The Bread of the Peasants
The wars of the last reign had cost so much money that the peasants of France were in terrible distress. They had little to eat, and what they had was only coarse barley or oaten bread.
So hungry had the people been during the reign of Louis xiv. that mobs of "starved skeletons" had gone out to Versailles and clamoured at the palace gates for bread.
Once, in their desperate hunger, the people mobbed the carriage of Madame de Maintenon, for there were stories abroad that she hoarded grain and sold it at a high price. The people believed that while they starved, she was amassing a large fortune.
As for clothes, the peasants had not "a crown's worth on their back." Then, as now, the French countryman wore a cotton blouse, but in these hard times it was almost the only upper garment he could afford.
Louis xv. being only five years old when his father died, the Duke of Orleans was chosen as regent.
The mother of the duke had a strange story to tell of her son when he was a little baby.
The fairies, she said, were invited to be present at his birth. Each gave to the little duke a gift-courage, good temper, strength, and many another kindly grace.
But one wicked fairy had not been invited to the birthday feast, which made her very angry.
However, uninvited though she was, she too came, leaning upon her stick, to see the baby-prince.
She could not take away the gifts the other fairies had given to the child, but she could spoil them, which indeed she did. For she decreed that he should never know how to use his birthday graces.
As the Duke of Orleans grew to be a man, it seemed as if this fairy-tale was true. For although the duke was both clever and strong, although he loved music and pictures, and was at the same time as gallant as a soldier may be, yet little by little he allowed his love of beauty to grow dim, his courage to grow faint. He spent his days and nights at feasts and revelries, and became always more lazy and unable to work.
To help him govern France, the new regent kept by his side Dubois, who had once been his tutor, and who became, through his old pupil's favour, a bishop, a cardinal, and at length Prime Minister of France.
Dubois was "a little lean man, with a light-coloured wig and the look of a weasel."He had encouraged the bad habits of the duke, and was himself as wicked as his pupil. But he was too clever to neglect his work, and he soon showed that he could manage the affairs of the kingdom.
The minister knew that Philip v. , King of Spain, hated the regent, and would be glad of any excuse to make war upon France. He determined, therefore, to win the support of England, Holland and Austria, and shortly after the death of Louis xiv. he had the joy of seeing these three countries join France in a Quadruple Alliance against Spain. Philip v. knew that it was useless to struggle against these combined powers, so after a short war he made peace.
The little king, Louis xv. , was meanwhile being educated by Abbé Fleury, a good and wise man. When, in 1723, he was thirteen years old, the lad was considered of age; so a regent being no longer necessary, the Duke of Orleans resigned his post.
The king then made the Duke of Bourbon, a grandson of the Great Condé, his Prime Minister, but the duke was lazy and wicked, and ruled entirely by his favourites, who were never of noble birth.
One of these favourites persuaded the Duke of Bourbon to break off the marriage which had been arranged between the king and the eldest daughter of the King of Spain. The infanta had already been sent to France to be brought up as the bride of Louis xv. But now she was rudely sent back to Spain, while the king was married to Maria, daughter of the exiled King of Poland.
Philip v. was naturally very indignant when his daughter was sent back to Spain, and it was plain that the foolish minister had done his best to provoke war between the two countries.
But when Bourbon added to his stupidity by increasing the already heavy taxes, he was dismissed from the court, with the consent of the king. Cardinal Fleury, Louis's old and honest tutor, then became Prime Minister.
The nation rejoiced, for Fleury was known to be both kind and just. But although he did all he could to help the people, the old man could not save France from the suffering which the selfishness of her kings had brought upon her.
In the time of Louis xiv. , as I told you, the people had little or no money to buy food. In the time of Louis xv. the misery among the peasants increased. Many of them had now neither barley nor oaten bread to eat, but only grass.
One day the Duke of Orleans, touched by the wretchedness of the peasants, flung a loaf made of bracken upon the kings council-table, saying, "See, sire, this is what your subjects eat." To such a pitch had misery driven the people that, when the king drove through the streets of Paris, they crowded around the royal carriage, crying in their hunger, "Bread! Bread!"
Even the cold, careless nature of Louis xv. was moved, and when he got back to the palace he dismissed all his gardeners, saying that henceforth he would keep fewer servants. But that did not give the hungry people food, while the poor gardeners were left to starve as did the peasants.
You will soon read more about these starving peasants, but now I will tell you about a brave woman who was the mother of one of the most unhappy Queens of France.
About this time—1740—Charles vi. , the Emperor of Austria, died.
It had been agreed among the princes of the royal House of Austria that the emperor's daughter, Maria Theresa, should succeed her father. Maria Theresa was at this time only twenty-three years old, but beautiful and brave as a princess should be.
She needed all her courage too, for, in spite of their agreement, portions of the Austrian Empire were claimed by five different princes.
Silesia was seized by Frederick the Great, while France, eager to have a share in the great prize, sent an army into Austria. This was the beginning of the War of the Austrian Succession.
Before long Maria Theresa was forced to leave Vienna, on which town the French army was now advancing.
She fled to Hungary, and called upon the nobles of the country to meet her. When they had assembled, Maria Theresa came to them, dressed in black, carrying in her arms her little son, who was barely six months old.
Holding out the child to the nobles, the beautiful young queen cried, "I am abandoned by my friends, I am pursued by my enemies, attacked by my relatives, and I have no help but in your fidelity and courage. We, my son and I, look to you for our safety."
Almost before the queen had ceased speaking, the nobles had drawn their swords from their sheaths and flashed them above their heads, shouting as one man, "Let us die for our king, Maria Theresa!"
The beautiful queen thanked them through her tears, and withdrew with her little child.
Then the Hungarian nobles gathered together all their wild mountain followers, and with a great force fell upon the enemy, fighting so fiercely that the French army was nearly destroyed.
Fleury, the quiet old minister of France, who would fain have saved his country from war, was so distressed at the terrible defeat of the army that he grew ill and died in 1743, at the age of ninety.
The king was sorry to lose his old tutor, but being thirty-three years of age, he declared that he would now be his own Prime Minister.
Never was a king less fitted to rule than Louis xv. Yet for a little while he roused himself from his sluggish ways and joined his army, which had just been defeated by the English and Germans at Dettingen. George ii. of England was present at this battle, for he had himself come to fight for Maria Theresa, whose empire, in spite of all her brave Hungarian nobles could do, was still insecure.
That their lazy, pleasure-loving king should show some interest in his soldiers, pleased the whole French nation. And when the people heard that he had visited the soldiers' hospital and tasted the soup and the bread which were made for the sick, their delight knew no bounds.
But before Louis had been long with his army, he fell seriously ill.
"The king's danger was noised abroad throughout Paris," writes a great man named Voltaire, "and everybody gets up, runs about in confusion, not knowing whither to go. The churches open at dead of night, nobody takes any more note of time, bed-time or day-time, or meal-time. Paris was beside itself. The people cried, "If he should die, it will be for having marched to our aid." Prayers were offered in the churches, the priests weeping as they prayed, the people responding with nothing but sobs and cries."
It was on the 8th August 1744 that Louis was taken ill; by the 19th all danger was over.
The courier who brought the good news to Paris was "embraced and almost stifled by the people. They kissed his horse, they escorted him in triumph. All the streets resounded with a shout of joy."
Louis the Well-beloved, as the people now began to call their king, was told of the joy of his subjects.
"Ah, how sweet it is to be loved," said Louis. "What have I done to deserve it" And that was a question which no one was able to answer.