What do Abbé de Bernis, Voltaire and Robert Damiens all have in common, as well as being characters in ‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’? Well, all three either studied at, or were employed by, Louis-le-Grand, one of the most prestigious schools in Paris. De Bernis and Voltaire were students and Robert Damiens, would-be regicide of Louis XV, was a valet. Interestingly, the king-killing association with Louis-le-Grand went even further. Louis XVI’s nemesis, Robespierre, had also been a student, and in 1594 Jean Châtel, an ex-student of the original religious foundation that was to become Louis-le-Grand, attempted to assassinate Henry IV.
Other eighteenth-century alumni contemporary with Casanova included Denis Diderot, Enlightenment philosophe and co-founder of the Encyclopédie, Marquis de Sade, notorious libertine (from whose name the words ‘sadism’ and ‘sadist’ are derived), Duc de Choiseul, a favourite of Madame de Pompadour, who in 1758 replaced Abbé de Bernis as chief minister of Louis XV and on behalf of whom Casanova had acted as a financial agent, Camille Desmoulins, a key figure in the French Revolution, General Charles-Francois Dumouriez another key figure of the French Revolution and who fought in the Seven Years War, and Turgot, an influential economist and statesman.
Originally called Clermont College, the origins of Louis-le-Grand stretch back to 1550 when the Bishop of Clermont invited the Jesuits, those shock troops of the counter-reformation, to set up home in the Latin Quarter of Paris. After some intervening political turbulence, partly on account of Jean Châtel, which led to a temporary prohibition being placed upon the Jesuits, and despite hostility towards the college on the part of the University of Paris and the Parliament of Paris, it thrived and in 1682 was renamed ‘Collegium Ludovici Magni’ to commemorate Louis XIV bestowing upon it his official patronage.
Until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when the Jesuits lost control of the college, instruction was based upon the Ratio Studiorum (Plan of Studies), a standardised system of education devised by the Society of Jesus. The Society was established to defend and propagate the true faith ‘by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration whatsoever of the Word of God, and further by means of retreats, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity’ (Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus). Jesuit education, however, was not merely a matter of Catholic brainwashing but provided a rigorous intellectual training that incorporated aspects of traditional, theologically based scholasticism with the classical scholarship of Renaissance humanism.
And herein lies the great irony of Louis-le-Grand. An institution established to advance the mission of the Catholic church in its struggle against the forces of religious and political reform, endorsed by Popes and Louis XIV, the greatest absolute monarch of them all, was to nurture two of the most remarkable of French eighteenth-century philosophes in the form of Voltaire and Denis Diderot whose ideas and influence were to do much to undermine the legitimacy of the French Catholic church and the Ancien Regime and, ultimately, help pave the way for the French Revolution.
For a full list of Louis-le-Grand alumni (including figures such as Moliere and Victor Hugo) go here.
‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is now freely available here.
27 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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