Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dining with the Dead

François I died of illness on March 31, 1547, but that didn't prevent his courtiers from dining with him ever again. His meals were served to his effigy, as if he were still alive, for eleven days as part of an elaborate funeral ceremony rife with symbolic meaning.

François was not buried until May 22, as his successor, Henri II, wanted to combine his father's funeral with those of the king's two sons who had predeceased him and whose bodies had to be transported to Paris. This gap allowed for an elaborate ceremony to unfold.

Immediately after François's death, court painter François Clouet arrived to cast the king's death mask and to take measurements for his effigy. During the two weeks it took to fashion the effigy, the king's heart and entrails were removed and buried at the priory of Haut-Bruyère, a few miles from Rambouillet. His body was embalmed and taken to the palace of the cardinal-bishop of Paris at Saint-Cloud to await the arrival of the bodies of his sons.

The king's effigy was laid on a bed of state in the great hall at Saint-Cloud, which was hung with blue velvet and cloth of gold. Robert Knecht, in his excellent book The French Renaissance Court (Yale UP 2008), describes the scene thus:

[The effigy] wore the state robes, the collar of the Order of St. Michael, and the closed, imperial crown. On either side, on pillows, lay the sceptre and hand of justice. There was a canopy over the bed and, at its foot, a crucifix and holy-water stoop. Two heralds kept watch day and night, and offered the aspergillum to anyone wishing to sprinkle the effigy with holy water. Four candles provided the only illumination. Along the walls were benches for nobles and clerics, who attended the religious services and meals served to the effigy. These were the strangest parts of the ceremonial. For eleven days the king's meals were served as if he were still alive. His table was laid and the courses brought in and tasted. The napkin, used to wipe his hands, was presented by the steward to the most eminent person in attendance, and wine was served twice during each meal. At the end, grace was said by a cardinal. (p. 121; emphasis mine)

What was the purpose of these strange meals? Knecht's explanation is an interesting one. He links the meals to the French adage "le roi ne meurt jamais" ("the king never dies"), and explains that the monarch's dignitas, or authority, outlived his bodily presence. A king succeeded to the throne upon the death of his predecessor; he could exercise his authority from that moment, but he could not be seen to act as king until his predecessor had been buried. The effigy, along with the feigned meals, created the illusion that François was still alive pending his burial; the new king, Henri, effaced himself during that time so as not to destroy the illusion. As soon as the last meal was served on May 4, the effigy was removed and the salle d'honneur became a salle funèbre; black drapes replaced the blue and gold and the king's coffin was placed in the center of the hall. Henri appeared in public for the first time to sprinkle his father's body with holy water.

I can't help but wonder about the thoughts of the nobles and clerics who attended these pantomimed meals. Did they question the show, or were they respectful of its symbolism? Did they truly believe François still present? The entire ceremony (you can read Knecht's fascinating description of its various stages on pages 120-123) is a prime example of the extent to which the sixteenth-century mentality differed from modern sensibilities.


Unknown said...

I found my way here from I'm finding it very interesting reading. I find the Renaissance period very interesting, so I'm sure I'll be stopping by. Good luck with your book.

Tess said...

Well, it all sounds a bit creepy to me, but fascinating!!! Thanks for blogging about it :)

Michelle Moran said...

The French Renaissance Court is one of my very favorite books! Is this part of your research? If so, I'm desperately envious ;]

Julianne Douglas said...

Chad--Nice to meet you! I'm glad you're finding the blog good reading. There are so many interesting things about the Renaissance to discuss. I'll look forward to chatting with you in the future!

Tess--It is rather creepy, isn't it? It's hard to imagine these meals being held for eleven days! I wonder who got to attend--was it a prestigious invitation one jockeyed to obtain, or was it a boring duty one had to fulfill? Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall.

Michelle--The Renaissance Court is an amazing book. It and Knecht's other work on François I (Renaissance Warrior and Patron) are indispensable resources for writing about this period. And I am so hoping that you will soon set a novel in Renaissance France (though no one will then bother to read mine :) ).

eihpos said...

Hi Julianne, thanks for this fascinating post. I just have a few questions for you:

a) When you say: "François was not buried until May 22, as his successor, Henri II, wanted to combine his father's funeral with those of the king's two sons who had predeceased him and whose bodies had to be transported to Paris." Sorry, I'm a bit confused. Whose sons were those? Henri's or Francois'? What did they die of?

b) You mentioned that Francois' body was taken to Saint-Cloud. The effigy, you say, was laid out in the great hall. Where was the body laid?

c) What was the effigy made of? Was it common practice to make effigies of the dead?

Hope you can enlighten me. Good luck with placing your book! It sounds very interesting.

Julianne Douglas said...

Dawn, I devoted the whole next post to answering your questions. Thanks for asking them!