Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: THE STATES OF EUROPE BEFORE LOUIS XIV. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV)
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CHAPTER I.: THE STATES OF EUROPE BEFORE LOUIS XIV. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XII (Age of Louis XIV) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XII.
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THE STATES OF EUROPE BEFORE LOUIS XIV.
For a long time past the Christian part of Europe—Russia excepted—might be considered as a great republic divided into several states, some of which were monarchial, others mixed, some aristocratic, and others popular; but all corresponding with one another; all having the same basis of religion, though divided into several sects, and acknowledging the same principles of public and political equity, which were unknown to the other parts of the world. It is from these principles that the European nations do not make slaves of their prisoners; that they respect the persons of their enemies’ ambassadors; that they agree together concerning the pre-eminence, and some other rights belonging to certain princes; such as the emperor, kings, and other lesser potentates: and particularly in the prudent policy of preserving, as far as they are able, an equal balance of power among themselves; by continually carrying on negotiations, even in the midst of war, and keeping ambassadors, or less honorable spies, at one another’s courts, to give notice to the rest of the designs of any single one, to sound the alarm at once over all Europe, and to prevent the weaker side from being invaded by the stronger, which is always ready to attempt it.
After the death of Charles V. the balance of power inclined too much on the side of the house of Austria. This powerful house was, in the year 1630, possessor of Spain, Portugal, and the riches of America; the Netherlands, the duchy of Milan, the kingdoms of Naples, Bohemia, Hungary, and even Germany—if we may say so—were a part of its patrimony: and had all these states been united under one single head of this house, it is reasonable to believe that he would, at length, have become master of all Europe.
The Empire of Germany is the most powerful neighbor which France has; it is nearly of the same extent; there is not, perhaps, so much money in it, but it abounds more with sturdy men inured to labor. The Germanic nation is governed, with but little difference, as France was under the first kings of the Capetian race, who were chiefs of several great vassals. by whom they were frequently ill obeyed, and of a great number of lesser ones. There are sixty free cities, called imperial; about as many secular princes; nearly forty ecclesiastical ones, as well abbots as bishops, nine electors, among whom we may reckon four kings; and lastly, the emperor, who is head of all these potentates: these at present compose this great Germanic body, which, by the phlegmatic disposition of its members, is maintained in as much order and regularity as there was formerly confusion in the French government.
Each member of the empire has his particular rights, privileges, and obligations; and the knowledge of such a number of laws, which are frequently disputed, makes what is called in Germany “the study of the public law,” for which that nation is so famous.
The emperor should not in fact be much more powerful or rich than a doge of Venice. Germany being divided into cities and principalities, nothing is left for the chief of such a number of states, but the pre-eminence, accompanied with the supreme honors, without either demesnes or money, and consequently without power. He does not possess a single village in virtue of his title of emperor. Nevertheless this dignity, often as vain as supreme, has become so powerful in the hands of the Austrians that it has frequently been feared that they would convert this republic of princes into an absolute monarchy.
The Christian part of Europe, especially Germany, was then, and still is, divided into two parties or sects. The first is that of the Catholics who are all more or less subject to the authority of the pope; the other is that of the enemies to the spiritual and temporal power of the pontiff, and the prelates of the Church of Rome. These latter are called by the general name of Protestants, though divided into Lutherans, Calvinists, and other sects, who all hate one another as much as they do the Church of Rome.
In Germany, the states of Saxony, Brandenburg, the Palatinate, a part of Bohemia and Hungary, the houses of Brunswick and Würtemberg followed the Lutheran religion, which is by them called the evangelical. All the free cities of the empire have likewise embraced this sect, as seemingly more agreeable to a people jealous of their liberty than the religion of the Church of Rome.
The Calvinists, who are scattered among the Lutherans, form but an inconsiderable party. The Roman Catholics constitute the rest of the empire; and, having at their head the house of Austria, they are without doubt the most powerful.
Not only Germany but all the Christian states were still bleeding with the wounds of the many religious wars in which they had been engaged; a madness peculiar to Christians, and unknown to idolaters, and which was the fatal consequence of that dogmatic turn, which had for so long a time been introduced among all ranks of people. Almost every point of controversy occasioned a civil war; and foreign nations—nay perhaps our own posterity—will one day be at a loss to comprehend how their ancestors could have thus butchered one another, while they were preaching the doctrine of patience.
