Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court

Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court

Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court

Myths of Power: Norbert Elias and the Early Modern European Court


'In everything he loved splendor, magnificence, profusion. He turned this taste into a maxim by policy and imbued it into everything at his court. One pleased him by pursuing it in dining, clothing, retinue, building, and gaming. Such occasions could bring him to speak to people. The essential was that he could sustain it and in this way exhausted everyone by turning luxury into honor, and for certain people even into a necessity, and in such way be also gradually brought everyone to depend completely on his benefactions to survive. Moreover, in this way he satisfied his pride with a court that was superb in everything, and with a greater confusion that more and more effaced natural distinctions . Saint-Simon, Mémoires, XVIII p-154-155.

'... for when all is said and done a monarchy to survive, luxury must continually increase, from the peasant to the artisan, the merchant, the nobles, the magistrates, the great lords, the principal financiers, the princes; without which all would be lost ... ' Montesquieu, De l'esprit des Lois, VII 14.

'... for when all is said and done most of those who sing the praises of princes only choose those virtues they can use. The golden-tongued do not always have such a clean breast and the lovely things they say in public are rarely devoid of the concerns of their private interests .' Mémoires de Louis XIV, I p. 138.

The Model

According to Elias, the alleged decline the nobility suffered was followed by a specific process which increased the nobles' dependence on the monarch. Penniless nobles appeared at court hoping for financial support or, at the very least, shelter and sustenance in suitable surroundings, without the risk of loss of status. These splendid surroundings only lured them further and further into ruin. At court, individuals had to prove their status continuously. Noble purses were emptied: conspicuous consumption resulted in bankruptcy for many families. Elias claims that what is often interpreted as empty extravagance was in fact self-preservation dictated by the fear of loss of status. Status and living nobly were fundamental and indispensable to the nobles' self-image. Extravagance was an absolute prerequisite for obtaining or maintaining a position at court.

It was easy for the monarch to increase the stakes in this status competition by upping the ante. Others could not afford to lag behind and were forced to squander their fortunes in the monarch's wake. It was much like what sometimes takes place . . .

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