Login | Join/Renew

Journal

Le Mercure Galant and its Student Body: Donneau de Visé’s Inclusive Pedagogy

Article Citation: 
17 (2016), 41–56
Author: 
Deborah Steinberger
Article Text: 

Steinberger, Printable PDF

Twenty-first-century scholars have characterized Le Mercure Galant in many different ways: they have described it, for instance, as a forerunner of the modern newspaper, a propaganda vehicle in the service of Louis XIV, a literary journal promoting the esthetic of galanterie, and a compendium of scientific and social information.[1] No single description does justice to the publication, founded in 1672 by Jean Donneau de Visé, who served as editor in chief until his death in 1710.[2] The essence of the Mercure Galant, indeed its founding principle, is its appealing diversity. The preface to the inaugural edition announces, “Ce livre doit avoir de quoi plaire à tout le monde à cause de la diversité des matières dont il est rempli” (“Le libraire au lecteur,” Mercure Galant 1672, 1: n.pag.).[3] De­spite this stated ideal of universality, some scholars, notably Monique Vincent, have claimed that the knowledge the periodical seeks to impart is gender-specific. Vincent pronounced Le Mercure Galant “la première re­vue féminine d’information et de culture” in the subtitle of her important 2005 study of the publication. She cites as evidence the Mercure’s fic­tional female destinataire, an inquisitive and well-read Parisian lady living in the provinces, referred to throughout as “Madame”; she also empha­sizes the prevalence of literary forms thought to be popular with women, such as love stories, poems, and songs (Vincent, Le Mercure Galant 10–11).[4] But Jennifer Perlmutter has remarked, and even Vincent has noted, that after its initial “période d’essai” of 1672–1677, a span of years during which the periodical experimented with different formats, genres, and publica­tion frequencies, the Mercure seems less “feminine,” and more “unisex”: in Perlmutter’s words, it becomes “an exemplary text for both women and men” (58).[5] The present study argues that this change is linked to Donneau de Visé’s evolving resistance to classification of his reader­ship by gender, and to his ultimate rejection of divisive gender stereotypes, in favor of a more inclusive editorial approach. Analysis of a number of nouvelles and other texts from the Mercure leads to the conclu­sion that the publication’s founder came to regard his magnum opus as neither “feminine” nor “masculine,” but rather as an all-embracing “coeduca­tional” project, providing information and instruction for the benefit of both sexes.

In fact, in December 1677, the editor refers to the characterization of the Mercure as a women’s magazine as an error, and signals that the periodi­cal hasnow found another audience:

Je sais que le titre a fait croire d’abord que le Mercure était simplement Galant et qu'il ne devait tenir place que dans la bibliothèque des femmes, mais on est sorti de cette er­reur . . . il est devenu le livre des savants et des braves après avoir été le divertissement du beau sexe. (Nouveau Mer­cure Galant Dec. 1677, 10: n.pag.)

It is not immediately clear whether the editor is implying that the publica­tion has evolved and become something new, leaving behind le beau sexe and its predilection for divertissement, or simply that its audience has ex­panded. But in view of the publication’s trend away from classification of subject matter according to reader gender, the latter scenario seems more plausible. The Mercure becomes increasingly gender-neutral: editorial catego­rizations and assumptions about the preferences of male and female readers voiced during the periodical’s first years (early to mid-1670s) seem to fade as the Mercure finds its footing and its public. At first, the editor had assumed that women would want to read nouvelles and fashion news, while men would favor war reports. In 1673, for example, the editor feels the need to apologize to some of his female readers for the paper’s extensive war coverage (4: 263–266). By 1684, however, “Madame” is clamoring for war news. Speaking of the paper’s reports on the taking of Luxembourg and Genoa, the editor tells her, “J’ai beaucoup de joie de ce que vous me temoignez estre satisfaite du soin que j’ay eu de n’oublier aucune circonstance essentielle dans les deux relations dont je viens de vous parler” (July 1684, 4–5). “Madame” is an insatiable consumer of all sorts of information and current events. This ideal reader wants to know about politics as well as arts and culture: the editor tells her, after reporting on new plays by the Corneille brothers, “Je voudrois bien ne vous parler que de divertissemens; mais il faut, puis que vous voulez tout sçavoir, que je reprenne le Chapitre de la guerre” (1673, 4: 227–228; emphasis added). The following year, the editor makes a point of distinguishing “Madame” from the ladies with whom she socializes in the provinces:

Je vous entretiendray des affaires de la guerre, mais j’en laisseray les raisonnemens aux politiques, et ne parleray de sieges et des combats, que pour loüer toutes les belles ac­tions de nos braves, dont je ne pretends laisser échaper aucune. Le récit n’en sera toutefois pas si long, qu’il puisse en­nuyer celles de vos belles provinciales qui n'aiment que les histoires. (1674, 5: 2)

The worldly, inquisitive Madame has more diverse interests than the provin­cial ladies among whom she lives: a Paris transplant who is unlike her neighbors, a woman who appreciates military accounts, in her pursuit of knowledge she bridges and transcends social and gender categories, thereby embodying the spirit of Le Mercure Galant.

The description of the Mercure as a “coeducational” project aligns gener­ally with Joan DeJean’s assertion that Donneau de Visé, a proponent of the Modern movement, sought to create a “gender blind” public (An­cients 66) as part of his program; it also confirms Allison Stedman’s recent characterization of Le Mercure Galant as “a liberal and inclusive socio-literary enterprise” (Stedman 97). While DeJean states that “[n]o Modern spokesperson ever bothered to compose a work of educational theory” (Ancients 138), it is nonetheless true that the Mercure’s pioneering promotion of the education of men and women together was a defining element of its journalism and in its way, a contribution to the theory of educa­tion.

Although the entire Mercure is ostensibly addressed to a lady, Don­neau de Visé goes to great lengths to appeal to readers of both sexes, sometimes sequentially, but most often simultaneously. The point of view varies: the male authorial voice is balanced by intermittent contributions from celebrated women writers such as Antoinette Deshoulières and Made­leine de Scudéry, as well as from numerous lesser-known female authors. Furthermore, the editor displays evenhandedness, even egalitarian­ism, by occasionally printing “his and hers” versions of matching articles. A piece by a Monsieur Taisand, a lawyer from Dijon, which examines the advisability of marriage, is divided into two sections, “Si une femme doit se marier”  and “Si un homme doit se marier”  (Extraordi­naire April 1679, 6:10-23).[6] The text, which takes for granted women’s subaltern status, could certainly not be called feminist, but it is remarkable that the author assumes a mixed readership as he presents ad­vice for both sexes. The author of this article had proposed the previous year another piece geared to a mixed public, which asked the question, “La condition des femmes est-elle plus commode et plus avantageuse que celle des hommes?”[7] Both of Taisand’s pieces seem intended to encourage men and women to enter into dialogue with each other on these questions. A comparable structure exists in two complementary stories from January and February 1681, “Histoire de mon cœur” and “Histoire de mes con­quêtes,” both written by Fontenelle, where a man and a woman exchange accounts of their sentimental history.[8] Although these are fictional pieces written entirely by a man, the idea of balance, of dialogue between equals, is noteworthy. According to the same principle of equal time, or balanced reporting, right after an article about a male child prodigy, there follows an ac­count of the exploits of a “jeune fille philosophe” from Lyon who amazed the university professors who examined her in Latin on erudite topics (Sept. 1684, 161–164). This young woman, excluded from participat­ing in a public thesis defense because of her sex, is in effect given a voice in the Mercure.

Donneau de Visé’s efforts to remain gender-neutral, or at least (to bor­row the Fox News slogan) to appear “fair and balanced,” extend to other genres featured in the periodical, nouvelles and questions d’amour. The Mercure’s numerous stories about women disguised as men prove that women can do everything that men do, both good and bad. Disguise may facilitate daring or violent deeds, but the capacity to perform them is not determined by a person’s sex. For example, in one nouvelle a young woman disguised as a man serves ably in the army in place of her fiancé, whom she had wanted to protect from the dangers of war (April 1692, 103–116). On the other hand, extreme emotions such as jealousy, the nouvelles show us, can drive either sex to senseless acts of violence. Simi­larly, traits like inconstancy and fidelity are never portrayed as gender-specific: for every nouvelle about a fickle female, there is one about a faith­less man. One month after the publication of the “Histoire tragique arrivée à Arles” (March 1680, 251–274), which recounts a man’s crime of passion—he murders his mistress for her infidelity—the Mercure pub­lishes “L’Infidèle puni,” the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man, ambushes her ex-lover, and commits a revenge murder. The narrator reminds readers that women, too, are capable of such bloody actions:

Vous avez blamé avec beaucoup de justice l’emportement fu­rieux du Cavalier d’Arles, qui s’est vangé si cruellement de la prétendüe infidélité de sa Maîtresse.Les belles ne sont pas exemtes (sic) de ces sortes de fureurs. En voicy la preuve. (April 1680, 276)

The Mercure seems to suggest that the passions of men and women are indistinguishable. An article in the Extraordinaire of July 1679 asks the question “Si les femmes aiment plus fortement que les hommes,” but after a brief, perfunctory discussion of the beliefs of the Ancients and the theory of the humors, the author dismisses the question as fruitless, leading to “travaux inutiles” (294–297)—a decidedly pro-Modern conclusion.

In sum, there seems to be a conscious effort on the part of the Mercure’s editor to discredit gender stereotypes. Instead, the periodical purports to portray life as it is—as befits a news publication.[9] In the Mer­cure, Donneau de Visé claims to strive to tell the whole story. For instance, when recounting a battle, he boasts that unlike other contempo­rary chroniclers, he assembles accounts from multiple viewpoints.[10] Another way he endeavors to hold a mirror up to life, as we have seen, is by providing both male and female perspectives on the same question. It stands to reason that women readers would seek out a publication that treated their sex with respect, fairness, and objectivity. This evenhanded approach is of course strategic as well as ethical: it is in large part a ques­tion of marketing, a calculation aimed at selling subscriptions and maximizing the Mercure’s readership. The journalist’s interest in entrepreneur­ship and his prowess as a businessman led Victor Fournel in the nineteenth century to call Donneau de Visé “un industriel littéraire” (Les Contemporains de Molière 445, qtd. in Vincent, Donneau de Visé 2). Jean Sgard attests to the editor’s financial success: “Il passe pour avoir été le plus riche des écrivains du temps”  (Dictionnaire des journalistes).

To ensure his publication’s universal, “coeducational” appeal—and thereby to reach the largest audience possible—Donneau de Visé carefully controls tone and content. A preface to both the September and October 1684 issues states, “On mettra tous [les mémoires] qui ne desobligeront personne, et ne blesseront point la modestie des dames” (n.pag). Often, the pa­per appears to take the side of the wife in domestic issues. A 1684 verse piece called “La Bourse du bon sens,” by a certain Monsieur de la Barre, from Tours, celebrates the stratagem used by a clever and virtuous wife “Pour tirer son Epoux des bras d’une coquette,/ Et pour le rappeler au gi­ron de l’Hymen” (October 1684, 44–59). A question for debate proposed in the July 1685 Extraordinaire asks why so many men take ugly mis­tresses when they have attractive wives. Can one show support for wronged wives without seeming anti-male (or at least anti-husband)? De­spite the periodical’s overarching goal of inclusiveness, the publication of tendentious questions such as this one sometimes make the world of the Mercure’s readership appear more polarized than integrated. However, this apparent contradiction can be resolved when we consider that marital harmony was seen as beneficial for all of society, and that the reigning patriar­chy had a vested interest in preserving marriage’s strength and sanctity.[11] Good husbandly conduct is a recurring theme, a value that Le Mercure Galant tirelessly promotes. Donneau de Visé brings in celebrity instructors to teach by example: in July 1683, we hear about the admirable af­fection of M le Dauphin for Mme la Dauphine: “Il est bien doux et bien agréable, de trouver dans un Mary la galanterie d’un amant” (282). Simi­larly, a year later, the Mercure approvingly notes that this model husband refused to retire to his chambers when the Dauphine was ill, and passed the entire night at her bedside (August 1684, 306). But we also hear about wayward husbands, and there are numerous stories about praiseworthy or model wives who tolerate and sometimes even reform their unfaithful spouses: for instance, the September 1683 account of a young woman who pa­tiently bears her husband’s infidelity and resists her family’s attempts to separate her from her unworthy spouse. She dies of grief, but her unfailing virtue and devotion ultimately inspire her widower to change his life and enter a monastic order.[12] The story’s moral, “L’amour le plus violent n’est pas celui qui dure le plus,” announces an important lesson for men and women alike.

A school for both husbands and wives, Le Mercure Galant is at heart a mass-educational enterprise, one that aims to instruct as it informs and enter­tains. The publication may be seen as a precursor of the correspondence course, and even as a distant ancestor of the MOOC (mas­sive open online course), for Donneau de Visé places emphasis on accessibility: thanks to the Mercure, one need not leave one’s home to be­come well-informed about a wide range of subjects. While we take it for granted today that newspapers perform this function, nationwide circula­tion of a periodical to readers from varying social backgrounds, from the middle classes to the upper echelons, was something quite new in the seven­teenth century, as DeJean and Stedman have shown in their respective studies. The editor speaks of his goal of providing readers with convenient and inexpensive routes to learning, helping them to “s’instruire à peu de frais de tout ce qui arrive de jour en jour touchant [les] arts,” and to “apprendre ce qui se passe dans toute la terre parmi le monde politique et galant” (“Avis,” Jan. and Feb. 1686, n.pag.).[13]

What can one learn in the Mercure? Its highly diversified “course con­tent” distinguishes the publication from its precursors and competitors (La Gazette, most notably);[14] it extends beyond news from the court and battle­field to include such topics as Chinese characters, literary news, algebra, geometry, numismatics, and architecture, just to name a few.[15] Science writing becomes more prevalent in the Mercure around 1681, the year the passage of Kirch’s comet stimulated scientific speculation and spurred popular interest in astronomy: numerous articles and stories in the paper were inspired by this event. This was also the year when the philoso­pher and mathematician Claude Comiers started writing for the publication, contributing pieces on optics, astronomy, health, and medi­cine, including a letter “Sur l’art de se conserver en santé et de prolonger sa vie” (March 1687, 227–236). The Mercure also provides advice for read­ers suffering from maladies such as gout (Nov. 1685, 239–242), hernias (Feb.1686, 1: 69–82), and the vapors (Nov. 1691, 85–116).

Cultural anthropology is another frequent topic: a treatise on burial and tombs appears in the July 1685 Extraordinaire (24–93), and in December 1691, Comiers contributes a “Lettre sur les cérémonies à la synagogue” (244–261). Starting in March 1685, the Mercure publishes what may be the first “multicultural course,” a series of nine “dialogues des choses dif­ficiles à croire” by the abbé Laurent Bordelon.[16] The dialogue, the editor tells us, is a teaching method especially suited to readers who are pressed for time (he refers to “les curieux, qui sont bien-aises d’apprendre beaucoup, et de s’épargner la peine de longues lectures,” April 1685, 49). The purpose of Bordelon’s dialogues is to introduce readers to a range of unusual social practices from all over the world. Readers also learn to bat­tle prejudice and superstition in similar pieces, like the “Discours contre la superstition populaire des jours heureux et malheureux” by a contributor from Marseille named Malaval (June 1688, 1: 32–119). As one might ex­pect in a publication that calls itself “galant,” there are many articles dealing with savoir-vivre and civility, for example, “De la manière dont on doit avertir ses amis de leurs défauts” (Dec. 1696, 39–57). The Mercure places special emphasis on discoveries and stories that transcend barriers, be they national, linguistic, psychological, social, or gender-related. For instance, one finds articles on “l’écriture universelle,” a number-based writ­ing system for use by people of different nations, as well as this praise of the visual arts as a universal means of communication:

[Les estampes] parlent également par tout aux yeux, et tous les yeux voyent également ce qu’elles représentent. Ainsi rien n’est plus agréable, rien n’est plus utile, et rien n’instruit en moins de temps, sans qu’il soit besoin d’aucune étude pour apprendre à voir ce qu’elles contien­nent. (Feb. 1686, 1: n.pag.)

For those whom we would call today visual learners, the Mercure supplies countless diagrams and illustrations. In 1686, the editor announces a plan to make instructive images even more readily available by including in each month’s issue a list of all newly printed engravings, with notes on where they can be purchased. All in all, the periodical presents itself as an educational treasure chest: “On y ramasse mille choses curieuses qu’on n’auroit pû trouver ensemble, si le Mercure n’avoit jamais esté fait… ” (“Au lecteur,” Nouveau Mercure Galant Dec. 1677, 10: n.pag.; qtd. in Vin­cent, Donneau de Visé 187).

Whether in the form of treatises or nouvelles, Le Mercure Galant de­votes many pages to moral teaching.[17] Often the stories have moralizing titles, maxims such as “Les amants qui ont le plus de traverses ne sont pas toujours les plus malheureux” (May 1680), or “L’amour sincère est sou­vent récompensé” (Jan. 1689).[18] Notably, the titles of the nouvelles are almost always gender-neutral: they seem to reflect a studied effort on the editors’ part to avoid characterizing the sexes in any particular way. For example, use of the neutral “on” is frequent: “On ne perd souvent rien pour attendre” (June 1680), or “De quoi n’est-on point capable quand on aime véritablement?” (Jan. 1697). This principle took shape early on in the publication’s history, when the Mercure published its very first nouvelle featuring a moralizing title, “Les Femmes sont souvent cause de la perte des Hommes” (1674, 6: 207–248). The narrator is an old woman who tells the story of Clitandre, a man suffering from venereal disease. The sick man makes a deal with a mysterious stranger: he exchanges a cure for his malady for a promise, on pain of death, never again to lie with a woman. Clitandre eventually falls in love and breaks his promise; shortly thereaf­ter, the man who had cured him reappears and tells him he must choose to die by the sword or by poison. Clitandre takes the poison, goes mad, and jumps from an attic window into a well. His body is never found. The wa­ter in the well becomes subsequently so clear and fresh that the site attracts visitors from miles around.

The old woman reveals at the end of her tale that this is not actually a nouvelle, but rather a centuries-old story. As such, the editor points out, it is an anomaly that really had no place among the news stories (“histoires nouvelles”) he had promised to “Madame”:

[Cette aventure] ne devoit pas avoir icy de place, puis que je ne vous dois envoyer que des Histoires nouvelles; mais puis qu’elle est écrite, vous souffrirez, s’il vous plaist, Madame, qu’elle tienne son rang parmy les autres. (1674, 6: 247-248) 

The aged storyteller, who defends the truth value of orally-transmitted folk sto­ries like this one, represents unenlightened tradition:

Il y a plus de deux cens ans, continua-t-elle, que cette avanture est arrivée, et qu’on la sçait par tradition; et comme les choses qu’on sçait de la sorte sont toûjours très-vé­ritables, on ne doit point douter de cette Histoire, qui doit faire connoistre à tout le monde, que les Femmes sont sou­vent cause de la perte des Hommes. (246–247)

However, her modern, enlightened listeners, who represent the Mercure’s readership, are skeptical. With ironic smiles, they dismiss her unbelievable tale, along with its misogynistic message:

Toute la compagnie n’applaudit à cette Histoire qu’en soû­riant; il y eut mesme quelques malicieux qui plaignirent la catastrophe du malheureux Clitandre, mais ce fut d’une ma­niere qui fit connoistre qu’ils n’adjoûtoient guere de foi à son avanture. (247)

The framing text thus discredits the old woman’s tale and the anti-woman tradition it represents, presenting the story as an object of skepticism and even ridicule. This account of the tale’s reception signals a break with tradi­tion: the Mercure Galant will never blame the fair sex in general for men’s ills, nor will the shortcomings of some men be imputed to men as a group: the nouvelles are about individuals. This principle is in keeping with the core values of the Modern movement, which according to Joan DeJean included, along with “an openness to cultural difference,” “a de­fense of the right to individuality” (Ancients 131).

The Mercure’s resistance to gender stereotypes and traditional preju­dices extends also to lighter topics, like fashion. After a discussion of the latest women’s styles, published during the paper’s first year (1672, 3: 283–308), a lady named Lucresse asks the narrator-editor to give equal time to men’s style trends. Men, she argues, are just as interested in fash­ion novelties:

Il me semble que nous avons assez parlé de Modes qui re­gardent les Femmes, et que vous devriez à vostre tour nous entretenir de celles des Hommes; car vôtre Sexe en Amour et en Mode n’a pas moins d’inconstance que le nostre. (308)

The narrator concedes that men are no less slaves to fashion than are wo­men:

[J]’ajoûtay que pour faire voir que j’étois persuadé de cette verité, j’alois montrer que les Hommes avoient en tres peu de temps fait changer huit ou dix fois les modes de leurs manches, et que j’estois asseuré qu’on ne me mon­treroit point parmy les Femmes pour ce qui regardoit les Modes un exemple de pareille inconstance. (309)

This attribution of fashion fickleness to men makes a favorable impression on Lucresse and her friend; the narrator tells us that “Cette réponse de bonne foy, et qu’elles n’atendoient point, les fit soûrire” (310).

Here too, the narrator is attempting to discredit a stereotype, demonstrat­ing that men and women are not as different as we have been accustomed to believe. To prove this point, the Mercure shows its readers individuals who defy accepted norms and idées reçues, such as fashion-obsessed men and hardy women soldiers who distinguish themselves in battle. Dianne Dugaw’s work early-modern English female warrior bal­lads—popular songs about real or mythical cross-dressed women soldiers—provides a useful way of thinking about the representation of women in the Mercure. Dugaw writes,

If the ballads suggest anything, it is that “masculine” (or “feminine”) behavior—playing the part—and “male” (or “female”) identity—being the person—can be two differ­ent things. Thus the ballads do not in fact privilege the “masculine” at all, because at a deeper level they actu­ally subvert not only the privilege of one gender over the other, but the very category of gender itself. How reliable is such a category that can so easily conceal as much as it re­veals? (Dugaw 158–159)

Characters who transgress traditional gender-based behavioral norms lead us to reexamine the assumptions upon which these norms depend.[19]

Concealed sex and questions of gender identity lie at the heart of one the Mercure’s most famous nouvelles,the “Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville,” published in the periodical first in 1695, and then again in 1696 in a revised and expanded version. In her introduction to the MLA critical edition of this novella, Joan DeJean attributes the piece to a trio of authors: François-Timoléon de Choisy, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, and Charles Perrault. DeJean, who had previously distinguished the story as “the first true fin de siècle literary work” (Ancients 119), notes that it “presents the frontier between femininity and masculinity as . . . thor­oughly permeable” (“Introduction” xix). The “Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville” is a sort of fractured modern fairy tale where a boy raised from birth as a girl, the ravishingly beautiful Marquise de Banne­ville, who for most of the story does not know she is biologically a man, meets and falls in love with the Marquis de Bercourt, a girl who has decided to dress and live as a man. After a courtship complicated by the secrets of their sexual status, they marry, and once they experience and understand their sexual compatibility, live happily after ever.

One may interpret the story’s title character, La Marquise-Marquis de Banneville, as a metaphor for the treatment of gender in Le Mercure Ga­lant. Joan DeJean has already demonstrated that the story, published during the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, represents Mod­ern principles. One could further argue that the Marquise specifically emblematizes the Mercure’s “coeducational,” gender-blending pedagogy. The “Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville” contrasts starkly with the 1674 Clitandre tale (“Les femmes sont souvent cause de la perte des hommes”). Unlike the hoary venereal disease legend presented as the antithesis of the nouvelle, the Marquise’s story is an explicitly contempo­rary tale, as befits the Modern sympathies of its authors and of Donneau de Visé; it is complete with allusions to recent literary news and trends, such as the publication of Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant” in the Mer­cure in 1695, or the fairy tale vogue in general. The moralizing title of the Clitandre story, a tale dismissed as inane and outdated by the story­teller’s listening public, suggests that sexual categories are immutable: women will be women and men will be men, and women often bring men’s downfall. In “La Marquise-Marquis,” however, sexual categories are not fixed.[20] This nouvelle—like the Mercure itself, with its stories of valiant female warriors and learned women—demonstrates that differ­ences between the sexes are sometimes arbitrary, that outward appearances can be deceiving, and that for this reason, we should combat prejudice and stereotypes.[21] When the young Marquise criticizes the choice of a minor character, Prince Sionad, to dress in flamboyant femi­nine fashion, the Marquise’s mother reprimands her daughter with a message of tolerance. She advises her to refrain from judging others and instead to focus on her own conduct: “Contentez-vous, ma chère enfant, de faire votre devoir et ne trouvez jamais à redire à ce que font les autres” (15). The fact that the story enjoyed special, “signature” status in the Mer­cure bolsters my claim that it presents in microcosm some of the publication’s guiding pedagogical principles. “La Marquise-Marquis” is one of the few texts, if not the only one, to be published twice in the Mer­cure’s pages, presumably because its first printing met with success and its reappearance helped sell issues of the periodical. Furthermore, within the story, the Marquise “sells” the Mercure with this somewhat backhanded “product endorsement”: “Je l’ai lue [“La Belle au Bois Dormant”] quatre fois, et ce petit conte m’a raccommodée avec le Mercure Galant où j’ai été ra­vie de le trouver,” 51). The Marquise-Marquis, at once male and female, promotes the publication even as she symbolizes its inclusive, “coeduca­tional” approach. This close relationship between the character and the periodical in which her story was published should not surprise: in classi­cal mythology, after all, the messenger god Mercury, god of eloquence, commerce, boundary-crossings, communication, and, by extension, journal­ism, is the father of the hermaphrodite. The publication that bears his name sets out to entertain and instruct without prejudice polite society, a public composed of men and women.

University of Delaware

 

Works Cited

Choisy, François-Timoléon de, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, and Charles Per­rault. Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville. Ed. Joan DeJean. New York: Modern Language Association, 2004. Print.

DeJean, Joan. Ancients Against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siècle. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1997. Print.

———. “Introduction.” François-Timoléon de Choisy, Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, and Charles Perrault. Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville. Ed. Joan DeJean. New York: Modern Language Association, 2004. Print.

Donneau de Visé, Jean. L’Embarras de Godard. Paris: Jean Ribou, 1668. Gallica. Web. 5 February 2015.

———.Le Mercure Galant. Paris: Barbin, 1672–1710. Gallica. Web. 5 February 2015.

———. La Veuve à la Mode. In Théâtre du XVIIe Siècle. Vol. 2. Ed. Jacques Scherer and Jacques Truchet. Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléïade, Gallimard, 1986. Print.

Dugaw, Dianne. Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1600–1850. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

Fournel, Victor. Les Contemporains de Molière, recueil de comédies, rares ou peu connues, jouées de 1650 à 1680 avec l'histoire de chaque théâtre, des notes et notices biographiques, bibliographiques et cri­tiques.Vol. 3. Genève: Slatkine, 1863–1865. Print.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Identity. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Hanley, Sarah. “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Build­ing in Early Modern France.” French Historical Studies 16.1 (1989): 4–27. Print.

Harvey, Sara. “La critique littéraire dans le Mercure galant : lorsque la galanterie rencontre les exigences d’une politique culturelle.” In La Média­tisation du littéraire dans l’Europe des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Ed. Florence Boulerie. Biblio17 205. Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 2013. 129–141. Print.

Hogg, Chloé. “Useful Wounds.” In Perfection. Ed. Anne L. Birberick. EMF: Studies in Early Modern France 12. Charlottesville, VA: Rookwood Press, 2008. 1–25. Print.

———.“War Relations: A Journalist Writes the Sun King's Wars.”In Rela­tions & Relationships in Seventeenth-Century French Literature. Ed. Jennifer R. Perlmutter. Biblio 17 166. Tubingen: Gunter Narr, 2006. 197–208. Print.

Perlmutter, Jennifer R. “Sociopolitical Education and the Nouvelles of the Mercure Galant.” In The Art of Instruction: Essays on Pedagogy and Lit­erature in 17th-Century France. Ed. Anne L. Birberick. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2008. Print.

Racevskis, Roland. Time and Ways of Knowing under Louis XIV: Mo­lière, Sévigné, Lafayette. Lewisburg, PA : Bucknell UP, 2003. Print.

Sgard, Jean. “Jean Donneau de Visé (1638–1710).” Dictionnaire des journa­listes, 1600–1789.       http://dictionnaire-journalistes.gazettes18e.fr/journaliste/244-jean-donneau-de-vise. Web. 5 February 2015.

Stedman, Allison. Rococo Fiction in France, 1600–1715: Seditious Frivol­ity. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2013. Print.

Steinberger, Deborah. “Obstinate Women and Sleeping Beauties in the Kingdom of Miracles: Conversion Stories in the Mercure galant’s Anti-Protestant Propaganda.” Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Lit­erature 40:58 (2013): 1–15. Print.

———.“The Difficult Birth of the Good Mother: Donneau de Visé’s L’Embarras de Godard ou l’Accouchée.” In Maternal Measures: Figur­ing Caregiving in the Early Modern Period. Edited by Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh, 201–211. Hampshire, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000. Print.

Viala, Alain. La France galante. Paris : PUF, 2008.

Vincent, Monique. Anthologie des nouvelles du Mercure Galant (1672–1710). Paris: Société des Textes Français Modernes, 1996. Print.

———. Donneau de Visé et Le Mercure Galant. 2 vols. Paris: Aux Ama­teurs de Livres, 1987. Print.

———. “Le Mercure Galant à l’écoute de ses institutions. ” Travaux de Littérature 19 (Jan. 2006): 187–199. Print.

———. Mercure Galant, Extraordinaire, Affaires du temps : Tableau analy­tique contenant l’inventaire de tous les articles publiés 1672–1710. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1998. Print.

———. Le Mercure Galant : Présentation de la première revue féminine d’information et de culture (1672–1710). Paris: Honoré Champion, 2005. Print.


[1] In addition to the studies by Monique Vincent, Joan DeJean, Jennifer Perlmutter, and Allison Stedman cited in this article, I refer here to points of view expressed by Chloé Hogg, Sara Harvey, and Alain Viala in their respective works (please see “Works Cited”).

[2] Thomas Corneille joined Donneau de Visé at the helm of Le Mercure Galant in 1682, and the two collaborated until Corneille became too ill to continue in this role, around 1700. Charles Rivière Dufresny (1648–1724) took over as editor in chief after Donneau de Visé’s death in 1710. Since Donneau de Visé conceived the project and laid its groundwork, when I allude to “the editor” I am mostly referring to him, though admittedly it is at times difficult to distinguish his contributions to the publication from Corneille’s.

[3] Nearly all citations from Le Mercure Galant are taken from the edition available on Gallica (gallica.bnf.fr). The few issues of the periodical from the period 1672–1710 that have not yet been digitized are available on microfilm created by the Bibliothèque Nationale and held by major research libraries.

Issues of Le Mercure Galant published between 1672 and 1677 appeared irregularly and were assigned volume numbers, which I cite in my references. In 1677 only, the publication’s title was modified to Nouveau Mercure Galant. After 1677, the periodical returned to its original title and appeared monthly; volume numbers were used only exceptionally, when the quantity of material was so great that a single month’s issue was divided into multiple tomes issued simultaneously.

[4] In her analysis of the Mercure’s role in the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, Joan DeJean cites the paper’s “pro-female bias” (Ancients 66).

[5] Perlmutter emphasizes Donneau de Visé’s dedication of his periodical to the Dauphin starting in 1677, which “further legitimizes it and provides a male counterpoint that represents the male readership to the ‘Madame’ figure to which he addresses each issue of the journal” (58). According to Monique Vincent, after 1677 “[Le Mercure Galant] complétait son image en ne dissociant pas belles-lettres et galanterie, savants et beaux esprits, lecteurs et lectrices” (“Le Mercure Galant à l’écoute” 194). For more on Le Mercure Galant’s different phases, see Vincent, Donneau de Visé et le Mercure Galant 121.