I have already shown how near Ferdinand II. was to changing the German aristocracy into an absolute monarchy. and how he was on the point of being dethroned by Gustavus Vasa. His son, Ferdinand III., who inherited his politics, and like him made war from his cabinet, swayed the imperial sceptre during the minority of Louis XIV.
Germany was not then so flourishing as it has since become. Not only was every kind of luxury wholly unknown there, but even the conveniences of life were very scarce in the houses of the greatest noblemen, till the year 1686, when they were introduced by the French refugees who retired thither and set up their manufactories. This fruitful and well-peopled country was destitute of trade and money: the gravity of manners and the slowness peculiar to the Germans deprived them of those pleasures and agreeable arts which the more penetrating Italians had cultivated for many years, and which the French industry began now to carry to perfection. The Germans, though rich at home, were poor everywhere else; and this poverty, added to the difficulty of uniting in a short time so many different peoples under one standard, made it then, nearly as at this day, impossible for them to carry the war into their neighbor’s dominions, or support it there for any time. Accordingly, we almost always find the French carrying on a war against the empire within the empire. The difference of government and genius makes the French more proper for attacking, and the Germans for acting on the defensive.
The Spanish nation, governed by the elder branch of the house of Austria, after the death of Charles V., made itself more formidable to Europe than the Germanic Empire. The kings of Spain were infinitely more absolute and rich than the emperors: and the mines of Mexico and Peru furnished them with treasures sufficient to purchase the liberties of Europe. You have already seen the project of universal monarchy, or rather universal superiority on the Christian continent, begun by Charles V. and carried on by Philip II.
The Spanish greatness under Philip II. became a vast body without substance, which had more reputation than real strength.
Philip IV., who inherited his father’s weakness, lost Portugal by his neglect; Roussillon by the inferiority of his arms; and Catalonia by the abuse of his absolute authority. Such princes could not long continue successful in their wars against France. If our errors and divisions gave them some few advantages, they soon lost the fruits of them by their own want of capacity. Besides, they had a people to command whose privileges gave them a right to serve ill. The Castilians, for instance, had a privilege by which they were exempted from serving out of their own country. The Aragonese were continually opposing their liberties to the orders of the king’s council; and the Catalans, who looked upon their kings as their enemies, would not even suffer them to raise militia in their provinces.
Notwithstanding all these disadvantages, Spain, by being united to the empire, threw a very formidable weight into the balance of Europe.
At this time Portugal was again made a kingdom. John, duke of Braganza, who passed for a weak prince, had wrested this province from a king who was weaker than himself. The Portuguese, through necessity, cultivated trade, which the Spaniards, through pride, neglected, and had, in 1641, entered into a league with the French and Dutch against Spain. France gained more by the revolution in Portugal than she could have done by the most signal victories. The French ministry, without having in the least contributed to this event, reaped without any trouble the greatest advantage that can be wished for over an enemy; that of seeing him attacked by an irreconcilable power.
Portugal, which thus threw off the Spanish yoke, extended its trade, and augmented its power, puts us in mind of Holland, which enjoyed the same advantages, though in a very different manner.
THE UNITED PROVINCES.
This small state, composed of seven united provinces, a country abounding in excellent pasturage, but destitute of all kinds of grain, unhealthy, and in a manner buried in the sea, was for about half a century almost the only example in the world of what may be done by the love of liberty and unwearied labor. These poor people, few in number and inferior in military discipline to the meanest of the Spanish militia, and of no account in the rest of Europe, made head against the whole collected force of their master and tyrant, Philip II., eluded the designs of several princes who offered to assist them, in hopes of enslaving them, and founded a power which we have seen counterbalancing that of Spain itself. The desperation which tyranny inspires first armed these people; liberty raised their courage, and the princes of the house of Orange made them excellent soldiers. No sooner did they become conquerors of their masters than they established a form of government which preserves, as far as possible, equality, the most natural right of mankind.
This state was soon from its first foundation intimately attached to France: they were united by interest, and had the same enemies. Henry the Great and Louis XIII. had been its allies and protectors.
