The Smelly History of French Royals at the Palace of Versailles
Beneath its opulence, the palace had a dirty secret that no visitor would ever forget
It’s the 18th century, and you’re in the grand palace of Versailles, the seat of French power and royalty. You gaze at the ornate paintings and beautiful marble structures only to be distracted by something that seems off. It’s a smell but not one that you’d expect from a majestic palace; it reeks of feces and urine.
Everywhere you go, you’re reminded of the foul stench that emanates from the walls, from the cesspits, and even from the gardens. No place is safe.
Although today we think of Versailles as an architectural masterpiece, to the people living there, it was like being in a smelly nightmare. But how did it get so bad, and why did the French nobility tolerate such horrible conditions?
The answer lies in common hygiene practices or the lack of them.
Disease Riddled the Court
Louis XIV (1638–1715) was known to have only bathed three times in his entire life. Although the palace of Versailles had running water and numerous baths, there was a common belief that water spread disease, so the less you bathed, the safer you were. As a result, the king would often encourage his courtiers not to bathe at all.
Of course, you can imagine what would happen if hundreds of people who never bathed roamed around a palace in close proximity; awful body odour!
Not everyone had access to a bath anyway. Although the king and other aristocrats would wipe themselves with a wet cloth, the baths were usually reserved for intimacy rather than for cleanliness.
Instead, the emphasis was placed on washing one’s face rather than one’s body, leaving many to wonder how so many courtesans and mistresses were at the palace.
The sheer amount of people, along with the squalid filth in which they lived, led to the spread of syphilis, a disease that riddled the nobility at Versailles and plagued the court up until the French Revolution.
Smallpox was another terror, and two epidemics swept through Paris in 1719 and 1723. There was no cure…