[6] The Extraordinaire, a supplement to the Mercure, appeared quarterly starting in 1678, and showcased contributions from readers on a wide variety of subjects and in numerous genres. Questions, or topics for debate, a salon-inspired activity, were a frequent feature; readers were invited to respond, often in verse. Monique Vincent finds little to distinguish the monthly Mercure from the Extraordinaire: “[P]arues sous le titre d’ensemble du Mercure Galant, [ces publications] n’en font qu’une et la matière qui les compose s’interpénètre de telle manière qu’une dissociation systématique entraînerait une confusion ou des répétitions regrettables” (Vincent, Donneau de Visé 219). Nonetheless, a distinct editorial voice is mostly lacking in the Extraordinaire, and its wholly reader-generated contents appear more random, and more clearly the product of amateurs.

[7] These pieces are cited in Vincent, Donneau de Visé 264. The question was announced in the Extraordinaire of October 1678 (391), and a response appeared in the following issue (Extraordinaire January 1679, 136–138).

[8] Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) was the nephew of the Corneille brothers, and a frequent contributor to Le Mercure Galant.

[9] We see this trait in Donneau de Visé’s theater as well as in his journalism. His dramatic production includes unique “slice of life” comedies, usually centered on women’s experiences; they treat the moments surrounding childbirth, or the loss of a husband (L’Embarras de Godard andLa Veuve à la mode respectively, both first performed in 1667). For more on these comedies, see Steinberger, “The Difficult Birth of the Good Mother: Donneau de Visé’s L’Embarras de Godard ou l’Accouchée.”

[10]Describing the French victory at Genoa, for example, he says of his sources, “Ces diverses lettres écrites par divers particuliers qui se sont trouvez aux endroits dont ils parlent, sont des preuves convaincantes de la vérité” (June 1684, 3: 200).

[11] See Sarah Hanley’s examination of this subject, “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France.”

[12]Monique Vincent includes this story in her Anthologie des nouvelles du Mercure Galant (324–336).

[13] See also Time and Ways of Knowing, in which Roland Racevskis highlights the “accelerated processes of knowledge acquisition and transmission” facilitated by both the Mercure Galant and the newly-instituted postal service.

[14] Jean Loret’s gazette La Muse Historique (1650–1665) did provide literary news, but its circulation was much more restricted than that of Le Mercure Galant; it was originally intended solely for Marie de Longueville and her circle.

[15] For additional topics covered in the periodical, see Monique Vincent’s subject index (Mercure Galant, Extraordinaire, Affaires du temps: Table analytique contenant l’inventaire de tous les articles publiés 16721710), an invaluable resource for Mercure research.

[16] The connection between one of the Mercure’s principal authors, Fontenelle, and our modern notion of multiculturalism has been drawn by Joan DeJean (Ancients 125–126).

[17] For a perceptive discussion of the “injunctive exemplarity” of the Mercure’s nouvelles, see Perlmutter, “Sociopolitical Education.”

[18] The first of these two nouvelles is reprinted in Vincent’s anthology, pp. 241–250.

[19] Marjorie Garber makes a similar argument about transvestism in her Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Identity.

[20] The question of the tale’s attribution emphasizes the instability of these categories. In his 1695 introduction to the nouvelle, the Mercure’s editor refers to its author as a woman. However, when “La Belle au bois” was published in the Mercure in 1696, the editor indicated that the author of this story was the same person who wrote “La Marquise.” At the same time, it was common knowledge that Perrault was the author of “La Belle,” and in fact, within the narrative of “La Marquise-Marquis,” the author of “La Belle” is referred to as a man (Choisy, L’Héritier, and Perrault 51). Joan DeJean cites these discrepancies as evidence that the “Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis” was the product of collaboration by both male and female authors. On the other hand, the fact that the author’s gender appears undetermined or unstable perfectly suits the story’s main themes (“Introduction” xvii).

[21] Except perhaps when it comes to Protestants. See Steinberger, “Obstinate Women and Sleeping Beauties in the Kingdom of Miracles: Conversion Stories in the Mercure Galant’s Anti-Protestant Propaganda.”

( categories: )

'Meh': The Unmarked Jews of Nicolas Boindin’s _Le Port de mer_

Article Citation: 
17 (2016), 28–40
Author: 
Jennifer R. Perlmutter
Article Text: 

Perlmutter, Printable PDF

A priori assumptions about Jews abounded in seventeenth-century France. Originating in the Middle Ages, some of these assumptions drew from superstition; many French people believed that Jews engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children, that they were lustful, and that they held a lifelong pact with Satan. Others stemmed from historical events and re­alities such as those that held that Jewish men were feminized through circumcision, that Jews were Christ killers, that they were traders of se­cond-hand goods and usurers.[1] The playwright and theorist Nicolas Boindin was born in 1676 into a society that espoused such beliefs and inevitably came in contact with these biases. Yet, he depicts two Jewish characters in his now little-known 1704 play, Le Port de mer, in a manner that suggests that his own perspective was largely unformed by them.[2] Al­though Nicolas Boindin includes characters he either explicitly identifies as or suggests are Jewish, these characters remain fundamentally “unmarked” by their Jewishness. In using the term “unmarked,” I am adapting Judaic Studies scholar Irven M. Resnick’s concept of “marking” that he indirectly de­fines as the referencing of an indelible nature, in this case a Jewish one (11). While Boindin’s characters do have superficial markings of Jewish­ness, I argue that they remain fundamentally unmarked in that he does not attribute any indelible Jewish nature to these characters, nor do the other characters appear to respond to any such perceived nature. For this reason, Le Port de mer represents a significant departure from how most of Boindin’s contemporaries thought about the Jews.

Henry Lancaster underscores the importance of these characters in not­ing that Le Port de mer “is the first French play in which one of the leading male characters is a modern Jew and in which the heroine is a mod­ern Jewess” (270). The characters in question are Sabatin, a father who is a merchant, and his daughter, Benjamine, who is looking for a hus­band. As historian Adam Sutcliffe remarks, “Judaism was […] widely used in the seventeenth century as a form of conceptual token, deployed for its particular rhetorical authority” (87). Indeed, Jewishness was a powerful concept, incorporated into a text less to say something about the Jews themselves than to give authors a foil that allowed them to say something about their own society instead. That Boindin included Jewish characters in his play suggests that he did so for a strategic purpose. While literary scholar John Dunkley has addressed Boindin’s approach to the “other” in his article “Nicholas [sic] Boindin: The Presentation and Re-presentation of Alterity,” the present work goes further in that it will consider a dynamic fundamental to Le Port de mer itself, yet distinct from any religious tension, as an indication as to why Boindin depicts Sabatin and Benjamine as he does. Specifically, I show that instead of emphasizing these characters’ Jewishness, Boindin focuses on the tension that exists between the father and the daughter over the choice of a husband. While Sabatin and Benjamine are on one level simply playing out the sort of money vs. love generational dispute common to comedic father-daughter pairings of the past (cf: Molière), it is through his focus on this storyline played out by two Jewish characters that Boindin is, in fact, commenting on the place of otherness in late seven­teenth-century French society.

Nicolas Boindin was not a prolific writer, and his stint as a fiction writer was a particularly short one.[3] One of only four authors of comedies performed at the Comédie-Française during the last years of Louis XIV’s reign (Lancaster 266), Boindin published three comedic plays between 1701 and 1707; a fourth appeared posthumously in 1753.[4] Three of these plays are only one act long. Accepted into the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres in 1706 at the age of thirty and supported by influential peers such as Voltaire, Boindin nonetheless never came to occupy one of the coveted chairs of the Académie française. A nineteenth-century biog­rapher attributes this rejection to Boindin’s rather public and unabashed atheism which, as I later show, helped define the role Jewishness plays in Le Port de mer (Bibliographie 15). Whatever the reason, Boindin’s rejec­tion did not appear to deeply trouble him. Indeed, he gloried in his reputation as a contrarian and used his atheism as conversational fodder during his regular visits to Paris’s cafés. It was most likely at the popular Café Laurent that Boindin met Antoine Houdar de La Motte who became a close friend and collaborator on two of his comedies. While they are said to have co-written Les trois Gascons in 1701, it is thought that La Motte only contributed advice on the later Le Port de mer (Dunkley “Alterity” 84).[5] It was this play that enjoyed the greatest success among Boindin’s contemporaries, with sixty performances by the end of 1715 (Lancaster 272).[6] Despite his popularity at the time and Le Port de mer’s success, little current scholarship has been written on Nicolas Boindin.[7]

It is easy to understand why audiences found Le Port de mer appeal­ing. It is a light, comedic love story in the manner of Molière, set in a seaport and populated by a cast of characters with tongue-in-cheek names. Sabatin is the molièresque father, an unscrupulous man with his eye on the bottom line who has arranged for his daughter, Benjamine, to marry Doutremer, a seafaring fellow who has a way with pirating. But Benja­mine finds Doutremer’s coarse manners and the prospect of a life at sea with him repugnant; she prefers his more refined nephew, Leandre, who is be­sotted with her, too. Fortunately, they have loyal servants to help them find a way to be together. Leandre’s valet, La Saline, and Benjamine’s lady’s maid, Marine, devise a scheme to dissuade Sabatin and Doutremer from pursuing the marriage. They stumble upon Leandre’s thieving former footman, Brigantin, who has been sent to the galleys for stealing from thea­tergoers. Facing little choice, Brigantin quickly offers to help Leandre as a means of compensating for his earlier wrongdoings while in his ser­vice. Disguise is at the heart of their scheme. La Saline dresses as a Turkish slave trader, Brigantin as a female slave, and Leandre as a Moor—complete with blackface—and head to the slave market where they expect to run into Sabatin. As anticipated, he is there, and La Saline easily con­vinces him to bring home the two slaves to try out for free. Once at Sabatin’s house, Brigantin and Leandre seek out Marine and Benjamine, to whom they reveal their true identities once they are convinced of Benja­mine’s feelings for Leandre. They return to their disguises when Sabatin interrupts them. Brigantin, in character as a female slave, explains that she was describing to his daughter that she had married a pirate only to dis­cover she was his thirteenth wife. This pirate, Doutremer himself, was now back on shore seeking his fourteenth wife. Sabatin is sufficiently out­raged, but as luck would have it, Doutremer shows up right at that time, and the three schemers are no longer able to maintain their masquerade. Rather than punishing their treachery, Sabatin instead asks Doutremer whether he would prefer to allow Leandre to marry Benjamine. In ex­change for the return of some jewels his nephew has stolen from him, Doutremer hands over Benjamine to him. A singing, dancing Feste Ma­rine follows, complete with Australian women and a monkey.[8]

The seaport setting of Le Port de mer surdetermines the entire play, from the names of the characters to their cavalier attitude toward women. The play abounds with foreigners, common criminals, slaves and pirates—the usual suspects in any seaport world. The two Jewish characters, Saba­tin, and his daughter, Benjamine, are right at home with this motley crew, all of whom, with the exception of those who are already enslaved, appear to live without fear of prejudice or imprisonment. This is surprising given the stigma popular imagination attached to such characters at the time. In fact, Boindin draws our attention to the absence of such prejudice in his play through his choice of setting. Le Port de mer takes place in a Tuscan port town called Livorno,[9] which is known for its “Leggi Livornine” or Livornian Laws. Enacted in 1590 by Ferdinando I of Medici, these laws provided amnesty for some criminals, established privileges for merchants that included tax benefits, Tuscan nationality, and the right to own prop­erty and, most importantly for our present study, allowed freedom of worship. Livorno became a thriving, cosmopolitan city, a haven for petty criminals, merchants, pirates, and religious refugees from around the world. Jews from Spain and Portugal were the first of their religion to immi­grate to Livorno following their expulsion from their home countries in 1492 and 1497, respectively. In 1667, a second wave of Jews arrived from what is now Algeria. Livorno was exceptionally accommodating to this population. Unlike their experience in almost all other places in Eu­rope, Jews of Livorno were not required to live in a ghetto in this city, nor were they obliged to wear identifying clothing; they could also hire Chris­tians as domestic help, as Sabatin himself does. While elsewhere Jews would be indelibly marked as other and treated as such, in Livorno they received the same treatment as everyone else. The concept of “otherness” was, ironically, foreign to Livorno.

This location calls to mind Foucault’s heterotopias, spaces that exist within societies, each of which serves a function (761). There are different types of heterotopias, but Foucault provides the following overarching defini­tion:

des lieux réels, des lieux effectifs, des lieux qui sont dessi­nés dans l’institution même de la société, et qui sont des sortes de contre-emplacements, sortes d’utopies effective­ment réalisées dans lesquelles tous les autres emplacements réels que l’on peut trouver à l’intérieur de la culture sont à la fois représentés, contestés et inversés, des sortes de lieux qui sont hors de tous les lieux, bien que pour­tant ils soient effectivement localisables. (755–56)

Heterotopias are, in essence, realized utopias. Examples include theaters and gardens as well as convalescent homes, psychiatric wards, and pris­ons. While only some of Foucault’s heterotopias are localities in which people find themselves voluntarily, all of them are demarcated in space. Specifically, Livorno is a type of “heterotopia of deviation” which Fou­cault defines as “celle dans laquelle on place les individus dont le comportement est déviant par rapport à la moyenne ou à la norme exigée” (757). I would add that even the suspicion that these individuals’ behavior deviates from the norm justifies their inclusion in such spaces. As does a prison, Livorno houses criminals, but it also welcomes those such as Jews whose mere presence elsewhere gives rise to concerns. However, unlike a prison or the other heterotopias Foucault identifies, Livorno does not have strictly defined boundaries. This seaport town opens onto the Ligurian Sea and thereby allows for a freedom of movement uncharacteristic of most heterotopias. It is this freedom of movement that Doutremer references toward the end of Le Port de mer and which I will analyze below as it re­lates to the particular function of this heterotopia. Like Jewishness in seventeenth-century writing and therefore the Jewishness of Le Port de mer’s characters, Livorno as a heterotopia that welcomes Jews among oth­ers serves a particular function in this play.

As mentioned above, the two heroes of Le Port de mer are Jewish and en­joy the freedoms life in Livorno affords them, and I maintain that Boindin’s depiction of Sabatin and Benjamine reflects their status as Jews in Livorno. Boindin does identify Sabatin as Jewish and Benjamine as such by relation, but the Jewishness of these characters does not get in the way of their interactions with those around them, nor does it determine the storyline. Indeed, there is a collective “meh,” a social indifference to what was generally perceived as a significant and remarkable religious differ­ence at the time. In other words, others do not seem to treat Sabatin and Benjamine differently because of their Jewishness; their Jewishness is “unre­markable,” so to speak.

Nonetheless, Sabatin and Benjamine are dissimilar to each other in the de­gree to which they are unmarked, and I will argue below that this distinction is key to understanding their respective roles in the play. First, Sabatin and Benjamine are presented differently from the outset. The au­thor (or perhaps his editor) identifies Sabatin as Jewish in the character list at the beginning of the play, and the other characters repeatedly mention his Jewishness to each other, referring to him as “nôtre Juif” [sic] and “le Juif.” Benjamine’s Jewishness, on the other hand, is never made explicit. We assume she is Jewish because her father is, but neither Boindin nor his characters mention this fact. Second, Sabatin’s name is explicitly Jewish. Derived from the Italian “sabato” meaning “Saturday,” it refers to the Jew­ish day of rest or Sabbath. The following humoristic exchange between Brigantin and La Saline in scene two further emphasizes the ethnic origins of the father’s name:

Brigantin

A qui en veut donc ton Maître icy?

La Saline

A la fille d’un certain Juif, chez qui je me suis introduit.

Brigantin

Son nom ?

La Saline

Je n’en ai pû encore retenir que la moitié ; Hazaël-Raka-Nimbrod-Iscarioth-Sabatin.

Brigantin

Quoi ! Benjamine, la fille de M. Sabatin ?[10] (145)

In contrast, Sabatin’s daughter is identified only by her first name, Benja­mine. This name has its origins in the Old Testament but is a common name not only in Jewish but also in Christian families. It is a more ambi­guous identifier than that of Sabatin, whose Jewishness is reinforced by La Saline’s enumeration of his other names of biblical origin. Finally, Sabatin is a merchant, one of the few professions exercised by Jews in the seven­teenth century.[11] Benjamine’s primary occupation, on the other hand, entails convincing her father to allow her to marry the man she loves ra­ther than the man he has chosen for her. Given Benjamine’s lack of superficial markings of Jewishness, that her mother is never mentioned in the play should come as no surprise. Judaism is a matrilineal religion and the mother’s absence further underscores Benjamine’s unmarkedness.[12] In short, Benjamine’s Jewishness is presumed but never identified explicitly, while Sabatin has explicit superficial markers of Jewishness.

This dissimilarity extends to Sabatin and Benjamine’s respective na­tures, and while these natures do reflect the degree to which each character is identified as Jewish, I maintain that it is not their relative Jewishness that determines these natures, and that their natures are not perceived as particularly Jewish. On the one hand, Sabatin is the greedy patriarch simi­lar to the ones who populate Molière’s plays: stubborn and somewhat shady in his dealings but able to be won over. Benjamine, on the other hand, does not seem to have inherited any of her father’s character flaws. La Saline’s continued discussion with Brigantin highlights this distinction. La Saline asks Brigantin if he knows M. Sabatin, to which Brigantin re­plies:

Trait pour trait. Tien, l’usure, la dureté, la défiance, la fraude, & le parjure, avec quelques régles [sic] d’Arithmétique n’est-ce pas ce qu’on appelle ici M. Sabatin ?

La Saline responds,

Justement, mais en récompense, la générosité, la ten­dresse, la franchise, & la constance, avec une taille divine, le visage le plus gratieux, les yeux les plus brillans du monde, & mille autres menus attraits, c’est ce qu’on ap­pelle ici Benjamine. (146)

As we can see, Sabatin’s many shortcomings are well known by others. It is true that popular imagination at the time often associated these particu­lar shortcomings with Jewish merchants, as Dunkley observes.[13] However, Boindin, through Brigantin, enumerates these character flaws not as traits specifically associated with Jewishness—after all, Benjamine has none of them—but instead as those particular to the traditional father figure who seeks an advantageous marriage for his daughter. Brigantin fears for Lean­dre not because he is courting the daughter of a man who is Jewish but because he is courting the daughter of a man who is greedy and stubborn. Brigantin knows that his former master, Leandre, will face a formidable opponent in trying to marry Benjamine for love, since he lacks the finan­cial resources her father seeks.

In Le Port de mer, Boindin dissociates Jewishness from any particular in­delible mark of a Jewish nature. Instead, it stands in for the system of Old Regime values that had slowly begun to unravel by its 1704 publica­tion date. The dissimilarity in the degree to which Boindin identifies both Sabatin and Benjamine as Jewish does not mark them as having dissimilar—not to mention specifically – Jewish natures. Instead, it serves to identify them relative to a value system that maintains religion as a valid basis on which to pass judgment, a value system that Boindin, a self-professed atheist, does not espouse. When Boindin attributes superficial and easily recognizable markers of Jewishness such as a name and a trade to Sabatin, he is really identifying him as a patriarch who subscribes to the old world value system by which one person’s being Jewish means some­thing to another. It follows that Benjamine’s lack of even superficial Jewish markers signals her disengagement from that system and thereby her modernity.[14] For the atheistic Boindin, Jewishness is a signifier he appro­priates to communicate new meaning rather than a source of interest in and of itself. Dunkley writes,

Boindin ne s’occupe nullement de la religion de Saba­tin, sans doute parce qu’il regarde du même œil le judaïsme et le christianisme. C’est uniquement l’inhumanité du person­nage et la malhonnêteté de ses affaires qu’il évoque. … [S]on indifférence sentimentale n’a rien de spécifique­ment juif ; la majorité des pères-‘obstacles’ des comédies lui ressemblent assez. (LXII-LXIII)

One only has to look back at Molière’s Harpagon (L’avare), Sganarelle (Le Médecin malgré lui), Géronte and Argante (both in Les Fourberies de Scapin), among others, to find comedic incarnations of the traditional fa­ther figure who resemble Sabatin. None of them is Jewish, yet all take their role as old world patriarch to an extreme.

Like that of his literary predecessors, Sabatin’s indelibly marked charac­teristic is not his Jewishness but his greed. Just as Sabatin is not the only father figure in early-modern French literature with this vice, he is also not the only inhabitant of Livorno with it. Based on his depictions of Sabatin and Benjamine, we can neither say that Boindin suggests that there exists a causal relationship between Jewishness and avarice nor that he disparages Jews. As Lancaster maintains, “The play cannot … be consid­ered anti-Semitic, for to [Sabatin’s] daughter is attributed all the generosity, tenderness, and beauty that he lacks, while the Gentiles are not better than he” (271). Sabatin’s greed results from his particular interpreta­tion of patriarchal values that mark him as old school; after all, “l’avarice devient un vice avec l’âge” (Desan 118). What feeds this avarice is not Sabatin’s Jewishness but his trade. Philippe Desan calls capitalism an institu­tionalized form of greed (115), and merchants such as Sabatin—not to mention pirates such as Doutremer—depend on and exploit this eco­nomic system for their livelihood. Sabatin might be superficially marked as Jewish while Benjamine is not, but what fundamentally distinguishes him from his daughter is his stubborn adherence to and exploitation of a traditional system of values that prioritizes financial gain over love when deciding whom she should marry. While being superficially marked as Jewish does not entail being treated as “other” in Livorno, it does signify a generational difference that, in Sabatin’s case, plays out through his unscrupu­lous mercantilism.

Le Port de mer’s heterotopic setting functions to support the schemes of characters such as Sabatin. With its easy access to the sea, Livorno facili­tates transactions both kosher and not; indeed, the seaport enables the greedy to thrive because it allows them freedom of movement between land and water. Literary critic Frank Lestringant remarks on the fact that people first displayed greediness around the same time the possibilities for their travel expanded, a statement that implies a co-dependence between greed and travel: one travels in order to satisfy one’s desire for material gain and one has a desire for material gain because one knows it is now possible to achieve it (149). As mentioned above, seaports such as Livorno lack strictly defined physical boundaries and thereby facilitate such travel. Livorno itself also lacks moral boundaries, as is evidenced by its openness to deviant populations. The seaport setting therefore lends itself well to the flourishing of greed and other potential harbingers of criminal behavior. Lestringant explains how, in turn, greed itself entails a further blurring of boundaries: 

Ainsi donc l’avarice entraîne, avec l’expansion pre­mière de l’humanité hors d’elle-même, le brouillage des limites; elle établit la communication contre nature des lieux séparés et provoque le court-circuit de l’enfer et du ciel, de la terre solide et de l’élément liquide. (150)

Here, Lestringant references the moral gray zone in which greed resides and that, in Le Port de mer, echoes Livorno’s physical openness and its inclusiveness. While it is clear that this heterotopia plays an important role in support of its heterogeneous population, it also serves a broader func­tion in relationship to its surrounding space.

Foucault states that “[les hétérotopies] ont, par rapport à l’espace restant, une fonction” (761), and it is this function that is the key to under­standing that of the unmarked Jewish characters in Boindin’s play. In spite of its seediness, Livorno can be considered in a positive light as an unusu­ally tolerant place where Old Regime values are relativized and reinterpreted. As I argue above, Sabatin’s superficial markers of Jewish­ness suggest that he subscribes to—at least partially—a traditional value system that prioritizes financial gain over love in a marriage. While Li­vorno facilitates his mercantilism, it also fosters his greed, which is what defines him as other in the eyes of those with whom he interacts. Although he has a Jewish name and trade, Sabatin does not face criticism because of them but because of his unscrupulousness. In contrast, Benjamine, with her lack of superficial markers of Jewishness, embodies the modern values of Li­vorno itself. Because Boindin tells his public that her father is Jewish, it is particularly notable that he does not do the same for her even though she clearly is. I maintain that this is because Benjamine does not subscribe to the outmoded system of values of her father. Although Benjamine is Jew­ish, she remains outside the concept of otherness, a concept that Livorno does not recognize or foster. Despite this difference between the father and his daughter, neither is indelibly marked as Jewish, just as none of their compatriots is indelibly marked as other. I agree with Dunkley that “[i]t is in Jewishness that … alterity is located. But this does not affect Jewish­ness as a whole” (“Nicholas [sic] Boindin” 91). In Livorno, all types come and go, and the concept of “otherness” remains foreign. It is no surprise that Boindin’s play is entitled “Le Port de mer” rather than “Benjamine” or even “Sabatin,” for it is the seaport itself that represents the modern val­ues Boindin loudly touted in Paris’s cafés. After all, Boindin “était naturellement contradicteur” (Biographie 16). It is through an analysis of this author’s seemingly indifferent treatment of Jewishness at a time when most perceived it as a threatening other that we arrive at this understand­ing.

Le Port de mer is clearly a modern play set in a town where being called a pirate, a criminal, or a Jew is akin to being called brunette, green-eyed, or tall. In this play, these markers of identity have lost their meaning and operate as empty signifiers of the system that established their original values. Toward the end of the play, the pirate, Doutremer, reveals how slip­pery these markers have become. By that time, we have learned that he has another name, “Salomin,” which is most likely his birth name. Al­though no characters refer to him as Jewish, this Old Testament name referring to one of the kings of Israel certainly suggests that he is also Jew­ish.[15] Just as Doutremer has given up a life on land in favor of one at sea, so too has he given up his birth name for one that reflects his seafaring ways. Doutremer chastises La Saline when he refers to him as “Monsieur Salomin”  by responding, “Tais-toi, je ne suis Salomin qu’à Merseille [sic], & je suis ici Doutremer. Je change de nom & de pavillon, selon mes intérêts” (189). It is worth noting here that King Solomon’s best-known attribute was his wisdom.[16] It is certainly no coincidence that Boindin put such a declaration in the mouth of a character the public would readily iden­tify as wise. In doing so, Boindin is predicting the ultimate triumph of a value system in which superficial markers of identity serve simply as linguistic currency while one’s nature is now defined by the choices made by the individual. In other words, he predicts a triumph of the modernes over the anciens as we find in Livorno. Through his depiction of un­marked Jews, Boindin expresses his anticipation of a post-monarchal society in which citizens are no longer subject to the identities bestowed upon them by birth, and Old Regime rigidity is rejected in favor of a less stratified and less prejudiced mental frame.

Portland State University

 

Works Cited

Bibliographie universelle, ancienne et moderne ou histoire, par ordre alpha­bétique, de la vie publique et privée de tous les hommes qui se sont distingués par leurs écrits, leurs actions, leurs talents, leurs ver­tus ou leurs crimes. Tome cinquième. Paris : chez Michaud Frères, 1812.

Benbassa, Esther. Histoire des Juifs de France de l’Antiquité à nos jours. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 2000.

Boindin, Nicolas. “Le Port de mer.” Quatre comédies. Ed. John Dunkley. Paris: Société des Textes Français Modernes, 1997. 136–200.

Desan, Philippe. “L’avarice chez Montaigne.” Seizième Siècle. 4 (2008) 113–24.

Dunkley, John. “Nicholas [sic] Boindin: The Presentation and Re-presenta­tion of Alterity.” Romance Studies. 31 (1991) 83–94.

———. “Introduction” in Quatre comedies. Ed. John Dunkley. Paris: So­ciété des Textes Français Modernes, 1997. VII–XCV.

Foucault, Michel. “Des espaces autres.” Dits et écrits. Volume II. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. 1994. 752–62.

Lancaster, Henry Carrington. Sunset : A History of Parisian Drama in the Last Years of Louis XIV, 1701–1715. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945 (1976).

Lestringant, Frank. “Avarice et voyage.” Seizième Siècle. 4 (2008) 149–70.

Mancewicz, Aneta and Kazimierz Wielki. “Shakespeare in Europe: Introduc­tion.” MIT Global Shakespeares. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 5 June 2014.

Michael, Robert. A History of Catholic Antisemitism. The Dark Side of the Church. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Pemble, John. Shakespeare Goes to Paris. How the Bard Conquered France. London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2005.

Resnick, Irven M. Marks of Distinction. Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012.

Rozenblit, Marsha L. “Intermarriage: Modern Europe and United States” in Baskin, Judith R. The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 277–78.

Sutcliffe, Adam. “The Philosemitic Moment? Judaism and Republicanism in Seventeenth-Century European Thought.” In Philosemitism in History, eds. Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe, 67–89. Cambridge: Cambridge Univer­sity Press, 2011..

Trachtenberg, Joshua. The Devil and the Jews. The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Antisemitism. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1993.

Yardeni, Myriam. Anti-Jewish Mentalities in Early Modern Europe. Lanham, New York, London: University Press of America, 1990.


[1]See Esther Benbassa’s Histoire des Juifs de France, Robert Michael’s A History of Catholic Antisemitism, Joshua Trachtenberg’s The Devil and the Jews and Myriam Yardeni’s Anti-Jewish Mentalities in Early Modern Europe, among others, for an overview of the perception of Jews throughout French history.

[2]I would like to thank Perry Gethner for introducing me to this work.

[3]Boindin also wrote memoirs, letters and one discourse, some of which were published after his death in 1751.

[4]Lancaster casts some doubt on the attribution of Le petit maître de robe, thought to be Boindin’s fourth and last play (267).

[5] Repeated disputes with La Motte over authorship credit among other issues led to the dissolution of their friendship. Boindin began to frequent the Procope instead (Bibliographie 16).

[6]Lancaster notes that “it was acted more frequently than any other play by an author who began to write after 1700” (272). Le Port de mer opened for Bérénice, Ariane, Les femmes savantes and L’école des femmes, among others. Its format (and, perhaps, its exoticism) lent itself to popularity. As a result of the Querelle du théâtre incited by Madame de Maintenon in 1694, fewer tragedies were performed and the most successful productions were short, one-act plays. As Dunkley explains, “Afin de lutter contre la désaffection du public et la concurrence de la Foire, les Comédiens-Français trouvèrent deux expédients: diminuer le nombre relatif de représentations de tragédies et jouer fréquemment les petites pièces en un acte […]. Le moment était donc favorable pour les compositions de Boindin” (“Introduction” xxix).

[7]A search of the MLA database on May 3, 2014 turned up only four titles, three of which were written by Dunkley.

[8] While it is tempting to regard Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as inspiration for this play due to its seaport setting and the Jewish father-daughter main characters, it is highly unlikely that Boindin had read or seen it. John Pemble remarks that “The French did not discover Shakespeare until they discovered England; and they did not discover England until Voltaire, the abbé Prévost, and the baron de Montesquieu crossed the Channel at various times in the 1720s” (1). He goes on to explain that Shakespeare’s plays were not performed in France until the early nineteenth century (35). Furthermore, I have not found evidence that Boindin knew English or that Shakespeare’s plays were readily available in France at this time either in English or in French translation (see Pemble xiii and Mancewicz). (I would like to thank Melissa Walter for suggesting these references.) Lancaster attributes Boindin’s inspiration instead to Molière’s Sicilien and Champmesle’s Rue de Saint Denis (270).

[9] “Leghorn” is the town’s English name.

[10]It is worth noting that it is not Sabatin’s Jewishness that evokes Brigantin’s surprised reaction but the situation in general. His Jewishness is not the obstacle here; instead, it is, as we learn soon after, Sabatin’s dubious character.

[11]Adam Sutcliffe asserts that “no ethnic group of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was more closely associated with commerce than the Jews” (71).