England, a far more powerful state, arrogated to itself the sovereignty of the seas, and pretended to preserve a balance between the powers of Europe; but Charles I., who began his reign in 1625, was so far from being able to support the weight of this balance, that he found the sceptre already falling through his hands: he had attempted to render his power independent of the laws of England, and to make a change in the religion of Scotland. He was too headstrong to be diverted from his projects, and too weak to carry them into execution. He was a good husband, a good master, a good father, and an honest man, but an ill-advised prince; he engaged in a civil war which lost him his throne and made him end his life on a scaffold, by an unparalleled revolution.
This civil war, which was begun in the minority of Louis XIV., prevented England for some time from taking part in her neighbor’s concerns: she lost her credit in Europe, with her quiet at home; her trade was obstructed, and other nations looked upon her as buried beneath her own ruins, till the time that she at once became more formidable than ever, under the rule of Cromwell, who had enslaved her with the gospel in one hand, the sword in the other, and the mask of religion on his face; and who in his administration concealed, under the qualities of a great king, all the crimes of a usurper.
The balance which England had so long flattered herself with the hope of keeping up by her superior power, Rome endeavored to maintain by her politics. Italy was divided, as she now is, into several sovereignties; that which is possessed by the pope is sufficiently great to render him respectable as a prince, and too small to make him formidable. The nature of the government does not contribute to the peopling of his country, which also has very little trade or money. His spiritual authority, which is always mixed with something of the temporal, is slighted and abhorred by one-half of Christendom: and though he is considered as a father by the other half, yet he has some children who resist his will at times with reason and success. It is the maxim of the French government to look upon him as a sacred and enterprising person whose hands must sometimes be tied, though they kiss his feet. We still see in all the Catholic countries the traces of those steps which the court of Rome has frequently made toward universal monarchy. All the princes of the Romish religion, upon their accession, send an embassy to the pope, which is termed the embassy of obedience. Every crowned head has a cardinal at his court, who takes the name of protector. The pope grants bulls for filling up all vacant bishoprics, and expresses himself in these bulls as if he conferred these dignities by his own pure authority. All the Italian, Spanish, Flemish, and even some of the French bishops, style themselves bishops by divine permission, and that of the holy see. There is no kingdom in which the pope has not several benefices in his nomination; and he receives as a tribute the first year’s revenue of consistorial benefices.
The religious orders, whose principals reside at Rome, are again so many immediate subjects to the pontiff, scattered over all states. Custom, which does everything, and which occasions the world to be governed by abuses as by laws, has not always permitted princes to put an entire stop to this danger, which in other respects is connected with things useful and sacred. To swear allegiance to any other than the sovereign is a crime of high treason, in a layman; but in a convent it is a religious act. The difficulty of knowing how far we are to carry our obedience to this foreign sovereign, the ease with which we suffer ourselves to be seduced, the pleasure there is in throwing off a natural yoke for a voluntary one, the spirit of discord and the unhappiness of the times, have but too often prevailed on whole bodies of religious orders to serve the cause of Rome against their own country.
The enlightened spirit which has reigned in France for this past century, and which has communicated itself to people of all ranks, has proved the most effectual remedy against this abuse. The excellent books which have been written on this subject have done real service both to kings and people; and one of the great changes which was wrought by this means in our manners, under the reign of Louis XIV., is that the religious of all kinds begin now to be persuaded that they should be subject to their king, before they are servants to the pope. The juridical power, which is the essential mark of sovereignty, still remains with the Roman pontiff; and even the French government, notwithstanding all the liberties of the Gallican Church, allows a final appeal to the pope in all ecclesiastical causes.
If anyone is desirous of obtaining a divorce, of marrying a near relation, or of being released from his vows, application is to be made to the court of Rome, and not to the bishop of the diocese; there all indulgences are rated, and the individuals of all states may there purchase dispensations at all prices.
These advantages, which are by many people looked upon as the consequences of the greatest abuse, and by others as the remains of the most sacred rights, are always artfully preserved; and modern Rome employs as much policy in keeping up its credit as the ancient republic did in conquering one-half of the known world.
