Living at Versailles…. a hungry court

If you think of Versailles, you will think of tables full of the most delicious things. Glorious roasts, spectacular centrepieces, fabulous cakes and sugary glory. This applied to the tables of the royal family, not so much to the general courtier. Getting something to eat at Versailles was a proper hassle for them and many, especially those with little means, relied to be invited to supper in order to have at least one proper meal a day.

Louis XIV

Louis XIV had all the noms he wanted and he ate a lot. We talked about his eating habits and also table etiquette, now let’s talk about the general courtier.

One could say Versailles was bit like a hotel with lots of people living in rooms or apartments, but there was no restaurant for the general public or something like room service. One could not order a fine meal from the kitchens. Getting something to eat in Versailles was quite the problem for many. The Household staff of the royal family, meaning those holding offices, were off fine, but the common courtier not so much.

Everyone with a court office had the right to be hosted by the King. This means they had to be provided with living quarters and food. The food department at Versailles was called Bouche, but it did not actually provide food to everyone. Courtiers with a right to be provided with food, where the so-called commensaux and it there were rules for where they could eat. Like there were rules for pretty much everything else at Versailles.

The high-ranking commensaux, those with rooms big enough to receive guests, were granted a livrée. This was a set amount of money, which allowed them to host dinner for family, friends and selected guests.

During the time of Louis XIV, the premier gentilhomme de la chambre du roi – first gentleman of the King’s chamber- and the maire du palais – majordomo – held, when the King was in Versailles, a table d’honnour for the other members of the King’s Household. The most prestigious, and impressive, one was that of the maire du palais. The Bouche provided the means to hold a dinner, which took place in the early afternoon, for 22 guests. Of those 22 places, 17 were reserved for the King’s officers. The other 5 were meant to noble guests, such as Princes du Sang, should they be at court without without the necessary servants.

The table d’honnour of the premier gentilhomme de la chambre had seats for 12 people, but was held twice a day. Who got to eat there varied and it was meant for people of rank, who had business with the King. At both of those tables, those invited had the pleasure to enjoy six courses, which were provided by the Petit Commun.

Whatever was left of the courses served at the King’s grand couvert, was handed down to the nine gentilhommes serving the King in the current quarter and five officers. Two special servants, called serdeaux, carried those leftovers, called desserte, through the chateau and over the street to the Grand Commun, where everything was set up in a special hall, called Serdau. Everyone of those gentilhommes had the right to invite one of their servants to the meal. So, the King’s leftovers were served on two different tables afterwards. The not-so-fresh anymore leftovers of these leftovers were then handed to special merchants, with stalls along the Grand Commun. They warmed it up, covered it with plenty of sauce and sold it on to general population, soldiers and low civil servants. A bit like a take-away.

Grand Appartement de la Reine, Antichambre du Grand Couvert

There were five so-called tables secondaires for the lower ranking officers of the King’s Household at the Grand Commun with 22 seats each and another two tables secondaires with between 22 and 26 seats for the servants attending to the King. All in all, around 225 officers and servants of the King were provided with a meal this way. The Queen, Dauphin and Dauphine had similar systems to feed their Households.

Now to those who did not have a right to take a seat at a table d’honnour or at the tables secondaires. This was the case for officers like, for example, the armurier – armourer. Those received so-called nourritures, money to buy food. Others received a set amount of meat, bread, butter, oil and wine. Those who received money, would take their meals in one of the many inns in the town of Versailles or go to private persons, who offered board for money… but that was rather expensive.

Something like a private kitchen was not included in the original plans of Versailles and, apart from the kitchens serving the royal family, there was just one, meant for the Princes, in the 17th century. Later on, small kitchen appeared everywhere, also in shacks along the walls of the chateau. Before that, some people relied on small ovens in their anti-chambres or garderobes, if they had one, were something like a soup could be made.

Louis XIV urged all his courtiers to build their own hôtels in the town of Versailles and granted them plots of land to build on. Nobles who had their own hôtels, hardly ever lived there too. They preferred their small apartments in the chateau, but those hôtels were essential for them, because they had a kitchen. Their meals were prepared there and transported through the town to the chateau, warmed up wherever they could be warmed up and served. Nobles, who could afford it and did not have a hôtel, had their meals delivered from the various inns. As you can imagine, this was rather expensive as well.

The common noble loved nothing more than to be invited to dine by those with the means to entertain a kitchen or order food from inns… but there were by far not enough nobles with the right to invite to dine to feed everyone. Thus one had to be of a entertaining and pleasing sort to be invited regularly, those who were not often went hungry to bed.

The easiest way for the common courtier to acquire something to eat, were the many entertainments hosted at Versailles. An invitation was needed for private entertainments, everyone could attend the public entertainments. There was always some sort of buffet with plenty of food. One could eat as much as one wanted, but carefully so or one might be called a glutton… or worse people could suspect one did not have a proper meal in days, because one was not worthy of an invitation.

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