Saint-Cyr-l’École (meaning “Saint-Cyr-the-School”) is a town just west of Versailles. In fact it borders directly on the southwest corner of the Versailles Palace Gardens.
The town is called Saint-Cyr-l’École to avoid confusion with other French towns that were also named after the same saint, such as:
- Saint-Cyr-sur-le-Rhône (etc.)
The first school in Saint-Cyr-l’École was Madame de Maintenon’s free boarding school for 250 girls from impoverished aristocratic families, financed and supported by her husband King Louis XIV.
To get their daughters into this school, the families had to prove that they really were aristocrats, going back at least four generations in the male line, and that they really were impoverished, which had to be confirmed by a letter from the local bishop or intendant.
(Or they just had to have connections. Madame de Maintenon’s cousin, the naval commander Philippe de Villette, had no trouble enrolling his daughter in the school even though he was not impoverished and had a dubious aristocratic pedigree going back only two generations instead of four.)
Madame de Maintenon (the former Françoise d’Aubigné) talked Louis XIV into supporting her school by comparing it to the Invalides, which he had established fifteen years earlier in Paris to care for disabled aristocratic veterans of his many wars. Her school, she said, would be for “the daughters of gentlemen killed or having ruined their health and fortune in the service of the State.” She argued that the girls in her school would become the future wives of military officers and thus help regenerate the elite of the kingdom. [Jean-Paul Desprat, Madame de Maintenon (biography), Paris 2015, page 311]
As it turned out, some of the girls later did get married to French naval officers, who were under the impression that marrying a Saint-Cyr girl would improve their chances for career advancement. This went so far that at one point the Navy felt obliged to issue an official denial, claiming that the promotion of officers was not affected by where they had found their wives.
In the contract between the families and the school, it was stipulated that the school would try to find suitable husbands for the older girls, in fact the school was allowed to arrange their marriages without even asking the parents. There was no mention of whether or not the girls would be asked.
Arranged marriages were still the norm in the seventeenth century, but some people did manage to marry for love. This in fact was one of the main themes of the comedies of Molière (1622-1673). Typically, one of the parents in his plays tried to marry off the daughter to some older man such as a fatuous intellectual in Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies) or a foppish aristocrat in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The bourgeois nobleman) or a pseudo-religious hypocrite in Tartuffe. But the daughter always managed to foil these plans with the help of the other characters, including her boyfriend and especially the maid, who always had the best lines in Molière’s plays.
Madame de Maintenon was not a fan of Molière’s plays. For one thing, she had been a well-known Précieuse in her early twenties, so she might have felt attacked by one of his early plays, Les Précieuses ridicules (though I have found no proof of this). In any case, she found Molière’s plays too frivolous and controversial to be read by the girls in her school. One of the teachers, Madame de la Maisonfort, was at least reprimanded and probably fired for letting her pupils read the plays of Molière and the novels of Madeleine de Scudéry (1607–1701).
Speaking of Madeleine de Scudéry, one of her early novels included a character called Lyriane, who was widely assumed to represent Françoise d’Aubigné, the future Madame de Maintenon, when she was in her early twenties and married to the playwright Paul Scarron.
The author Madeleine de Scudéry later became well known in Germany as the title figure of the nineteenth-century novella Das Fräulein von Scuderi by E.T.A. Hoffmann, in which Madame de Maintenon also appears. This novella formed the basis of the 20th century opera Cardillac by Paul Hindemith, which I have seen in Frankfurt and Bonn. (More on that some other time…)
My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2017.