[12] While it is possible that Benjamine was conceived out of wedlock, the more plausible scenario for a daughter of a Jewish merchant of the time is that she is the product of an arranged marriage. There is therefore a strong likelihood that her mother, too, is Jewish. As Marsha L. Rozenblit explains, “Before the invention of the concept of civil marriage in the modern era, all marriages were conducted under religious auspices, and intermarriage in the technical sense did not take place.” She continues, “The widespread practice of arranged marriage in the Jewish middle classes virtually guaranteed that Jews married other Jews” (277-78). Rozenblit also notes that civil marriage became widespread in Europe only in the twentieth century (278).

[13]“Marchand d’esclaves, usurier et homme d’affaires en train de méditer une banqueroute frauduleuse, Sabatin constitue une caricature de Juif tel que la mentalité populaire se le représentait alors” (Dunkley Quatre comédies lxi).

[14] Even her name, which recalls that of Benjamin, the eternally youthful youngest child of Jacob, suggests that she belongs to a new, modern generation.

[15]This would indicate that Doutremer’s nephew, Leandre, is Jewish as well and that a marriage between him and Benjamine would therefore be considered proper. However, the fact that Doutremer is probably Jewish and, by relation, his nephew, seems to have eluded some of Boindin’s contemporaries who criticized the play’s ending. See Lancaster 272.

[16] The name, however, means “peace.”

A priori assumptions about Jews abounded in seventeenth-century France. Originating in the Middle Ages, some of these assumptions drew from superstition; many French people believed that Jews engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children, that they were lustful, and that they held a lifelong pact with Satan. Others stemmed from historical events and re­alities such as those that held that Jewish men were feminized through circumcision, that Jews were Christ killers, that they were traders of se­cond-hand goods and usurers.[1] The playwright and theorist Nicolas Boindin was born in 1676 into a society that espoused such beliefs and inevitably came in contact with these biases. Yet, he depicts two Jewish characters in his now little-known 1704 play, Le Port de mer, in a manner that suggests that his own perspective was largely unformed by them.[2] Al­though Nicolas Boindin includes characters he either explicitly identifies as or suggests are Jewish, these characters remain fundamentally “unmarked” by their Jewishness. In using the term “unmarked,” I am adapting Judaic Studies scholar Irven M. Resnick’s concept of “marking” that he indirectly de­fines as the referencing of an indelible nature, in this case a Jewish one (11). While Boindin’s characters do have superficial markings of Jewish­ness, I argue that they remain fundamentally unmarked in that he does not attribute any indelible Jewish nature to these characters, nor do the other characters appear to respond to any such perceived nature. For this reason, Le Port de mer represents a significant departure from how most of Boindin’s contemporaries thought about the Jews.

Henry Lancaster underscores the importance of these characters in not­ing that Le Port de mer “is the first French play in which one of the leading male characters is a modern Jew and in which the heroine is a mod­ern Jewess” (270). The characters in question are Sabatin, a father who is a merchant, and his daughter, Benjamine, who is looking for a hus­band. As historian Adam Sutcliffe remarks, “Judaism was […] widely used in the seventeenth century as a form of conceptual token, deployed for its particular rhetorical authority” (87). Indeed, Jewishness was a powerful concept, incorporated into a text less to say something about the Jews themselves than to give authors a foil that allowed them to say something about their own society instead. That Boindin included Jewish characters in his play suggests that he did so for a strategic purpose. While literary scholar John Dunkley has addressed Boindin’s approach to the “other” in his article “Nicholas [sic] Boindin: The Presentation and Re-presentation of Alterity,” the present work goes further in that it will consider a dynamic fundamental to Le Port de mer itself, yet distinct from any religious tension, as an indication as to why Boindin depicts Sabatin and Benjamine as he does. Specifically, I show that instead of emphasizing these characters’ Jewishness, Boindin focuses on the tension that exists between the father and the daughter over the choice of a husband. While Sabatin and Benjamine are on one level simply playing out the sort of money vs. love generational dispute common to comedic father-daughter pairings of the past (cf: Molière), it is through his focus on this storyline played out by two Jewish characters that Boindin is, in fact, commenting on the place of otherness in late seven­teenth-century French society.

Nicolas Boindin was not a prolific writer, and his stint as a fiction writer was a particularly short one.[3] One of only four authors of comedies performed at the Comédie-Française during the last years of Louis XIV’s reign (Lancaster 266), Boindin published three comedic plays between 1701 and 1707; a fourth appeared posthumously in 1753.[4] Three of these plays are only one act long. Accepted into the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres in 1706 at the age of thirty and supported by influential peers such as Voltaire, Boindin nonetheless never came to occupy one of the coveted chairs of the Académie française. A nineteenth-century biog­rapher attributes this rejection to Boindin’s rather public and unabashed atheism which, as I later show, helped define the role Jewishness plays in Le Port de mer (Bibliographie 15). Whatever the reason, Boindin’s rejec­tion did not appear to deeply trouble him. Indeed, he gloried in his reputation as a contrarian and used his atheism as conversational fodder during his regular visits to Paris’s cafés. It was most likely at the popular Café Laurent that Boindin met Antoine Houdar de La Motte who became a close friend and collaborator on two of his comedies. While they are said to have co-written Les trois Gascons in 1701, it is thought that La Motte only contributed advice on the later Le Port de mer (Dunkley “Alterity” 84).[5] It was this play that enjoyed the greatest success among Boindin’s contemporaries, with sixty performances by the end of 1715 (Lancaster 272).[6] Despite his popularity at the time and Le Port de mer’s success, little current scholarship has been written on Nicolas Boindin.[7]

It is easy to understand why audiences found Le Port de mer appeal­ing. It is a light, comedic love story in the manner of Molière, set in a seaport and populated by a cast of characters with tongue-in-cheek names. Sabatin is the molièresque father, an unscrupulous man with his eye on the bottom line who has arranged for his daughter, Benjamine, to marry Doutremer, a seafaring fellow who has a way with pirating. But Benja­mine finds Doutremer’s coarse manners and the prospect of a life at sea with him repugnant; she prefers his more refined nephew, Leandre, who is be­sotted with her, too. Fortunately, they have loyal servants to help them find a way to be together. Leandre’s valet, La Saline, and Benjamine’s lady’s maid, Marine, devise a scheme to dissuade Sabatin and Doutremer from pursuing the marriage. They stumble upon Leandre’s thieving former footman, Brigantin, who has been sent to the galleys for stealing from thea­tergoers. Facing little choice, Brigantin quickly offers to help Leandre as a means of compensating for his earlier wrongdoings while in his ser­vice. Disguise is at the heart of their scheme. La Saline dresses as a Turkish slave trader, Brigantin as a female slave, and Leandre as a Moor—complete with blackface—and head to the slave market where they expect to run into Sabatin. As anticipated, he is there, and La Saline easily con­vinces him to bring home the two slaves to try out for free. Once at Sabatin’s house, Brigantin and Leandre seek out Marine and Benjamine, to whom they reveal their true identities once they are convinced of Benja­mine’s feelings for Leandre. They return to their disguises when Sabatin interrupts them. Brigantin, in character as a female slave, explains that she was describing to his daughter that she had married a pirate only to dis­cover she was his thirteenth wife. This pirate, Doutremer himself, was now back on shore seeking his fourteenth wife. Sabatin is sufficiently out­raged, but as luck would have it, Doutremer shows up right at that time, and the three schemers are no longer able to maintain their masquerade. Rather than punishing their treachery, Sabatin instead asks Doutremer whether he would prefer to allow Leandre to marry Benjamine. In ex­change for the return of some jewels his nephew has stolen from him, Doutremer hands over Benjamine to him. A singing, dancing Feste Ma­rine follows, complete with Australian women and a monkey.[8]

The seaport setting of Le Port de mer surdetermines the entire play, from the names of the characters to their cavalier attitude toward women. The play abounds with foreigners, common criminals, slaves and pirates—the usual suspects in any seaport world. The two Jewish characters, Saba­tin, and his daughter, Benjamine, are right at home with this motley crew, all of whom, with the exception of those who are already enslaved, appear to live without fear of prejudice or imprisonment. This is surprising given the stigma popular imagination attached to such characters at the time. In fact, Boindin draws our attention to the absence of such prejudice in his play through his choice of setting. Le Port de mer takes place in a Tuscan port town called Livorno,[9] which is known for its “Leggi Livornine” or Livornian Laws. Enacted in 1590 by Ferdinando I of Medici, these laws provided amnesty for some criminals, established privileges for merchants that included tax benefits, Tuscan nationality, and the right to own prop­erty and, most importantly for our present study, allowed freedom of worship. Livorno became a thriving, cosmopolitan city, a haven for petty criminals, merchants, pirates, and religious refugees from around the world. Jews from Spain and Portugal were the first of their religion to immi­grate to Livorno following their expulsion from their home countries in 1492 and 1497, respectively. In 1667, a second wave of Jews arrived from what is now Algeria. Livorno was exceptionally accommodating to this population. Unlike their experience in almost all other places in Eu­rope, Jews of Livorno were not required to live in a ghetto in this city, nor were they obliged to wear identifying clothing; they could also hire Chris­tians as domestic help, as Sabatin himself does. While elsewhere Jews would be indelibly marked as other and treated as such, in Livorno they received the same treatment as everyone else. The concept of “otherness” was, ironically, foreign to Livorno.

This location calls to mind Foucault’s heterotopias, spaces that exist within societies, each of which serves a function (761). There are different types of heterotopias, but Foucault provides the following overarching defini­tion:

des lieux réels, des lieux effectifs, des lieux qui sont dessi­nés dans l’institution même de la société, et qui sont des sortes de contre-emplacements, sortes d’utopies effective­ment réalisées dans lesquelles tous les autres emplacements réels que l’on peut trouver à l’intérieur de la culture sont à la fois représentés, contestés et inversés, des sortes de lieux qui sont hors de tous les lieux, bien que pour­tant ils soient effectivement localisables. (755–56)

Heterotopias are, in essence, realized utopias. Examples include theaters and gardens as well as convalescent homes, psychiatric wards, and pris­ons. While only some of Foucault’s heterotopias are localities in which people find themselves voluntarily, all of them are demarcated in space. Specifically, Livorno is a type of “heterotopia of deviation” which Fou­cault defines as “celle dans laquelle on place les individus dont le comportement est déviant par rapport à la moyenne ou à la norme exigée” (757). I would add that even the suspicion that these individuals’ behavior deviates from the norm justifies their inclusion in such spaces. As does a prison, Livorno houses criminals, but it also welcomes those such as Jews whose mere presence elsewhere gives rise to concerns. However, unlike a prison or the other heterotopias Foucault identifies, Livorno does not have strictly defined boundaries. This seaport town opens onto the Ligurian Sea and thereby allows for a freedom of movement uncharacteristic of most heterotopias. It is this freedom of movement that Doutremer references toward the end of Le Port de mer and which I will analyze below as it re­lates to the particular function of this heterotopia. Like Jewishness in seventeenth-century writing and therefore the Jewishness of Le Port de mer’s characters, Livorno as a heterotopia that welcomes Jews among oth­ers serves a particular function in this play.

As mentioned above, the two heroes of Le Port de mer are Jewish and en­joy the freedoms life in Livorno affords them, and I maintain that Boindin’s depiction of Sabatin and Benjamine reflects their status as Jews in Livorno. Boindin does identify Sabatin as Jewish and Benjamine as such by relation, but the Jewishness of these characters does not get in the way of their interactions with those around them, nor does it determine the storyline. Indeed, there is a collective “meh,” a social indifference to what was generally perceived as a significant and remarkable religious differ­ence at the time. In other words, others do not seem to treat Sabatin and Benjamine differently because of their Jewishness; their Jewishness is “unre­markable,” so to speak.

Nonetheless, Sabatin and Benjamine are dissimilar to each other in the de­gree to which they are unmarked, and I will argue below that this distinction is key to understanding their respective roles in the play. First, Sabatin and Benjamine are presented differently from the outset. The au­thor (or perhaps his editor) identifies Sabatin as Jewish in the character list at the beginning of the play, and the other characters repeatedly mention his Jewishness to each other, referring to him as “nôtre Juif” [sic] and “le Juif.” Benjamine’s Jewishness, on the other hand, is never made explicit. We assume she is Jewish because her father is, but neither Boindin nor his characters mention this fact. Second, Sabatin’s name is explicitly Jewish. Derived from the Italian “sabato” meaning “Saturday,” it refers to the Jew­ish day of rest or Sabbath. The following humoristic exchange between Brigantin and La Saline in scene two further emphasizes the ethnic origins of the father’s name:

Brigantin

A qui en veut donc ton Maître icy?

La Saline

A la fille d’un certain Juif, chez qui je me suis introduit.

Brigantin

Son nom ?

La Saline

Je n’en ai pû encore retenir que la moitié ; Hazaël-Raka-Nimbrod-Iscarioth-Sabatin.

Brigantin

Quoi ! Benjamine, la fille de M. Sabatin ?[10] (145)

In contrast, Sabatin’s daughter is identified only by her first name, Benja­mine. This name has its origins in the Old Testament but is a common name not only in Jewish but also in Christian families. It is a more ambi­guous identifier than that of Sabatin, whose Jewishness is reinforced by La Saline’s enumeration of his other names of biblical origin. Finally, Sabatin is a merchant, one of the few professions exercised by Jews in the seven­teenth century.[11] Benjamine’s primary occupation, on the other hand, entails convincing her father to allow her to marry the man she loves ra­ther than the man he has chosen for her. Given Benjamine’s lack of superficial markings of Jewishness, that her mother is never mentioned in the play should come as no surprise. Judaism is a matrilineal religion and the mother’s absence further underscores Benjamine’s unmarkedness.[12] In short, Benjamine’s Jewishness is presumed but never identified explicitly, while Sabatin has explicit superficial markers of Jewishness.

This dissimilarity extends to Sabatin and Benjamine’s respective na­tures, and while these natures do reflect the degree to which each character is identified as Jewish, I maintain that it is not their relative Jewishness that determines these natures, and that their natures are not perceived as particularly Jewish. On the one hand, Sabatin is the greedy patriarch simi­lar to the ones who populate Molière’s plays: stubborn and somewhat shady in his dealings but able to be won over. Benjamine, on the other hand, does not seem to have inherited any of her father’s character flaws. La Saline’s continued discussion with Brigantin highlights this distinction. La Saline asks Brigantin if he knows M. Sabatin, to which Brigantin re­plies:

Trait pour trait. Tien, l’usure, la dureté, la défiance, la fraude, & le parjure, avec quelques régles [sic] d’Arithmétique n’est-ce pas ce qu’on appelle ici M. Sabatin ?

La Saline responds,

Justement, mais en récompense, la générosité, la ten­dresse, la franchise, & la constance, avec une taille divine, le visage le plus gratieux, les yeux les plus brillans du monde, & mille autres menus attraits, c’est ce qu’on ap­pelle ici Benjamine. (146)

As we can see, Sabatin’s many shortcomings are well known by others. It is true that popular imagination at the time often associated these particu­lar shortcomings with Jewish merchants, as Dunkley observes.[13] However, Boindin, through Brigantin, enumerates these character flaws not as traits specifically associated with Jewishness—after all, Benjamine has none of them—but instead as those particular to the traditional father figure who seeks an advantageous marriage for his daughter. Brigantin fears for Lean­dre not because he is courting the daughter of a man who is Jewish but because he is courting the daughter of a man who is greedy and stubborn. Brigantin knows that his former master, Leandre, will face a formidable opponent in trying to marry Benjamine for love, since he lacks the finan­cial resources her father seeks.

In Le Port de mer, Boindin dissociates Jewishness from any particular in­delible mark of a Jewish nature. Instead, it stands in for the system of Old Regime values that had slowly begun to unravel by its 1704 publica­tion date. The dissimilarity in the degree to which Boindin identifies both Sabatin and Benjamine as Jewish does not mark them as having dissimilar—not to mention specifically – Jewish natures. Instead, it serves to identify them relative to a value system that maintains religion as a valid basis on which to pass judgment, a value system that Boindin, a self-professed atheist, does not espouse. When Boindin attributes superficial and easily recognizable markers of Jewishness such as a name and a trade to Sabatin, he is really identifying him as a patriarch who subscribes to the old world value system by which one person’s being Jewish means some­thing to another. It follows that Benjamine’s lack of even superficial Jewish markers signals her disengagement from that system and thereby her modernity.[14] For the atheistic Boindin, Jewishness is a signifier he appro­priates to communicate new meaning rather than a source of interest in and of itself. Dunkley writes,

Boindin ne s’occupe nullement de la religion de Saba­tin, sans doute parce qu’il regarde du même œil le judaïsme et le christianisme. C’est uniquement l’inhumanité du person­nage et la malhonnêteté de ses affaires qu’il évoque. … [S]on indifférence sentimentale n’a rien de spécifique­ment juif ; la majorité des pères-‘obstacles’ des comédies lui ressemblent assez. (LXII-LXIII)

One only has to look back at Molière’s Harpagon (L’avare), Sganarelle (Le Médecin malgré lui), Géronte and Argante (both in Les Fourberies de Scapin), among others, to find comedic incarnations of the traditional fa­ther figure who resemble Sabatin. None of them is Jewish, yet all take their role as old world patriarch to an extreme.

Like that of his literary predecessors, Sabatin’s indelibly marked charac­teristic is not his Jewishness but his greed. Just as Sabatin is not the only father figure in early-modern French literature with this vice, he is also not the only inhabitant of Livorno with it. Based on his depictions of Sabatin and Benjamine, we can neither say that Boindin suggests that there exists a causal relationship between Jewishness and avarice nor that he disparages Jews. As Lancaster maintains, “The play cannot … be consid­ered anti-Semitic, for to [Sabatin’s] daughter is attributed all the generosity, tenderness, and beauty that he lacks, while the Gentiles are not better than he” (271). Sabatin’s greed results from his particular interpreta­tion of patriarchal values that mark him as old school; after all, “l’avarice devient un vice avec l’âge” (Desan 118). What feeds this avarice is not Sabatin’s Jewishness but his trade. Philippe Desan calls capitalism an institu­tionalized form of greed (115), and merchants such as Sabatin—not to mention pirates such as Doutremer—depend on and exploit this eco­nomic system for their livelihood. Sabatin might be superficially marked as Jewish while Benjamine is not, but what fundamentally distinguishes him from his daughter is his stubborn adherence to and exploitation of a traditional system of values that prioritizes financial gain over love when deciding whom she should marry. While being superficially marked as Jewish does not entail being treated as “other” in Livorno, it does signify a generational difference that, in Sabatin’s case, plays out through his unscrupu­lous mercantilism.

Le Port de mer’s heterotopic setting functions to support the schemes of characters such as Sabatin. With its easy access to the sea, Livorno facili­tates transactions both kosher and not; indeed, the seaport enables the greedy to thrive because it allows them freedom of movement between land and water. Literary critic Frank Lestringant remarks on the fact that people first displayed greediness around the same time the possibilities for their travel expanded, a statement that implies a co-dependence between greed and travel: one travels in order to satisfy one’s desire for material gain and one has a desire for material gain because one knows it is now possible to achieve it (149). As mentioned above, seaports such as Livorno lack strictly defined physical boundaries and thereby facilitate such travel. Livorno itself also lacks moral boundaries, as is evidenced by its openness to deviant populations. The seaport setting therefore lends itself well to the flourishing of greed and other potential harbingers of criminal behavior. Lestringant explains how, in turn, greed itself entails a further blurring of boundaries: 

Ainsi donc l’avarice entraîne, avec l’expansion pre­mière de l’humanité hors d’elle-même, le brouillage des limites; elle établit la communication contre nature des lieux séparés et provoque le court-circuit de l’enfer et du ciel, de la terre solide et de l’élément liquide. (150)

Here, Lestringant references the moral gray zone in which greed resides and that, in Le Port de mer, echoes Livorno’s physical openness and its inclusiveness. While it is clear that this heterotopia plays an important role in support of its heterogeneous population, it also serves a broader func­tion in relationship to its surrounding space.

Foucault states that “[les hétérotopies] ont, par rapport à l’espace restant, une fonction” (761), and it is this function that is the key to under­standing that of the unmarked Jewish characters in Boindin’s play. In spite of its seediness, Livorno can be considered in a positive light as an unusu­ally tolerant place where Old Regime values are relativized and reinterpreted. As I argue above, Sabatin’s superficial markers of Jewish­ness suggest that he subscribes to—at least partially—a traditional value system that prioritizes financial gain over love in a marriage. While Li­vorno facilitates his mercantilism, it also fosters his greed, which is what defines him as other in the eyes of those with whom he interacts. Although he has a Jewish name and trade, Sabatin does not face criticism because of them but because of his unscrupulousness. In contrast, Benjamine, with her lack of superficial markers of Jewishness, embodies the modern values of Li­vorno itself. Because Boindin tells his public that her father is Jewish, it is particularly notable that he does not do the same for her even though she clearly is. I maintain that this is because Benjamine does not subscribe to the outmoded system of values of her father. Although Benjamine is Jew­ish, she remains outside the concept of otherness, a concept that Livorno does not recognize or foster. Despite this difference between the father and his daughter, neither is indelibly marked as Jewish, just as none of their compatriots is indelibly marked as other. I agree with Dunkley that “[i]t is in Jewishness that … alterity is located. But this does not affect Jewish­ness as a whole” (“Nicholas [sic] Boindin” 91). In Livorno, all types come and go, and the concept of “otherness” remains foreign. It is no surprise that Boindin’s play is entitled “Le Port de mer” rather than “Benjamine” or even “Sabatin,” for it is the seaport itself that represents the modern val­ues Boindin loudly touted in Paris’s cafés. After all, Boindin “était naturellement contradicteur” (Biographie 16). It is through an analysis of this author’s seemingly indifferent treatment of Jewishness at a time when most perceived it as a threatening other that we arrive at this understand­ing.

Le Port de mer is clearly a modern play set in a town where being called a pirate, a criminal, or a Jew is akin to being called brunette, green-eyed, or tall. In this play, these markers of identity have lost their meaning and operate as empty signifiers of the system that established their original values. Toward the end of the play, the pirate, Doutremer, reveals how slip­pery these markers have become. By that time, we have learned that he has another name, “Salomin,” which is most likely his birth name. Al­though no characters refer to him as Jewish, this Old Testament name referring to one of the kings of Israel certainly suggests that he is also Jew­ish.[15] Just as Doutremer has given up a life on land in favor of one at sea, so too has he given up his birth name for one that reflects his seafaring ways. Doutremer chastises La Saline when he refers to him as “Monsieur Salomin”  by responding, “Tais-toi, je ne suis Salomin qu’à Merseille [sic], & je suis ici Doutremer. Je change de nom & de pavillon, selon mes intérêts” (189). It is worth noting here that King Solomon’s best-known attribute was his wisdom.[16] It is certainly no coincidence that Boindin put such a declaration in the mouth of a character the public would readily iden­tify as wise. In doing so, Boindin is predicting the ultimate triumph of a value system in which superficial markers of identity serve simply as linguistic currency while one’s nature is now defined by the choices made by the individual. In other words, he predicts a triumph of the modernes over the anciens as we find in Livorno. Through his depiction of un­marked Jews, Boindin expresses his anticipation of a post-monarchal society in which citizens are no longer subject to the identities bestowed upon them by birth, and Old Regime rigidity is rejected in favor of a less stratified and less prejudiced mental frame.

Portland State University

 

Works Cited

Bibliographie universelle, ancienne et moderne ou histoire, par ordre alpha­bétique, de la vie publique et privée de tous les hommes qui se sont distingués par leurs écrits, leurs actions, leurs talents, leurs ver­tus ou leurs crimes. Tome cinquième. Paris : chez Michaud Frères, 1812.

Benbassa, Esther. Histoire des Juifs de France de l’Antiquité à nos jours. Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 2000.

Boindin, Nicolas. “Le Port de mer.” Quatre comédies. Ed. John Dunkley. Paris: Société des Textes Français Modernes, 1997. 136–200.

Desan, Philippe. “L’avarice chez Montaigne.” Seizième Siècle. 4 (2008) 113–24.

Dunkley, John. “Nicholas [sic] Boindin: The Presentation and Re-presenta­tion of Alterity.” Romance Studies. 31 (1991) 83–94.

———. “Introduction” in Quatre comedies. Ed. John Dunkley. Paris: So­ciété des Textes Français Modernes, 1997. VII–XCV.

Foucault, Michel. “Des espaces autres.” Dits et écrits. Volume II. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. 1994. 752–62.

Lancaster, Henry Carrington. Sunset : A History of Parisian Drama in the Last Years of Louis XIV, 1701–1715. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945 (1976).

Lestringant, Frank. “Avarice et voyage.” Seizième Siècle. 4 (2008) 149–70.

Mancewicz, Aneta and Kazimierz Wielki. “Shakespeare in Europe: Introduc­tion.” MIT Global Shakespeares. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 5 June 2014.

Michael, Robert. A History of Catholic Antisemitism. The Dark Side of the Church. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Pemble, John. Shakespeare Goes to Paris. How the Bard Conquered France. London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2005.

Resnick, Irven M. Marks of Distinction. Christian Perceptions of Jews in the High Middle Ages. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012.

Rozenblit, Marsha L. “Intermarriage: Modern Europe and United States” in Baskin, Judith R. The Cambridge Dictionary of Judaism and Jewish Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 277–78.

Sutcliffe, Adam. “The Philosemitic Moment? Judaism and Republicanism in Seventeenth-Century European Thought.” In Philosemitism in History, eds. Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe, 67–89. Cambridge: Cambridge Univer­sity Press, 2011..

Trachtenberg, Joshua. The Devil and the Jews. The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Antisemitism. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1993.

Yardeni, Myriam. Anti-Jewish Mentalities in Early Modern Europe. Lanham, New York, London: University Press of America, 1990.


[1]See Esther Benbassa’s Histoire des Juifs de France, Robert Michael’s A History of Catholic Antisemitism, Joshua Trachtenberg’s The Devil and the Jews and Myriam Yardeni’s Anti-Jewish Mentalities in Early Modern Europe, among others, for an overview of the perception of Jews throughout French history.

[2]I would like to thank Perry Gethner for introducing me to this work.

[3]Boindin also wrote memoirs, letters and one discourse, some of which were published after his death in 1751.

[4]Lancaster casts some doubt on the attribution of Le petit maître de robe, thought to be Boindin’s fourth and last play (267).

[5] Repeated disputes with La Motte over authorship credit among other issues led to the dissolution of their friendship. Boindin began to frequent the Procope instead (Bibliographie 16).

[6]Lancaster notes that “it was acted more frequently than any other play by an author who began to write after 1700” (272). Le Port de mer opened for Bérénice, Ariane, Les femmes savantes and L’école des femmes, among others. Its format (and, perhaps, its exoticism) lent itself to popularity. As a result of the Querelle du théâtre incited by Madame de Maintenon in 1694, fewer tragedies were performed and the most successful productions were short, one-act plays. As Dunkley explains, “Afin de lutter contre la désaffection du public et la concurrence de la Foire, les Comédiens-Français trouvèrent deux expédients: diminuer le nombre relatif de représentations de tragédies et jouer fréquemment les petites pièces en un acte […]. Le moment était donc favorable pour les compositions de Boindin” (“Introduction” xxix).

[7]A search of the MLA database on May 3, 2014 turned up only four titles, three of which were written by Dunkley.

[8] While it is tempting to regard Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as inspiration for this play due to its seaport setting and the Jewish father-daughter main characters, it is highly unlikely that Boindin had read or seen it. John Pemble remarks that “The French did not discover Shakespeare until they discovered England; and they did not discover England until Voltaire, the abbé Prévost, and the baron de Montesquieu crossed the Channel at various times in the 1720s” (1). He goes on to explain that Shakespeare’s plays were not performed in France until the early nineteenth century (35). Furthermore, I have not found evidence that Boindin knew English or that Shakespeare’s plays were readily available in France at this time either in English or in French translation (see Pemble xiii and Mancewicz). (I would like to thank Melissa Walter for suggesting these references.) Lancaster attributes Boindin’s inspiration instead to Molière’s Sicilien and Champmesle’s Rue de Saint Denis (270).

[9] “Leghorn” is the town’s English name.

[10]It is worth noting that it is not Sabatin’s Jewishness that evokes Brigantin’s surprised reaction but the situation in general. His Jewishness is not the obstacle here; instead, it is, as we learn soon after, Sabatin’s dubious character.

[11]Adam Sutcliffe asserts that “no ethnic group of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was more closely associated with commerce than the Jews” (71).

[12] While it is possible that Benjamine was conceived out of wedlock, the more plausible scenario for a daughter of a Jewish merchant of the time is that she is the product of an arranged marriage. There is therefore a strong likelihood that her mother, too, is Jewish. As Marsha L. Rozenblit explains, “Before the invention of the concept of civil marriage in the modern era, all marriages were conducted under religious auspices, and intermarriage in the technical sense did not take place.” She continues, “The widespread practice of arranged marriage in the Jewish middle classes virtually guaranteed that Jews married other Jews” (277-78). Rozenblit also notes that civil marriage became widespread in Europe only in the twentieth century (278).

[13]“Marchand d’esclaves, usurier et homme d’affaires en train de méditer une banqueroute frauduleuse, Sabatin constitue une caricature de Juif tel que la mentalité populaire se le représentait alors” (Dunkley Quatre comédies lxi).

[14] Even her name, which recalls that of Benjamin, the eternally youthful youngest child of Jacob, suggests that she belongs to a new, modern generation.

[15]This would indicate that Doutremer’s nephew, Leandre, is Jewish as well and that a marriage between him and Benjamine would therefore be considered proper. However, the fact that Doutremer is probably Jewish and, by relation, his nephew, seems to have eluded some of Boindin’s contemporaries who criticized the play’s ending. See Lancaster 272.

[16] The name, however, means “peace.”

( categories: )

The Valet: The Marquis de Louvois’s Invited Guest in the Mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask

Article Citation: 
17 (2016), 1–27
Author: 
Sarah Madry
Article Text: 

Madry, Printable PDF

Prefatory Remarks on the Spelling of Names

The last name of the man known as the Man in the Iron Mask is spelled “Dauger” except where another author’s spelling is quoted.

A seventeenth-century Paris family of minor nobility will be dis­cussed. That family’s name is spelled “d’Auger de Cavoye,” except where another author’s spelling is quoted.

Why Solving the Problem of the Man in the Iron Mask Is Important for Scholars of French Seventeenth-century History

This article addresses one description of the mysterious prisoner called L’Homme au masque de fer written in a letter, dated 19 July 1669, by the government official who oversaw his transfer to prison, Louis XIV’s (1638–1715) twenty-eight-year-old secretary for war, François-Michel Le Tellier, the marquis de Louvois (1641–1691). Louvois characterized Dauger in that letter as “only a valet.” Scholars have been compelled to incorporate this description of the prisoner into their theories about his iden­tity. The search for the answer to this mystery has been tangled up in the demand of the “valet” to be consequential.

This paper shows that, contrary to what has always been assumed, Lou­vois’s characterization of the prisoner as “un valet” does not describe the prisoner’s background or previous occupation, nor did Louvois intend it to. The word “valet” is a keyword in a pun that Louvois inserted into the state document that he wrote to the prison jailer, whom he knew person­ally. It does not indicate that Louvois knew the prisoner’s identity. This conclusion has been reached through interdisciplinary research on seven­teenth-century playing card design, French name spelling differences, salon culture word games, and a personal life episode of one of the Ancien Régime’s most redoubtable military administrators, the marquis de Lou­vois himself. The elimination of the “valet” will upset assumptions about Louvois’s comment about the famous prisoner; it will neutralize the only description in the official French archives of the prisoner’s occupation be­fore his arrest.