No court ever knew better how to act agreeably to men and times. The popes are almost always Italians, grown gray in public affairs, and divested of those passions which make men blind to their interest; their council is composed of cardinals, who resemble them, and who are all animated with the same spirit. This council issues mandates which reach as far as China and the extremes of America, in which sense it may be said to take in the whole universe; and we may say of it as a stranger formerly said of the Roman senate: “I have beheld an assembly of kings.” Most of our writers have with reason inveighed against the ambition of this court; but I do not find one who has done sufficient justice to its prudence, neither do I know if any other nation could have so long maintained itself in the possession of so many privileges continually contested; any other court might probably have lost them, either by its haughtiness, its effeminacy, its sloth, or its vivacity; but that of Rome, by an almost constant proper use of resolution and concession, has preserved all that was humanly possible for her to preserve. We have seen her submissive to Charles V.; terrible to our king, Henry III.; by turns the friend and foe of Henry IV.; acting cunningly with Louis XIII.; openly opposing Louis XIV. at a time when he was to be feared; and frequently a private enemy to the emperors, of whom she was more distrustful than even of the Turkish sultan.
Some rights, many pretensions, patience and politics are all that Rome has left now of that ancient power which six centuries ago attempted to subject the empire and all Europe to the triple crown.
Naples is still an existing proof of that right which the popes formerly assumed with so much art and parade, of creating and bestowing kingdoms; but the king of Spain, who is the present possessor of that kingdom, has only left the court of Rome the dangerous honor of having an overpowerful vassal.
THE REST OF ITALY.
As for the rest, the pope’s dominions were situated in a peaceable country, which had never been disturbed but by a trifling war, of which I have already spoken, between the cardinals Barberini, nephews to Urban VIII., and the duke of Parma.
The other provinces of Italy were biassed by various interests. Venice had the Turks and the emperor to fear, and could hardly defend its dominions on the continent against the pretensions of Germany, and the invasion of the Grand Seignior. It was no longer that city which was formerly the mistress of the trade of the whole world, and which one hundred and fifty years before had excited the jealousy of so many crowned heads. The wisdom of its administration continued the same as formerly; but the destruction of its great trade deprived it of almost all its strength, and the city of Venice was by its situation incapable of being conquered, and by its weakness incapable of making conquests.
The state of Florence enjoyed tranquillity and abundance under the government of the Medici; and literature, arts, and politeness, which they had first introduced, still flourished there. Tuscany was then to Italy what Athens had been to Greece.
Savoy, after having been rent by a civil war, and desolated by the French and Spanish armies, was at length wholly united in favor of France, and contributed to weaken the Austrian power in Italy.
The Swiss nation preserved, as at this day, its own liberty, without seeking to oppress its neighbors. They sold the service of their troops to nations richer than themselves: they were poor and ignorant of the sciences, and of all the arts which are begotten by luxury; but they were wise, and they were happy.
THE NORTHERN KINGDOMS.
The Northern nations of Europe, viz.: Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and Russia, were like the other powers, always distrustful of and at war with one another. In Poland, both the manners and government were, as they now are, nearly the same as those of the ancient Goths and Franks. The crown was elective; the nobles had a share in the supreme authority; the people were slaves; the infantry was weak; and the cavalry was wholly composed of nobles; there were no fortified towns, and scarcely any trade. These people were attacked at one time by the Swedes, or the Muscovites, and at others by the Turks.
The Swedes, who were a freer nation by their constitution which admits even the lowest class of the people into the assembly of the general estates, but who were at that time more subject to their kings than the Poles, were almost everywhere victorious. Denmark, which had formerly been so formidable to Sweden, was no longer so to any power; and Muscovy had not yet emerged from barbarism.
The Turks were not what they had been under their Selims, their Mahomets, and their Solymans. The seraglio, though corrupted by effeminacy, still retained its cruelty. The sultans were at the same time the most despotic of sovereigns, and the least secure of their throne and life. Osman and Ibrahim had lately been strangled, and Mustapha had been twice deposed. The Ottoman Empire, tottering from these repeated shocks, was also attacked by the Persians; but when it had enjoyed a little respite from them, and the revolutions of the seraglio were at an end, this empire became again formidable to Christendom, and spread its conquests from the mouth of the Boristhenes to the Adriatic Sea. Muscovy, Hungary, Greece, and the Archipelago fell alternately a prey to the Turkish arms; and from the year 1644 they had constantly carried on the war of Candia, which proved so fatal to the Christians.
