In 17th and 18th Century France, there were an extraordinary number of men and women artists that emerged, making a name for themselves. They were poets, fabulists, painters, playwrights, actors, composers and writers. Some of the writers became the foundation for the L’Académie Française, which was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. The Académie is the most distinguished learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Freelance History Writer would like to take a look at some of these remarkable artists.
François de La Rochefoucauld was a French classical author, the greatest maxim writer of France and one of the best memoir writers. He was also a soldier in the army of the King of France and the ultimate courtier. His work as a writer can be divided into three categories: letters of which about one hundred survive, “Memoirs” and “Maxims”. A maxim is a brief expression of a general truth, principle or rule of conduct.
La Rochefoucauld was born on September 5, 1613 in the Rue des Petits Champs in Paris. His father was the fifth count of Rochefoucauld and served as minister to King Louis XIII. François bore the title of Prince of Marcillac. His scholastic education was neglected as a young man but he learned court etiquette, hunting, elegance of expression and comportment as well as receiving military training. He joined the army very early in life and was married at the age of fifteen to Andree de Vivonne. They seemed to have an affectionate marriage and were to have eight children.
La Rochefoucauld fought on many campaigns for the King Louis XIII and King Louis XIV and was seriously wounded at Mardyke in 1646. He became friends with Madame de Chevreuse and through her met the queen, Anne of Austria. La Rochefoucauld and Chevreuse were caught conspiring against Louis XIII’s minister Cardinal Richelieu. He once was thrown into the Bastille for eight days but was released and sent into “exile” on his father’s estates. During 1645, he took a mistress, the beautiful Duchess of Longueville.
After King Louis XIII died his young son became King Louis XIV and his mother Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin acted as regents. A series of civil wars called The Fronde broke out between 1648 and 1653. La Rochefoucauld fought on the side of the frondeurs in the various engagements of the conflict. During the fighting, in 1650, La Rochefoucauld’s father died and he became the Duke de La Rochefoucauld. He continued fighting bravely until he was wounded in the battle of the Faubourg Sainte-Antoine in 1652. He was shot in the head and it was believed he would lose his sight. It took him a year to recover. In the meantime he lost most of his fortune.
With the help of friends, he managed to recoup some of his fortune. While spending some time in retirement, he began writing his memoirs and joined a salon hosted by Madame de Sablé. The salon was famous for producing maxims. In 1662, La Rochefoucauld’s memoirs were published without his permission and caused some of his old friends to be offended. Three years later he published his book of maxims which greatly enhanced his reputation. He would re-edit and republish the “Maximes” in 1665, 1666, 1671, 1675 and 1678. Some of his letters also survive which are mostly biographical in nature and give the reader a sense of his literary style.
He met the French writer Madame de la Lafayette about this time and she would remain his friend for the rest of his life. Most of what we know about La Rochefoucauld from this point on is from the letters of Madame de Sevigne, who details how he suffered from gout. He had a loyal circle of friends. He could have entered the L’Académie Français if he had asked. Shortly before he died he turned over all his titles and honors to his son who gained a substantial reputation at court. La Rochefoucauld spent some time as a chronic invalid before he died of gout in Paris on March 17, 1680.