Louvois’s valet description has been a barrier to a launch of serious histori­cal research to settle the question of whether the mysterious man was genetically related to Louis XIV. If, freed from the parameter of the valet, future researchers on the Man in the Iron Mask mystery would find clarity on the genetic issue, then the problem would migrate into the supervi­sion of a larger set of Ancien Régime historians who would have to accept that Eustache Dauger threatened Louis XIV’s political and familial status. If Dauger’s existence threatened Louis XIV’s personal and legal royal rights, we must reconsider Louis XIV’s role in the Grand Siècle.

Introduction

L’Homme au masque de fer (? –1703) was a man imprisoned by Louis XIV in July 1669 for an unknown reason (Iung 56). Neither do we know the reason that he wore a cloth mask over the top of his face during the latter part of his imprisonment when he was out of his cell or when strangers came into his cell (Iung 51). His identity, his name, and his appear­ance were carefully hidden from everyone except a very small number of jailers (Iung 51). These three facts—his unknown crime, his mask, and the very stringent security given to him unceasingly for thirty-four years—are the reasons that members of the court and the public be­came interested in him as soon as they were aware of him.

The first person at court to speak publicly about him was Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, Princess Palatine Elisabeth-Charlotte (1652–1722). She told her aunt in a letter on 11 October 1711, only eight years after the prisoner had died in the Bastille (Orléans 187), that she had heard there had re­cently been a mysterious prisoner at the Bastille, always masked, who had been forbidden to speak under pain of death. Voltaire (1694–1778) be­came interested in the prisoner, perhaps during his own imprisonment in the Bastille in 1717, and spurred the public’s interest in the story inces­santly, including treating it in his Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) and Sup­plément au Siècle de Louis XIV (1753). Voltaire was the first writer to say that the prisoner’s mask was made of “fer” when he wrote to the abbé Dubos on 30 October 1738 (Voltaire “À M. l’Abbé Dubos” 305) that he had knowledge of “l’homme au masque de fer” — that he had spoken with people who had served him. In 1746, the chevalier de Mouhy wrote Le Masque de fer ou les aventures admirables du père et du fils. The book tells a story about a prisoner who wore an iron mask. Mouhy tells of metal masks used on prisoners in Turkey, Scotland, Spain, and Sweden. Duviv­ier suspects that Mouhy shared with Voltaire his research on masking (Duvivier 17). Whether Mouhy encouraged Voltaire to add the metal mask or not, Voltaire inserted it in his description of the masked man in his Siè­cle de Louis XIV (Voltaire Siècle 311). Witnesses who actually saw the masked prisoner do not mention a metal mask, but say that he certainly always wore a cloth mask when out of his prison cell.

In Liège in 1769, the Jesuit R. Père Henri Griffet (1698–1771) pub­lished Traité des différentes sortes de preuves qui servent à établir la ver­ité de l’Histoire, which included quotations of journal entries taken from a journal made by the lieutenant of the Bastille in 1698 named Etienne Du Junca (1642?–1706) that described in detail both the Mask’s entry into the Bastille and his death five years later (Griffet 307–08). The journal entries are eyewitness reports of the prisoner by a state official: a date stamp of his entry into the confines of the Bastille; confirmation that he was always masked; confirmation that he had never had a jailer other than Saint-Mars, and that the prisoner had no name (Griffet 303–09). Saint-Mars (1626–1708), on the day that Du Junca wrote his first journal entry on the pris­oner, 18 September 1689, was taking command of the Bas­tille after formerly being governor of Pignerol, Exiles, and Sainte-Marguerite pris­ons. “Saint-Mars” was a nom-de-guerre (Rousset 170 and Dijol 56); the name his family gave him was Bénigne Dauvergne. On 10 January 1673, the king gave him letters of nobility (Barine 20). Here is Du Junca’s entry from the prison register located in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal that de­scribes the arrival of the new prisoner in September 1698:

Du judy 18e de septembre 1698 a trois heures apres midy, monsieur de St Mars, gouverneur du chateau de la Bas­tille, est arive pour sa premiere entree, venant de son gou­vernement des illes St Marguerite Honorat aient mene avec queluy dans sa litiere un ensien prisonnier quil avet a Pi­gnerol le quel il fait tenir touiours masque dont le nom ne sedit pas et laient fait mettre en de sendant dela litiere dans la premiere chambre delatour de la basiniere en atandant la nuit pour lemettre et mener moy mesme aneuf heures du­soir avec Mr de Rosarges un des sergens que monsieur le gou­verneur a mene dans la troisieme chambre seul delatour dela bretaudiere que javes fait mubler de touttes choses — quelques jours avent son arrivee en aient reseu lhordre de mon­sieur de St Mars le quel prisonnier sera servy et sounie par Mr de Rosarge que monsieur le gouverneur norira. (Du Junca 37 ve)

Griffet’s publication showed proof that the masked prisoner had really existed and gave credibility to Voltaire’s insistence that the subject was important (Duvivier 22, 28). These two historians fueled a detective search which continues today.

Pioneer nineteenth-century researchers went to the archives to identify all the prisoners of Saint-Mars, the jailer of the masked prisoner, realizing that inevitably (Iung 5), among this set of people, one would have to have been the masked prisoner. Their results and that of many subsequent au­thors might today be called a mashup of state prisoners who were incarcerated in the relevant time period arranged on a framework of event dates (such as the prisoners’ transfers between prisons), witness reports, and political events with the goal being elimination of as many candidates as possible.

Each writer on the Man in the Iron Mask mystery has had at least three tasks: telling the story of the man’s arrest, where and with what special security he was kept, and the witness accounts of his appearance and activi­ties; a review of the most likely candidates with an historical account of each; and the writer’s own conclusions, including why he or she chose one candidate over the others.

General Theodore Jung in La Verité sur le Masque de Fer (Les Empoison­neurs) d’après des documents inédits des Archives de la Guerre et autres dépôts public (1873) believed that the Mask was one of a group of conspirators who wished to assassinate Louis XIV; Emile Burgaud pub­lished Le Masque de fer, révélation de la correspondence chiffrée de Louis XIV (1893), claiming the Mask was Vivien Labbé de Bulonde, who made a serious military mistake that embarrassed Louis XIV (failed to hold the siege of Coni in the Piedmont in 1691); John Noone concluded in The Man Behind the Iron Mask (1988) that the prisoner was a fictional charac­ter created by the governor of Pignerol prison to advance his own interests. Paul Sonnino’s usual thorough research described in “On the Trail of the Iron Mask: The Candidacy of Claude Imbert” shed light in 1992 on a likely candidate, who, although Sonnino admits that the ar­chives produced an échec for his suspect, nevertheless showed masterfully the length to which researchers should go to investigate each lead (Son­nino “Imbert” 104). Sonnino said in 2014 that the testament of Cardinal Mazarin (1602–1661), specifically, changes made in the different versions of Mazarin’s will written by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683), Mazarin’s intendant, after Mazarin’s death, indicate the identity of the pris­oner (Sonnino “Three Testaments” 16). Michel Vergé-Franceschi of the university François Rabelais de Tours in his 2009 Le Masque de fer, enfin démasqué believed that the prisoner was a valet of the duc de Beau­fort (1616–1669), a militant and popular cousin of Louis XIV, who wit­nessed the murder of his master (Beaufort) and was taken prisoner to prevent the death’s announcement.

Not only have professional scholars researched the identity of the masque de fer, but the highest officials of the French eighteenth-century state felt they had a right to know the truth of the matter. Louis XVI (1754–1793) and Napoleon I (1769–1821) sent state officials to the ar­chives for the man’s Bastille imprisonment records. Matthioli, an Italian double agent, was officially documented as the masked prisoner (Markale 236). But Matthioli’s candidature has been eliminated through archival research done after the French Revolution (Topin 329–30 and Duvivier 62).

Data found in the twentieth century eliminated all possibilities except Eustache Dauger, arrested at the request of Louis XIV near Calais, France, at the end of July 1669 and escorted under guard to Pignerol prison in the Italian Alps.[1] In the summer season the journey from Calais to Pignerol for one prisoner and a small company of guards would have taken about twenty-one to twenty-five days. That approximation is based on the jour­ney to Pignerol of Nicolas Foucquet, prisoner of musketeer Charles d’Artagnan, in winter 1664, which took twenty days from Paris (Petitfils d’Artagnan 145). We know that Dauger and his guards arrived at Pignerol on approximately August 21 because Louvois wrote a letter to Saint-Mars on 10 September 1669 that is a reply to a letter from the governor dated 21 August indicating that Pignerol had received the new prisoner. We have the letter of Saint Mars only in a transcription that was made by citizen Pierre Roux-Fazillac in 1801, Recherches historiques et critiques sur l’Homme au masque de fer, d’où resultent des notions certaines sur ce prison­nier, ouvrage rédigé sur des matériaux authentiques (Roux-Fazillac 105).

Vergé-Franceschi asked:

Peut-on être aujourd’hui absolument sûr que le prison­nier surnommé Eustache Dauger est bien le Masque de fer? Oui. Quand on dresse la liste de tous les prisonniers de Pine­rolo à cette époque, il est le seul à y avoir été admis en 1669[2] (Vergé-Franceschi 260).

Objectives and Spelling

The two objectives of this paper are: (1) to review Louvois’s letter and learn why Louvois called Eustache Dauger a valet; (2) to use this answer as support for the thesis that this was the prisoner’s real name. In seven­teenth-century France names of prisoners listed on official documents were often false names, created by the jailers to limit identities. A nick­name might be given to a prisoner based on an instance of his actions in prison, a reference to a previous occupation, where he or she was kept in the building, or a completely fake first and last name might be put in the records. Seekers of the solution to the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask have never known if Eustache Dauger was the prisoner’s name as Louis XIV understood it to be when he ordered him arrested.[3]

Solving the valet puzzle requires a reminder about French seventeenth-century family name spelling practices. There was much more misspelling of names of people in past generations than there is now—or let us call it multispelling, because misspelling means erroneous spelling and we do not discern an authoritarian attitude toward spelling; one did the best one could to write the name so that the reader recognized it, and the exact combi­nation of letters was secondary. It was accepted in the seventeenth century that in one instance a man’s last name could be written “Du Viv­ier” and the next person would write “Duvivier.” Meanwhile, the person himself would always sign his name “du Vivier.” Then there was the added possibility that a misspelling might occur, where “Duvivier” be­comes “Devivier.”

We must loosen for a moment our modern rigidity about nom et pré­nom spelling in order to understand the problem at hand, because the varia­tions of the spelling of the last name of the prisoner, Eustache Dauger, are linked to the reason that the marquis de Louvois styled him “un valet.”

François-Michel Le Tellier, the Marquis de Louvois

Most historians know Louvois as the waster of the German Palatinate in the course of the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–1697). If one were to rebut that statement and say that Louis XIV’s orders to Louvois were responsible for the Palatinate’s devastation, one could reply that by 1688 it was difficult to know if Louis XIV or Louvois was responsible for military decisions (Rousset 6). Louvois was war minister and since wars provided his job security, he made sure that Louis XIV had plenty of them (Mongrédien Louis XIV 175, Sonnino Louis XIV  5–7, 192).

The marquis de Louvois was Louis XIV’s secretary of war for much of his reign. Today we often title administrators in this high position minis­ters for defense, but what was called defense by Louis XIV and Louvois was more about thirst for territory and glory than it was about drawing lines beyond which foreign powers could not pass. Rather, it was Louis XIV who passed over the lines of others (Ekberg 175). Louvois and his father, Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Barbezieux, seigneur de Chaville et de Viroflay (1603–1685), created a French army that became the strongest and most feared military power in Europe, supplying Louis XIV’s redun­dant need for extreme attention. Louis XIV squeezed his people, his court, his nobles, his army, his enemies, and his friends to get a steady supply of glory that was only acceptable in its densest form.

Louvois directed the royal postal system from 1669 to his death in 1691 (Vaillé 7), and following Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s death in 1683 he was the government minister in charge of building projects. Louvois and the Paris chief of police conducted an investigation into a poisoning scan­dal in the capital in the 1680s, some parts of which touched members of the royal court and Louis XIV’s closest circle. An unpublicized assign­ment given to Louvois by the king was oversight of the Man in the Iron Mask’s needs, security, location, and treatment.

Louvois’s Letter to Saint-Mars Dated 19 July 1669

We do not know who Eustache Dauger was, but the reason that many of the most credible specialists in this subject tailor their conclusions to the prisoner having been a valet—a servant—is that the marquis de Lou­vois, in a letter dated 19 July 1669 to Monsieur de Saint-Mars, governor of Pignerol prison, to forewarn him that a prisoner named Eustache Dauger would soon be coming to Pignerol, wrote that since the prisoner was only “un valet,” his needs for furniture were negligible. The letter carries the earliest date of about 150 extant letters between Louvois, the off-site manager of the prisoner’s incarceration, and Saint-Mars. Saint-Mars had to receive orders from Louvois before he could change the routine of his prisoners, get them medical attention, buy them items, etc. His questions and Louvois’s answers went by couriers between Pignerol and Paris.

In the marquis de Louvois’s communication on 19 July 1669about the prisoner, Louvois broke all the rules, before there even were any rules about Dauger. There would be hundreds of royal warnings over the next thirty-four years to those who were managing his incarceration that there should be no hint of what the man had been doing before his arrest, and if Dauger said anything at all about his former life to anyone, the jailers had instructions to immediately kill him (Delort Détention des philosophes 156; Orléans 187; Petitfils Homme 37; Voltaire Siècle 311).

This is the very first document that mentions Eustache Dauger by name.

À Saint-Germain en Laye, ce 19 juillet 1669

Monsieur,

Le Roy m’ayant comandé de faire conduire à Pinerolo le nommé Eustache d’Auger, il est de la dernière importance à son service qu’il soit gardé avec une grande seureté, et qu’il ne puisse donner de ses nouvelles en nulle manière, ni par lettres à qui que ce soit. Je vous en donne advis par advance, afin que vous puissiez faire accomoder un chachot où vous le mettrez seurement, observant de faire en sorte que les jours qu’aura le lieu ou [sic] il sera, ne donnent point sur des lieux qui puissent estre abordez de personne, et qu’il y ayt assez de portes fermées, les unes sur les autres, pour que vos sentinelles ne puissent rien entendre. Il faudra que vous portiez vous mêsme à ce misérable, une fois le jour, de quoy vivre toute la journée, et que vous n’escoutiez jamais, soubs quelques prétexte que ce puisse estre, ce qu’il voudra vous dire, le menaçant tousjours de le faire mourir s’il vous ouvre jamais la bouche pour vous parler d’autre chose que de ses nécessités.

Je mande au sieur Poupart de faire incessamment travailler à ce que vous desirerez, et vous ferez préparer les meubles qui sont nécessaires pour la vie de celui que l’on vous aménera, observant que, comme ce n’est qu’un valet, il ne luy en faut pas de bien considérables, et je vous feray rembourser tant de la déspenses des meubles, que de ce que vous désirerez pour sa nourriture.

Je suis, monsieur, vostre très affectionné serviteur, De Louvois (Delort Détention des philosophes 155–56).

The Lettre de Cachet and the Arrest

On 28 July 1669, nine days after the letter above, a lettre de cachet, signed by Louis XIV and co-signed by Michel Le Tellier, Louvois’s father, ordered M. de Vauroy, sergeant-major of the citadel and town of Dunkirk, to arrest Eustache Dauger and take him to the fortress of Pignerol in the Alps, a prison reserved for political prisoners (Vergé-Franceschi 256). Another letter to Vauroy’s superior was signed by the king, also dated 28 July, giving a false excuse for Vauroy’s absence from his regular duties (Noone 151, Pagnol 123). No explanation was given in the lettre de cachet as to where the sergeant-major would find Dauger, so we may assume, since the arrest took place very soon after he received the order, that Vauroy had a separate communication as to the location of his target from either the king or someone else. It is also possible that Vauroy knew where to find Dauger without having to be told.

We do not know where Dauger was arrested. It may have been Calais. Vergé-Franceschi refers to a certification of reimbursement to Vauroy of travel expenses that researcher Stanislas Brugnon found in the mid 1980s in the Mélanges Colbert:

Vauroy commence par aller de Dunkerque à Calais avec trois hommes. A Calais, il récupère le prisonnier…. Stanislas Brugnon a retrouvé dans les Mélanges Colbert, à la Bibliothèque nationale, une “conduite,” c’est-à-dire un ordre de remboursement de frais de déplacements, comme pour les fonctionnaires d’aujourd’hui. On constate que le roi a payé ces frais à hauteur de trois mille livres pour quatre hommes de Dunkerque à Calais (Vauroy et trois soldats d’escorte); et pour cinq hommes de Calais à Pignerol (Vauroy, les trois soldats et le Masque de fer); puis trois mille autres livres pour quatre hommes de Pignerol à Calais (une fois le Masque de fer laissé aux mains de Saint-Mars) (Vergé-Franceschi 261).

Vauroy obeyed orders and took Eustache Dauger to Pignerol where Saint-Mars was waiting.

Post Script

Immediately after 28 July 1669, the date on the arrest warrant, Louis XIV or Louvois or both of them decided that the prisoner’s last name should not be spoken or written again because “Eustache” was thereafter not written for nine and a half years in any correspondence that has come down to us, and “Dauger” was almost never written again. The jailers had nicknames for Dauger so that they could be clear about which prisoner they were speaking of in a practical situation, but these names are the jailers’ inventions, not official ones. If he had to be spoken of, witnesses tell us that his jailers said, “the one whose name is not said aloud” (“le nom ne se dit pas”), or “the longtime prisoner,” or “the man who was brought by sergeant Vauroy.” For a time he was called “La Tour” due to the location of his cell at Pignerol (Iung 40). A false name was given to him on his death certificate and burial record: “Marehiel” or “Marchiel” (Furneaux 6).

Considerable thought and many chapters of books have been dedicated to the valet problem. Many authors have taken the marquis de Louvois at his word that the new prisoner was a valet, a manservant of moderate rank, and have eliminated from suspicion anyone who was not a valet. Other writers have been sure these words were deliberately used to hide the identity of the prisoner. But the characterization of the prisoner as a valet is the only mention of his social status by any of the very few people who had contact with him, so we have not ever been able to evade Louvois’s description. Historians and sleuths have had to consider the possibility that the Mask was formerly a servant. This has been the biggest stumbling block preventing investigators from believing that the Man in the Iron Mask was a royal relative of Louis XIV—a cousin, a brother, or a twin. If the prisoner had been a valet, he could not have been a prince.

Eustache Dauger (? –1703)

This paper does not attempt an overall answer to the question of the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask but it might be helpful to know a few things about the person described by Louvois as a valet.

The prisoner’s life before his arrest in July 1669 is unknown. Toward the end of his life he wore a cloth mask over the top of his face whenever he was outside his cell or when a stranger went into his cell. We are not sure if he wore a mask before that, and we do not know if the report of a metal mask, seen only once while the prisoner was traveling, was accurate. Voltaire’s report about the man in 1751 said, Ce prisonnier, dans la route, portait un masque dont la mentonnière avait des ressorts d’acier, qui lui laissaient la liberté de manger avec le masque sur son visage” (Voltaire Siècle 311). This is the sentence that started the myth of the iron mask. But Voltaire did not say that the prisoner wore an iron mask, only that he had a mask on that had steel springs in the chin area. He assumed this apparatus had to do with eating because it was located, so he had been told, near his mouth.

Voltaire tells that he got this information from the son-in-law of a doctor who treated the Mask and who had been the doctor of the maréchal de Richelieu (Armand de Vignerot du Plessis 1696–1788). Also testifying to this information, said Voltaire, was,“…M. de Bernaville, successeur de Saint-Mars, me l’a souvent confirmé” (Voltaire Siècle 312).

He heard regular Catholic mass so he was Catholic, whether from birth or from conversion from Protestantism. We know he could read because he was given as many books as he wanted (Delort Détention des philosophes 157). We deduce he could write because after his death his cell walls and floors were taken apart to uncover any writing he might have hidden (Griffet 311). He had lips and teeth, because eyewitnesses tell us they saw them under his mask (Petitfils Homme 94–95). We know he spoke French (Duvivier 120). We know that in 1703, not long before his death, he said to an apothecary of the Bastille that he thought he was about 60 years old (Delort Histoire de l’homme au masque 71), which indicates he was not sure of his age so we do not know how old he was when he died.

His first eleven years in prison were at Pignerol, where Saint-Mars had been governor since 1664. He was moved to Exiles, not far from Pignerol, when Saint-Mars was transferred there. Then the jailer and prisoner went to the island prison of Sainte-Marguerite, near Cannes, and finally in 1698 Saint-Mars got a promotion to the governorship of the Bastille, and Dauger went with him, traveling, as before, in the same cavalcade of carriages and soldiers that formed Saint-Mars’s moving van. Also following the governor’s path through all the stages of his career were his aides: his major, Jacques Rosarges (1633?–1707); his manager of the keys, Antoine Ru (?–1713); and two trusted infantry officers, one of these being a cousin of the governor and the other a childhood friend.[4] No one other than Saint-Mars and these officers ever guarded Dauger. The prisoner, Saint-Mars, and his team of guards were inseparable for thirty-four years.

Eustache Dauger was assigned an extremely high level of security. In 1670 Saint-Mars wrote to Louvois:

Il y a des personnes qui sont quelquefois si curieuses de me demander des nouvelles de mon prisonnier, ou le sujet pourquoi je fais faire tant de retranchements pour sa sûreté, que je suis obligé de leur dire des contes jaunes pour me moquer d’eux (Markale271).

Some of the precautions were typical for all prisoners, like having three doors to his cell, each closing separately upon the other (Fougeret 27). But there was extra security for Dauger. Not long after Dauger was taken to Pignerol, Louis XIV sent the sieur Vauban (1633–1707), his chief military engineer, to inspect the cell and the fortress to make sure everything was as it should be.

Eustache Dauger died suddenly in his cell in the Bastille on 19 November 1703, probably of a heart attack or stroke, his only sign of impending death being a slight malaise the day before at mass, indicating that he was not in the throes of a wasting disease. He was buried the next afternoon in the Saint-Paul church cemetery, the parish cemetery for the Bastille.[5]

He must have had remarkable inner reserves. Saint-Mars writes more than once that Dauger did not complain of his situation and was polite, accepting his fate from “God and the king” (Thompson 99). He quietly lived thirty-four years in confinement and then died a peaceful, quick death.

Playing Cards in the Seventeenth Century

John Noone says that there were many varieties of the spelling of the last name of the Man in the Iron Mask, “Dauger.” Spelling, especially of names of people, was often approximated according to pronunciation. No one seemed to mind if a name was spelled one way in one text but differently in the next one. Here are the other variations of the name that Noone printed: “Daugier, Doger, Dogier, d’Auger, d’Augier, d’Oger, d’Ogier, Auger, Augier, Oger, Ogier” (Noone 212). Maurice Duvivier was the first writer to muse on the many spellings of Dauger (Duvivier 120).

There are an unusually large number of spelling variations that can be made in this last name, especially because the first letters can be O or A or d’O or d’A or D’O or D’A. It can even start with H, as we will see below. In the rest of the name there are also many possible placements of letters. When the “i” in the spelling of Ogier is dropped, it creates Oger. When the name is spelled Doger, there are two deformations, the dropping of both the “i” and the apostrophe.

Since there was a French nobleman in Louis XIV’s court, Eustache d’Auger de Cavoye (also sometimes spelled “Eustache d’Ogier de Cavoye”), who had almost the same name as the famous prisoner, Noone referenced the origin of the d’Auger de Cavoye name to illustrate the many ways in which d’Auger and Dauger could be written. He said the Cavoye family claimed to be “…descended from Oger the Dane (Hogier the Ardennois) one of the twelve peers of Charlemagne” (Noone 212). A biography of Eustache d’Auger de Cavoye’s younger brother, Louis, titled Le Marquis de Cavoye 1640–1716: Un Grand Maréchal des Logis de la Maison du Roi, tells that the family believed this was the origin of their family name (Huguet 87).

Then Noone, as an interesting expansion about the Danish companion-at-arms of Charlemagne, noted that in old packs of French playing cards, the face cards, that is, the King, Queen, and Knave (also called Jack) cards, were assigned to an accepted set of famous people from the historical French court. The Knave or Jack of Spades was often personified by Hogier le Danois (sometimes spelled Ogier, sometimes Oger). Hogier probably was a real courtier in the court of emperor Charlemagne, although there are aspects of his story that seem mythical.

The assignment of names of historical characters to the picture cards in decks of playing cards is not practiced now except in imitation of old designs but it was conventional in seventeenth-century Europe. In an article on seventeenth-century card games, Orest Ranum (Ranum 556) cites an article in Bulletin du Vieux Papier that gives 1640 as the time when card makers in the French provinces began to use the same naming practices as Paris card designers, thus giving a general point of French consciousness as to the regularization of the historical characters on the cards.

The Bibliothèque Nationale’s online web site Gallica has many images of playing cards that show, on the face cards, the names of the historical characters pictured. We are able to see the deck called Jeu de cartes au portrait de Paris (Trioullier),made in the early 1760s, which has these assignments for the face cards: the King, Queen, Jack/Knave of Hearts are named Charles (Charlemagne), Judic (Judith), and La Hire (nom de guerre of Etienne de Vignolles, knight under Charles VII of France’s command (van Rensselaer 167–168); Clubs are marked Alexandre (Alexander the Great), Argine (anagram for regina), and the Jack/Knave carries the name of the creator of the card deck, Jean-François Trioullier; Diamonds are marked Cézar (Caesar), Rachel (the Bible’s Rachel), and Hector (Hector de Galard, captain of the guard to Louis XI of France, although sometimes he is also the Trojan warrior); Spades are David (the Bible’s King David), Pallas (Pallas Athena), and Hogier.

Card games are ideal entertainment for people who have a sedentary profession, such as prison guards and governors, and also for those people that a government forces to be sedentary: their prisoners. While King Louis XIV and his marshals and chancellors gambled at cards during evening appartements at Saint-Germain-en-Laye and Versailles, the people they had put in prison played too. High-ranking prisoners played cards with their jailers when there was an inclination on both sides to do so. We have mostly to rely on our general feeling that this goes without saying because there are few references in scholarly literature to seventeenth-century card playing in prison. Georges Mongrédien says that the prince de Condé (1621–1686), cousin of the king, imprisoned during the Fronde, played cards with his guards (Mongrédien, Condé 89).[6] We are also told by Antonia Fraser that Françoise d’Aubigné’s (later Madame de Maintenon, Louis XIV’s second wife, 1635–1719) father played cards with his jailers at the Niort prison where he was incarcerated and she was born (Fraser 150).

With few actual historical references but with a great deal of confidence, we can say that it is very likely that Saint-Mars, the prison governor to whom the marquis de Louvois wrote a letter about the valet who would soon be coming as a prisoner, would be familiar with cards and would have played his fair share of games, both as a soldier, which he was before he was governor of Pignerol, and as a prison superintendant in charge of a bored staff and a handful of miscreants in an isolated prison in the Alps. He would have seen the face, the weapon, and the name of Hogier the Dane practically every day of his life.

Who Was the “Valet”?

In French, the Knave or Jack, the third-ranking picture card in a suit of cards, is called the Valet.

The Knave of Spades is called the Valet de Piques; “pique” translated literally as “spade” in English. The remaining three picture cards of the third rank are the Valet de Coeurs, the Valet de Trèfles, and the Valet de Carreaux.

When Louvois said that Eustache Dauger was “un valet” in his letter to Saint-Mars, he was making a pun on Dauger’s last name.

A homophonic heterograph is a pun that makes a link between two words that sound the same but are written differently, in this case, Dauger and Hogier. Before even getting that far with this particular pun though, you have to know another connection that is not a sound-alike set of words but which is a set of interchangeable words: valet and Hogier. One of the valets in a deck of cards is customarily Hogier.

The structure of the joke is that the prisoner’s last name sounds exactly like the historical character (Hogier) anthropomorphized on Valet (Jack, Knave) playing cards. Eustache Dauger does not need extravagant furniture because he is only “un valet.”

We sense that “un valet” carries a pejorative connotation in this joke. There are historical precedents for the use of this word as an insult. One reads in Dr. Héroard’s (1551–1628) diary, the exact record of King Louis XIII’s (1601–1643) health and activities kept by his doctor from his birth, that the most infuriating thing his father Henri IV (1553–1610) could do to his son was to force him to admit he was his father’s valet (Héroard 1: IV). At a critical point in the Grand Condé’s relationship with the king, Anne of Austria, and Mazarin between the Fronde of the Parlement (1648–1649) and the Fronde of the Princes (1650–1653), the Condé family, who were opposed to Mazarin, began calling their eldest brother a valet of Mazarin to indicate they disdained his alliance with the slippery cardinal (Motteville 422). We have then, in the pun, three passages: Dauger is Hogier; Hogier is a Valet in a deck of cards; to be a valet of someone is humiliating. Both Saint-Mars and Louvois lived in sections of society where card playing was popular, so both men knew that Hogier le Danois was a Valet and both would enjoy having that connection turned into a laugh by Dauger being verbally dressed as valet.

Dix-septièmistes will already have made the connection between this complicated joke and the préciosité of the Paris salons. Madame de Rambouillet, whose house had seen so many delicious conversations d’esprit, had died only a few years before Louvois wrote the letter we are discussing, but her traditions lived on in the living rooms of her imitators. Writers, poets, bon vivants, and an occasional deep thinker came together at the homes of hostesses at regular moments in the week to talk, but more than that, to talk cleverly using historical, mythological, and literary allusions to describe current society matters, preferably current amorous endeavors by members of the society in the house or outside of the house. To belong to salon society, one was expected occasionally to launch a bon mot for the group. The précieuses counted points for wit, shock, and arbitrary connections held together by elaborate lattices of poetry and prose. Saint-Mars knew nothing of the salons other than that they existed, but Louvois had social connections that required him to be a player in these word games:

In a highly conversational and aristocratic milieu their object was to distinguish themselves where possible by originality of thought or expression. It was given to only a few, such as Voiture, to achieve originality of thought, and the others, wisely, concentrated on the art of rendering their ideas more striking by the piquancy of their vocabulary or by the ingenious construction of their phrases (Maland 56-57).

So let us not give credit to Louvois for originality; these plays on words were all the rage in his social circle; he was merely following fashion by inserting clever, hidden messages into communications with friends.[7] As to the execution of this pun, however, we must credit Louvois with a real coup. His play on words juggles Dauger, Hogier, and the miscreant, imaginary valet. It is a beautiful pun. Unfortunately for Louvois, it is this stunning joke which may prove to be the critical weakness in the sturdy barriers the regime built to hide Eustache Dauger that scholars need to make progress in solving the mystery of the man that Louvois was charged with keeping anonymous and hidden.

But there is more historical content in this joke. There are not just three “people” in the joke, but a fourth, who is the protagonist, the most important player: Louis d’Auger de Cavoye.

There is a heretofore little known chapter in the extramarital love life of the marquis de Louvois that is the mainstay of the argument that the minister of war’s “valet” was a personal joke, that Eustache Dauger must have been the famous prisoner’s real name, and further, that the marquis de Louvois, contrary to what has always been assumed, did not have any background knowledge about Eustache Dauger on the date of 19 July 1669—that he was catering to his own sense of humor and to that of the old Musketeer, a parent of his mistress.

