French Language Blog

L’Homme au Masque de Fer Posted by on Jun 3, 2010 in Culture, Vocabulary

Today, we will evoke une énigme de l’histoire de France, and it is not related to a fiction character (fans of “Iron Man”, désolé, but stick around nevertheless.)

Usually, les secrets d’états (state secrets) take a few decades before they are divulgués (divulged) to le public, but it seems that some secrets are never really meant to be unveiled –or at least, not so easily.

This one secret goes back to le XVIIe siècle, the century of Louis XIV, known to the world as Le Roi Soleil(“the Sun King.”) Ever since, it has elicited a considerable amount of speculation, inflamed the passion and imagination of so many écrivains (writers) and historiens, but none could determine avec certitude (with certainty) who was “l’Homme au masque de fer“, or the “Man in the Iron Mask.”

Qui est donc l’Homme au masque de fer ?

This post is only destined to present the historical enigma to you in very broad terms, and the “task to unmask” him, if you will, and thus former votre propre opinion sur le sujet (to form your own opinion on the subject) is entirely yours, bien entendu.

So, having established that, what are les faits connus (the known facts), and where does la spéculation begin?

C’est un fait (It is a fact) that by the winter of 1703, the mysterious prisoner who was to be later known to us as the Man in the Iron Mask had passed away, after having spent 34 years of his life detained in prison cells. His geôlier (jailer), a man by the name of Bénigne D. de Saint-Mars, kept him in complete seclusion, at three different prisons, the last of which being the famous -or rather infamous, actually- Bastille prison. He was to wear at all times a mask, which was first thought to be of iron, but according to most historians today, it was most likely made of black velvet.

34 years earlier, in a letter exchange between le Secrétaire d’État de la Guerre (the Secretary of State for War), the shadowy Louvois (who was to be closely involved in another sinistrous affaire known as “l’affaire des poisons“, which is yet another story in its own right) and the jailer Saint-Mars, there was a mention of a new “low profile” prisoner, named “Eustache Dauger.

Was that only a pseudonym, or the real name of l’Homme au masque de fer ? And why was it so important for the  King to conceal his real identity from the public?

It is at this point that the speculation begins per se.

The most privileged, if not most publicized, hypothesis presents him as being rien d’autre que le frère (none other than the brother) of the “Sun King” himself!

The first champion of this hypothèse was the famous philosopher Voltaire, though he never offered any piece of serious evidence to support it.

Then came Alexandre Dumas, père, the celebrated author of  “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo“, who this time portrayed the mysterious prisoner, in his novel “Vicomte de Bragelonne“, as the frère jumeau du Roi (the twin brother of the King.)

The Dumas novel has subsequently inspired several other works and movie adaptations, one of which is Randall Wallace’s (1998), the director of Braveheart, “Pearl Harbor”, “We Were Soldiers”, and featuring Leonardo Di Caprio as Louis XIV (as well as his alleged “twin” brother.)

One piste intéressante (interesting track), and a likely candidate for the mysterious Homme au masque de fer, (though officially declared dead earlier than 1703) is Nicolas Fouquet: A close friend of La Fontaine and Molière (to name but a few of his “BFFs” at the time), who was charged by the King of massive embazzlement, in a long-running financial scandal that has little to envy our latter-day affaires de corruption, ranging from ENRON in the US, to l’affair ELF in France, or the many mafia oligarchs-related scandals in Mother Russia.

If you wish to better explore this énigme of l’histoire de France (and exercise your French listening skills), here is a documentaire you ought to check (in four parts.)

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  1. Ben Bloom:

    Hey guys, Randall Wallace is actually going to be a panelist at Austin Film Festival 2010. If you live in the Austin area, I highly recommend you attend.

  2. bernadette:

    where can I see the four parts documentary of French history ?

  3. Hichem:

    Hello Bernadette! I just added a link to the four parts of the French history documentary.