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Christine Adams

Abstract

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.