The married marquis de Louvois, in 1668, the year previous to his 19 July letter, had been attempting to have an affair with a young, beautiful, rich, married girl named Marie Sidonie de Lenoncourt, marquise de Courcelles (1650–1685). His efforts to experience double adultery had not been successful, however.

The marquise de Courcelles had preferred to give her favors to Louis d’Auger de Cavoye (1639–1716), a young noble at court and friend of the king (Pougin 21). We have referenced him above in connection with the history of the d’Auger name. Jacques Hillairet, historian of Paris, said of Louis de Cavoye, “Le marquis de Cavoie avait été élevé avec Louis XIV; il fut l’un des plus brillants seigneurs de son temps, sut gagner l’affection de Turenne, de Luxembourg, de Racine, mais s’attira l’inimitié de Louvois” (Hillairet 501).While keeping Louvois on her boudoir doorstep, the teenage marquise had an affair with Louis d’Auger de Cavoye, infuriating her husband, the marquis de Courcelles, who challenged de Cavoye to a duel. Dueling was illegal, and both duelists were arrested in the first week of July 1668 and taken to the Conciergerie to serve sentences (Pougin 16). In January 1669, six months later, Marie Sidonie appeared to be pregnant. In April, the marquis de Courcelles, while still in jail (as was Louis d’Auger de Cavoye), began a court prosecution against his wife for adultery (Pougin 16). She was taken into custody and gave birth on 5 July to a child that soon died.

What the story above shows is that Louvois and Louis d’Auger de Cavoye were rivals for the sexual favors of Marie Sidonie. Cavoye had gotten what Louvois had not, Louvois found an excuse to put him in prison, and did so. It would not be unusual in those circumstances for Louvois to have been pleased with his consolation prizes, the incarceration of his rival and the downfall of the girl who had spurned him. These events had been taking place a few months before and even one week before 19 July 1669, when Louvois wrote the letter to Saint-Mars in which he called the prisoner Eustache Dauger a valet.

Louvois was referring to his rival for the attention of Marie Sidonie de Lenoncourt, marquise de Courcelles, more than to Eustache Dauger, an unknown nobody whose name furnished Louvois an opportunity to make fun of Louis d’Auger de Cavoye. D’Auger and Dauger had the same name. Writing the pun to Saint-Mars nursed Louvois’s smarting self-confidence, which only someone as spectacular[8] as Marie Sidonie was able to damage, his self-confidence being normally solid. Saint-Mars’ wife’s sister was Louvois’s mistress, so Saint-Mars would have known of the failed pursuit of Marie Sidonie and Louvois’s “enmity” for Louis d’Auger de Cavoye.

Why Has the Explanation of“Un Valet” Been Difficult?

We are grateful to previous researchers for highlighting the different spellings of Dauger. Duvivier and Noone came to within a hair’s breadth of solving this difficult game of nomenclature, card playing, and male rivalry that Louvois unintentionally set for us.

First of all, a pun like this one is impossible to understand when one does not have the requisite knowledge of the compared items. If there is no knowledge of Louis d’Auger de Cavoye and none of his rivalry with Louvois—if there is no experience looking at a hand of playing cards with Hogier the Dane’s face and name printed on one of them, then it is impossible to hear the bell ring when these three items are likened to Eustache Dauger.

But that has not been the only obstacle. Here are some others:

1.    We are not accustomed to a family name being interchangeably spelled with a buffet of choices. The multiple possible spellings of the prisoner’s last name, Dauger, have confused us.

2.    Our playing cards are no longer labeled with the names of knights, kings, queens, and famous royal mistresses who lived in myth, ancient history, or distant history. So one key to unlock Louvois’s pun has to be knowledge of archaic customs in gaming, a recondite scholarly subject.

3.   The design of playing cards is not where scholars would expect to find hard historical data. Seasoned Mask researchers, locked on to facts about prison cell construction and the swollen list of Mask might-have-beens, have not placed enough emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. They have not asked art historians to join their search. Art and architecture historians should be consulted on historical mysteries because creators of history in every era often want to show their préciosité by using allusions to ancient or contemporary literature, characters, battle sites, love affairs, and other nests of specialized knowledge in their paintings, poems, stories, and building details. Art historians have the plaintexts for these codes.

4.     English-, German-, Spanish-, and Italian-speakers have never used the word “valet” for the third-ranking picture card because the word, at least when used in connection with playing cards, is French. English speakers use the word “valet” only for a servant. Researchers using any language but French have been at a disadvantage.

5.     In old English, German, Spanish, and Italian playing cards that follow the tradition of using names of famous people on the picture cards, the historical figures might not be French kings, queens, and heroes, so Hogier the Dane would possibly not appear on cards in non-French card decks, again limiting the number of people who might have understood the joke.

So the connections between Dauger, Hogier, and “un valet” have been hidden by haphazard spelling, language barriers, geographical distance, and the discontinuation of a historical tradition in designing playing cards. As for the link between Louis d’Auger de Cavoye and the marquis de Louvois, it is but one small sexual rivalry of Louis XIV’s court of which there were thousands, which almost never creep into scholarly research, unless one is studying just such things. Biographies of Louvois, if they mention her at all, do not connect the restless Marie Sidonie with Louvois’s valet.[9]

Conclusions

First, Louvois’s show of his pent-up jealousy for Louis d’Auger de Cavoye in the 19 July letter indicates that, at that first moment of his experience with the prisoner whose name had been given to him as “Eustache Dauger,” Louvoishad no knowledge of the prisoner other than his name and that he was to be arrested and sent to Pignerol prison, a prison for people who had been on the wrong side of a political matter. If Louvois had known how important this prisoner was to Louis XIV, he would never have dared to joke about him in a written document using a reference to his own failed lechery. He was a young man, just taking on the weight of his position after being tutored by his father, Michel Le Tellier, his predecessor, for many years. His father was still checking his son’s job performance and was a stickler for proper conduct. He would not have approved of his son’s light-hearted comment about a prisoner, especially one committed to paper that seemed to characterize the prisoner.[10] And the cautious, wily Le Tellier would have been right. We see the consequences of Le Tellier junior’s mistake. By this bravado, we have been given information about a very mysterious prisoner for whom the official, royal directive was that we should know absolutely nothing.

The larger picture becomes clear. Louvois was making a joke about someone he knew and hated, not about Eustache Dauger, a man it appears he did not know. And in the beginning there was no reason for Louvois or anyone else to spend two minutes wondering who Eustache Dauger was. There were secret arrests of boring evildoers all the time. Louvois, at this starting line, did not foresee the long race he would run with this particular prisoner, nor the gravity of the case that would gradually be revealed to him. He had been ordered to take care of this fiddling matter by his master, and, as always, he scrambled to obey. His flippant, surly bit of old boys’ club humor peddled to Saint-Mars tells us he did not consider the prisoner a challenge or a threat. The threat he minded was Louis d’Auger de Cavoye.

Second, the analysis of Louvois’s joke confirms that the spelling of Eustache Dauger’s last name is “Dauger” and not “Danger.” “Dauger” has been contested by some of the major writers on this subject in favor of “Danger,” but Louvois’s comparison of the prisoner to two other men, one of whom is Hogier and the other being d’Auger, confirms that the “Dauger” spelling is the correct one.

Third, despite the use of the name in a few official documents, Louvois’s letter being one, investigators have never been sure that Eustache Dauger was the prisoner’s real name, because often the authorities fabricated names of prisoners. The finding in this paper that Louvois allowed himself to make a pun on the prisoner’s name in a communication about official war office business is the basis for the theory that the authority that ordered the arrest of Eustache Dauger, Louis XIV, believed that Eustache Dauger was the name the man had used for himself until then. Eustache Dauger, to the best of Louis XIV’s understanding, was the real name of the prisoner he ordered sergeant-major Vauroy to arrest in July 1669 near Calais.

Louis XIV therefore gave this name to Louvois when he asked his minister to instruct the governor of Pignerol to prepare a cell. If Louvois had been told by Louis XIV that there was a problem saying the prisoner’s name, Louvois would not have written it to Saint-Mars. He would have given the new prisoner a false name.

It is not likely that Louvois would have made up “Eustache Dauger.” The joke would not have had value to Louvois if he himself was making up the name “Dauger” to serve as the nickname of the presumed criminal. The joke was born out of a naturally occurring conflation of names, which was the pattern of salon jokes. The subject material had to be a real artifact picked out of the actions or names of others and then appended to another action or event that showed the opinion of the author. Making up the root of the joke would have been cheating. He used the name the king gave him.

Fourth, we see that Louis XIV had a secret that he wished to hide from everyone else, including his closest advisors. Louis XIV’s knowledge of the prisoner is part of what must be determined before the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask can be solved. The solution to the valet problem intensifies that point, which has been made by many writers. Louis XIV kept to himself the nature of the “dissatisfaction” he had about the man he arrested. He gave his colleagues Dauger’s name, but not his identity. It begins to appear that Louis XIV did not tell any of the operatives who captured and incarcerated Eustache Dauger anything at all about the man they arrested and supervised. Probably even the veteran advisor and highly trusted Michel Le Tellier, Louvois’s father, who co-signed Dauger’s arrest order, was told a fable, as were Saint-Mars, Rosarges, Ru, and the doctors who treated his illnesses. All these characters were in file behind Louvois, the man through whom Louis XIV personally managed Eustache Dauger’s imprisonment. It was Louvois who took Louis XIV’s directions, sent them to the governor of the prison, who in turn gave orders to his staff. If Louvois was not told who the prisoner was, or at least was not told enough to keep him from being surly and personal in an official communication, then not one of his subordinates knew. At first Saint-Mars was curious. His pride in the fables he was telling people about Dauger attests to that. But instinctively we feel that this braggadocio came from his own lack of knowledge. Was Louvois curious? Eventually, probably, but at the point of arrest, Dauger didn’t interest him at all.

It is tempting to say that the discovery of Louvois’s pun on the name of Dauger proves that Dauger was not a valet, but we cannot yet be certain of that. He could still have been a valet without Louvois knowing it. But we are closer to that certainty, based on the logical consequences of Louvois’s statement being a joke rather than a description of the prisoner. Previously, it was probable enough that he was a valet that all authors on the subject have examined this description at length and many of the most erudite have formed their theories based on the valet. Now we see that Eustache Dauger was as likely a valet as he was a shoemaker or a bureaucrat. We now have no hint as to what his former occupation was and we never really did.

If there is a broad lesson for historical studies in this matter, it is that an interdisciplinary approach to a tough problem is likely to lead to success. Deciphering the marquis de Louvois’s letter to Saint-Mars has required knowledge of numerous sidebars of seventeenth-century history. It has also required a generous amount of skepticism about previous strategies and assumptions. Historians studying the Man in the Iron Mask have suspected that the jailers of Eustache Dauger, including Louis XIV, were devious and desired to mislead. They have been aware of M. de Louvois’s reputation for cold deceit in other official ministry of war business. But many who have read his July 19, 1669 letter to Saint Mars have credited him with honesty and candor in it. With that credit in place, the problem was not solved.

Jean Markale comes to a conclusion that deeds were done in this matter that is unpleasant to look at:

Que de cachotteries! Que de duplicité! A la lecture de ces documents parfaitement authentiques et conservés dans les Archives, on a l’impression désagréable de se trouver au fond d’un panier de crabes. Mais les crabes dont il s’agit ici sont ceux qui ont fait la grandeur de la France et dont on vante les mérites aux petits écoliers comme aux grands lycéens de la noble patrie française. (Markale 275)

Théodore Iung, perhaps the most thorough early archival researcher on the Mask, wrote to us in 1873 about the agonizing conclusion he came to after years of research on the Mask in the French archives of war:

On n’est en droit, d’ailleurs de ne négliger aucune dépêche, en apparence insignifiante, car celle-là justement se trouve avoir souvent une importance réelle. Or, par où commencer, dans quel sac puiser? Que de temps perdu ! Que de patience ! Que de richesses d’ailleurs non classées encore un peu partout! Et l’on pourra conclure avec moi, que, malgré les quatre mille dépêches nouvelles environ que j’ai trouvées concernant cette question, on est encore loin d’avoir obtenu tout ce qu’on est en mesure d’attendre. (Iung 51)

He says to his readers that he could not do everything that has to be done to solve the mystery; he can only provide some leads that will serve others who follow him. “Aidez-moi,” he pleads.

Issues Raised by the Absence of the Valet

The argument that has always defended the royal Bourbon family from connection with Eustache Dauger has been that the marquis de Louvois said he was a valet. We have assumed that Louvois knew the details of the man’s crime and background. We could not argue a blood connection with the Bourbons when we were told by the war minister that the prisoner was a valet. A valet is a servant, and not even the contemptuous Louvois would call a royal prince a valet; that would be much against the code of respect for royals and nobles. If Louvois wrote in an official document that Dauger was a valet, then he was most certainly not a Bourbon family member. But now we see that Louvois was not describing the prisoner; he was just using an accidental collision of identical names to make fun of a rival.

Now we can begin to ask if Eustache Dauger was a direct threat to Louis XIV and to his reign. If the king was not open with his most trusted confidants, then this matter must have been illegal. Resolving the valet issue faces us with the possibility that an extremely cruel act was committed by Louis XIV for his personal convenience and possibly for reasons of state. Depending upon the rank of Eustache Dauger, whenever we discover it, the explanation of this crime may have consequences for our basic assumptions about the policies and life of the Sun King, which would lead to some reassessments of Louis XIV’s place in the European seventeenth century. For that reason, historians must continue to ask why Louis XIV imprisoned Eustache Dauger.

Independent Scholar, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

 

Works Cited

Barine, Arvède. “Un geôlier au XVIIe siècle.” La Revue de Paris. 4 (1905): 5–36. Web. 10 July 2014.

Caire, Bernard. “Eustache et son secret.” Il y a trois siècles…le Masque de Fer…Actes du Colloque international sur la célèbre énigme (12–13 sep­tembre 1987). 2nd ed. 41–49. Cannes: La Direction des Affaires Culturelles de la Ville de Cannes, 1996. Print.

Delort, J. Histoire de la détention des philosophes et des gens de lettres à la Bastille et à Vincennes, précédée de celle de Foucquet, de Pellisson et de Lauzun, avec tous les documents authentiques et inédits. Vol. 1. Pa­ris: Firmin Didot, 1829. Print.

———.Histoire de l’homme au masque de fer. Paris: Delaforest, 1825. Web. 28 July 2014.

Dijol, Pierre-Marie. “L’Homme au Masque de fer.” Il y a trois siècles…le Masque de Fer…Actes du Colloque international sur la célèbre énigme (12–13 septembre 1987). 2nd ed. 51–67. Cannes: La Direction des Affaires Culturelles de la Ville de Cannes, 1996. Print.

Du Junca, Etienne. L’estat de prisouniés qui sont envoiés par l’ordre du Roy à la Bastille, à commenser du mescredy honsiesme du mois d’octobre, que je suis entré en possecion de la charge de lieutenant de roy, en l’année 1690, 24 octobre 1690 à 26 août 1705. 1698. Ms 5133, folio 37 ve.Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris. Print.

Duvivier, Maurice. Le Masque de fer. Paris: Armand Colin, 1932. Print.

Ekberg, Carl J. The Failure of Louis XIV’s Dutch War. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1979. Print.

Fougeret, W.A. Histoire générale de la Bastille, depuis sa fondation en 1369, jusqu’à sa destruction, 1789. Paris: Gauvain, 1834. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Fraser, Antonia. Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006. Print.

Furneaux, Rupert. The Man Behind the Mask: The Real Story of the “An­cient Prisoner.” London: Cassell, 1954. Print.

Griffet, R. Père Henri. Traité des différentes sortes de preuves qui servent à établir la verité de l'histoire. Paris: J. F. Bassompierre, 1770. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.

Héroard, Jean. Journal de Jean Héroard sur l’Enfance et la Jeunesse de Louis XIII (1601–1628) Vol. 2. Paris: Firmin Didot, 1868. Print.

Hillairet, Jacques. Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris. Vol. 2. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1963. Print.

Huguet, Adrien. Le Marquis de Cavoye 1640–1716: Un grand maréchal des logis de la maison du roi. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1920. Print.

Iung, Theodore. La Vérité sur le Masque de Fer (Les Empoisonneurs) d’après des documents inédits des Archives de la Guerre et autres dé­pôts public. Paris: Plon, 1873. Print.

Maland, David. Culture and Society in Seventeenth-Century France. New York: Scribner, 1970. Print.

Markale, Jean. La Bastille et l’énigme du Masque de Fer. Paris: Pygma­lion/G. Watelet, 1989. Print.

Mongrédien, Georges. Le Grand Condé, l’homme et son œuvre. Paris: Hachette, 1959. Print.

———.Louis XIV. Paris: Albin Michel, 1963. Print.

Motteville, Françoise Bertaut. Mémoires de Mme de Motteville sur Anne D’Autriche et Sa Cour, Nouvelle Edition d’après le manuscrit de Con­rart avec une annotation extraite des écrits de Monglat, Omer Talon, de Retz, Gourville, Leret, Mlle de Montpensier, etc., des éclaircisse­ments et un index par M. F. Riaux et une notice sur Mme de Motteville par M. Sainte-Beuve. Vol. 2. Paris: Charpentier, 1904. Print.

Orléans, Elisabeth-Charlotte, duchesse d’. A Woman’s Life in the Court of the Sun King, Letters of Liselotte von der Pfalz, Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchesse d’Orléans, 1652–1722. Ed. & trans. Elborg Forster. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins, 1984. Print.

Pagnol, Marcel. Le secret du Masque de Fer: une enquête policière. N.p.: Editions de Provence, 1973. Print.

Petitfils, Jean-Christian. L’Homme au masque de fer. Paris: Perrin, 1970. Print.

_____.Le Véritable d’Artagnan. Paris: Tallandier, 1981. Print.

Pougin, Paul. Mémoires et correspondance de la Marquise de Courcelles publiés d’après les manuscrits avec une notice des notes et les pièces justi­ficatives. Paris: P. Jannet, 1855. Print.

Ranum, Orest. “Jeux de Cartes, Pédagogie et Enfance de Louis XIV.” Les Jeux à la Renaissance, Actes du XXIIIe Colloque International d’Etudes Humanistes Tours – Julliet 1980. 553–62. Ed. Philippe Ariès et Jean-Claude Margolin. Paris: Vrin, 1982. Print.

Roujon, Jacques. Louvois et son maître. Paris: Grasset, 1934. Print.

Rousset, Camille.Histoire de Louvois et de son administration politique et militaire. Paris: Didier, 1873. Print.

Roux-Fazillac, Pierre. Recherches historiques et critiques sur l’Homme au masque de fer, d’où résultent des notions certaines sur ce prisonnier, ou­vrage rédigé sur des matériaux authentiques. Paris: Valade, an IX (1801). Print.

Sonnino, Paul. Louis XIV and the Origins of the Dutch War. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.

_____. “On the Trail of the Iron Mask: The Candidacy of Claude Imbert.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French His­tory 19 (1992): 89–98. Print.

———. “The Three Testaments of Cardinal Mazarin.” French Historical Studies37.3 (2014): 421–36. Web. 6 Jan. 2015.

Thompson, Harry. The Man in the Iron Mask: A Historical Detective Investi­gation. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987. Print.

Topin, Marius. L’Homme au masque de fer. Paris: E. Dentu, 1870. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.

Trioullier, Jean-François. Jeu de cartes au portrait de Paris. Paris: Jean-François Trioullier, 1759–1765. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.

Vaillé, Eugène. Histoire générale des postes françaises. Vol. 4. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1947. Print.

Van Rensselaer, Mrs. John King. The Devil's Picture-Books, a History of Playing Cards. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1890. Print.


[1] Particularly decisive in the election of Dauger as the masked prisoner was the elimination of Matthioli, who had been a primary suspect in nineteenth-century research, but, according to Saint Mars himself in 1681, Matthioli did not accompany Saint-Mars when he left Pignerol to be governor of Exiles, and letters from Louvois to Saint-Mars confirm that there would be only two prisoners going to Exiles with Saint-Mars, one of whom was La Rivière (?–1687), formerly a valet of Foucquet. The other prisoner that the king ordered to go with Saint-Mars, Matthioli, being ruled out, was Dauger. See Topin 329–30 and Vergé-Franceschi 309.

[2] Researchers who have also come to the conclusion that Dauger is the Man in the Iron Mask are Marcel Pagnol, Jules Lair, Andrew Lang, Maurice Duvivier, Rupert Furneaux, Harry Thompson, and Marie-Madeleine Mast, among others.

[3] Bernard Caire in his essay “Eustache et Son Secret,” which was included in the white paper resulting from a colloquium of Mask scholars in 1987 (Caire 43), believes the spelling is “Danger.” Jean-Christian Petitfils in L’Homme au masque de fer also believed this. Other researchers, including Jules Lair, Andrew Lang, and Maurice Duvivier, all having believed Eustache Dauger had an important part in this mystery, write the name “Dauger.” The argument presented below about Louvois’s characterization of Eustache Dauger as a valet will show that the correct spelling is “Dauger.”

[4] There were an extremely limited number of priests and doctors who saw him, always with his mask on, but these men do not concern us in the limited analysis of the valet problem.

[5] Only a remnant of one of the supports of the church west façade is extant. The west portal of the church would have been approximately 30, rue Saint-Paul, Paris 4ème.

[6] In particular, Guillaume de Peichpeirou Comminges, Comte de Guitaut (1626–1685), Condé’s chief of his personal guards. He was the nephew of comte François de Guitaut-Comminges (1581–1663), captain of guards for Anne of Austria.

[7] Saint-Mars’s wife’s sister was Louvois’s mistress.

[8] Her biography is well worth reading: Paul Pougin,Mémoires et Correspondance de la Marquise de Courcelles publiés d’après les manuscrits avec une notice des notes et les pièces justificatives (Paris: P. Jannet, Libraire, MDCCCLV).

[9] This paper found the connection d’Auger/Louvois/Courcelles through a book on the history of Paris streets. She is given by Jacques Hillairet, Dictionnaire des rues de Paris, 2, 501, as a former mistress and previous owner of Cavoye’s hôtel at 52, rue des Saints-Pères.

[10] Vergé-Franceschi also referred to the impropriety of Louvois’s joke, 257–58.

( categories: )

(2016) Volume XVII

ISSN: 1040–3647

Editor: Faith E. Beasley

Associate Editor: Rose A. Pruiksma

Editorial Assistant: Meadow Hilley

Reviews Editors: Allison Stedman and Claire Goldstein

 

Table of Contents

Sarah Madry.  The Valet: The Marquis de Louvois’s Invited Guest in the Mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask.............................................................................1

Jennifer R. Perlmutter.  “Meh”: The Unmarked Jews of Nicolas Boindin’s Le Port de mer.... 28

Deborah Steinberger.  Le Mercure Galant and its Student Body:  Donneau de Visé’s Inclusive Pedagogy     41

Vincent Grégoire.  Emploi d’« objets magiques » et prédiction de phénomènes célestes dans les Relations des jésuites: une stratégie originale de conversion en Nouvelle-France au dix-septième siècle........................................ 57

Book Reviews

Call, Michael, The Would-Be Author. Molière and the Comedy of Print. West Lafayette, IN, Purdue University Press, coll. “Purdue Stud­ies in Romance Literatures,” 2015. ISBN 978-61249-385-5. Pp. 292. $45, reviewed by Ralph Albanese…………………………….……75

Meere, Michael, Editor. French Renaissance and Baroque Drama: Text, Performance, Theory. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-61149-548-5. Pp. 336. $90, reviewed by Christopher Semk………………………………………………….77

Turcat, Eric. La Rochefoucauld par quatre chemins. Les Maximes et leurs ambivalences. Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2013. ISBN 978-3-8233-6803-8. Pp. 220, reviewed by Marie-Alix de Richemont.…..81

 

( categories: )

REVIEW: Braider, Christopher. The Matter of Mind: Reason and Experience in the Age of Descartes. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4426-4348-2. Pp. 340. $75.

Article Citation: 
XVI, 1 (2015): 109–111
Author: 
Ellen McClure
Article Text: 

Christopher Braider’s The Matter of Mind: Reason and Experience in the Age of Descartes, winner of the 2012 Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies awarded by the MLA, is an impas­sioned and engaging effort to put paid to the image of seventeenth-century France as a staid bulwark of rational classicism. This “tenacious idol to which most accounts of the early modern West pay homage” (3), tends to rest, Braider notes, on a vision of Descartes as the century’s emblematic figure, an intellectual hero whose dualist philosophy encapsulated the pe­riod’s longing for the certitudes afforded by a well-founded and transparent order. To counter this vision, Braider introduces his survey of seventeenth-century French cultural production with a reading of Mon­taigne’s essay “De l’expérience,” a provocative choice that serves to place the age of classicism against the messiness of contingent embodiment ra­ther than, say, against the geometric reflecting pools of Versailles. As such, this reading prepares the analyses that follow, which draw out the repressed Montaigne-ness of some of the century’s most notable writers and thinkers in order to locate what Braider calls “the duplicities that charac­terize French classical culture as a whole, engendering the nagging se­cond thoughts that put it on both sides of every issue” (31).

Appropriately, then, Braider moves on to Descartes, reminding the reader that the philosopher’s metaphysical masterpiece, the Meditations, never, in fact, enjoyed the status of an authoritative document. Instead of the warm welcome that the familiar narrative of the classical era might lead us to expect, the text was greeted with a series of objections from scien­tists, philosophers, and theologians inside and outside of France. Braider demonstrates how the inclusion of these objections along with Des­cartes’s responses in the published work exemplifies not duality, but dialogism, resulting in a work that can never quite attain the triumphant abstraction for which it strives. Descartes does, in the end, provide a use­ful framework through which to view the century, but only insofar as his aspiration for the clear, the distinct, and the universal is undercut by the inevitable pull of chaotic contingency. 

Braider goes on to trace the ways in which the stubbornness of the particu­lar subverts the willed universality of classicism through the art of Pous­sin, the plays of Corneille and Molière, the thought of Pascal, and the sat­ires of Boileau. The wide range of works considered, as well as the looseness of Braider’s theoretical apparatus, can at times lead the reader to wonder to what extent the conflict between universal and particular is spe­cific to seventeenth-century France. Yet answering this question would entail engaging in precisely the kind of clumsy causality or easy infer­ences that Braider argues miss the point; it is impossible to tie the century with a neat bow, especially since the seventeenth-century thirst for order is also our own.  Accordingly, Braider’s study succeeds especially well in his close readings of the works he considers. His account of the delicate equilibrium between the abstract sovereignty of the rational and the seduc­tive materiality of color in Poussin’s painting is masterful. In the following chapter, he offers a reading of Médée that convincingly argues that Cor­neille’s identification with strong female characters reflects the author’s consciousness of the unseemliness of pursuing literary greatness and per­sonal autonomy in a century devoted to classical conformity. His attention to Molière’s relatively little-studied play Le Cocu imaginaire focuses on the play’s circulating portrait in order to demonstrate the playwright’s sly and persistent subversion of the classical ideals of univocity and transpar­ency with an eye to “the often tragic potential of comic embodiment” (152). His chapter on Pascal points to the ways in which his philosophy and science intersect to complicate the apologetic goals of the Pensées. Finally, his examination of Boileau’s satire on l’équivoque deftly illus­trates the ways in which this rhetorical category denotes the supplément that is at once unavoidable and unassimilable to the classical ideal of clar­ity.

Braider’s wide-ranging work is not without its flaws. Although he in­cludes a sympathetic reading of Corneille’s female characters, the absence of female writers is glaring, especially given recent work, most notably by Faith Beasley, that argues that the "tenacious idol" of classicism is at least partly the result of centuries of overlooking women’s contributions to seven­teenth-century French culture.  Braider’s treatment of religion can also be puzzling. While he does acknowledge that theology, in the early modern period, was “an intellectual discipline to which, despite the era’s growing secularism, all others remained subordinate” (156), religion gets relatively short shrift. The chapter on Descartes focuses on mind-body dual­ism while hardly mentioning the Meditations’ other avowed pur­pose—to prove the existence of God—and Gassendi is described as a materi­alist and an Epicurean, but never as a priest. I also remain uncon­vinced that Mme Sganarelle’s infatuation with the portrait of Lélie in the Cocu imaginaire can be described as idolatry, insofar as idolatry typically involves overlooking, not (as is the case here) admiring, the materiality of the worshipped object.

That said, Braider’s provocative arguments, supported by readings that are often no less than ingenious, are a joy to read. Braider’s humor and light touch are also on display, as when he notes that Descartes is “no old fart of a sorbonnard” (53) or refers to the coups d’état theorized by Naudé as “the baroque equivalent of Bush-era ‘shock and awe’ ” (95). The reader fre­quently has the delightful impression of being in the classroom of an exceptional professor, whose attention to detail and refusal to accept re­ceived wisdom at face value push his students towards a deeper apprecia­tion of these infinitely complex texts.  Braider’s efforts to destabilize the classical canon, or, more accurately, to point to the ways in which the canon destabilizes itself, constitute a compelling argument that seven­teenth-century French culture is more relevant than ever—even, or espe­cially, in twenty-first century American universities where the struggle between the quest for Truth and the particularities of historical embodi­ment continues to be passionately and urgently fought.

Ellen McClure, University of Illinois at Chicago

( categories: )

REVIEW: Winn, Colette H., ed. Teaching French Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60329-089-0. Pp. viii & 440. $40

Article Citation: 
XVI 1 (2015): 113–116
Author: 
Kathleen Llewellyn
Article Text: 

This collective work is both a critical reappraisal of current thinking on early modern women writers and a guide to studying their works, particu­larly in the classroom. Winn’s introduction explains the political, religious, and sociocultural background essential for understanding the works of French women writers of the sixteenth century. It includes a compre­hensive overview of social and legal perspectives on gender, as well as a description of the public and private lives that women of the era were likely to experience, the education they might receive, and the recep­tion faced by women who wrote and saw their works published. The es­says that follow, divided into four sections, explore a broad range of women writers from myriad interrelated perspectives.

The first part of the volume establishes the cultural, literary, economic, and social context in which early modern French women wrote. Brigitte Roussel examines the representation of marriages and domestic relation­ships in Nicole Estienne’s Misères de la femme mariée. Kathleen Wilson-Chevalier contends that visual art of the era can help students understand women’s roles in early modern society; her approach will bring a much appreciated interdisciplinarity to courses centered on literature. Carrie F. Klaus discusses women’s lives in convents, focusing on their experience of the Protestant Reformation. Diane S. Wood and Laura B. Bergman exam­ine the influence of humanism on the writings of Hélisenne de Crenne, in an essay that encourages student reflection on the importance of humanism in early modern writing across lines of gender and genre. Susan Broomhall considers women’s writing in the context of work, and situates it within the notion of gendered labor. An understanding of this concept is particularly important for today’s students, who often think of early modern women as excluded from economic activity. François Rigolot describes the literary, cultural, and legal transformation that took place in Europe, beginning in the fifteenth century, that fostered the notion of individual intellectual ownership, and thereby encouraged literary produc­tion and publication, including among women authors. Dora E. Polachek illustrates the long literary history of women’s erotic desirability, concentrating on such writers as Marot, Ronsard, Labé, Brantôme, and Marguerite de Navarre. Ann Rosiland Jones discusses Pernette du Guillet and her use of Neoplatonic conventions, establishing textual links between Du Guillet and her literary contemporaries.

