Friday, January 27, 2012

How to find a good Bourbon

A visit to Saint-Denis cathedral in the north of Paris reminded me of the statement attributed to Chairman Mao (d. 1976).  When asked what he thought of the French Revolution, the Illustrious Leader responded "It is too soon to tell".  Home and resting place to French kings since Pepin the Short was crowned there in 754, St. Denis is witness to the wisdom of Mao's statement.

The royal thread of time stretching back from the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793 to Pepin's crowning is five times as long as the thread that stretches forward from Louis XVI to us. 

This is more than just interesting historical fact.  The Revolution is the quintessential modern political act.  When thrown into relief against the much longer French timeline, it seems very contemporary.

St. Denis has many tales to tell.  It is the world's first Gothic cathedral, thanks to Abbot Suger.  It holds burial tombs for the royal line, including the amazing marble depictions of kings not in peaceful repose, but as decomposing corpses.  And it holds the bones of the final act of the French royalty, the Bourbons.

Starting with Louis XIV, the Bourbons didn't want their deaths to be commemorated in stone.  Their rule was the expression of absolute power, and consequently they wanted people to remember them in full life.  The memorials to the Bourbon kings find them upright, on horseback, commanding.  Their remains nevertheless needed a home, and were held in simple caskets at St. Denis.

Come the Revolution, and these remains of the French line had to be done away with, both literally and figuratively.  Bones were taken from their tombs and thrown in common graves.  The new era was turning over the soil of the old.  This was a revolution after all. 

But Revolution gave way to Napoleon, gave way to Restoration.  For a brief period in the early 19th century, 25 years after the Bastille, the French monarchy was restored.  The younger brother of the guillotined Louis XVI was next in line, and as part of this new king's effort to restore royal power, he wanted to give his executed brother a more proper burial than the tossing into a common grave that he had received. 

The communal gravestone at St. Denis for the bones of all the royals

Unfortunately, while people knew where Marie Antoinette had been buried, no one was exactly sure where her husband Louis XVI lay.  Thus came the macabre experience of trying to identify a body that had no head (remember how his days ended) and aided by no modern means to do so.  The tour guide at St. Denis said that the French are not sure that the remains of Louis XVI in St. Denis are actually his.  But the political meaning of his reburial was powerful and clear.  And the draw to the common tourist 200 years later is equally powerful and clear.