You hear about Versailles, but when you stand looking up at the gold leafed exterior (fake today, real in the 1600s), the ceilings covered with masterpieces and the sheer size of the place, you can understand why the French Revolution happened.
In 1661, Louis XIV began the fifty year process of having one of his family’s hunting lodges enlarged until it became the huge palace and complex we see today. The 2,014 acres of Versailles consisted not just of the palace itself, but the 230 acres of gardens, administrative buildings, stables, and more in a former wetlands ten miles west of Paris. Louis XIV saw Versailles as an expression of his concept of power. Louis XIV moved in on May 6, 1682. It was built to impress. Louis XIV used the palace and hundreds of rooms to keep the nobility close so he could control them and make sure they didn’t become too powerful and become a threat. At the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the main Chateaux could house up to 4,000 residents. It’s like having 4,000 house guests who don’t want to leave.
Versailles has much in common with the houses we call McMansions in the United States. These quickly built large houses often with over 3,000 square feet of living space, are built to impress. The houses are characterized by very large rooms, multiple bathrooms, high ceilings and just enough grandeur to leave visitors in awe. And these large houses tend to be environmental-irresponsible, energy-sucking nightmares. Currently, in the United States many people no longer want to live in the large, expensive-to-maintain houses. The former McMansion owners have much in common with the French royal families, they both moved out of those big , cavernous dwellings and moved into something, smaller and more cozy.
That’s right, Louis XIV and his son Louis XV, built separate small houses to escape the stifling etiquette and crowds of the palace. In 1668, Louis XIV bought the village of Trianon, a distance from the grand palace, demolished the village and built a large house called, the Grand Trianon. It is beautiful and luxurious, but feels far more like a family home. Between 1763 and 1768, Louis XV built le Petit Trianon as a gift to Marie-Antoinette. It is even smaller and cozier than Le Grand Trianon. Marie-Antoinette is famous of course for spending much of her time in an even smaller cottage in the village of The Queen’s Hamlet she had built on the palace grounds between 1783 and 1785. This Hamlet is a long walk from the main palace and the smaller Trianons. It is an enchanting village of twelve Normandy-style cottages that were elegantly decorated for the Queen and her friends. Marie-Antoinette, naive though she was, was really just a simple country girl who disliked palace court life. The Hamlet, its cottages and cottage gardens, was her escape.
Why did I take you through this tour of Versailles? Because, something dawned on me as I wandered enchanted through the Queen’s Hamlet; the royal families of France kept moving and living in small houses because even they disliked the big cavernous McMansion that is Versailles. Having huge houses like these demanded massive amounts of what we call ‘natural resources’. Imperialist France used the ‘New World’ lands to cut down whole forests of trees, used forced labor to mine for gold. metals and gemstones, and generate income for the elites of France and other European countries. The voyages that led to the European discovery of the Americas, Pacific islands, and the enslavement of indigenous African children, was for the creation of luxury goods for the elites. It is pretty much the same today. You can’t live in balance and harmony with the natural world and continuously consume luxury goods and useless stuff. International corporations go to all parts of the world to take ‘natural resources’ from indigenous peoples, transform the materials in luxury goods and stuff humans don’t need for the elites of the world. But, we have just about exhausted this planet. Next stop, outer space.
The common people, we don’t need much. We like a comfortable small house, a kitchen garden, family, community, and a skill we are good at. Generally, it’s a pretty simple and usually easily sustainable life. Even Marie-Antoinette wanted the simple life.