you like, for absolutely nothing. Can’t say fairer than that now can I?

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    1. There's a church on the left bank in Paris used by the Integrists...the ones who thought Pope John XXIII was the Antichrist....that might be a good place to start as they certainly won't stint themselves in terms of creature comforts for their well heeled flock.

      A badged up beret....cor! How can I resist!

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  13. Court or government, it's all a cesspit.

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    1. And they expect us to pay for the night cart....

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  14. Nice article, thanks for the information.

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  15. Noooo. Not…’The Integrists!!’ Jeeeeze, Mary, Mother & Joseph…not that bunch of traditionalist, pro Richelieu hot heads…perleeeze. All they want to do is argue, argue, argue all the time. A quasi Calvinist modernist like me, wouldn’t get a word in edgeways. They’d just cut me free of my bondages and heave me into the Seine.

    What I’d ideally like is a nice big, high profile-ish Catholic church on the sunny bank of the river, enjoying interesting views of Parisian street life, with something to chain myself onto for short periods and a pleasant street café/bar within shuffling distance that welcomes buskers with spinning wheels and placards… all day long.

    Beret’s in the post. Badge is still in the brochure.

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    1. Ah....not into martyrdom then...

      I'll have a look and see where the smart marriages are celebrated....they won't be far from a fleshpot.

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  16. Gee thanks. Never gave martyrdom a second thought til now. What a seriously cool idea! With all that free publicity, I’d become a celebrity overnight. Guaranteed to get me the best seats in the house at any ‘A’ list restaurant in town… end of.

    Failing martyrdom, I’ll try my luck with the smart weddings hotspots then.

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    1. I haven't looked yet...but I will.
      they're bound to be places I've never visited.

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  17. Don’t look too far Fly! Stick with the joints you know. I like a bit of neon anyway.

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  18. Hrmph… I’m such a Neonderthal aren’t I (!)

    Désolet



    Ooops. Candles gone out. That’s me done for the night then.

    Bluddy curfews.

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    1. I never knew you could get neon from candles....and what visions a Neonderthal conjures up!

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  19. Hello:
    Absolutely! A clear case of history repeating itself!!!

    We rather like the sound of the Medici parties, especially the wine fountain, although we could give the dressing up a miss. Our recent visits to Venice have given us serious cases of mask overload so plain clothes professors speaking Greek and Latin is entertainment enough for us!!

    What a clever post this is and hugely enjoyable to boot!!

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    1. I attended a course in Renaissance dance many years ago....where one gentleman strained his back lifting his partner in what I think was the Volta...and to think people regarded the waltz as shocking generations later...

      So glad you enjoyed it...

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  20. Interesting post and well written, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks Fly. Bonne journée, Diane

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    1. Glad you did, diane. I like to know the stories behind the stones.

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  21. Snap! My mother was also a fan of Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy.

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    1. Mine still has their books on her shelves...and still reads them. She says that's the advantage of a failing memory...your books are always new!

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    2. Mine had the full collection of Georgette Heyer in paperback, which went to the charity shop when she died.

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    3. I'm not sure if she has them all...but it looks very much like!
      We've had two grand sort outs so far as mother declutters...but not one book has left for the charity shop.

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