Part II treats specific authors, beginning with Zeina Hakim’s study of Louise Labé’s use of imitatio. Danielle Trudeau examines classical influ­ences evident in Pernette Du Guillet’s poetry, as well as the poet’s innova­tions, through a close reading of Du Guillet’s chanson 7. Jane Couchman proposes that students investigate the epistolary genre through an examina­tion of a variety of letters penned by women from a wide range of so­cial classes. Using Georgette de Mornay’s emblem books as an exam­ple, Carla Zecher shows how books serve as both texts and as objects. Both Couchman’s essay and Zecher’s deepen students’ awareness and under­standing of material aspects of the early modern era. Edith Joyce Benkov demonstrates women’s engagement in the world outside home and convent through an exploration of Anne de Marquet’s pasquinades. Jean-Philippe Beaulieu suggests that students read Marie de Gournay’s Discours sur ce livre, not only as an entry into her work and her authorial persona, but also as a way of better understanding the difficulties faced by Renaissance women writers as they sought to establish themselves as recog­nized and respected public figures

Part III proposes specific pedagogical and critical strategies for study of early modern women writers. The approaches suggested here will also serve as an excellent introduction for both undergraduate and graduate stu­dents to the application of literary and cultural theory. Leslie Zarker Morgan locates Louise Labé in the particular cultural, historical, and liter­ary context that was mid-sixteenth-century Lyon. Carla Freccero has cho­sen novella 30 of Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméon – a story that inevita­bly seizes students’ attention – to demonstrate how feminist and queer approaches to reading early modern women’s writings can open new ways to understand their works. Nancy Frelick approaches Hélisenne de Crenne’sLes angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d’amours through the per­spective of transference as a way to lead students beyond an autobiograph­ical reading of the text, or a view of it as largely derivative. Frelick’s essay also provides an excellent demonstration of the effects of a book’s reception, both among its contemporary audience and over time. Cécile Alduy suggests that students’ learning to decode Petrarchan lyrics is essential, not only for their understanding of Louise Labé’s poetry, but more fundamentally, for grasping the complex cultural construction that is gender. Claude La Charité draws our attention to the masculine “I” that appears in Marie de Romieu’s verse, challenging students’ frequent assump­tion that the poetic “I” is autobiographical. Androgynous writing is also the focus of Leah Chang’s essay, in which she examines a wide range of male poets writing in the voice of a woman. Anne R. Larsen explores female writing communities revealed in the works of Catherine des Roches, from literary salons to networks that spanned centuries and crossed national boundaries. Larson’s essay provides a welcome and in­deed necessary corrective for students who still imagine that early modern women writers were isolated and even alienated. Gary Ferguson argues for the inclusion of the poetry of the Catholic nun Anne de Marquets in a course on women writers. The addition of Marquets’s devotional poetry to courses where students read love-themed poems and stories (which tend to be quite popular and are probably more easily understood) will enable them to explore a wider range of women’s writing. Mary B. McKinley sug­gests that students complement their reading of Marguerite de Na­varre’s Heptaméron with Marie Dentière’s Epistle to Marguerite de Navarreas a way to better understand the significance of the Protestant Reformation in the lives of early modern French women. McKinley also uses Dentière’s Epistle as an opportunity for students to study rhetoric, which is crucial to understanding sixteenth-century literature. Colette H. Winn recommends that students undertake a comparative study of Gabri­elle de Coignard’s spiritual verse and Louise Labé’s love sonnets, which will enhance the students’ understanding of the place of Petrarchism in the work of both poets. Winn’s approach can be applied to a number of compara­tive studies, helping students find connections among texts, creat­ing a veritable literary tapestry. Deborah Lesko Baker addresses the sometimes problematic issue of having students read texts in Middle French. She suggests making Louise Labé’s prose works available to stu­dents both in the original French and in English translation.

Part IV of this collection points the reader to an abundant and diverse col­lection of resources. In one essay Colette H. Winn lists a number of critical editions of women writers’ work; in the following chapter she di­rects the reader to journals, professional associations, conferences, and colloquia for scholars of early modern women writers. A survey of valua­ble online resources is provided by Winn and Graziella Postolache. Karen Simroth James and Mary B. McKinley open the door to the past a bit wider for students by suggesting ways they can access centuries-old texts, both via online resources – digital facsimiles are more and more available – and directly in special collections that house rare books. James and McKin­ley also suggest ways that those resources might be used.

This volume will be a precious resource for teachers and for scholars. The selection of writers, subjects, and approaches is both broad and deep, and will prove invaluable for those who wish to include women writers in survey courses or courses focusing on a particular theme or genre, and for those constructing a course specifically centered on early modern women writers. The authors included in this volume have chosen texts that will fascinate students, drawing them into the literary culture of sixteenth-cen­tury France. At the same time, these texts will certainly challenge students, pushing them to understand the era in new ways, and to see from new perspec­tives not only early modern women’s lives, but the lives of early modern men as well, and even, perhaps especially, human experience across the centuries.

Kathleen M. Llewellyn, Saint Louis University

( categories: )

REVIEW: Randall, Catharine. The Wisdom of Animals: Creatureliness in Early Modern French Spirituality. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-268-04035-2. Pp. 178. $28.

Article Citation: 
XVI, 1 (2015): 111–112
Author: 
Jean Leclerc
Article Text: 

L’ouvrage de Catharine Randall se recommande par son côté interdiscipli­naire et l’ampleur du champ considéré. Dans The Wisdom of Animals : Creatureliness in Early Modern French Spirituality, elle étudie la manière de concevoir et d’utiliser les animauxdans les écrits de quatre auteurs des XVIe au XVIIIe siècles. Sa pensée prend pour point de départ la définition théologique des animaux fondés sur la Bible et l’interprétation de saint Thomas d’Aquin selon laquelle les animaux n’ont pas d’âme et ont été mis sur terre par le créateur afin de servir l’homme. À l’opposé du spectre, elle sollicite les penseurs modernes des droits des ani­maux, comme Keith Thomas, Diana Donald et Erica Fudge, afin de mesurer les acquis quant à la perception des animaux, leurs structures so­ciales, leur capacité à communiquer, à sentir et à vivre des émotions. C’est sur cette ligne de tension qu’elle situe les quatre auteurs de son corpus : Michel de Montaigne, Guillaume Salluste Du Bartas, François de Sales et Guillaume-Hyacinthe Bougeant. Dans ce très vaste panorama qui l’amène de 1570 à 1739, elle ne s’intéresse pas seulement à un corpus hétéroclite d’œuvres, allant des essais philosophiques jusqu’aux « amusements » d’un abbé mondain des Lumières en passant par la poésie épique protestante et les manuels de dévotion, elle accumule les approches théoriques et méthodolo­giques, empruntant à la philosophie, à la théologie, aux études littéraires, à l’histoire des mœurs et des sensibilités, l’histoire des sciences et du sentiment religieux. Son livre intéressera les spécialistes de la spiritua­lité du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle, les littéraires qui considèrent la fic­tion au croisement de l’histoire des idées, des savoirs et des perceptions, les activistes et les théoriciens modernes des droits des animaux qui s’interrogent sur les origines et les fondements de leurs propres pratiques.

Il faut donc saluer l’effort et l’audace de cette chercheuse en poste à Dart­mouth College, qui s’attaque à un aspect méconnu de la spiritualité du long dix-septième siècle et une source importante des sensibilités mo­dernes. L’originalité et la pertinence du sujet se déploient dans les quatre chapitres, chacun consacré à un auteur qui ne s’intéressait pas spécifique­ment aux animaux, mis à part le dernier. Le chapitre sur Montaigne pro­pose de fines analyses de L’Apologie pour Raimond Sebon, où Montaigne s’enthousiasme devant les hirondelles, leur intelligence et leur capacité à construire des nids, mais s’en sert surtout pour justifier la démarche de sa pensée. Dans le second chapitre, elle subordonne la longue énumération des animaux que fait Du Bartas dans La Sepmaine à une poétique du re­gardoù le lecteur prendrait la position privilégiée de Dieu devant la créa­tion. Se tournant vers L’Introduction à la vie dévote de François de Sales dans son troisième chapitre, elle met en valeur la méthode spirituelle d’imagerie mentale grâce à laquelle les animaux ouvrent une voie d’accès privilégiée au divin, images qui jouent un rôle important dans la concep­tion de la grâce au début du siècle. Le dernier chapitre se tourne vers un père Jésuite du XVIIIe siècle, l’abbé Bougeant, théologien sérieux et ré­puté par ailleurs, mais qui commet un Amusement philosophique sur le langage des bêtes (1739), dans lequel il argumente en faveur de l’âme des bêtes à partir de la notion de métempsychose, où des démons circulent de corps en corps, pourvoyant ainsi les animaux d’une intelligence, d’une capa­cité à sentir et à s’exprimer.Pour bonifier sa recherche et pour affir­mer ses analyses, elle n’hésite pas à solliciter plusieurs auteurs secon­daires, de Ronsard à La Fontaine en passant par Ignace de Loyola, Calvin, Bérulle et Descartes. Toutes ces qualités font de l’ouvrage de Catharine Randall un livre utile au champ des études interdisciplinaires du long XVIIe siècle, agréable à lire malgré quelques redondances, et solide sur le plan de la recherche malgré quelques oublis bibliographiques.

Jean Leclerc, Western University

 

( categories: )

Teaching the Seventeenth Century at the Graduate Level

Article Citation: 
XVI, 1 (2015): 93–108
Author: 
Sylvie Romanowski
Article Text: 

Printable PDF of Romanowski, 93–108

 

Several considerations influenced my approach to teaching French seven­teenth-century literature at the graduate level. One is student-cen­tered: how to interest students most of whom are in various fields of contempo­rary literature and theory, more specifically modern, post-colo­nial literature. Another is a practical circumstance, that our term is only one quarter long (10 weeks), which means that nothing like a complete overview of the century can be proposed. The course must be rather nar­rowly focused on an important and relevant aspect of the period. I decided that the concept of modernity would provide such a focus. The concept of modernity provides a framework that, first, links the period to its immedi­ate context, particularly the Renaissance. Second, links can be made with our own period and the movements of contemporary thought variously named futurism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-modernism, and post-colonialism.

The anchoring idea is that in the seventeenth century thinkers, philos­o­phers, writers, ranging across many cultural areas such as religion, sci­ence, government, painting, poetry, theater, and language engaged in a con­scious and often aggressive work of self-definition and  wanted to be new, modern, and different from the immediate past. Obviously the con­cept of “modern” is a slippery and highly variable one, being relational to any previous cultural mindset. Any period can think of itself in this way.[1] Not every period does. I maintain that the concept of being “modern” came to the foreground at various times in French culture but at no time more forcefully than in the seventeenth century. In other words, the con­cept of being “modern” became a cultural force, in the sense of wanting to separate from the immediate past. A hint of the increasing importance of being “modern” comes from a comparison of two dictionary entries. In Huguet’s dictionary of the sixteenth century French language, the word “moderne” is simply defined as “Nouveau” (article “Moderne”). In Furetière’s 1690 dictionary, however, the entry for that same word is much more fulsome:

Qui n’est pas ancien, qui n’est en usage que depuis les der­niers siècles. C’est un usage moderne, une coûtume mo­derne, une invention moderne, un ouvrage moderne. Le Grec moderne est celui qu’on parle maintenant en Grèce. Les Modernes ont beaucoup enchery sur les Anciens en toutes sortes d’arts et de sciences. Ce mot Moderne vient de Modernus, dont plusieurs se sont servis.

The thinkers, writers, and theoreticians of literature participated in a movement to rethink cultural productions in both a forward-looking, opti­mistic way (we will not do things the same way from now on and we will do them better), and in a backward-looking, oppositional and polemical way (the ways of the past must be left behind).

In other words, the seventeenth-century philosophers, statesmen, po­ets, dramatists, and artists self-consciously opposed themselves to their immediate past. This, I feel, is different from what the sixteenth-century writers did.[2] Certainly the latter knew the culture was very different from the medieval one, that civilization was changing, but the degree of change was so radical, innovative, rapid, that no energy was spent looking back­wards—the innovation of print, the “discovery” and subsequent colonizing of the New World, the Protestant Reformation, the reconnecting with the Greek and Latin texts, the new practices of perspective in painting, the in­flux into France of Italian influences, all these factors contributed to an explosive renewal and energizing of the culture that moved ahead, sepa­rating itself from tradition inherited from the previous times.         

My starting point in the course is to read two iconic Renaissance texts, ex­cerpts from Montaigne’s “Apologie de Raymond Sebon” (II.12) and Rabelais’s “Gargantua.” For Montaigne: the last third of the Essay, from “Voyons si nous avons quelque peu plus de clarté en la connaissance des choses humaines et naturelles” to the end; for Rabelais: 14 selected chap­ters. I use these texts to exemplify some traits of thought and writing that are significant to keep in mind when reading the next century’s texts: Mon­taigne’s thorough-going scepticism and anti-foundationalism, and Rabelais’s rich, multifaceted, freewheeling style that embraces everything from religion and high culture to the vulgar and the scatological.

During the second half of the sixteenth century and in the early part of the seventeenth century, however, the cultural energies and the political situation had degenerated into the violence of the religious wars, economic and social instability. This is what Ellery Schalk calls the “shadow of the sixteenth century” which led to the erection of a strong absolutist regime to counter the fear of a return to chaos. Katherine Ibbett explores another parallel aim, establishing “a critical norm of Frenchness” (6): “what we now call French classicism was understood more generally as a resistance to the Italian” (10), a pervasive influence during the entire sixteenth cen­tury in many areas (architecture, painting, poetry, clothing, food) and into the first part of the seventeenth especially with the dominance of Mazarin. My treatment of the French seventeenth century, then, is to focus on its diligent and persistent efforts to bring order to the world and to the culture by means of principles, “rules,” “regularity,” in theater, poetry, religion, establishing of standards of speech, behavior, and organizing the state around a strong, central monarchical figure. Order means also: hierarchy, the sorting out of what is inferior and superior, better and worse, what it is better to be near to, and what is to be shunned, like ambiguity, uncertainty, rel­ativism. One may say that it is unique in the sense of being both pro­gressive and conservative: progressive in moving the culture to new, clearer norms, and conservative in that it wants to preserve order, stability and establish a firm, authoritative foundation.

This approach is based on analyses of the culture by several historians and thinkers who have described a decisive shift in this period. I put their books on reserve at the library, I photocopy a few significant pages, and I ask students to read them in tandem with the literary works. I start with Michel Foucault’s analysis of the classical episteme (chiefly in Les mots et les choses), what he calls “la science générale de l’ordre” (87)—represen­tation, language, classification of natural beings, and wealth. Other anal­yses inspired by Foucault, more detailed and in a fully-referenced scholarly mode are two books by Timothy J. Reiss, who instead of “classi­cal” uses the term “analytico-referential”: “What I will call an ‘analytico-referential’ class of discourse becomes the single dominant structure and the necessary form taken by thought, by knowledge, by cultural and social practices of all kinds” (Discourse 23, Reiss’s underlining). Also very use­ful, and required reading, is Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis, which pro­vides perhaps the most succinct description of the opposition between the old and new cultures: “In the 1580s and ‘90s, skeptical acceptance of ambigu­ity and a readiness to live with uncertainty were still viable intel­lectual policies: by 1640, this was no longer the case” (44). Toulmin makes the case that the seventeenth century was a “counter-Renaissance”[3] and that there was a “retreat from the Renaissance” in four different ways that emphasize rationalism and the need for certainty: from the oral to the written, from the particular to the universal, from the local to the general, from the timely to the timeless (30–35). He summarizes this shift as being the development of the “Cartesian program for philosophy”: a “change of attitude—the devaluation of the oral, the particular, the local, the timely, and the concrete—appeared a small price to pay for a formally ‘rational’ theory grounded on abstract, universal, timeless concepts” (75). Clément Rosset, whose analyses focus more on other periods in his L’anti-nature, also indicates briefly the usefulness of his concepts for understanding the seventeenth century: he opposes the “artificialisme précartésien,” and Mon­taigne’s Essays (131) to the “reconstitution d’un naturalisme moderne par Descartes, Locke et Rousseau” (128). For an overall view of both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Robert Muchembled’s works are un­paralleled, especially his L’invention de la France moderne: Monarchie, culture et société 1500–1660) that examines “la singularité d’une aventure collective millénaire qu’a pu achever Louis XIV, sorti armé de pied en cap du sein de la monarchie absolue léguée par ses ancêtres” (9). The slightly conventional turn of this sentence does not represent the breadth and depth of this work that truly examines all facets of the period, including litera­ture, peasant life, popular culture, the role of women, linguistic change, the court, schools, courts of law, the baroque esthetic in the arts and ur­banization. A recent work by Sara E. Melzer examines another aspect of the culture’s efforts to define itself, focused not on what is to be rejected, but on what is to be remembered as the foundation of the French culture. This consists of a long and lively debate concerning what is to be accepted within the culture as its legitimate foundation, its founding myth and his­tory: are the French de­scendants and inheritors of the Gauls or the Romans? The conundrum that results is that if the French identify as Gauls, they are barbarians, which is distasteful, but if they identify as Roman­ized Gauls, they identify both as barbarians needing to be civilized and as colonizers. According to Melzer, the resulting “memory wars” that took place in “early modern France’s massive image-making campaign” (23) were not resolved till the next century when French enterprises in the New World opened up new per­spectives, when “the moderns broke out of this binary opposition” by creating a new image of the future “that im­proved upon the past rather than fell away from it (201).

An interesting problematization of the concept of the “modern” is pro­vided by Bruno Latour’s provocative and polemical book, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, where he lays out what he calls the “Constitution” of modernity: “Moderniser permettait de distinguer enfin nettement les lois de la nature extérieure et les conventions de la société” (178). Nature is completely other and separate from the human, and the construction of the human is completely under our control and free will. However, Latour shows that these were ideals that necessitated other practices of mediation, mixtures, interferences between these two presumably opposed domains: nature is not transcendent, but is the product of human exploration and under­standing, and the conventions of society are not entirely under our control, as there are social forces that exceed our control: “la nature transcendante reste néanmoins mobilisable, humanisable, socialisable” and “la société . . . nous domine, elle a ses lois” (56). The in-between media­tions remain unseen, denied: “C’est l’impensé, l’impensable des modernes (57). This concurs with what Reiss calls the “occultation that the human view of the world is necessarily a ‘perspectival’ one. It marks the assertion of such a view as absolute” (Discourse 37). While I agree completely with these analyses, my focus in this approach is not the “unthought” (“l’impensé”) but what was “thought,” what the “moderns” of the seven­teenth century were consciously rethinking and rebuilding, what they be­lieved in and promulgated. Indeed, I might reverse the dynamic here: what was unthought, hidden but operative had to remain so in order for the enter­prise of the “thought” to continue and move forward. The super­struc­ture matters as much as the infrastructure, and my choice in this course is to focus on the superstructure, the conscious endeavors. This does not ig­nore what was hidden, but instead proposes to examine what the “modern” thinkers, in their rebuilding efforts, rejected, in their terms. How the re­pressed, the hidden is evoked and described can be included in order to understand the process of reformation of the culture in the various works to be analyzed. 

To illustrate the usefulness of this approach, I will briefly summarize some important developments in specific areas of cultural production, where the concept of “modern” as opposed to the previous period is very visible, i.e. in areas of the French seventeenth-century culture that exem­plify the consciousness of being not only different (every culture thinks it is different) but also “modern” and “better.”

Philosophy with Descartes is in the forefront of these efforts, and it is use­ful to start with his Discours de la méthode, which was written to be accessible for an audience beyond philosophers and specialists and had immense influence in shaping the period, down to our time. As Descartes fights against what is erroneous, childish, confused, haphazard, and am­biguous, he establishes knowledge as based on clear and distinct ideas, univocal and unambiguous language, a strict separation of body and soul, of human from non-human. He also claims to achieve a complete under­standing of the world that encompasses the entirety of creation, from God to the smallest particle then known to the human eye. For him, it is crucial to have a single, central authority located in the self in order to understand and organize the world, to separate the bodily from the immaterial, and to achieve the rationalization, the quantification of the universe, and, most important, human mastery over nature.

The most obvious and well-known literary form where the processes of self-definition can be examined is theater, especially the genre of trag­edy that was being defined in opposition to other play-writing such as “tragi-comédie” or “pièce à machines.” In that domain dramatists not only produced plays according to the famous “rules,” but also a body of work in dialogue with theatrical critics who self-consciously theorized the new classical drama and the “rules” of dramaturgy. This produces what John D. Lyons calls the “culture of regularity” which he summarizes thus, en­larging it beyond the confines of dramaturgy: “By ‘culture of regularity’ we mean here the habits of a society that framed what it did and what it said with a consciousness of multiple, proliferating, normative statements about how literary and artistic production should be carried out” (42). New tragedy is being defined both negatively, against a previous mode of theat­rical writing, and positively, as striving towards a new form of elegance and control: “The struggle for decorum is, in part, a battle of modernity against the horror of antiquity. . . . The project of seventeenth-century poet­ics was not to replicate but to correct the tragedy of the ancients” (58). What is undecorous, unseemly, untimely is not, however, entirely ab­sent—indeed it is present as opposite behaviors and values that give the plays their plot lines and their density. This of course is not limited to trage­dies, and Molière’s comedies can be included here. A few good ex­amples of plays to study in this respect are: Racine’s Phèdre (incest and a monster), Molière’s Dom Juan (an old-fashioned nobleman who flouts the rules of society and religion) or his Misanthrope (rejection of the rules of courtly civility). Many other plays obviously fit into this type of analysis, such as Britannicus (corrupt monarchical figures), Corneille’s Le Cid (old noble codes of vengeance) or his Horace (the murder of one’s own blood necessitating the reestablishment of civil behavior by the monarch).

Going beyond this particular literary form, one can consider the atten­tion to language and the twin endeavors of reforming language and gram­mar and refining poetic and general social discourse, what Alain Rey calls “l’enrégimentement du discours littéraire” from 1620–1630 on (621). The reform is exemplified by various writers who were poets, writers, and gram­marians, united in a common quest for refinement, clarity of expres­sion, dignity and elegance, often summarized in the ideal of the “honnête homme,” what later developed into the language of the salons, the court, and the “préciosité” movement’s efforts to purify the language from “dirty” expressions, resulting in the elimination of thousands of words perma­nently from the French language. The historian of the French lan­guage, Ferdinand Brunot, states it thus:

La Cour, au XVIe siècle, comme les écrivains eux-mêmes, ac­cepte dans son langage toutes les nouveautés…. Au con­traire, depuis le siècle nouveau, les tendances vont au rebours…. Voilà … une différence essentielle: la langue courti­sane du XVIe siècle est tout ouverte, la nouvelle est rig­oureusement fermée; la première était touf­fue et pédantesque, celle-ci est ‘gueuse et délicate’ [Balzac].’ Une nouvelle mode est née, celle de la pureté du langage: une nouvelle haine, celle du barbarisme. (III, 69)

The reforms of poetry by Malherbe and Boileau are well known and need no restatement here and are similar to statements by Vaugelas and other grammarians; I distribute short excerpts from all these writers.

Though it lies outside the strict purview of the course, painting is an­other area where the redefinition of the esthetic is at work, proceeding in both the production of works and their theorization. In the period, there was a lively battle between the partisans of drawing and line and those of color, as a battle between those who favor theoretical reason and those who favor materiality of color that escapes rational discourse. As Jacquel­ine Lichtenstein summarizes it:

“The debate between the partisans of drawing and those of coloris . . . was reborn in France and took on new forms largely determined by the politics and institutions of the age of Louis XIV. . . . the institution that defends the pri­macy of drawing also serves to advance the greater glory of the monarchy.” (147–9)

There are other cultural domains where similar forces of ordering are at work: in religion, the Catholic Reformation sought to increase authority of the Catholic Church and the Papacy, resulting in a conflict with the French monarch, while the same monarch sought to unify his king­dom in one faith, resulting in the expulsion of the Protestants and the destruction of the Jansenists. Another signal achievement was the centrali­zation of the state around a non-itinerant court and an absolute monarch, and the build­ing of Versailles as the locus of power, with the concomitant design of the grounds into “French”-style landscape; socially, the strong influence of the courtly life as a model for society, what is called the “cu­rialization” of the ur­ban elites and nobility. On this, Norbert Elias’s La société de cour is the de­fining work. One interesting specific domain where one can see these efforts at refinement and control is the disciplining of the body. As Georges Vigarello states:

Le XVIIe siècle sera … la systématisation de tend­ances nées au siècle précédent. . . . Les remarques sur la rectitude sont reprises par une large littérature pédagogique. Mme de Maintenon, dans un propos essentiellement mor­alisateur, ne craint pas de la mentionner. . . . Dans le monde classique la posture doit témoigner d’une domination des passions. . . . La règle et l’ordre régissent le comportement jusqu’à l’artifice. (49–52)

Vigarello’s detailed study brings together many prestigious cultural areas where such disciplinary efforts were carried out very self-consciously, such as dance, dueling, theatrical acting, and courtly behavior. What this kind of discipline did for the body, the practice of “bienséances” did for purifi­cation of language and the refinement of social mores. Some of these ideas and texts can be touched on briefly during the course, and can sug­gest ideas for further exploration.

My curriculum includes iconic works to illustrate the process of self-defi­nition, and its accompanying tensions, around the concept of moder­nity. Apart from the works already mentioned, it might include Racine’s Andromaque or Britannicus; Corneille’s L’Ilusion comique; excerpts from Pascal’s Pensées; some poems by Viau, Régnier, and Malherbe; some Fa­bles by La Fontaine; La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de Lafayette; selec­tions from La Bruyère’s Caractères and La Rochefoucauld’s Max­imes. These complex texts enable a discussion of the ideals of the new monar­chy, science, religion, behavior, etc. as well as the critique of these very ideals by some of these very same texts, that are both instrumental in defining the culture and, at the same time, critical of it. Ross Chambers’s detailed analyses of the oppositional nature of literature are extremely use­ful here. He defines ancien régime oppositional literature as being “covert ‘textual’ opposition readable in overt ‘narrative’ acknowledgement of seats of power—a practice of irony then” (45), and his reading of some of La Fontaine’s Fables is an extraordinary lesson in such close reading. In a similar vein, La Princesse de Clèves can be read as both a representation and an indictment of courtly ideals; Racine’s tragedies as a critique and warning about the excesses of an overly centralized and corrupt monarchy; and Pascal’s Pensées as an exposition and a thorough-going critique of anti-foundationalism.[4]

Some disadvantages of this approach can be mentioned at this point. Chief among them is that it necessarily simplifies the culture, focusing on its dominant elements (the court, the aristocracy, the official culture of the Académies) and leaves out the “irréguliers,” like Cyrano de Bergerac, the resistant poets, the libertines, the realist novelists and other non-aristo­cratic figures, and gives only limited space to women’s voices. This is a limited view of the century, but the point can be made that the “irréguli­ers” and the resistant figures are defined by what they are opposed to, i.e. to the dominant elite’s efforts as outlined above. Another large area omit­ted from this particular, targeted approach, but which may be in­cluded, is the situation and importance of the various artistic phenomena of the first part of the century often grouped under the name Baroque. The status of the Baroque has long been difficult to situate exactly, and for my part, I view it as an intermediary period between the Renaissance and the time when the seventeenth-century style became more generally estab­lished during the reign of Louis XIV. If I choose to include it, there is one particu­lar work that works very well to discuss the Baroque in such a course, especially in light of later theatrical works: Corneille’s L’Illusion comique, and I do often include it in my courses, both graduate and ad­vanced undergraduate. Some poems by such writers as Théophile de Viau, Boisrobert, and Saint-Amant also provide useful examples of the Baroque esthetic. A brief discussion of the Baroque as a transition period between the sixteenth century and the seventeenth can be useful for the later pur­pose of confronting this period with some current issues in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

There are several advantages to this approach, in my opinion. First, the seventeenth century is viewed in the context of the preceding period—of course, every culture and literature ought to be viewed in context, but the self-consciousness of this particular culture and its unique attempts at self-definition are highlighted as being a special moment in European culture that has long-reaching consequences. The definitions of language, drama, philosophical inquiry, poetry, appropriate behavior, hierarchization of so­ciety, all continued to have validity even as the Enlightenment rethought and questioned many of the values it inherited, for example the absolute monarchy, the central authority of the Catholic church, social stratifica­tion, and the domination of the aristocratic, curial model as a social norm. Another advantage, not yet mentioned, is that the relation between the Re­naissance and the seventeenth century can be seen not only as a difference or a rupture, but also as a continuity: the absolutism of the seventeenth cen­tury Bourbon monarchy began with the Valois, and most importantly, the work of self-definition was already well understood, with attention paid to shaping one’s character and life, as most fully explored in Stephen Green­blatt’s Renaissance Self-fashioning from More to Shakespeare. The goal of shaping one’s individual character is now expanded into the shap­ing of a whole culture, that, ironically, does not value extremely individualis­tic behavior but rather conformity to an ideal valid for the elites, and beyond, to those aspiring to the higher ranks of society. 

Another significant advantage is being able to suggest links to the mod­ern period: as I mentioned before, most if not all of our graduate stu­dents are interested in the contemporary period, in post-modern and post-colonial literatures. This aspect of the reframing of the seventeenth cen­tury obviously lies outside the course’s scope, but some suggestions can be made here. One is that the critics cited earlier (Toulmin, Reiss, Rosset, Latour) see our modern period as the breaking apart of the seventeenth century’s culture. Toulmin: “The recent doubts about the value of Moder­nity . . . confirm that the epoch whose end we supposedly see today began some time in the first half of the seventeenth century” (11). Or Reiss: “We now find ourselves, indeed, at the nether end of the development of the analytical-referential. . . . Other kinds of discourse seek to accompany, if not to displace it [the analytico-referential]” because the latter “has con­trolled the forms of Western knowledge (and action) from the period we are discussing down to the present day” (Discourse 239). This can be viewed as a crisis: “we find ourselves . . .  in a moment of ‘discursive des­pair,’ in a time of crisis when our systems of action have again lost their meaningfulness, when we have again reached the limits the discursive space that is our episteme” (Tragedy 300). But it is also a moment of im­mense liberation and creativity. In 1980, Reiss wrote somewhat cau­tiously: “The researches of such philosophers as Wittgenstein and Der­rida would be attempts to demarcate that crisis and to discover a way out” (Trag­edy 300).

Ten years later, the idea that our epoch is rejecting the seventeenth-cen­tury mind-set became much clearer, as Toulmin states: “The ‘modern’ fo­cus on the written, the universal, the general, and the timeless . . . is be­ing broadened to include once again the oral, the particular, the local, and the timely” (186). The seventeenth century’s ideals persisted long into the eighteenth century and beyond, despite such events and movements as the French Revolution and Romanticism. I would suggest that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and Romanticism, transformative movements though they were, did not shake the foundations of thought and culture established by the second half of the seventeenth century. It was only in the late nineteenth-century that another “modernism,” a profound contes­tation of all the principles elaborated during the seventeenth century, un­did the classical episteme and elaborated a new and revolutionary es­thetic (with such writers as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Apollinaire, etc.) that are congenial to contemporary authors writing in French. Most pro­foundly, the contemporary philosophical movements led by such fig­ures as Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, Mau­rice Blanchot, can be considered as dismantling (or, to use a modern word, de­constructing) the elaborate civilization of the body and of the mind, of language, art, and society that the seventeenth century had so persistently and durably constructed. Perhaps it is no accident that the philosophers who are at the forefront of the contestation of what Rosset calls “natural­isme,” what I call foundationalism, come from France, what has been called in the United States “French theory.” These figures, and many oth­ers, are certainly reacting to the discourses of presence, platonism, and natu­ral foundationalism generally dominant in Western thought, but no­where was the weight of these ideologies felt more strongly than in the culture where they were developed during the seventeenth century.

