Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up : Reality TV Before There Was TV

Written By: Tracy - Sep• 25•17

When we think of reality shows, we think of people who look like rockstars decorating cakes with power tools. But reality-based entertainment is older than you’d think.

The monarchy in the courts of Louis XIV up through Louis the XVI (up until the French Revolution) lived life in a fishbowl, allowing random nobility to watch them do everything from eating to giving birth.

Prior to Louis the XIV, the royal monarchy of France was locked in a power struggle with the nobility. Away from Paris, nobles ran their own lands as they saw fit: avoiding taxes and service to the crown while ignoring pesky laws when it suited them.

Louis XIV changed that by creating a cult of personality around the monarchy. The Monarch ruled by divine right. The power he displayed came to him by divine appointment. And this power should be put on display for anyone to see.

First he moved the royal family to a country home (a hunting lodge named Versailles, which he then renovated into the lavish estate we know today).

Moving the royalty to the country helped Louis control the nobility. If courtiers wanted the King’s favor, they had to spend most of their time at Versailles. And they had to adhere to strict etiquette that determined everything, right down to which stool they could sit on. This kept them from building their own power bases to challenge his rule.

Louis then developed a rigid schedule of ceremony for the royal family and nobles to follow. You could set your watch by the Sun King’s schedule. And tourists and nobles could watch the royal family and officials get up, dress, eat, take walks and go to bed.

During the time of Louis the XVI, nobles could even watch the queen give birth. (The birthing room was so crowded when Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first child, that the queen fainted, prompting Louis XVI to throw open a window and ban courtiers from being present at subsequent births).

Because of the performance nature of life at Versailles, the court became an attraction for tourists from other countries. France gained a reputation for style and taste that it still holds today.

But like many reality shows, the performance of life in Versailles declined in quality after the first season. While the Sun King stuck to a rigid schedule and never varied his performances, his grandson Louis XV (Louis The Good) and great-grandson Louis XVI (The one who got his head cut off) chafed under their lack of privacy and retreated from public life as often as possible. Courtiers often complained that they never saw their king.

To make things worse, neither of the later kings was a very good ruler. Louis XV set the country on a dangerous path to financial instability, and Louis XVI wasn’t able to turn the show around. He was too busy playing with his locks.  That’s not a euphemism.  He had a lock collection the way some modern basement dwellers have a bug/stamp/comic collection.

Ultimately, the French Revolution gave the reality show life at Versailles a literal axe by cutting off Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette’s heads. If you want to watch anything resembling it these days, you have to watch the non-reality-based TV show, also named Versailles.

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