I was enjoying The Crown on Netflix for the intimate look at the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II in postwar England. Absolutely fascinating. I was on the verge of bingeing it to the end.
My own mental image of him is sitting on a throne in silly clothes, surrounded by court musicians playing froufrou music.But wait, what’s this? A new series just appeared on Netflix called Versailles. It covers the beginnings of the 17th century reign of King Louis XIV, the famed “Sun King,” he of long hair, high heels, decadent art, and the most preposterous display of aristocratic privilege on planet earth.
You know all about it, right? Sure you do. You bumped into some story about this in high school world history. Somehow Louis XIV built a gigantic palace and prepared the way for a revolution that came much later. You recall that he was ridiculously despotic over his own court, and set the record for the degree of deference demanded by any European leader in the last one thousand years.
My own mental image of him is sitting on a throne in silly clothes, surrounded by court musicians playing froufrou music, and repeatedly declaring that “I am the state” (“l'état, c' est moi”).
Beyond that, I possess arcane knowledge of the operas that were written during his reign and performed at court, as well as the peculiarities of the liturgical scene. But that is just about the extent of the knowledge I can immediately recall. I could not have told a compelling story about life in the court, much less detail the extraordinary change that his reign meant for the dramatic change in political life it signalled.
So I admit it: I’ve never really focussed much on learning about this guy beyond the above.
Therefore this series is a complete delight, and an inspiration. It immediately sent me on a search to learn more, and think more carefully and thoroughly about what this period meant for the world, and how it continues to echo in the world today. In other words, this series did for me precisely what educational ventures are supposed to do: expand knowledge and inspire intellectual adventures.
Can Entertainment Be Educational?
Netflix over the last several years has pushed me to discover a range of historical epochs.And yet, look at the venue. Netflix, of all places! And when I think about it, Netflix over the last several years has pushed me to discover a range of historical epochs: the 16th century rise of the Roman Church imperium, the interwar politics of alcohol Prohibition, the beginnings of the fall of old Rome, the travails of English aristocracy in the years of the Reformation, the early years of mass consumerism in England, the advent of commercial finance in Italy, and so on, plus some zombie stuff and some robot drama, topics that raise their own questions about group dynamics in human society.
It’s striking when you think about it. In the late 1930s, when the possibility of television was first imagined, pundits predicted that the programming would be mainly educational. It would broadcast professors in their classrooms and the whole culture would be lifted up with new knowledge of math, science, philosophy, and history.
Life magazine wrote in 1952 about the rise of television, “The hunger of our citizenry for culture and self-improvement has always been grossly underestimated; the number of Americans who would rather learn a little something than receive a sample tube of shaving cream is absolutely colossal.”
Let’s just say that this didn’t quite happen as imagined. That would need to wait another 60 years for the advent of Netflix, and other subscriber-funded venues. It was a matter of finding the right mix of good art, good history, and consumer-friendly entertainment. This takes time and lots of trials and errors. It seems like we’ve finally made the crossing.
No More Anti-Netflix Snobbery
There is still a kind of snobbery out there that says: this is not real history, not real education.And yet, there is still a kind of snobbery out there that says: this is not real history, not real education, because it is telescoped, over-dramatized for mass consumption, too much slippage on accuracy, and so on. The idea is that you are not really learning unless you are sitting at a desk, listening to a lecturer, and doing assigned readings from some authoritative text.
I don’t believe it. What’s really happening here is that mass consumer capitalism is discovering something spectacular, namely that it is possible to inspire learning and lift up the culture without sacrificing the need for the human mind to be delighted by compelling stories with great actors, sets, and cinematography. These do not have to be inconsistent.
What’s more, I have serious doubt that real learning is even possible in absence of inspiration and excitement. The whole of our educational system presumes that the human mind is a kind of empty vessel into which experts can stuff abstract “knowledge.” All this has done is create a culture of “cram and fake it on the test.” This is not learning; this is drudgery.
What Does Versailles Teach?
Let’s quickly explore what the series Versailles teaches. There was a period in the late Middle Ages when two huge events happened in rough succession. Feudalism – land-owning aristocrats trading shelter and security services for serf-provided food production and other work – was displaced by a new model of consumer choice and mass mobility. At the same time, the personal state was displaced by a new thing called the nation-state.
The second point is intriguing. Before Louis XIV, the life of most every state in history was embodied in its head of state. When the king or queen or baron or duke or caesar or whatever died, or was killed, the state died with him or her. There was no permanent legal or bureaucratic structure in place, nothing approaching what we now take for granted, that would outlast the life of the head of state. The state was mortal, a personal project, something that was forever extinguished and recreated.
The reign of Louis XIV changed all that with the creation of what we now call the nation-state. What is it? It is a thing that attempts to live beyond and even above the head of state. It can’t be killed. The guy dies but the bureaucracy and legal structure – institutionalized and unquestioned and perpetual – lives on. This is all we have ever known in our time, and this has been true in the West since the 17th century.
These nobles were no longer semi-independent potentates, but groveling courtiers trapped in what historians call a “gilded cage.”It had never fully occurred to me how the rise of the nation-state and the final end of feudalism are related. Louis XIV and Versailles are the keys to understanding here. He had found a spot outside of Paris that had been his father’s hunting lodge. He preferred to live outside of Paris in hopes of creating more stability for his own rule, away from the chaos and threats abiding in the city.
He built a spectacular structure (actually your apartment has more amenities today) and, using various carrots and sticks, achieved an ingathering of the entire French nobility to come and live there. These nobles were no longer semi-independent potentates, but groveling courtiers trapped in what historians call a “gilded cage.”
In this way, he was better able to monitor possible threats to his regime, but it had another effect of destabilizing civic structures in feudal lands. He centralized power and made it absolute. But in so doing, he also created a gigantic bureaucracy populated by the nobility that served him directly. He also knew that in doing so, this new structure would outlast him. Thus did he create something rather new in history that served as a model for states all over Europe and, eventually, in the U.S. and Latin America.
For good or ill (I’m on the ill side), he birthed and entrenched the nation-state. He said “I am the state,” but what he really invented was different: “they are the state and they live forever.”
The World’s Teacher
Here’s to Netflix and its growing role as history professor for the world.The show Versailles features outrageous sets, silly clothing, lots of sexual drama, some violence, intriguing plots and so on, along with eye-popping scenes of life in the court (all the usual parental warnings apply!). All of that is intriguing, so much so that you can’t stop watching. But on another level, the show actually tells exactly the story above, and so reveals something extremely powerful about political history and philosophy, something even the most learned students might otherwise miss.
So here’s to Netflix and its growing role as history professor for the world. It’s a welcome change from the past. Think about the implications here. Mass media consumerism is making a gigantic contribution in saving historical scholarship from strangulation by the academic clerisy and classroom.
Thankfully, Versailles has been renewed for a second and third season. While I wait for these to pop up on my Netflix feed, I can return to learning about the history of the British monarchy. Back to The Crown.