The weight of these ideologies is felt in two domains of contemporary French culture. One, inside France itself, can be linked to the seventeenth century ideals. In her concluding chapter, “The Legacy of the Quarrel,” Melzer shows how the seventeenth-century elite’s ideals of purity, its nar­row definition of cultural values still echo in contemporary debates about France’s “mission civilisatrice.” The principal efforts of France as a colo­nial power started with its “civilizing” mission of the New World during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, firmly anchored in the belief that its culture and religion was better than those of the “savages” it conquered. That this mission was anything but altruistic is still an argument that has to be made as there have been recent attempts to inscribe positive descrip­tions of coloniza­tion into French law. From a discussion of the effect of the seventeenth-century colonization on the conquered and colonized, Joan Dayan provides a comparison between Descartes’s establishment of the mind as the essence of the human and colonization, accompanying the re­jection of the body as non essential: “Descartes’ methodical but metaphori­cal dispossession becomes the basis for the literal expropriation and dehumanization necessary to turn a man into a thing” (204). This con­cept, going even further than the disciplining of the body described by Viga­rello, is “crucial to the assumption that underlie the judicial regulation of blacks in the colonies” (Dayan 204) and is codified in the Code Noir promulgated by Louis XIV in 1685, the year of the unification of the French kingdom’s religion with the Revocation of Edict of Nantes. The image that France built of itself as “a land of liberty, equality, and frater­nity,” as a civilization of grandeur, has nostalgic appeal but is difficult to maintain “when the nation has colonized and subjugated other peoples” (224). Witness the recent and current debates that have agitated French public opinion about immigration, French identity, “laïcité,” religion, es­pecially Islam, and the “merits” of colonization.

This last point leads me directly to the other area where the weight of the “classical” ideology is felt (it lies outside France and outside the scope of the course, but can be alluded to as it would be of interest to those study­ing these areas): how writers living in former French colonies (and current DOM-TOM), are, in part at least, resisting and opposing the colo­nizing culture.

What philosophers like Derrida and Deleuze are questioning in French philosophy and culture, the writers from Africa and the Caribbean had al­ready started questioning even during the period of colonization, witness the “Négritude” poets of the 1920s and 30s. While these writers are de­pend­ent on French governmental, economic, and commercial structures, and are in some cases French citizens, they are not French like the metro­politan French, and not independent either. A difficulty encountered inside the métropole and outside it is the need for finding a name for the writers who use French outside of France: are they “francophone”? “post-colo­nial”? Several writers have proposed the term “littérature-monde” in seek­ing to “libérer la langue de son pacte avec la nation” (Littérature-monde 47).[5] It is interesting to note that the English-speaking world does not seem to have the same problem; people simply write in English, wher­ever they are and no one term seems necessary to include writers so diverse as Salman Rushdie or V.S. Naipaul. But then England did not pur­sue the same effort at centralization and control as the French culture did, at least not with the same vigor.

We can gain some understanding by seeing that what these writers are re­jecting was the product of the seventeenth century. The self-conscious oppositional mind-set is expressed forcefully by Edouard Glissant: “Nous réclamons le droit à l’opacité. . . . l’élan des peuples néantisés qui oppo­sent aujourd’hui à l’universel de la transparence, imposé par l’Occident, une multiplicité sourde du Divers” (14). By rejecting this imposed culture, might not these writers, it seems logical to ask, connect with some of the practices rejected by the seventeenth century culture? An intriguing aspect of this is indicated by the same writer who concludes his work with the proposition: “Voici bien le moment de revenir au baroque dont nous avons souvent traité ici” (795). I view the Baroque as a historical moment of strug­gle during the first half of the century between the Renaissance es­thetic and the newly-emerging esthetic that will coalesce after the Fronde. However, it is clear that Glissant sees the baroque also as part of the sev­enteenth century’s disciplining and ordering thrust: “L’effort inconscient du baroque rhétorique, dans le monde colonial antillais, s’acharnait après la langue française par une exacerbation de la hantise de pureté” (796). For an example of the connection between the striving for clarity, order, and hierarchy that defined the century’s mind set, and colonization, Dominique Chancé, who studies three Caribbean authors, Alejo Carpen­tier, Daniel Maximin, and Edouard Glissant, considers that these authors see the Baroque as an a-historical esthetic: “le baroque n’est pas . . . le style propre à une époque donnée” (251) but “l’écriture d’une telle tension en­tre le désordre effrayant d’un monde sans loi et le chaos merveilleuse­ment fécond des forêts tropicales” (12). It seems significant to me that Glis­sant appeals to a moment in the period where the culture was still in the process of moving toward, and resisting against, a stronger disciplinary practice. He would like to strive for “la ‘naturalité’ d’un nouveau baroque, le nôtre. La libération viendra du composite. La ‘fonction’ des langues créoles, qui doivent refuser la tentation de l’unicité, passe par une telle opé­ration . . .  si éloignée du melting-pot” (796).[6] The differences between these interpretations illustrate, among other things, the difficulty of de­fin­ing the Baroque, but also the acceptance of the multiplicity of perspectives, of languages and styles.

In conclusion, the goals of connecting the seventeenth century to the stu­dents’ interests and selecting a focus for a relatively short course are met by these strategies. The first strategy is to select the focus of moder­nity, which was important and relevant to both the seventeenth century and to our times. The other strategy is to contextualize the century in two directions: one towards its past, the Renaissance, and the other towards its future, our modern era which questions, problematizes, and deconstructs the intellectual achievements of the past century. In this framing, the En­lightenment is the continuation of the seventeenth century achievements with the ideals of clarity, reason, order being used in the name of progress, and reform of politics, society, and religion. The first contextualization with relation to the sixteenth century highlighted the seventeenth century’s ef­forts to make itself different and modern, and the second contextualiza­tion makes the connection with our present, which also sees itself as “mod­ern,” in opposition to the century’s concept of  “modern.” I hope that this approach in our “post-modern” age is better understood by providing this “big picture” assessment of Western European intellectual develop­ment.

Northwestern University


 

Works Consulted

Bruneau, Marie-Florine. Racine: le jansénisme et la modernité. Paris: José Corti, 1986.

Brunot, Ferdinand. Histoire de la langue française des origines à 1900. Tome III: La Formation de la Langue classique (1600–1660). Paris: Ar­mand Colin, 1909.

Chambers, Ross. Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Chancé, Dominique. Poétique baroque de la Caraïbe. Paris: Karthala, 2001.

Cragg, G. P. The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648–1789. 1960. Pen­guin, 1970.

Cusset, François. French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux Etats-Unis. Paris: La Découverte, 2003.

Dayan, Joan. Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Elias, Norbert. La société de cour. 1969. Trans. Pierre Kamnitzer. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1974.

Foucault, Michel. Les mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines. Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

Furetière, Antoine. Dictionaire universel. 1690. Geneva: Slatkine Re­prints, 1970.

Glissant, Édouard. Le discours antillais. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shake­speare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Harth, Erica. “Exorcising the Beast: Attempts at Rationalism.” PMLA 88 (1973): 19–24.

Haydn, Hiram. The Counter-Renaissance. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950.

Huguet, Edmond. Dictionaire de la langue française du 16e siècle. Paris: Didier, 1961.

Ibbett, Katherine. The Style of the State in French Theater, 1630–1660. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

Latour, Bruno. Nous n’avons jamais été modernes: Essai d’anthropologie symétrique. Paris:        La Découverte, 1991.

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age. Trans. Emily McVarish. Berkeley: U of Cali­fornia P, 1993.

Lyons, John D. Kingdom of Disorder: The Theory of Tragedy in Classical France. Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 1999.

Melzer, Sara E. Colonizer or Colonized: The Hidden stories of Early Mod­ern French Culture. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2012.

Muchembled, Robert. L’invention de la France moderne: Monarchie, cul­tures et société    (1500–1660). Paris: Armand Colin, 2002.

Reiss, Timothy J. Tragedy and Truth: Studies in the Development of a Re­naissance and Neoclassical Discourse. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.

———. The Discourse of Modernism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Rey, Alain, with Frédéric Duval and Gilles Siouffi. Mille ans de langue française: histoire d’une passion. Paris: Perrin, 2007.

Rosset, Clément. L’anti-nature: éléments pour une philosophie tragique. 1973. 2nd ed. Paris: PUF, 1990.

Schalk, Ellery. “The Shadow of the Sixteenth Century in Seventeenth-Cen­tury Absolutist France: The Example of Molière.” Society and In­stitu­tions in Early Modern France: Essays Presented to J. Russell Ga­nim Major. Ed. Mack P.  Holt. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1991.

Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chi­cago: Chicago UP, 1990.

Vigarello, Georges. Le corps redressé: Histoire d’un pouvoir pédagog­ique. Paris: Jean-Pierre Delarge, 1978.


[1] Of particular interest for seventeenth-century scholars is the discussion of various concepts of the “modern” in Marie-Florine Bruneau’s Racine: le jansénisme et la modernité.

[2] Though the seventeenth century was, in my opinion, the first one to be self-consciously modern, in the sense of different and better, other periods since have also defined themselves in this manner; cases could be made for the Enlightenment as well as the end of the nineteenth century’s various avant-garde and futurist movements.

[3] Not to be confused with another, radically opposite, use of the term by Hiram Haydn, who applies the term to writers that include Montaigne who repeal the system of universal law proposed by the Humanists.

[4] This latter concept is what Clément Rosset calls “artificialisme.”

[5] Michel Le Bris, “Pour une littérature-monde en français” in the book of the same title (22). Before the book Pour une littérature-monde was published, a manifesto with almost the same title, “Pour une ‘littérature-monde’ en français” appeared in Le Monde on March 16, 2007; four of the five co-authors of the book were among the 45 signatories of the article.

[6] Some recent studies on the baroque in French-speaking areas, for example, Domenique Chancé’s Poétique baroque de la caraïbe (2001).  Also see the section of PMLA ”Theories and methodologies” (2009: 127–88) on the baroque for many references and discussions of the relation between the European baroque and avant-garde literature. It is interesting to note that these authors refer back to the baroque, while Toulmin refers back to the Renaissance (“The ‘modern’ focus on the written, the universal, the general, and the timeless . . . is being broadened to include once again the oral, the particular, the local, and the timely” (186).

 

( categories: )

Racine’s Esther: In Praise of Historiographers and Historians

Article Citation: 
XVI, 1 (2015): 77–92
Author: 
Henry Cohen
Article Text: 

Printable PDF of Cohen, 77–92

The roles of the historiographer and the historian in state governance, and indeed the idea of history itself, are themes that contribute signifi­cantly to the meaning of Jean Racine’s Esther.  My aims in this article are to review the connections that critics have perceived between Racine’s plot and characters and some well-known events and people in contempo­rary French history, to relate François Jaouën’s observations about notions of history in the two Biblical tragedies to Esther’s strategy as a historian, to contrast Racine’s role as a royal historian to Louis XIV and Esther’s role as the history instructor of Assuérus, to point out Racine’s emphasis on the importance of historiography in the plot, and to demonstrate that the playwright portrays Esther, as a historian, and Assuérus, as a student of history, and not divine intervention, as agents in the liberation of the enslaved Jews in Persia. I use the term “historiographer” to mean a chroni­cler of events, either observed personally or reported by witnesses, when such information may be used as seen fit by the authority that orders its collection. By “historian,” I mean a person who weaves a purposefully se­lected set of human events into a coherent narrative in order to illustrate a thesis that serves to enhance the stature of an individual, a group, or a politi­cal entity or to promote a course of action related to one of these. 

Many scholars have written about the historical circumstances sur­round­ing Racine’s resumption of his career as a tragedian when, after serving several years as one of the royal historians of Louis XIV, he com­posed Esther and Athalie. Literary historians agree that Mme de Mainte­non, Louis XIV’s second wife and protector of the Maison de Saint-Cyr, commissioned Racine to pen edifying religious plays for the aristocratic girls of that school to perform following their staging of Cor­neille’s Cinna and Racine’s Andromaque, whose profane and amorous characters they portrayed with a degree of enjoyment that the prudish royal consort deemed morally disturbing (Turnell 279, Gregoire 178–182, Weinberg 298–99, Woshinsky 170–71, Marks 28, Knapp 193–94, Scholar 318–19).

Several commentators have speculated that some of the characters and certain elements of the plot are drawn from contemporary religious and political history and that Racine uses the play to express his personal views on people and events. Allen Wood summarizes the best-known ex­amples of the conjectures of Racine’s contemporaries:

Even as the play was first performed, Mme de Lafayette wrote that everybody thought the play  an allegory. And on one level, that of courtly society, the pièce à clé was easy to de­code: Esther was Mme de Maintenon, Vashti the repudi­ated Mme de Montespan, and the king was the king.  …  Other interpretations identify the Jews as either Racine’s Jan­senist co-religionists or Mme de Maintenon’s Protestant an­cestors. The closing of the Jansenist Maison des Filles de l’Enfance in Toulouse in 1686 may not have been far from Ra­cine’s mind. (216–17).[1]

Assuérus’s planned extermination of the Jews in the Persian Empire must have reminded French audiences of Louis XIV’s revocation, a mere four years earlier in 1685, of the Edict of Nantes that had guaranteed religious freedom to Protestants since Henri IV had proclaimed it, especially since a vi­olent persecution of the Huguenots had followed that royal policy change.  René Jasiniski cites a work of the playwright’s son Louis Racine, Remarques sur les tragédies de Jean Racine, as an important source of the idea that Aman’s false denunciations to Assuérus of the Jews’ untrust­worthi­ness were meant to serve as his father’s warning to Louis XIV not to heed his Jesuit advisors who were urging him to persecute the Janse­nists of Port-Royal (“Sur un theme” 77–78).  Having reviewed the histori­cal evidence, Jasinski agrees with that interpretation:   

Que l’on suive l’évolution des conflits entre Jésuites et Jansé­nistes … on retrouvera … la même conclusion: néces­sité d’éclairer le roi, qui est sincère, équitable. Se voyant perfidement trompé, il reviendra de ses préventions contre ceux qu’il persécute injustement. …[T]elle est en effet … la leçon principale d’Esther" (“Sur un theme” 81).

Elsewhere, Jasinski goes as far as to identify the playwright with the he­roine of his own play  since each of them acts as a heroic defender of a persecuted group, Esther of the Jews and Racine of the Jansenists, and to identify Arnauld with the character of Mardochée since each of these en­treats his protégé, Racine and Esther respectively, to dare to warn a king against heeding bad advisors (Autour 202).  Pointing to another obvious analogy between the two kings, Elaine Marks reminds us that, as Assuérus ended up doing, “n 1651 Louis XIV, unlike his predecessor, had placed the Jews of France under his protection” (28).

Françoise Jaouën, the only critic who has devoted an entire study to his­tory in Racine’s Biblical tragedies, contrasts the two conflicting con­ceptions of history that are present in those works:

Si l’on considère … l’histoire en tant qu’objet de con­nais­sance, on s’aperçoit qu’elle est très présente dans les deux pièces, et qu’elle y joue un rôle important. Les deux tragé­dies s’appuient sur une vision de l’histoire entièrement sou­mise à la providence divine, conforme au Discours sur l’histoire universelle de Bossuet (1681) ...  et conforme égale­ment au modèle privilégié par l’historiographie offi­cielle, qui se fonde en large mesure sur la notion d’exemplarité et cherche à retrouver dans le passé des mo­dèles de conduite. Mais Racine, qui occupe depuis douze ans la charge d’historiographe royal (ce qui l’obligeait pour le moins à réfléchir sur la nature de l’histoire, sur ses moyens et sur ses buts), choisit de confronter l’histoire pro­vi­dentielle et l’histoire exemplaire au niveau du dilemme tra­gique. … Cette confrontation aboutit à réexaminer le rap­port entre l’histoire profane et l’histoire sacrée. (124)

Jaouën claims that Racine’s application of the providential model has an important consequence.  It implies that history remains open since its mean­ing can be found only in the future rather than in the past. As a result, she argues, exemplary history, the privileged model of official historiog­raphy during that period in France, loses a great deal of its value (130). In her speech to Assuérus, however, Esther exhorts him to imitate Cyrus in order to attain greatness and, in order to avert disaster, not to repeat the errors of Cambyse II.  In this way, the queen constructs her argument pri­marily around positive and negative models of royal behavior rather than around a theory of providential history.

As he was composing Esther, as Jaouën asserts, Racine was probably re­flecting on the writing of history since the latter task occupied much of his time. When in 1677 Louis XIV appointed Racine and the poet Nicolas Boileau, “es deux historiographes ont un mandat spécial. Ce sont eux … ‘qui ont entre leurs mains le précieux dépôt de [la] gloire’ du Roi…. Cet effort pour éterniser la mémoire du Roi grâce à de grandes et sublimes pa­roles, Racine le poursuit…" (Picard 364–65). Despite his decidedly non-objective goal of “elater les hauts faits du plus glorieux des rois" (Jasinski, Autour 87), Racine’s methodology did include incorporating the testimony of witnesses to the events of which he wrote. For example, when the king asked him to chronicle the military campaign against the Principality of Cambrai in the summer of 1677, "[O]n voit par ses lettres à Boileau avec quel soin il se documentait, quand il obtenait des explications précises de Vauban et du maréchal de Luxembourg…" (Jasinski Autour 88).  Alt­hough many of his unpublished historical fragments were eventually de­stroyed in a fire in 1726 (Picard 366), Racine did finish and publish two texts whose style demonstrates that for him the writing of history was a work of literary creativity. 

De l’ensemble, émergent … l’Éloge historique du Roi et la Re­lation du siege de Namur.. … [T]ous deux sont  des ré­cits très suivis d’histoire guerrière, et tous deux sont im­prégnés d’intentions encomiastiques que font reconnaître les procédés rhétoriques, la dramatisation, la recherche d’effets esthétiques … de même les métamorphoses d’ordre “tratégique" opérées sur la réalité: focalisation sur les ac­tions du Roi, dosages de mises en valeur de ses officiers et de ses ministres contribuant à  inscrire le texte de Racine dans les jeux ambiants de l’amitié et de la prudence, es­tompage discret du détail bas ou choquant, et sur le tout, sub­stitution du moral à caractère héroïque au politique … une vision de l’histoire … privilégiant les hauts faits du Roi de guerre plutôt que ceux du Roi de paix… (Hourcade 123)

Although Louis XIV prescribed Racine’s courtly duties and manner of writing history for the primary purpose of enhancing the king’s personal myth, in Esther the playwright demonstrates the usefulness of entirely dif­ferent ways by which, and entirely different purposes for which, chroni­clers and a historian practice their vocations, and how their uses of history help Assuérus to govern his realm.

The importance of historiography is stressed in the Hebrew and the Greek versions of the book of Esther, both of which Racine uses as sources.[2] When Mardochée learns of two palace eunuchs’ plot to assassi­nate Assuérus, he saves the king’s life by warning him, directly in the Greek version and through the intermediary of Esther in the Hebrew.The Hebrew author specifies that after an inquest the two guilty men were hanged, while the Greek scribe writes that they confessed and were ar­rested. In the French translation from the Hebrew we read, “Et cela fut enreg­istré dans le livre des Annales en présence du roi” (Traduction 1067), which shows that the king believes the accuracy of the official chroni­cle to be so important that he himself oversees its writing. The transla­tion from the Greek says that “Le roi fit mettre ces faits par écrit pour qu’on en garde mémoire; Mardochée aussi les mit par écrit” (Tra­duc­tion 1198). The king requires the events of his reign to be chronicled so that they may be used as an instrument of governance. The champion of the Jewish people and the king’s faithful subject Mardochée is identified here also as a careful chronicler. It is he, after all, who transmits to his niece the raw material that she will shape into her persuasive speech to be delivered to her husband. 

While Racine does not dramatize the episode of the assassina­tion plot, he does rework the passage in the Hebrew scripture where Assuérus, dur­ing a period of sleeplessness, has a portion of the annals read aloud to him. The playwright invents, in place of the insomnia, a night­mare in which the king senses a threat to his personal safety. In order to be able to identify his enemies, which he believes will make him more able to predict any possible conspiracy, he orders that the chronicle be read to him. The play­wright alters the Biblical story by having Hydasape recount this story to Aman, who realizes upon hearing it that he will be able to take advantage of the king’s fears in order to denounce the Jews as his in­ternal enemies. This strategy allows the playwright to give his audience further insight into the treacherous and unscrupulous character of the an­tagonist.

Le roi d’un noir chagrin paraît enveloppé.
Quelque songe effrayant cette nuit l’a frappé.
…………………………………………….
Il s’est plaint d’un péril qui menaçait ses jours;
……………………………………………
 Pour écarter de lui ces images funèbres,
Il s’est fait apporter ces annales célèbres
Où les faits de son règne, avec soin amassés,
Par de fidèles mains chaque jour sont tracés.
On y conserve écrits le service et l’offense,
Monuments éternels d’amour et de vengeance.
Le roi, que j’ai laissé plus calme dans son lit,
D’une oreille attentive écoute le récit.
……………………………………………
Il revoit tous ces temps si remplis de sa gloire (II.1. 383–84, 388, 393–400, 402)

Some of the pages read aloud retell the story of Mardochée’s warning to the king, who realizes that he has never rewarded his subject’s loyalty (Tra­duction 1069). Assuérus is as bothered by his forgetting an important past event as he is by his ingratitude. He then utters lines that underscore the usefulness of historiography as a repository of crucial information and a remedy against inevitable royal distractions:

O d’un si grand service oubli trop condemnable!
Des embarrass du trône effet inévitable!
De soins tumultueux un prince environné
Vers de nouveaux objets est sans cesse entraîné.
Mais, plus prompt que l’éclair, le passé nous échappe. (II.3. 541–46)

Here, Racine is placing a high value on the practice and utility of chroni­cling. The royal historiographers are “faithful” to the king under a system of governance in which fidelity is the highest political value. He can count on the reliability of their notes because the scribes make their entries “each day” when the events are fresh in their minds. Historiog­raphy is so respected that these annals are “famous.” They are “eternal” and “monumental,” that is, written history will survive long after the mas­sive architectural achievements of this civilization will have crumbled.  Since Assuérus’s administration of the vast Persian Empire is largely based on rewarding his allies and punishing his enemies, by carefully an­alyzing historical events the king is able to identify these individuals and groups and therefore to govern effectively.

The irony surrounding Racine’s writing Esther while serving as a royal historian is that in the latter role he engaged in none of the above-men­tioned implicitly desirable practices. He was called upon to be faithful to Louis XIV, but that fidelity manifested itself in subservience and adula­tion. He was not engaged in recording details of court life so that the king might read or hear them in order to detect the identity of his friends and foes and thereby prevent any potential betrayal. His historical accounts were meant to be lasting not because of their inherent value, but be­cause—together with paintings, sculptures, and literary works that consti­tuted a concerted propaganda program—they aimed at creating an image of Louis XIV as an effective warrior and a great ruler by divine right. In Esther, Racine creates a heroine who saves her people by being the type of historian that the playwright never had the opportunity to be.

Critics have tended to deprive Esther of her agency by attrib­uting her per­suasion of her husband to the force of a divine providence intent on saving God’s chosen people (Jaouën 123, Goldmann 440, Jasinski Autour 202), to Assuérus’s being so “faible, crédule, facilement manipulable et influençable” that he is easily swayed by  “une ‘actrice’ de circonstance qui touche le cœur du roi” (Gregoire 177, 185), to the king’s nightmare’s “changing Ahasuerus’s orientation and attitude,” stimulating within him “the libido-current,” “[giving] birth to new psychic contents,” and “[generat­ing] insights and revelations” that “[pave] the way for Ahas­ue­rus’ eventual illumination” (Knapp 200–01), to Assuérus’s being so in love with his wife that that sentiment alone makes him bend to her desires (Scholar 321, 326, Ahmed 38), to Esther’s persuasiveness’s deriving solely from her channeling the strong will of Mardochée and the Jewish people (Weinberg 318), to the emotional king’s being moved by his wife’s tears (Malachy 143), or to the will of a patriarchal God operating through her in search of a sacrificial victim in the person of Aman (Howells 101). Only Elaine Marks acknowledges that Esther is a historian, writing “Es­ther then asks the king for the right to explain the situation of the Jews by giving a brief history of the Jews and their relationship to their omnipotent God” (32), but she does not analyze the strategies that the queen employs to persuade Assuérus to save her people.

 While I shall argue that in Esther it is the queen herself whom Racine de­picts as the chief  agent of the change in Assuérus’s policies to­ward the Jews, it is also true that in the playwright’s dramatization of the Biblical story there are elements that suggest the presence of divine inter­vention. One such example is Elise’s supposition about the queen’s marriage, which she expresses in terms of a paradoxical power relation­ship:

Le fin Assuérus couronne sa captive,
Et le Persan superbe est aux pieds d’une Juive!
Par quels secrets ressorts, par quel enchaînement,
Le ciel a-t-il conduit ce grand événement? (I.i. 27–30)

The queen herself reinforces this idea by referring to her adoptive father Mardochée as an agent of God’s plan: “Le roi, jusqu’à ce jour, ignore qui je suis. / Celui par qui le ciel règle ma destinée / Sur ce secret encor tient ma langue enchaînée” (I.i. 90–92). She attributes to divine protection Mardo­chée’s ability to surreptitiously enter her closely guarded palace: “Que vois-je? Mardochée! Oh mon père, est-ce vous? / Un ange du Sei­gneur sous son aile sacrée / A donc conduit vos pas, et caché votre en­trée?” (I. iii. 156–58). As her uncle argues that his protégée must speak on behalf of her people, he even suggests that Aman’s threat to ethnically cleanse the Persian kingdom of Jews may be part of God’s grand design:

            Et qui sait, lorsqu’au trône il conduisit vos pas

            Si pour sauver son peuple il ne vous gardait pas?

            ………………………………………………..

            S’il a permis d’Aman l’audace criminelle,

            Sans doute qu’il voulait éprouver votre zèle.

            C’est lui qui, m’excitant à vous oser chercher,

            Devant moi, chère Esther, a bien voulu marcher. (I. iii. 211–12, 229–32)

Portraying herself as alone and helpless, Esther prays to God to sup­port her by softening Assuérus’s heart and by making her speech so aestheti­cally pleasing that it will lower the usually stern king’s resistance to her entreaty. What is important here is that she does not ask God either what she should say or how she should frame her arguments. Instead, she reserves those prerogatives to herself:

C’est pour toi que je marche. Accompagne mes pas
Devant ce fier lion qui ne te connaît pas.
Commande en me voyant que son courroux s’apaise,
Et prête à mes discours un charme qui lui plaise. (I. iv. 287–90)

These words are derived from the Greek version but are not found in the Hebrew text, from which this prayer, and indeed all mention of God, are absent:

Mon Seigneur, notre Roi,
Toi, tu es le Seul! Porte-moi secours,
à moi qui suis seule et n’ai d’autre secours que toi;
…………………………………………………..
Mets dans ma bouche un langage mélodieux en présence du lion et change son cœur           
pour qu’il déteste celui qui nous fait la guerre,
pour qu’il achève celui-ci ainsi que ses partisans.
Arrache-nous à eux par ta main et porte-moi secours,

moi que suis seule et qui n’ai que toi, Seigneur. (Traduction 1203)

Richard Scholar sharply distinguishes between the two Biblical texts, ar­guing that the Greek version reduces Esther’s agency while totalizing God’s:

In the Greek version…the narrator depicts events as the re­sult of God’s direct intervention. The sacralizing inter­preta­tions added by the Greek narrator are absent from the Hebrew version….The Greek ‘additions’ to the Book of Es­ther do not complete the sense of the Hebrew narra­tive…but transform it….The narrator describes Assuerus smit­ten not by his wife but by God’s direct action. (320–21)

And yet it is by her composition and her declamation of her climactic ti­rade addressed to Assuérus in Act III, scene iv that Racine makes Esther the principal agent of the salvation of the Jewish people. In this speech, an invention of the playwright that has no model in the Biblical texts, Racine causes the queen to rise to heights of heroism, majesty, and political domina­tion by means of her eloquence, persuasion, and shaping of Jewish his­tory.  In fact, the triumph of Esther is the victory of history—not of historiography, the simple chronological recital of occurrences— but ra­ther the interpretation of events, the telling of the story of the vicissitudes in the relationship between God and his people, and the insertion of As­suérus into a special place in that narrative with the result that he makes a conscious choice to be an active participant in Jewish history. She per­suades the king that he will achieve greatness in the degree to which he participates in her people’s history, not because he reigns over the vast Achae­menid Persian Empire that extends from India to Egypt and from Babylonia to Armenia.

Esther begins by teaching Assuérus that the Jews were a great people of a rich and sovereign land and that their freedom and prosperity were blessings bestowed on them for their faithfulness by God.  In calling God “le maître absolu de la terre et des cieux” (III.4. 1045–51), she deval­ues the king’s authority in comparison with God’s.  She establishes her own authority as a historian at the beginning of her speech in order to get As­suérus to understand his role not in the context of Persian history but in that of Jewish history.  Her strategy is to shift the king into a frame of ref­erence where he loses his present identity and redefines himself in a broader historical context. She calls God “le Dieu de leurs pères” (III.4. 1048), that is, the God of history, since he manifests himself in his en­gage­ment with his chosen people over time.

Next, Esther develops the idea of God as the overall author of human his­tory: “L’Éternel est son nom, le monde est son ouvrage” (III.4. 1052). She informs the king that his personal greatness and that of his em­pire depend neither on his own exercise of power nor on his talent for govern­ing, but on God’s will: “Des plus fermes États la chute épouvantable / Quand il veut, n’est qu’un jeu de sa main redoubtable” (III.4. 1056–57).

In a brief third part, narrating chronologically, the queen attributes the Babylonian captivity of the Jews at the hands of the Assyrians (608–538) to her people’s faithlessness toward God in the form of their adoration of other deities. By asserting that that punishment was “le juste prix de leur ingratitude” (III.4. 1061), she defines God’s role as a distributor of justice. She thus suggests that Assuérus, in order to access greatness, ought to act justly rather than simply in his imperial self-interest.

Esther then recalls the liberation of the Jews by the Persian king Cy­rus, who entered Babylon in 538. She defines that ruler as an in­strument of di­vine justice who not only freed the Jews but also restored their sover­eignty over their territory, their form of government, and their religious practices:

 Dieu fit choix de Cyrus ……………………
 ………………………………………………
Babylone paya nos pleurs avec usure.
Cyrus, par lui vainqueur, publia ses bienfaits,
Regarda notre peuple avec des yeux de paix,
Nous rendit et nos lois et nos fêtes divines. (III.4. 1063, 1069–72)

By praising Cyrus’s favorable policies toward the Jews, the queen is sug­gesting that her husband  should be magnanimous by imitating the earlier Persian monarch. She is using history to provide the king with a model of royal greatness that he might emulate. He too could be inscribed in the his­tory of the Jewish people as a justice giver for whose protection they would be forever grateful.

Esther then suggestively establishes an alternating pattern of benefi­cent and maleficent kings, briefly evoking the reign of Cyrus’s son, King Cambyses II, who harmed the Jews by stopping their rebuilding of the tem­ple (III.iv. 1075).  In doing so, she positions Assuérus in the line of the good monarchs, ideally situated to be a potential liberator:

Mais, de ce roi si sage héritier insensé,
Son fils interrompit l’ouvrage commencé,
Fut sourd à nos douleurs: Dieu rejeta sa race,
Le retrancha lui-même, et vous mit à sa place. (III.v. 1074–77)

Here, Esther does not attribute one recent period of her people’s suffering to their infidelity toward God, but rather to a political decision made by  Cambyses II, which suggests that Assuérus also enjoys absolute political autonomy and that Esther might, by means of a historical argument, be able to persuade him to protect the Jews.

