Billiards of War

Celebrating my promotion and tenure last year, we finally had our basement finished. And, being a child of the 70s, I’d grown up always wanting a pool (billiards) table to call my own. So, I finally achieved that modest childhood dream, as the following photo indicates.

(Note that we got the ball-and-claw legs instead of the Queen Anne. Ignore the black cat toy on the floor.)

What in the world, you might ask, does this have to do with EMEMH? Think on it, go look a few things up, and then continue reading for the answer.

So, did you figure it out? You likely know that billiards was a popular aristocratic game back in the Renaissance, a pass-time which replicated the lawn game of croquet indoors (hence the ‘green-as-grass’ cloth, or merlot in my case). If you are a Napoleonic expert, you probably guessed that one French Captain Mingaud (spelling varies) is credited with inventing the leather cue tip and the Massé shot during his imprisonment under Napoleon. You’d be right, but much more importantly, pool played its small part in encouraging Louis XIV to appoint one of the less-appreciated Secretaries of State for War of his reign, Michel Chamillart.

High-stakes billiards game (note the croquet resemblance), with a shy Chamillart boycotting the group portrait

As the far-from-objective Court memorialist the duke of Saint-Simon described his ascent:

“The chancellorship was given to Pontchartrain, and the office of comptroller-general, which became vacant at the same time, was given to Chamillart, a very honest man, who owed his first advancement to his skill at billiards, of which game the King was formerly very fond. It was while Chamillart was accustomed to play billiards with the King, at least three times a week, that an incident happened which ought not to be forgotten. Chamillart was Counsellor of the Parliament at that time. He had just reported on a case that had been submitted to him. The losing party came to him, and complained that he had omitted to bring forward a document that had been given into his hands, and that would assuredly have turned the verdict. Chamillart searched for the document, found it, and saw that the complainer was right. He said so, and added,—” I do not know how the document escaped me, but it decides in your favour. You claimed twenty thousand francs, and it is my fault you did not get them. Come to-morrow, and I will pay you.” Chamillart, although then by no means rich, scraped together all the money he had, borrowing the rest, and [200] paid the man as he had promised, only demanding that the matter should be kept a secret. But after this feeling that billiards three times a week interfered with his legal duties, he surrendered part of them, and thus left himself more free for other charges he was obliged to attend to.”

Suggested Reading:

Chamillart, Michel. Correspondance et papiers inédits recueillis et publiés par l’abbé G. Esnault. 2 vols. Edited by G. Esnault. Geneva: Megariotis Reprints, 1970.

Pénicaut, Emmanuel. Michel Chamillart, Ministre et secrétaire d’État de la guerre de Louis XIV. Paris: École des Chartes, 2004.

Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, duke of. The memoirs of the Duke of Saint-Simon on the reign of Louis XIV and the regency. Vol. 1. Translated by Bayle St. John. London: Chapman & Hall, 1857.


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