The futile aspect that we give (sometimes with reason) to Game and its supposed frivolity make this aspect of court life of the Ancien Régime has often been relegated to the lower rank of "short story": the greatest historians have generally eluded this area or confined it to a few light anecdotes, as if the game did not deserve special study. However, even individuals little informed about the history of France know that the Court and the King indulged regularly - even compulsively - in the game. This simple element is enough to reconsider the importance which one must attribute to the entertainment: all activity practiced by the Queen or the King deserves to be studied with the greatest attention.
Apartment evenings: games of chance in the spotlight
Without even focusing on the royal couple, we see that the game has upset the lives of many people at Court, if only by the fortunes it helped to make and above all, to undo. Almost all the games were up for grabs, and the sums could quickly climb in the intoxication of the evenings.
Some took the opportunity to enrich themselves considerably: this is for example the case of the Marquis de Dangeau, known for his Journal recounting the life of Louis XIV daily for 36 years. His way of playing is in the image of his style in literature: cold, even boring, but terribly effective. Period accounts claim that he was one of the only members of the court to "play seriously" while the other guests loudly evoked their cards in hand, without caring the least for the outcome of the game. To use current poker terms: he was one of the first sharks in a sea of fishes.
Dangeau therefore made his fortune during the famous receptions then called Apartment Evenings: these were very codified and took place from October until Easter. Saint-Simon, in his Mémoires, described with precision the typical course of one of these evenings:
“What we called apartment was the concourse of the whole court from seven in the evening until ten, when the King sat down to table, in the large apartment, from one of the salons at the end of the great gallery [the Salon of Jupiter] to the gallery of the great chapel. First there was music; then tables in every room, all ready for all kinds of games; a lansquenet where Monseigneur and Monsieur still played; a billiard table: in a word, complete freedom to play games with whomever you want, and to ask for tables if they were all full. Beyond the pool table, there was a room for refreshments; and everything perfectly lit. At the beginning that this was established, the King went there, and played there for some time; but from then on he had been going there for a long time, but he wanted people to be assiduous, and everyone was eager to please him. "
Among the games mentioned by Saint-Simon, we obviously recognize billiards, central entertainment at the Court, very popular in particular by Louis XIV who could play there for hours.
The lansquenet, meanwhile, is less famous nowadays: it is part of the category of games called "of chance" in principle banned within the Kingdom, but which were all the more popular during apartment parties. . The lansquenet is quite tricky to describe: it can be considered one of the ancestors of blackjack or 21, in that the players are opposed to the bank. However, in lansquenet, there are many bankers: the real precursor of blackjack is rather the basette, also very popular at the time.
Other entertainments strongly reminiscent of those found in casinos today include cavagnole, particularly appreciated by Marie Leszczyńska, Queen of France, wife of Louis XV. In this game of Genoese origin, we had to bet on numbers that were drawn at random from a bag topped with an ivory clasp. We recognize here the principle of many very popular games these days: roulette, bingo or even the most famous of all: the National Loto.
Trading games: the neurons involved
To these games of chance are opposed the "games of commerce": these are authorized and call upon the reflection and the deduction rather than the chance. Among the most popular, we can mention the backgammon, often wrongly considered a variant of backgammon. The confusion arises from the fact that these two entertainments are played on the same game board (24 arrows board). However, the final goal in backgammon is not to get your pawns out of the playing area as quickly as possible, but to score points at each stage of the board. In this, the game is much less subject to chance than backgammon, and it is very difficult to master all the intricacies to achieve victory.
Among other trading games, the famous whist, a trick card game, the ancestor of bridge according to some. As it was played without a contract, it is more like modern games such as belote (not cornered).
Whatever games are played, these evenings represent a special moment between the sovereign and his subjects: etiquette is suspended for a few hours, and good humor is often required. These too rare moments when everyone can finally have fun without always having in mind the conveniences are particularly appreciated by the guests but also by the King. Think about it the next time you want to give yourself a playful break: you are only continuing a long French tradition!
- History of playing cards
- History of gambling