Thursday, 26 May 2016

The winter of 1709: letters of Liselotte

The correspondence of Louis XIV's sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine Elisabeth-Charlotte, duchess of Orléans (1652–1722), mother of the future Regent, is rightly prized for its down-to-earth comments and wealth of  witty anecdote.  Here is the "Great Winter" as it appears in her letters.

Curiously enough, the weather did  not at first excite that much comment from "Liselotte".  On 10th January 1709 she wrote to her  half-sister, the Raugravine Amalia- Elisabeth without even mentioning the freezing temperature. On 17th January, she alluded to it only in passing:  Last Sunday the cold was atrocious and we had to have a terrific fire lit in the room where we ate.  

Her letter of 10th January to the Electress Sophia of Hanover, however, is more forthcoming:
The cold here is so fierce here that it fairly defies description.  I am sitting by a roaring fire, have a screen before the door, which is closed, so that I can sit here with a sable fur piece around my neck and my feet in a bearskin sack, and I am still shivering with cold and can barely hold the pen.  Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one; the wine freezes in bottles.

Saint-Simon too marvelled that the cold caused wine to freeze and bottles to break even when stored by a fireplace (Memoirs vol.6, chpt 54).

On 19th January she wrote: 
It has never been this cold in living memory; no-one can recall a winter like it.  For fifteen days there have been reports every morning of people found frozen to death; partridge have been found frozen in the fields.  All theatrical performances have ceased and also all legal proceedings; the officials of the Courts cannot sit in their chambers on account of the cold.

By 2nd February she is reporting to  Amalia-Elisabeth that it was said to be the worst winter since 1606 and that 24,000 people were estimated to have died in Paris since 5th January. 

A week later she reports to her other half-sister, the story of an attack by wolves:

9th February 1709  To Raugravine Luise:  
Many persons have been frozen to death in the countryside, and bands of wolves are committing terrible ravages.  They have devoured a courier from Alençon and his horse; outside the town of Le Mans, two wolves attacked a merchant; one leapt at his neck and began to tear at his jerkin;  he cried out: two dragoons who were walking outside the town came to the help of the merchant.  One of them drew his sword and pierced the wolf right through with it; the wolf let go of the merchant, jumped on the dragoon and seized him by the throat. His camarade hurried to his assistance and fought off the wolf, but the cruel beast had already strangled the dragoon.  The second wolf came from behind, felled the other dragoon and bit at him from behind.  When they arrived from the town to give help, they found two dragoons and two wolves stretched out dead;  the other wolf had made off. 

At the beginning of March, an anecdote of despair and suicide from a hungry Paris

2nd March 1709  To Raugravine Luisa
Never in my life have I seen such miserable times. The common people are dying like flies. The mills have stopped working and many people have therefore died of hunger. Yesterday I was told a sad story about a woman who had stolen a loaf from a baker's shop in Paris. The baker wanted to have her arrested. She wept and said, " If you only knew my misery you would not take the bread away from me. I have three small children without any clothes, and they are crying for food. I couldn't endure it any longer, and that is why I stole this loaf." The magistrate before whom the woman was brought told her to take him to her home. He went thither with her and found three little children bundled up in rags sitting in a corner shivering with cold as if they had a fever. He asked the eldest, " Where is your father?" and the child replied, " He is behind the door." The magistrate went to see what the man was doing behind the door and fell back horror-stricken. The poor wretch had hanged himself in a fit of despair. Such things are happening every day.

18th May 1709, Marly  To Sophia of Hanover 
Would to God that I could say that we had no famine here, but it is unfortunately only too true. The fruit harvest would not matter if only we had enough bread and wine. Merciful God, what sad times these are!

8th June, 1709, Versailles.  To the Raugravine Luisa .
...You are greatly mistaken when you think that no lamentations are heard here. Night and day we hear nothing else. The famine is so terrible that children have devoured each other.
The King is determined to go on with the war, and yesterday replaced his golden service with one of porcelain, and he has sent everything golden he possesses to the Mint to be converted into louis....

Liselotte  also gives the following account of the riot of 20th August: 

22nd August, 1709, Versailles. To Sophia of Hanover.
When I was driving in my carriage through the Porte Saint-Honoré into Paris, I saw everyone running about with terrified looks, while many exclaimed, " Good God!" Every window was full of spectators, and there were even people on the roofs. All the shops and the doors of houses were shut, and the Palais-Royal itself was closed, and I could not imagine what it all meant. But as I was alighting from the coach in the inner courtyard, a woman who was unknown to me, came up and said, " Do you know, Madame, that there is a revolt in Paris which has been going on since four o'clock this morning? " I thought the woman was mad and began to laugh, whereat she said, "I am not crazy, Madame. What I have told you is quite true, so true indeed that already forty people have been killed." I asked my servants whether it was true, and they replied that it was only too true, and that that was the reason why they had shut the gates of the Palais-Royal. I asked them what the revolt was about, and this is the story they told me :

There is some work going on at the Boulevard and Porte Saint-Martin, and each workman is given three sols and a little bread. This morning there were nearly two thousand workmen, but, without being detected, four thousand demanded bread and money with a great deal of noise. As the supplies gave out, a woman, who had made herself conspicuous by her insolent behaviour, was arrested and put in the pillory. Then the row began. Instead of the original four thousand, an additional six thousand arrived and the woman was rescued from the pillory. There were many servants who had been dismissed amongst these, and they began to shout, " Loot, let us loot," and they did in fact rush for the bakers' shops which they pillaged. The soldiers of the guard were called out and ordered to shoot down the rioters, but when the mob saw that they were firing with powder only, and for the sole purpose of frightening them, they cried, " Let us attack them. They have no bullets." The soldiers were then obliged to knock some of them down. This went on from four o'clock in the morning until midday, when the Marechal de Boufflers and the Duc de Grammont happened to drive past the scene of the riot. They alighted in the midst of a shower of stones, addressed the mob, threw them some money and promised to tell the King that they had been promised bread and money which had not been given to them. The revolt died down immediately, and the rioters threw their caps into the air crying, " Long live the King and bread!".....


Where available, English translations are from:
Letters of Madame, the correspondence of Elisabeth-Charlotte of Bavaria, Princesse Palatine, Duchess of Orleans,trans. by Gertrude Scott Stevenson, 1925 . Vol. 2

Otherwise I have followed:
Francis Assaf "L'Hiver de 1709",  Cahiers du dix-septième XII, 2 (2009) p.1–29

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