Louis XIV’s Appetite
When French King Louis XIV died in 1715, his stomach was reportedly twice the size of the average human. Louis was known for his voracious appetite, but little did he know that three-quarters of a century after his death, one of his organs would become a meal of its own. William Buckland, a geologist and the Dean of Westminster, ate his heart.
Louis, known as the Sun King, started building Versailles in the 1660s by transforming the land’s royal hunting lodge into a palace. When he moved there permanently, many of his rituals revolved around food.
Following a light breakfast and a hefty lunch, his evening meal, called The Grand Couvert, took place around 10 p.m. It was served in his apartments, and members of the royal family, courtiers, and the public attended. Sometimes musicians would play for the king and his guests.
A typical meal consisted of a whopping 20 and 30 dishes. The first course was hors d’oeuvres such as pheasant, shellfish, soup, and Pâté. Fruit was served in the shape of large pyramids. Other dishes included roasts and pies of chicken, turkey, duck, boar, venison, and beef. Sometimes turtles were served alongside rice and vegetables. Oysters, salmon, and sardines were staples, as was potage—meat boiled with vegetables.
According to his sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine, the king had an insatiable appetite. She is recorded as saying: “He could eat four plates of soup, a whole pheasant, a partridge, a large plate of salad, two slices of ham, mutton au jus with garlic, a plate of pastry, all followed by fruit and hard-boiled eggs.”
How did Louis consume so much food? Was his stomach really larger than the average man? The size depends on the person. Typically, a stomach’s volume is a little over one quart. But because the stomach is a muscle, it can expand and contract and hold up to a gallon of milk. When a person eats his or her stomach stretches, and after food is digested it returns to its original size. Overeating can cause a stomach to expand, and Louis was known for his love of food.
While Louis was a voracious eater, much of his selections were healthy—he had a taste for salad and was known to eat a good amount of raw vegetables. The king typically drank wine or champagne with his meal. Drinks were kept on side tables, and if the king or a courtier wanted a refill, they would ask the servers to pour a drink for them in a discreet manner.
Louis preferred to eat with his fingers even though the use of forks was starting to gain popularity in the 17th century. He reportedly forbade his children from using forks as well, noted Ferdinand Braudel in The Structure of Everyday Life. The Sun King permitted his courtiers to use spoon and knives—as long as the implements had dull, rounded edges. In 1669, Louis decreed that the points of knives used at the dining table be ground down so they could not be used as weapons.
Over 300 people, known as the Service de Bouche (service of the mouth) were employed to prepare the king’s meals, which were served on silver plates. Guards would escort the food from the kitchens (located about ¼-mile away from where The Grand Couvert took place) to the table, and servants would announce each dish to the king and courtiers. Guests would often join the king while he dined, although not all of them ate. Some would just stand and watch the king chow down.
When Louis was done with a course, servants would clear all the plates, regardless of whether everyone else had finished their meals. On the way up to bed at around 11:30 p.m., he would eat some candied fruit.
Death Of A King
The Sun King, 77, died on Aug. 13, 1715, a few weeks after complaining about a pain in his leg. He became seriously overweight in old age, and his left leg turned gangrenous. Biographers later speculated he may have had type 2 diabetes. Lack of exercise, unhealthy food choices, and obesity can increase the risk of developing the disease.
Louis served 72 of his years as king—and as a lover of food. During the autopsy, his corpse was divided into three parts (body, heart, and entrails), a tradition for French kings that started several centuries earlier. Louis’ heart was embalmed and placed in Eglise des Jésuites on Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris.
During the French Revolution, the Sun King’s heart was stolen, and it ended up in the possession of Lord Harcourt, the Archbishop of York. The story goes that William Buckland visited Harcourt in 1848 and learned of the mummified heart. He reportedly couldn’t resist a taste, so he gobbled it up. It’s unclear whether he asked permission to eat it or simply swallowed it on impulse. His behavior wasn’t out of the ordinary for the scientist, who was so obsessed with strange food that he vowed to eat a piece of every single creature from the animal kingdom—and the heart of a king was apparently too good to pass up.
Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com