President's Column: The fake news of Louis XIV

20 Mar 2019 4:35 PM | Melony Shemberger (Administrator)

By Ross Collins, North Dakota State University

Louis XIV ruled 72 years. He must have been a king of robust health.

Except that he wasn’t. But people weren’t supposed to know that. The press made sure of that.

Except it didn’t.

Alexis Lévrier of the University of Rheims writes in last spring’s Paris journalism history review, Le Temps des Médias, that the “fake news” of Louis XIV’s good health arose from an effort of the court to exert total control over the three newspapers of Paris. They were expected to celebrate the robust health of Louis from cradle to (nearly) grave: a strong, virile and vigorous king of Europe’s (perhaps) most influential monarchy.

That was a journalistic stretch, Lévrier writes. Louis’ mother, Queen Anne of Austria, gave birth in 1638 at the then advanced maternal age of 37 to a fragile boy who worried doctors. But not the press. At least not in its reporting. So often did Paris read of the “perfect health” of the prince that they actually became suspicious.

Louis overcame the concerning birth. But in celebrating the vaunted vigor of the king the Paris press had to manage some considerable vexes. At age 9 the prince contracted smallpox. The court’s response would set its press management style through many more noisome maladies that would befall the king, from gonorrhea (at age 17), to typhoid (19) to gout (episodic from 47). The approach: Report little of nothing until the king was out of the woods. Then, as in the smallpox case, report a blow-by-blow description including such details as “delirium” and “pustules.”

A graphic account of the king’s misery after his recovery served to celebrate his strength and courage, the “exceptional resistance of his body,” writes Lévrier. This was the king who never faltered, never aged.

But the court’s control of Paris journalism faced a challenge beyond reach: newspapers published outside of France and aimed at French readers.

Particularly Dutch newspapers offered a lively counterpoint to the highly controlled journals of Paris. They read between the lines to presume what really was happening in the court, and were smuggled back to France to offer spirited competition to the official view. But they also were not reliable.

As fake as the news about Louis XIV’s health was in the censored press, it was as often as fake in the foreign press, writes Lévier. By the early 1700s the king was Methuselah by era standards, and the foreign papers proclaimed his demise so often that the they became as sensationally unreliable as the court-controlled press. In August 1715 gangrene appeared on the king’s left leg. It was two weeks before the doctors realized it may not be sciatica after all.

The Paris journalists maintained silence. The foreign papers could not scour out any real news but, because the king had become Europe’s greatest celebrity, responded by latching onto to whatever rumor could be caught or contrived. The king actually did die Sept. 1, 1715.

The court’s control over the king’s health news kept his subjects in the dark until the end. But in the long run it was bad policy. “Notably it fed almost to absurdity a vicious circle impossible to stop,” Lévier notes, as it encouraged fake news from the foreign press, leading the crown to stack lie on further exaggerated lie regarding the king’s illnesses.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, aren’t we all still interested in King Louie? It’s only been three centuries, after all.

More germane, it pulls from a large body of international journalism history research that we in AJHA almost never hear about. Our sister group in Paris, the Society for the History of Media, publishes this journal. While the language barrier is a challenge, I think we can do more to internationalize our discipline. I hope we can find ways to strengthen our global reach, and intend to consider ideas in future columns.

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