Conspicuous Privacy: Charity in Versailles under Louis XIV

Charity has always played an important role in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible commands the rich to pay attention to the needs of the poor and help, but it also teaches that those who give should be discreet, not flaunt their charitable acts. In Matthew 6.4, we read: “that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

In Ancien Régime France, however, nobles vaunted their charitable acts, often in intricate performances with detailed mise-en-scène. An ultimate example of such lavish demonstrations of charity was the Mandé Royal, an age-old ceremony where the king would wash the feet of 13 poor children.

Performances of charity served to fulfill the religious duties of affluent people, but they also contributed to consolidating and reinforcing their claims to political power. The efficacy of charitable acts was co-constituted by both religious commitment and political interests, and charity worked its purpose inasmuch as it was performed for the sake of poor subjects and noble peers alike.

There is an apparent paradox between the normative privacy of charitable acts, and the public flaunting of these acts that happened in reality. This paradox raises some interesting research questions:

  • What justifications did specific charity givers use to justify publicity of their charitable acts?

  • How did nobles decide on what charitable acts to sponsor?

  • How did nobles demonstrate to others that they were giving to charity?

  • What historical evidence is there for private charitable acts?

  • Who was deemed worthy of receiving help?

  • What were the conditions attached to this help?

  • Did poor and rich ever share the same space during a given act of charity? How did this come about?

  • What physical infrastructures were there to support acts of charity?

Address of the symposium:

Centre de recherche du château de Versailles
Château de Versailles - Grand Commune
1 rue de l’Indépendance américaine
RP 834 – 78008 Versailles
Date: 14 October 2019

Picture Credits: Abraham Bosse, Les Oeuvres de Miséricorde (1650)
Source Metropolitan Museum of Art, License CC0 - Public Domain