Let me take a break from Space Pirate Captain Harlock this week. Thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation of iblessall, I have picked up an awesome new anime titled The Rose of Versailles. You might have never heard of this gem from 1979, but I can assure you that every fan of exciting swordplay and historical fiction will become endeared to the story of Oscar Francois de Jarjayes’s adventures in Pre-Revolutionary France. (If you liked Rurouni Kenshin or Carried by the Wind: Tsukikage Ran, watch this old school gem!) Within the first episode, Oscar becomes the commander of Marie Antoinette’s bodyguard and soon becomes one of the new princess’s favorite courtiers.
Immediately upon setting foot into Versailles, Marie Antoinette manages to start a controversy. Court rules dictate that a lady of lower station is forbidden from first addressing one of higher station. When Marie Antoinette gets a bad vibe from Madame du Barry, the King’s mistress, she haughtily turns up her nose at her. The sisters of King Louis XV are delighted at Antoinette’s disdain for du Barry and rush to describe the iniquitous career of Madame du Barry to the princess, calling du Barry a prostitute and implicating her in the death of her own husband. Historically, Madame du Barry was never a prostitute, but she did use her body to advance from a low station in society in order to marry into the du Barry family and eventually become the king’s mistress. While still married, she did have many affairs, making the epithet “prostitute” fitting. Antoinette vows to never acknowledge Madame du Barry, much to the sisters of Louis XV’s glee.
At this point, I must stress that one cannot underestimate the importance of honor in 18th century society: snubbing someone has major consequences. Du Barry tries to regain her honor first by telling others to persuade Marie Antoinette to acknowledge her. Then, she starts weeping and scolding the king for permitting the princess (or “little redhead,” as she terms her) to insult “one who has the king’s affection.” Despite all this pressure, Antoinette refuses to back down and acknowledge someone who “would be sent to a reformatory” in her homeland of Austria. One is reminded of these verses of Psalm 100:
2 And I will understand in the unspotted way, when thou shalt come to me. I walked in the innocence of my heart, in the midst of my house.
3 I did not set before my eyes any unjust thing: I hated the workers of iniquities.
4 The perverse heart did not cleave to me: and the malignant, that turned aside from me, I would not know.
* * *
7 He that worketh pride shall not dwell in the midst of my house: he that speaketh unjust things did not prosper before my eyes.
How this conflict ends, you will have to find out for yourselves. Here, I want to remark on how truly despicable Madame du Barry is. She feels that she deserves to be acknowledged for her illicit relationship with the king. She becomes enraged at Antoinette, and does not care if she murders or sets all Europe at war because of her wounded pride. Seeing her vicious imagination played out on screen and the way she takes out her anger on her maids, we come to contemn this evil woman who covets honor more than goodness. One wonders whether she has ever heard the saying, “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mark 8:36) Is honor built upon adultery, murder, and crying fits worth a fig?
Consider the contrary example of St. Thomas More. When King Henry VIII declared his marriage with Queen Catharine void against the judgment of the pope, St. Thomas More resigned his position as Lord Chancellor, a position which marked the apex of his career, rather than betray his conscience by agreeing with Henry VIII that the pope’s judgment was null and void. More hoped to live a quiet life of retirement after this, but King Henry VIII was adamant in getting St. Thomas to consent to the lawfulness of his actions. (The two had been close friends prior to Henry’s affair with Anne Boleyn.) A short time after his resignation, St. Thomas More was ordered before four of the king’s lackeys: Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the new Lord Chancellor: “Upon arriving, More found himself being offered wealth and honor galore–if he would but concur with the judgment of Parliament and the universities by declaring his approval for the divorce and remarriage of His Majesty.”* When More declined, these four personages resorted to threatening him, but More stood firm: “My lords, these terrors be arguments for children, and not for me.”† This fine saint understood that worldly glory and riches hold no value compared to the salvation of one’s soul.
After this hostile interview, the lords released St. Thomas More for a time, not having any authority to compel him to consent to the king’s new marriage. We all know that More’s eventual fate was to be locked up in the Tower of London and executed for denying that the king had superior moral authority to the pope. However, the world is a powerful enemy, and Christians often feel alone against it–as alone as More in prison listening to the constant persuasions of royal lackeys in favor of the king’s actions and even his own wife declaring his obstinacy foolish. How crucial it is to have upright friends in such a situation to bolster one’s courage; yet, More saw one of his comrades after another perish on the gallows until he stood virtually alone against the authority of the crown.
To return to The Rose of Versailles, Marie Antoinette was similarly isolated in her refusal to acknowledge Madame du Barry as an honorable lady. Most of the women around her who supported her defiance of Madame du Barry did so from impure motives: entertainment, boredom, spite, etc. Even Oscar de Jarjayes admits that she finds the conflict between the two ladies amusing; though, she does give some positive support to Antoinette when, forced to choose between making her mother the lady in waiting of the princess or the king’s mistress, Oscar chooses the princess. What shall we do when we find ourselves alone against the world with no human consolation?
But, there are great differences between a conflict over human honor and one over the Church’s authority. Many things trump the importance of personal honor. For this reason, many saints have counseled us not to be overly concerned with our honor: God has the power to humble and to exalt. But, St. Thomas More knew that conflicts over the Faith are also conflicts with Satan, and one cannot back down in the battle for souls. I said above that More felt very alone, but when we suffer for the sake of righteousness, we can always count on Christ being right beside us. St. Thomas More’s last two works were upon the Passion of Christ, where Christ forsook every human comfort and possession for our salvation. Who can doubt that Our Lord gave a thousandfold reward in heaven to St. Thomas for his preference of the kingdom of God and its righteousness over the kingdom of the world and its riches?
*Monti, James. The King’s Good Servant But God’s First. p. 316
†ibid. p. 317