Such, then, were the situation, strength, and interests of the principal European nations, about the time that Louis XIII. of France departed this life.
THE SITUATION OF FRANCE.
France, who was in alliance with Sweden, Holland, Savoy, and Portugal, and had the favorable wishes of the other nations who remained inactive, was engaged in a war against the empire and Spain, which proved ruinous to both sides, and particularly fatal to the house of Austria. This war was like all those which have been carried on for so many centuries between Christian princes, in which millions of men have been sacrificed, and whole provinces laid waste to obtain a few frontier towns, the possession of which is seldom worth the expense of conquering them.
The generals of Louis XIII. had taken Roussillon; and the Catalans had given their province to France, as the protectress of that liberty which they defended against their kings; but all these successes had not prevented the enemy from making themselves masters of Corbie, in the year 1637, and advancing as far as Pontoise. Fear had driven one-half of the inhabitants out of Paris; and Cardinal de Richelieu, in the midst of his mighty projects for humbling the Austrian power, had been reduced to lay a tax upon the houses with great gates in the city of Paris; every one of which was obliged to furnish a footman armed, to drive the enemy from the gates of the metropolis.
The French there had done the Spaniards and Germans a great deal of mischief, and had suffered as much themselves.
THE MANNERS OF THE AGE.
The wars had produced several illustrious generals, such as a Gustavus Adolphus, a Wallenstein, a duke of Saxe-Weimar, a Piccolomini, a John de Werth, the marshal de Guébriant, the princes of Orange, and the count d’Harcourt; nor was this age less famous for ministers of state. Chancellor Oxenstiern, the famous duke Olivarez, and especially the cardinal duke de Richelieu, had drawn the attention of all Europe upon them. There never was an age which had not some famous statesmen and soldiers: politics and arms seem unhappily to be the two professions most natural to man, who must always be either negotiating or fighting. The most fortunate is accounted the greatest, and the public frequently attributes to merit what is only the effect of a happy success.
War was then carried on differently from what it afterward was in the time of Louis XIV. There were not such numerous armies; since the siege of Metz by Charles V., no general had been at the head of fifty thousand men. They did not make use of so many cannon in besieging and defending places as at present. The art of fortification itself was then in its infancy. Spears and short guns were then in use, as well as the sword, which is now entirely laid aside. One of the old laws of nations was still in force, namely, that of declaring war by a herald. Louis XIII. was the last who observed this custom: he sent a herald at arms to Brussels to declare war against Spain, in the year 1635.
Nothing was more common at that time than to see armies commanded by priests: The cardinal Infante, the cardinals of Savoy, Richelieu, and la Valette, and Sourdis, archbishop of Bordeaux, had put on the cuirass and waged war in person. A bishop of Mendes had been frequently intendant of the army. The popes sometimes threatened these military prelates with excommunication. Pope Urban III., being incensed against France, sent word to Cardinal la Valette, that he would strip him of the purple if he did not lay down the sword; but when the pontiff came afterward to be reconciled to France, he loaded him with benedictions.
Ambassadors, who are equally the ministers of peace with churchmen, made no difficulty of serving in the armies of the allied powers, to whom they were sent. Charnacé, who was envoy from the court of France to Holland, commanded a regiment there in 1637; and some time afterward, even the ambassador d’Estrades was a colonel in the Dutch service.
France had not in all more than eighty thousand effective men on foot. Its marine, which had for some centuries fallen to decay, and had afterward been a little restored by Cardinal de Richelieu, was ruined under Mazarin. Louis XIII. had not more than forty-five millions of real ordinary revenue; but money was then at twenty-six livres the mark, consequently these forty-five millions amounted to nearly eighty-five millions of the present currency, when the arbitrary value of the silver mark is carried to forty-nine and a half livres—an exorbitant numerical value, which justice and the interest of the public forbid ever to be increased.
