The relationship of the French king and royal mistress, complementary but unequal, embodied the Gallic singularity; the royal mistress exercised a civilizing manner and the soft power of women on the king's behalf. However, both her contemporaries and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians were uncomfortable with the mistress's political power. Furthermore, paradoxical attitudes about French womanhood have led to analyses of her role that are often contradictory. Royal mistresses have simultaneously been celebrated for their civilizing effect in the realm of culture, chided for their frivolous expenditures on clothing and jewelry, and excoriated for their dangerous meddling in politics. Their increasing visibility in the political realm by the eighteenth century led many to blame Louis XV's mistresses—along with Queen Marie-Antoinette, who exercised a similar influence over her husband, Louis XVI—for the degradation and eventual fall of the monarchy. This article reexamines the historiography of the royal mistress.
Christine Adams is Professor of History at St. Mary's College of Maryland, specializing in the history of gender, family, and politics in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Her books include A Taste for Comfort and Status (Penn State University Press, 2000) and Poverty, Charity and Motherhood (University of Illinois Press, 2010). Her most recent book, The Creation of the French Royal Mistress (Spring 2020), was coauthored with Tracy Adams and published by Penn State University Press. She also writes opinion essays on current events, with an emphasis on the politics of gender and reproductive rights. Professor Adams would like to thank Jean Pedersen, Herrick Chapman, Tracy Adams, Karen Offen, and the other contributors to this issue for their insights and comments on this article. Email: email@example.com