A Crash Course in French and the Diamond Necklace Affair

I will be the first to admit that I don’t really know French. I sometimes pretend I do, though. There are plenty of sources in English regarding the ancien-régime France (see what I did there?), the French Revolutionary, Marie-Antoinette, and even the Affair of the Diamond

A young Marie Antoinette as dauphine.

A young Marie Antoinette as dauphine.

Necklace. You don’t need to learn French to learn about the history. But as you read, you’ll probably pick up more than a few French phrases. I know I did.

French is more than a language; it’s a state of mind. That probably sounds silly, but there’s a reason that there’s an institution (the Académie Française) that is dedicated to preserving French (and similarly, there’s a reason why there’s no equivalent for the English language; but that is neither here nor there, n’est ce-pas? See what I did there?). As a result of the Académie, modern French hasn’t deviated greatly from the version of French that was spoken by the heroes of our 18th-century misadventure. Compare that to English, which has changed markedly since the same time period. Writings from the 1700’s are perfectly understandable but sound strange (and just plain old) to modern ears. Have we lost or gained by allowing our language to morph? After all, the slight changes in language put a distance between us and the Founding Fathers (for instance). They didn’t speak quite like us and, therefore, they weren’t quite like us: they thought differently; they felt differently; they were just plain different. That conclusion isn’t precisely true, of course. But the difference in language does put a wedge between us and our ancestors. (As a side-note to my digression, the same isn’t true of, say, the Civil War era; the English of that era sounds very much more familiar to the modern ear than that of the Revolutionary era.)

The French, at least as far as language goes, don’t have the same kind of distance between themselves and their ancestors. They are, however, distanced from the past by culture. The cultural difference between ancien-régime France and modern France is, I think, greater than that between colonial America and the modern United States.

So, let’s just say you don’t know much French, but you’re studying the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (as you should!). What French phrases might you come across,  what do they mean, and what do they say about 18th-century France?

Let’s start with one that’s already come up in this post:

Ancien régime: Literally, the old/former regime. More specifically, in this context the phrase means France before the Revolution. More loosely, the phrase is used to describe the government (or way of doing things) that is now passed. So, it can be used to describe the previous administration when the new one is in office.

Here is a phrase not familiar to many people, even those who study French. It has a specific place in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace:

Lèse-majesté: Literally “injured majesty”. In French law, this was any act that might redound to the detriment of the monarch’s (or monarchy’s) reputation. Basically, it’s libel or sedition against the king/queen, except with a pretty low threshold. In the case of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois and Cardinal Rohan in particular were accused of lèse-majesté. The punishment varied, and was (if I recall correctly) dependent upon the king’s good or ill humor since it was the king who decided the punishment. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, for instance, was flogged, branded, and imprisoned for life for her crimes (she escaped to England, however). The Cardinal, on the other hand, was merely stripped of some of his titles and exiled from court. Thus, the privileges of being, well, privileged in French society became evident. (Jeanne made quite a fuss about this fact, I might point out; she continually painted herself as the little person trampled upon by the ruthless, powerful elite.)

Titles: Titles were kind of a big deal in pre-Revolutionary France. Since everything–your opportunities in life, the way you could dress, the respect accorded to you by others–was dependent on your social position (determined by birth), it was important to address others in the right way.

At the top, just below God, were the king and queen. They were “Sa Majeste” (“His/her majesty”). The king’s oldest son and heir was the dauphin, and the dauphin’s wife was the dauphine. These titles are not equivalent to the English “prince” and “princess.” In English, “prince” and “princess” are more specific than the same words in French. “Princes and Princess of the Blood” in France were generally royal cousins or more distant relatives. They were not, as in English, the sons and daughters (or grandchildren) of the king/queen. English has no direct equivalent for “dauphin” or “dauphine.”

This might be confusing. Here are some examples. Louis XVI was dauphin and Marie-Antoinette was dauphine before they became king and queen. Neither Louis nor any of his brothers would have been “Princes”. (I’ll come back to royal siblings later) An example of a Prince of the Blood was the Prince de Lamballe (husband of Marie-Antoinette’s good friend, the Princess de Lamballe). The Prince de Lamballe’s grandfather was the illegitimate son of Louis XIV. Ergo, he was a distant cousin of the King.

The brothers of the king were generally royal counts (in this instance, it’s not so different from the English system, in which royal siblings are given dukedoms, e.g. the Duke of York, traditionally the title of the second royal son). For example, Louis XVI’s brothers were the Comte de Provence and Comte d’Artois. By the way, the French word for “count” and “countess” are “comte” and “comtesse” This is what Jeanne de La Motte-Valois and her husband pretended to be: the Comte and Comtesse de La Motte.

But there were also other conventions for addressing members of the royal family. The children of the king were the “Children of France” (“enfants de France”). The oldest brother of the king was simply “Monsieur”. He was just so damned important that everyone knew his name without anyone ever having to say it. Likewise, his wife was Madame. The eldest unmarried daughter of the king was Madame Royale. This was the title give to Marie-Therese, eldest daughter of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI.

Of course, there was also the nobility of the church. Cardinal Rohan–who was, by the way, also a Prince of the Blood–would have been addressed by Monseigneur. This is still a convention within the church. He would have also been “Your Eminence”.

The man/woman on the street: Naturally, the common person was madame, mademoiselle, demoiselle (a young lady), or monsieur. Familiarly, you might refer to someone as ma chère, mon cher, or ma cherie. Sometimes, endearments such as mon chou (literally “my cabbage”) were (and still are) used.

Places: Château is castle; châteaux are castles. Ergo, the town is Versailles; the palace is the Chateau de Versailles. Roads are “rues”; hence, Nicole d’Oliva lived on the rue du Jour. “Palais” is another word for palace, hence the Palais de Justice, which is just what it sounds like. The Palais de Justice (on the Île de la Cité, or Island of the City [of Paris]) is attached to the Conciergerie, which is literally the place of the concierge. In the 14th

Inside the Conciergerie.

Inside the Conciergerie.

century, the king moved from this old royal palace to the Louvre, leaving behind the concierge (a high ranking official who basically acted as housekeeper). As a result, it became known as the Conciergerie and became an administrative and judicial center. It even acted as a jail. Jeanne de La Motte-Valois and the other prisoners were incarcerated there during the Diamond Necklace trial. Just a few years after that trial, Marie-Antoinette was held there when she was, in turn, arrested during the Revolution.

Speaking of places . . . one favorite French borrowing for English speakers is “chez”, as in “chez moi”, meaning roughly “my place”. There really is no exact English equivalent, which is why it’s borrowed from time to time by English speakers. Very often, phrases like “chez Cardinal” or “chez de La Motte” appear in the court records.

And because this is a long blog post, I will wrap up with one of my favorite phrases from those court records (which I have been translating from French):

A répondu que non. Count Cagliostro in particular was reported by the court to have “responded no” quite a lot. Because it was a kind of a refrain–whatever they asked, Cagliostro “responded no”–I started walking around saying “a répondu que non” for no apparent reason. It roughly means, “To this, he responded no.” The “que” actually translates as “that”, but in English “that” is inherent.

Is there more to tell? Je réponds que non! At least, not for now.

Geez. That was exhausting. I hope it was informative.


One thought on “A Crash Course in French and the Diamond Necklace Affair

  1. Such a fascinating to story. I was shocked to learn that Jeanne de La Motte-Valois (who actually had royal blood) was branded with V on her shoulders–V for “voleuse” or thief.

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