Trade, which is so universal at present, was then in a very few hands; the police of the kingdom was entirely neglected, a certain sign of a bad administration. Cardinal de Richelieu, wholly taken up with his own greatness, which was linked with that of the state, had begun to render France formidable outside its borders, but had not been able to make it flourishing within. The roads were neither kept in repair nor properly guarded; they were infested by troops of robbers. The streets of Paris, which were narrow, badly paved, and covered with disagreeable filth, swarmed with thieves. It is proved by the registers of parliament that the city watch was at that time reduced to forty-five men, badly paid, and who frequently did no duty at all.
Ever since the death of Francis I., France had been continually rent by civil wars, or disturbed by factions. The people never wore the yoke in a voluntary or peaceable manner. The nobles were trained up from their youth in conspiracies; it was the court art, the same as that of pleasing the sovereign has since been.
This spirit of discord and faction spread itself from the court into the smallest towns, and took possession of all public societies in the kingdom; everything was disputed, because there was no general rule; the very parishes in Paris used to come to blows with one another; and processions have fought together about the honor of their banners. The canons of Notre Dame were frequently seen engaged with those of the Holy Chapel; the parliament and the chamber of accounts battled for the upper hand in the church of Notre Dame, the very day that Louis XIII. put his kingdom under the protection of the Virgin Mary.
Almost all the public corporations of the kingdom were in arms, and almost every individual was inflamed with the fury of duelling. This Gothic barbarism, which was formerly authorized by kings themselves, and had become the distinguishing character of the nation, contributed as much as the foreign and domestic wars to depopulate the country. It is not saying too much, to aver that in the course of twenty years, of which ten had been troubled by war, more French gentlemen died by the hands of Frenchmen than by those of the enemy.
We shall not take any notice of the manner in which the arts and sciences were cultivated: this part of the history of our manners will be found in its proper place. We shall only remark that the French nation was plunged in ignorance, without excepting even those who look upon themselves as removed above the common people.
Astrologers were much consulted, and greatly confided in. All the memoirs of this age, to begin with the history of the president de Thou, are full of predictions: even the grave and rigid duke of Sully himself, very seriously relates those which were made to Henry IV. This credulity, which is the most infallible mark of ignorance, prevailed so much at that time that care was taken to keep an astrologer concealed in Queen Anne of Austria’s chamber, while she was in labor of Louis the XIV.
It is hardly credible, though we find it related by the abbot, Vittorio Siri, a contemporary writer of great authority, that Louis XIII. had the surname of Just given him from his childhood, because he was born under the sign Libra, or the balance.
The same weakness that first brought this absurd chimera of judicial astrology into vogue occasioned a belief in fascinations and witchcrafts; it was even made a point of religion, and nothing was to be seen but priests driving out devils from those who were said to be possessed. The courts of justice, composed of magistrates who should have had more understanding than the vulgar, were employed in trying witches and sorcerers. The death of the famous curate of Loudun, Urbain Grandier, will ever be a stain on the memory of Cardinal de Richelieu. This man was condemned to the stake as a magician, by commissioners appointed by the council of state. We cannot without indignation reflect that the minister and the judges should have been so weak as to believe in the devils of Loudun, and so barbarous as to condemn an innocent man to the flames; and it will be remembered with astonishment by posterity that the wife of Marshal d’Ancre was burnt in the Place de la Grève for a witch.
There is still to be seen, in a copy of some registers of the Châtelet, a trial which was begun in the year 1601, on account of a horse, which his master had with great pains taught to perform tricks, as we now see some every day at our fairs. They wanted to burn both master and horse.
We have already said enough to give an idea of the manners and spirit of the age which preceded that of Louis XIV.
This want of understanding in all orders of the state did not a little to encourage, even among the best people, certain superstitious practices, which were a disgrace to religion. The Protestants, confounding the reasonable worship of the Catholics with the abuses introduced into that worship, were more firmly fixed in their hatred to our Church; to our popular superstitions, frequently intermingled with debaucheries, they opposed a brutal sternness and a ferocity of manners, the character of almost all reformers. Thus was France rent and debased by a party spirit, while that social disposition, for which the nation is now so deservedly famous and esteemed, was unknown among us. There were then no houses where men of merit might meet in order to communicate their ideas to one another; no academies, no theatres. In a word, our manners, laws, arts, society, religion, peace, and war had no resemblance to what was afterward seen in that age known by the name of The Age of Louis XIV.