To fully understand Jeanne’s life and its challenges, it’s important to get a feel for the times in which she was born and spent the first 28 years of her life. So I have pulled out the world history books I saved from graduate school in the late 1960’s to provide a backdrop to Jeanne’s story.
Jeanne Marguerite Chevalier lived from 1643 until 1716, a 73-year lifespan that coincided almost exactly with the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) and with the life of English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).
Exploration and Expansion
When Jeanne was born in 1643, it was a time, for Europe at least, of exploration and expansion geographically as well as in the arts and sciences. Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, British, and French navigators and merchants were discovering new lands and finding new peoples in America, Africa and Asia in their search for treasure and routes to the Far East. On the heels of the Reformation and Renaissance, it was also a time of rebellion, religious turmoil, civil conflict, consolidation of power by monarchs, and seemingly endless war. And for many, it was a time of economic distress.
The Thirty Years War between France and much of Europe ended in 1648 with the emergence of independent sovereign states in Europe. Galileo had revealed that the earth was not the center of the universe, only to be put on trial in 1633 and then to die a year before Jeanne was born. The scientific revolution that followed provided a break between ancient and medieval thought and began the exploration of possibilities open to human reason. Developments around blood and circulation were causing advances in the world of medicine, although diseases such as smallpox and measles were still ravaging populations. Knowledge about germs and bodily hygiene was almost non-existent. Mechanical clocks replaced the hourglass and sundial around the start of the 14th century. Pocket watches appeared in the 17th century. And the pendulum clock which would remain the most accurate timekeeping device until the 1930’s would be invented by a Dutch scientist in 1656. For the majority of the population, however, time continued to be measured by the movement of the sun, moon, stars and tides.
For the educated wealthy upper class, Europe had emerged from the Renaissance with even more creativity, discoveries and privileges. In the Netherlands and Spain, these years have been called the Golden Age of Painting. In 1642, a year before Jeanne was born, Rembrandt painted “The Night Watchmen.” Vermeer produced one of my favorite paintings, the “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” 24 years later in 1666. In Spain, these years saw Velasquez and Murillo deliver their famous works of art. The development of the printing press and moveable type in late 15th century had led to an explosion of books and other publications. Libraries came into being in late 16th century despite concern from the learned that popularizing books (especially portable ones) could vulgarize learning. Most of the population, however, remained illiterate.
In France the 17th century saw the beginning of the classical age of French letters. The first French newspaper was published in Paris in 1631; four years later the French Academy was founded. The tragedies of Corneille and Racine, the comedies of Moliere, the fables of La Fontaine, and the letters of Madame de Sevigny were all being written and published. William Shakespeare had died in 1616, but John Milton would start to write Paradise Lost in 1658 and would publish it nine years later.
Turmoil – Religious and Social
The year of Jeanne’s birth – 1643 – was only 126 years after Martin Luther had nailed the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in protest. A generation after Luther, the writings of French theologian Jean Calvin led to the rise of the Huguenots, as French Protestants were called. The King James Bible was published in 1611. Protestants and Catholics were living uncomfortably together in many countries. In France, the Edict of Nantes had been proclaimed in 1598, allowing Huguenots limited freedom to practice their religion, although increasing tensions and consolidation of power with Louis XIV would lead to its revocation in 1685. Despite the challenges of the Reformation, the Catholic Church continued to be a powerful force, particularly with the lower classes in France.
Members of the noble class in France were enjoying the pleasures of art and music in the palaces they were building in the Place des Vosges in Paris. They were also, at the same time, becoming increasingly impotent politically. Most were now restricted to careers in the military or the church or to spending time at the court of the king. In 1648, their frustration at financial excesses of the court and at new taxes being levied on them would lead many members of the nobility to open revolt. By 1653, the movement known as “La Fronde” would die out but not without a great deal of devastation in the countryside and further reduction in the power of the nobility.
At the other end of societal spectrum lived the peasants. Throughout the 17th century, life for the lower classes was a constant, seemingly hopeless struggle. In addition to disasters caused by weather and famine, they were subjected to increasing taxes resulting from extravagant spending of Louis XIII and those kings who preceded and followed him and to the sequestration of troops resulting from wars with France’s neighbors. Uprisings were common. One of the largest was the Nu-Pieds revolt in 1639. Centered in lower Normandy, where Jeanne would be born 4 years later, the revolt ended with the execution or imprisonment of the leaders, heavy fines and reparations to be paid by the towns involved.
Enter Louis XIV
In May 1643, just a month before Jeanne was born, four-year-old Louis XIV became King of France upon the early death of his father. France at the time had 20 million inhabitants and occupied over 200,000 square miles. Paris was the largest city in Christendom. Louis would begin his personal rule at age 15 and start his march to absolutism founded on the divine right of kings. He would go on to build the power of the court and further emasculate the nobility, requiring them to spend time at Versailles, the luxurious palace outside of Paris which he would establish as his principal residence in 1682.
In the second half of seventeenth century, Louis and his ministers would face a multitude of challenges from external encroachment as well as from internal dissent posed by religious factions and rebellion from the nobles and from the peasants they lorded over. For those in power, the promise of opportunity in New World would be one bright star on the horizon.