By strategically situating Assuérus in this pattern of royal alternation, as­serting that God has purposely substituted her husband for his cruel pre­decessor, and redefining the king’s role in the wider context of sacred his­tory, Esther suggests that his principal task is not so much to reign over the Persian Empire as to assure the continued existence of her people. She ends her speech by reminding the king that his past conquests of peoples and territories derive ultimately from the will of God, the God of her peo­ple:

N’en doutez point, Seigneur, il fut votre soutien.
Lui seul mit à vos pieds le Parthe et  l’Indien,
Dissipa devant vous les innombrables Scythes,
Et renferma les mers dans vos vastes limites. (III.iv. 1114–17)

When Assuérus vows to protect the Jews, he couches that decision in terms of inscribing himself forever in Jewish history.  (Indeed, every year on the 14th of Adar in the Jewish calendar, at Purim services in every sy­nagogue, the Megillah, the Hebrew Book of Esther, is read aloud in commemo­ration of Assuérus’s emancipation of his captives and his queen’s role in that event.) At the same time, he reaffirms his role as the king of Persia by granting the Jews political status equal to that of Per­sians:

Je romps le joug funeste où les Juifs sont soumis.
……………………………………….
À l’égal des Persanes je veux qu’on les honore
……………………………………….
Que vos heureux enfants, dans leurs solennités,
Consacrent de ce jour le triomphe et la gloire,
Et qu’à jamais mon nom vive dans leur mémoire. (III.viii. 1182, 1184, 1187–89)

Esther’s persuasive ability in narrating history can be measured by the de­gree to which Assuérus has, until this point, expressed his hatred of Jews in racist terms and has consented to Aman’s genocidal plans.  When the king resolves to publicly recognize Mardochée’s denunciation of the would-be assassins, he singles him out as a blameless exception among a criminal people:   

Jamais d’un tel honneur un sujet n’a joui.
Mais plus la récompense est grande et glorieuse,
Plus même de ce Juif la race est odieuse,
…………………………………..
On verra l’innocent discerné du coupable,
Je n’en perdrai pas moins ce peuple abominable
Leurs crimes…   (II.vi. 624–26, 629–31)

Upon hearing Esther reveal her Jewish identity just before her climactic speech, her husband is incredulous that such a good and wise woman could be a part of such a loathsome ethnic group:

Ah! de quel coup me percez-vous le cœur!
Vous la fille d’un Juif? Hé quoi! tout ce que j’aime,
Cette Esther, l’innocence et la sagesse même,
Que je croyais du ciel les plus chères amours,
Dans cette source impure aurait puisé ses jours?
Malheureux! (III.iv. 1035–40)

The critics who have attributed Esther’s success either exclusively to the power of divine providence or to the king’s emotional susceptibility or psychological weakness have failed to fully appreciate the queen’s intel­lectual and oratorical gifts, the king’s rationality and self-control, and the royal couple’s lucidity and free will. When Assuérus believes that his night­mare may be premonitory, he sensibly and systematically reviews the an­nals in order to identify any possible enemies. This process, Hydaspe tells us, has a calming affect: “Le roi, que j’ai laissé plus calme dans son lit, / D’une oreille attentive écoute ce récit” (II,1. 399–400). This is hardly a man whose emotional state has caused him to lose control of his judg­ment. Upon realizing that he has failed to properly reward Mardochée for warning him against the would-be assassins, he acknowledges his ingrati­tude, correctly attributes it to the distractions caused by his many governmen­tal responsibilities, and corrects his error by publicly honoring his benefactor. He governs rationally. Esther appears frightened when in Act II, scene vii she enters the king’s chambers to ask him to hear her speech the next day. It is he who, while being slightly troubled by her fear, does not succumb to the contagion of her fright. Instead, he tries to calm her: “Je me trouble moi-même, et sans frémissement / Je ne puis voir sa peine et son saisissement, / Calmez, Reine, calmez la frayeur qui vous presse” (655–57). When, having learned of Aman’s infidelity toward him, Assuérus is infuriated, he leaves the throne room, retiring to a chamber where he can be alone in order to compose himself and collect his thoughts lest his anger cloud his reason: “Tout mon sang de colère et de honte s’enflamme. / J’étais donc le jouet…Ciel! daigne m’éclairer! / Un moment sans témoins cherchons à respirer” (III.iv. 1137–39). All these episodes serve to characterize Assuérus as a thoughtful and reasonable per­son who is quite open to rational argumentation.

The queen is characterized as intelligent, assertive, and calculating. In her Act I, scene iv monologue addressed to God, in order to establish her moral right to petition him Esther first contrasts her abstemi­ousness with the self-indulgent life style of the Persian courtiers. She then pointedly re­minds God of his promise to preserve her people: “Même tu leur promis de ta bouche sacrée / Une postérité d’éternelle durée” (253–54). Finally, she places a special responsibility on God by arguing that he should not permit the annihilation of the only people who acknowledge him as the one true divinity: 

Non, non, ne souffre pas que ces peuples farouches,
Ivres de notre sang, ferment les seules bouches
Qui dans tout l’univers célèbrent tes bienfaits,
Et confonds tous ces dieux qui ne furent jamais. (269–72)

In her Act II, scene vii dialogue with Assuérus, after having flattered him by acknowledging his kind tolerance of her presumptuous entry into the throne room, the queen maneuvers her husband into inviting Aman to a dinner where she will denounce his terrible plan. In Act III, scene iv, after conducting her carefully constructed history lesson, she juxtaposes her de­vastating condemnation of Aman’s betrayal of the king and her passionate demonstration of the Jews’ loyalty to Assuérus. Justice would demand not only that the king punish Aman for being a mendacious advisor but also that he reward the captive Jews for being faithful subjects.[3]Racine characte­rizes Esther as capable of mounting carefully crafted, rational arguments aimed at persuading personages whose authority vastly exceed her own.

It is therefore perfectly consistent with their characterization that in the climactic scene the king listens carefully to Esther’s exposition, follows her arguments attentively, is persuaded by her reasoned command of his­torical events and her interpretation of their meaning, and accepts his new role as an actor in her construction of that history.

Given that ancient history, classical mythology, and the Bible were the three standard sources of plots for neoclassical French theater, that Mme de Maintenon wished Racine to write plays for the St-Cyr convent school­girls that would be morally edifying, and that a heroine would be a suita­ble model for the students to emulate,the story of the Jewish queen Esther was a perfect choice. Perhaps Racine initially chose to write a clas­sical tragedy based on the Hebrew and Greek books of Esther because, having thought about his own role of royal historian over the preceding several years, he realized that historiography and history played such a significant part in the Biblical stories’ plot and he wanted his audience to reflect on those themes.  Or perhaps, also thinking about his royal duties, he devel­oped the themes of historiography and history as he recognized their signifi­cance while he was transforming the Biblical texts into his play. Whatever his motivation, the result is a work in which the characters and the audience are made to appreciate the importance of historiog­raphers and historians in the governance of the state.

Kalamazoo College

 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Ehsan. “Ethnic Difference and Mimetic violence in Racine’s Es­ther.” Romance Notes 40.1 (1999): 33–40. Print.

Bénichou, Paul. Morales du grand siècle. Paris: Gallimard, 1948. Print.

Goldmann, Lucien. Le Dieu caché: Étude sur la vision tragique dans les Pensées de Pascal et dans le théâtre de Racine. Paris: Gallimard, 1959. Print.

Gregoire, Vincent. “Esther, une pièce biblique au caractère didactique am­bigu.” Cahiers du dix-septième An Interdisciplinary Journal. 6.1 (1992): 177–94. Print.

Hourcade, Philippe. “Sur racine historiographe: interrogations et points de vue.”  Dalhousie French Studies. 65 (2003): 121–31. Print.

Howells, R.J. “Racine’s Esther: Reintegration and Ritual.” Forum for Mod­ern Language Studies 20, 2 (1984), 97–105. Print.

Jaouën, Françoise. “Esther/Athalie: Histoire sacrée, histoire exemplaire.” Seventeenth-Century French Studies. 21 (1999): 123–31. Print.

Jasinski, René. Autour de l’Esther racinienne. Paris: Nizet, 1985. Print.

———. “Sur un theme d’Esther.” Littératures. 9–10 (1984): 75–82. Print.

Knapp, Bettina L. Jean Racine: Mythos and Renewal in Modern Theater. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1971. Print.

Malachy, Thérèse. “Esther: une tragédie de Racine et l’Ancien Testa­ment.” Les Lettres romanes  43,3 (1989): 143–48. Print.

Marks, Elaine. Marrano as Metaphor: The Jewish Presence in French Writ­ing. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.

Orcibal, Jean. La Genèse d’Esther et d’Athalie. Paris: Vrin, 1950. Print.

Picard, Raymond. La Carrière de Jean Racine. 4th ed. Paris: Gallimard, 1956. Print.

Pommier, Jean.  Aspects de Racine. Nizet, 1966. Print.

Scholar, Richard. “Je  ne sais quelle grâce: Esther before Assuérus.” French Studies. 56, 3 (2002): 317–27. Print.

Traduction oecuménique de la Bible comprenant l’Ancien et le Nouveau Testament traduits sur les texts originaux hébreu et grec. Paris: Société biblique française et Éditions du Cerf, 2nd ed. 1988.  Print.

Turnell, Martin. Jean Racine, Dramatist. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972. Print.

Weinberg, Bernard. The Art of JeanRacine. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1963. Print.

Woshinsky, Barbara R. “Render unto Caesar: Sacred Representation in Esther.” Homage to Paul Bénichou. Eds. Sylvie Romanowski and Monique Bilezikian. Birmingham: Summa, 1994. 167–73. Print.

Wood, Allen. “Racine’s Esther and the Biblical/Modern Jew.” Papers in French Seventeenth Century Literature. 36, 70 (2009): 209–18. Print.



[1] The most detailed argument in favor of the notion that Esther's female chorus represents the girls in the Jansenist convent in Toulouse that the Jesuits caused to close is to be found in Jean Orcibal, La Genèse d'Esther et d'Athalie (29-34). The most persuasive refutation of that theory is made by Jean Pommier in Aspects de Racine. (225-31)

[2] A second noteworthy affirmation of the value of historiography that for some reason Racine decides not to incorporate into his play is found at the very end of both Biblical versions of Esther. The writer of the Hebrew text bases the credibility of his narrative on its presence in the authoritative royal Persian chronicles, thus fulfilling his narrator's fonction d'attestation: “Le roi Xerxès fixa un impôt sur le continent et sur les îles de la mer. Tous ses actes de puissance et de vaillance, ainsi que les détails de la grandeur de Mardochée à qui le roi avait donné une haute situation, ces choses ne sont-elles pas inscrites dans le livre des Annales de rois de Médie et de Perse?” (Traduction 1073)  The Greek author uses the same language, although he omits the reference to Mardochée: “ Le roi légiferait pour le royaume, sur terre et sur mer. Sa puissance et sa vaillance, la richesse et la gloire de son royaume, voilà qu'on les mettait par écrit dans le livre des rois de Perse et de Médie, pour qu'on en garde mémoire” (Traduction 1208).

[3] Paul Bénichou believes that when political conflict has ceased to be an important element in Racine's later tragedies, he restores politics to a place of prominence in his Biblical plays precisely because religion remains the only institution from whose perspective one can criticize absolute monarchy:  “La politique tient peut-être une place plus réelle dans Esther et dans Athalie, où l'on trouve repris avec insistance et chaleur le thème du souverain victime de ses mauvais conseillers. Mais la nuance est nouvelle: il s'agit de sujets religieux, et la religion pouvait moraliser la royauté avec moins de scandale que n'auraient pu faire les grands; elle était censée parler au nom d'intérêts moins violents et plus généreux. Elle était la seule source de culpabilité désormais possible pour l'absolutisme. S'il y a des maximes un peu fortes dans les deux dernières pièces de Racine, elles opposent généralement aux abus du despotisme, au nom de la loi chrétienne, le bonheur du peuple entier et la justice.” (247)

 

( categories: )

The Absent and Present Serpent in Nicolas Poussin’s Spring

Article Citation: 
XVI, 1 (2015): 63–76
Author: 
Herbert Morris
Article Text: 

Printable PDF of Morris, 63–76

The Serpent is as central, and as apparently indispensable to the drama de­picted in Genesis 3 as Iago, with his deviousness, is to Othello’s tragic story.  Accordingly, painters from the earliest period of Western art through Dürer, Raphael, Michelangelo, Cranach the Elder, Cranach the Younger, Tintoretto, Titian, Rubens and Domenichino, all not too distant in time from Poussin and several having a clear influence upon him, insert a snake in their pictorial representation of the tale of Adam and Eve.  Pous­sin, who takes the tale as the subject for Spring or The Earthly Para­dise (Fig. 1), the first painting in his series of paintings, Four Seasons,[1]alone among painters, and indeed sculptors, who have treated the subject prior to him, to my knowledge, does not include a snake, the form taken by the character in the tale referred to as “the Serpent.”

The painting does depict, as expected, the obligatory nude figures of Adam and Eve.[2] Both catch the early morning sunlight and are diminutive in size compared to the immensity of the luxuriant natural setting in which they are situated.  We see Eve kneeling beside a reclining Adam with his left knee raised, her right hand gripping his left upper arm, and her left arm raised, her hand pointing toward what we are clearly to understand as a representation of the Tree of Knowledge with its hanging fruit inter­spersed with flowers.  A short distance from this tree, to its left, in deep shadows, is another tree laden with fruit, absent any flowers, which it is reasonable to assume is meant to symbolize the Tree of Life that God in­forms Adam he has placed in the midst of the garden.[3]  The Creator floats in billowy dark clouds above, facing forward, his left hand extended and directed ahead.  Our eyes, guided by our knowledge of the biblical tale and its many pictorial depictions, and influenced by an ingrained mental habit that has resulted, survey the scene.  We search for the tale’s Serpent in the vicinity of the Tree of Knowledge, but he is nowhere to be seen.  He is neither wrapped around the trunk of the Tree nor slithering along it nor hanging from a branch nor poking its head out from some thick foliage nearby nor simply on the ground in plain sight.[4]  We do not expect a represen­tation of the Serpent in a scene of the Expulsion, such as that of Masaccio  (Fig. 2), but when the action described takes place in the Gar­den, the scene of the temptation, we do.

The absence of the Serpent alone arouses puzzlement that deepens for those of us aware of the particular appeal that the snake had for Poussin as a vehicle of symbolic significance.  A snake appears in a number of his most famous landscapes.  One is to be found in his Landscape with Or­pheus and Eurydice (Fig. 3), in Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (Fig. 4), Landscape with a Man Pursued by a Snake (Fig. 5),and in Two Nymphs and a Snake in a Landscape (Fig. 6). A snake, the python, wrapped around the base of a tree, also appears in the painting Apollo and Daphne (Fig. 7), dated the year before his death.[5]

Whatever the level of perplexity occasioned by these facts, it is height­ened by what we observe in Winter or The Flood (Fig. 8), the last in the series of four paintings.  In that painting we see a snake, the longest and thickest of any before painted by Poussin, splayed out upon a large dark rock in the left foreground of the painting and still another, much smaller, attached to the trunk of a tree just off the center of the scene on the right.  Where we expect a snake, we see none.  Where we do not expect a snake, we see two. It is as if the sly Serpent, split into two in some manner, and then slithered away from Eden in the spring where he belonged, to a stormy wintry scene of horror, accompanied by a smaller companion, where he does not.   

Poussin, then, has presented us in Spring and Winter with a conun­drum of absence and presence.  The fact that the paintings come from the same series compounds our puzzlement.  I consider in this paper Spring alone. I claim, firstly, that the Serpent’s absence from where we expect to see him serves Poussin’s purposes better than would the Serpent’s pres­ence there.  Poussin gains something from non-representation of the Ser­pent as represented in Genesis.  He also means to convey something to us by non-representation.[6] Secondly, I claim that the Serpent is in plain sight but not at all where we expect to see him or in his familiar embodiment.  He appears in the Tree of Life, offering a deceptively appealing illusion of overcoming death while Eve is about to grasp knowledge and the reality of human mortality. My view is that Poussin in Spring provides a radical and illuminating revision of the biblical tale of Adam and Eve from a Stoic perspective on life.[7]  

In Part I, I consider several possible explanations for the biblical Ser­pent’s absence.  While the Serpent’s absence has been noted by a number of art historians, to my knowledge there is no published work in which there is an attempt to resolve the mystery.  I reject a number of possible explanations that may come to mind and then offer one of my own.  In Part II I offer supporting argument for my second claim.

I

One suggested explanation for the Serpent’s absence in Spring is that Pous­sin depicts a moment in time before the temptation and Fall.   The Serpent has yet a role to perform.  All is, as yet, complete innocence.  Eve is simply drawing Adam’s attention to the attractiveness of the fruit on the Tree without either of them having thought of eating from it in mind.  But, problematically, the Tree, on this view, is without any symbolic signifi­cance, and it is a mere accident that, at the moment, Eve finds this tree, rather than any other attractive tree in the Garden, visually appealing.  Yet another problem with this view is the fact that in the biblical telling of the tale, Eve’s focus on the Tree of Knowledge occurs only after the Serpent’s question to her about eating the fruit of the trees in the garden.[8]  The paint­ing, in light of our knowledge of the tale would seem strongly to sug­gest that Eve,with her left hand pointing to the Tree and her right on the upper left arm of Adam, is beckoning him to eat.

Another possible interpretation for the Serpent’s absence is signifi­cantly different from the first.  We can label it “the Miltonian interpreta­tion,” because its basic features accord with the depiction of the Fall in Paradise Lost.[9]  On this view, once the Serpent’s guile proves successful and Eve gives way to temptation, the Serpent’s work is complete and he vanishes.  He has no further role to play.  Eve then tempts Adam and he, too, eats of the Tree of Knowledge, but the Serpent is not there to witness this final act of the Fall.  The claim, then, is that the painting captures that moment in time after Eve has eaten and now approaches Adam, inviting or beckoning him so that he might join her.  It is a tale of two temptations each one of which attains its goal.[10]

Several obstacles stand in the way of accepting this interpretation.  Firstly, the painting itself does not warrant the story imposed upon it of Eve’s already having been tempted by the Serpent and eaten the fruit.  We see no signs of her having bitten into fruit or possessing fruit, and the bibli­cal tale has her only offering Adam fruit after she has tasted it.  Spring does not portray such a scenario.  For all that we can tell from the painting, she may have come upon the idea of eating without anyone’s tempt­ing her to do so.  Secondly, the position and gaze of God in the clouds above seems perplexing in light of the tragedy unfolding below.  We would expect a focus, not on what is in the distance ahead of him, but rather on what is below him and, given the biblical tale, what he will soon with great displeasure address. 

A final suggestion can be constructed from the views of Willibald Sauer­länder.[11]  He argues that the four paintings in the series Four Sea­sons must be viewed as a whole and that a symbolic Christian conception of historical development is the key to understanding the movement from spring to winter.  True there are intimations of the Fall and mortality in Spring. Yet what Poussin intends to depict is the world before the Fall, a world in which Eve is pointing at the Tree but has yet to reach for its fruit.  Sauerländer, writing some fifty years after first proposing his interpreta­tion, summarizes it this way: 

The Creation of the world is finished, and God is seen high in the sky blessing his work.  As in Poussin’s other land­scapes, however, felicity is overshadowed by imma­nent (sic) misfortune and death.  Eve, who is seen in the center of the garden, points to the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge and invites Adam to taste from them…It is the moment just be­fore the Fall, the moment of expecta­tion...The Golden Age is coming to an end. The scorn of God and the Expul­sion from Paradise are imminent.[12]

The explanation for the Serpent’s absence is not directly addressed by Sauerländer, but it is plausible to attribute to him a view similar to the one taken by Milton.  Sauerländer views Spring as depicting the world before the Fall, but because he views Eve as “inviting” Adam to eat, we must ima­gine that Eve has already succumbed to the Serpent’s temptation.  And, as with Milton, the Serpent is a character in the tale whose role has already been performed, and he need not be depicted.[13]

This view, while not open to the criticism that there is no evidence of Eve having eaten, is vulnerable to the criticism of an incongruity between the events taking place in the Garden and the depiction of God.  More im­portantly, even if we were to grant the truth of either the Miltonian or Sauer­länder view, we would not have been provided with an answer to the question,  “Why would Poussin have selected such a narrative out of all the possible ones?”  What of any significance turns on whether the time depicted is just after Eve’s temptation or just before it?   The fact alone of the Serpent’s absence seems of so much more significance than either of these proposed scenarios that we have considered that seek to account for the fact.  I want now to offer another explanation not open to the objec­tions so far put forward.

It cannot, I believe, reasonably be doubted that among Poussin’s pur­poses in the painting of Spring was to raise for viewers of the painting the very question addressed in this essay.  He would be aware of the unique­ness of his painting in not depicting a snake on or in close proximity to the Tree of Knowledge in a tale that has the Serpent as one of the central charac­ters.  Having planted the seed, “Why no Serpent?” I believe that his hope was that this seed would germinate into a heightened attentiveness to every detail of the painting and to reflection associated with the topics the tale raises, topics such as human responsibility, good and evil, and death. Were Poussin to follow the path of all his distinguished predecessors and paint a snake, one wrapped around the trunk of the Tree of Knowledge, habits of mind would be triggered and the Serpent would be given but a glance, confirming viewers’ expectations.  Poussin is then, I believe, exploit­ing a familiar phenomenon. Disappointment of an expectation is likely to draw more attention than its satisfaction. 

We can now turn from the causal effects on viewers of noticing the ab­sence of a snake to what Poussin meant to convey by the biblical Serpent’s non-appearance.  My claim is that Poussin intended to gain special atten­tion as a result of his non-representation; but he also intended this non-repre­sentation to convey meaning in addition to the meaning conveyed by the Serpent that is depicted in the Tree of Life.

We have seen that on both the Miltonian or Sauerländer views the Ser­pent has a role, one already or imminently to be performed.  I suggest that the Serpent, as usually understood, has no role to play in tempting Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge whatsoever.  Poussin likely believed that a fantasy of a serpent with feet, mouthing words, in what language we can have no idea, a being apart from humans, one capable of subtle thought, distracts from what is the morally serious point. Two individuals, capable of free choice, have chosen to acquire knowledge and are prepared to diso­bey their creator, even facing death as a consequence, in order to do so.  It all lies within us; it is our nature, both the susceptibility and the occasional sur­render.  We know that, as we develop, we shall acquire knowledge of good and evil.  We know, too, that at a certain point in time that we shall die.  The tale, if taken literally, presents a history of how these facts about human life have come about.  Poussin keeps what he be­lieves to be essen­tial truth and discards what he cannot take seriously.  He exploits for his purposes the tale, but through his form of telling a story, through pictorial images, he leaves out an expected pictorial representation of the serpent, modifies in this manner the accepted story, and conveys an important moral truth. 

The biblical Serpent is, then, a fantasy that should be cast aside, but what remains of it is the idea of a powerful, irrepressible force, a fundamen­tal part of human nature, something within that seeks knowledge, a force so powerful that it may lead us into painful conflict with other strong attachments. The biblical Serpent is not only a phantom but also, importantly, one too seductively available as an object upon which to place responsibility.  Poussin, by not representing the biblical Serpent, is portraying Adam and Eve in such a way as to place all responsibil­ity, whether it be for good or for evil, upon them.  Eve, as he depicts her, does not have available the excuse, “the serpent beguiled me.”  Nor does Eve have the reassurance provided by the Serpent that she will not die if she eats.  Nor does one come away from the depicted scene imagin­ing Adam shifting his guilt onto Eve.  Each is fully responsible, and, given that Eve has not yet eaten, the powerful motives of love and compassion Adam might possess, as on the Miltonian view, to join her in eating, are not in play.  There is no room for Eve to blame the Serpent or for Adam to blame Eve.  Poussin disposes of what we all now take for granted as the lamest of excuses, however we might in subtle ways con­tinue to employ it, “the devil made me do it.”

This concludes my explanation for the biblical Serpent’s non- appear­ance.  If true, Poussin has already modified the biblical tale in an obviously important respect.  He is telling a different story but keeping two of its main characters.  I shall now argue that his version of the tale of Adam and Eve is even more radical.   They are to be regarded, not as fallen creatures, not as the earliest human malefactors, the cause of so much human suffering.  Rather, they are creatures about to experience a rebirth, appropriately occurring during spring, transformed into creatures capable of a more elevated form of life.

II

There is, I believe, a temptation many viewers will feel when looking at Spring.  What will immediately come to mind is a biblical tale with which they are bound to have some familiarity.  They expect to see the Serpent, and this expectation would be reinforced if they have familiarity with other pictorial representations of the tale.  All have a snake and all have that snake on or close by the Tree of Knowledge.  Aware of what awaits us in Winter, we may also think that Poussin’s intent was to have the Serpent associated with tempting Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, pre­sent for some reason in a scene depicting God’s punishment for human dis­obedience.  The Sauerländer and Miltonian views presuppose such a fixation of attention, influenced by engrained expectations.  Should our view be constrained by these expectations, we run the risk of failing care­fully to attend to an all-important detail of the painting, Spring – The Tree of Life.

Let us, then, shift our focus of attention to this tree.  In Genesis 2 we learn that God has placed within the garden numerous trees, two of which are named, one the Tree of Knowledge, the other the Tree of Life.  God informs Adam that he might eat of the fruit of any tree in the garden ex­cept for the Tree of Knowledge.  It is reasonable to assume that the Tree of Knowledge is the tree toward which Eve is pointing and from which she and Adam shall soon eat.  They do, after all, gain knowledge of good and evil, and nothing is presented that suggests that they have eaten of the Tree of Life, which, arguably, if they had, would have made them invulnerable to death.   So the Tree of Life is the tree, for the most part painted in dark colors, shaded from the sun, atop of which is a dark rock formation, the tree with hanging fruit that appears in the left foreground of the painting.  At the very end of Genesis 3 the Tree of Life is again referred to, follow­ing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden: 

…and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cheru­bims, and a flaming sword which turned everyway, to keep the way of the tree of life.[14]

Were Adam and Eve to eat of the Tree of Life, God’s assurance, expressed to Adam, that he would surely die if he ate of the Tree of Knowledge, would presumably turn out to be false, for Adam and Eve would, by ea­ting, gain everlasting life. 

Poussin, with perhaps the sole exception of Lucas Cranach the Elder  (Fig. 9), among his distinguished predecessors, inserts the Tree of Life into his depiction of the Garden of Eden.  He is not a painter inclined casu­ally, indifferent to its symbolic significance, to include such an element in his painting.  What meaning might it carry?  If we focus our attention upon this tree, we are confronted with a stunning sight, the sole aspect of the painting that conveys a sense of dread that, if we stay with it, can make our skin crawl, not dissimilar to our response to the large snake in the left foreground of Winter.  The Serpent, whom we have vainly sought, where our expectations led us to believe he would be present, is now before us, disguised to be sure, in the multi-trunked Tree of Life where we never ex­pected to see him.  We spot him in the dark, narrow, contorted and twisted trunks and limbs forming all that we can see of the lower portion of the tree. The word ‘serpentine’ leaps to the mind (Fig. 10).  It seems as fitting a description as any to apply to those shapes.   No other trees in the large corpus of Poussin’s paintings, apart from the shapes of several battered branches in Winter, have trunks of a shape remotely similar to the Tree of Life.  It provides a marked contrast to the erect trunks of the bedazzling Tree of Knowledge with its flowers scattered amidst its hanging fruit. If we were indeed meant to view the Serpent as situated there, Poussin would be alone among a long list of distinguished painters to have chosen him to be so situated.  That we should find the Serpent in this tree seems, however, peculiarly fitting, even while we must acknowledge its dramatic divergence from the biblical tale.  The Serpent is proverbially thought to be adept at hiding, and he appears to have beguiled us to look elsewhere for him when all the time he was residing in this unexpected locale, blend­ing into the rich foliage, until that is, our attentive eyes fix upon him and bring him to light.  He is also known to be immortal because of the re­peated sloughing off of his skin, his powers of renewal, and here he is fit­tingly ensconced in the tree that promises everlasting life.[15]

What is to be made of all this?  What is to be made of the Tree of Life, holding out its promise of everlasting life, depicted in a dark setting, with shapes giving rise to a feeling of unease, while the Tree of Knowledge, the eating from which brings death, is sprinkled with bright flowers?  What accounts for Eve, a temptress, not unlike the Serpent, being struck by the sun’s rays, a luminous figure in marked contrast to those trunks supporting the fruit hanging from the Tree of Life?

I believe some answers to these questions may lie in supplementing the Sauerländer and Blunt’s Christian and Pagan interpretations of the Four Seasons,[16] by viewing Spring with Poussin’s well-known attach­ment to a Stoic mode of thinking in mind—its veneration of knowledge, reason, and nature.[17]  He has, I believe, uprooted Adam and Eve from the tale histori­cally associated with them and fashioned a tale of a signifi­cantly different kind, one in which Eve is fairly described as a Stoic Hero. 

I reach this conclusion by imagining Poussin’s thought process, quite con­sistent with fundamental themes at the heart of Stoicism, moving for­ward with a focus on nature and reason.  There are several simple observa­tions. Everything living dies.  Among all living things, animals flee the prospect of imminent death.  Among the animals, humans alone possess the concept of death and are capable of contemplating it when it is not proxi­mate.  This thought arouses in many a fear of death, and this fear gives rise, in turn, to thoughts of how it might be avoided. And a tempting fantasy, then, not infrequently enters the human mind that one might live forever, and one witnesses this fantasy at work in the familiar emotional inability to imagine one’s own death. We often fail to live in a manner that re­veals a genuine conviction that life at some point ends and this fact is an im­portant aspect of why it is something to be treasured.  In these circum­stances we fail to face a fundamental truth of nature that we all die and opt in­stead, as is evident from much of our conduct during life, the illusion of ev­erlasting life.  This behavior is contrary to reason. 

It is also contrary to reason to believe, and behave as if it were true, that such a life without end was clearly an indisputable good to be chosen if offered to one.  Reason rejects a choice of some purported good when the prospect of attaining it brings before our minds an idea that we cannot get our minds around, an idea whose intelligibility we cannot grasp.  Our imagination, if active on the issue, as it is bound to be, presents us with possibilities, none of which we can test in advance, of eternal suffering or unbearable tedium or a loss of deep involvement in life with never any es­cape.  Reason instructs us that death appears an evil to be avoided at any cost, but it is in fact a blessing provided by nature.  No reasonable person would choose this false, tempting, good.  A lengthier life, provided certain conditions, such as good health, obtain, yes.  Seeking an everlasting life, with all its unknowns, no.  The Tree of Life offers, then, what might ap­pear as an inestimable good, but on reflection, nature is preferable to illu­sion. 

Eve’s back is to the Tree of Life, suggesting a rejection of what the Ser­pent may have tempted her to eat.  The bright light of a morning sun, evoking the light that knowledge, shines upon her.  We can imagine her possessing instinctive good sense, on Poussin’s view of the matter, and that she prefers the genuine good of knowledge to the false promise of ever­lasting life.  There is no Serpent, as we know in this version of the tale, to either tempt her to eat of the Tree of Knowledge or to assure her that she shall not die if she does.  We see her before the moment that she and Adam move forward toward the tree and eat its fruit, believing that when they do, they shall die.  We must assume, for God’s words to have significance at all, that they are instinctively aware of death as an evil to be avoided.  They move forward, despite the warning, and eat. This is a portrait, not of creatures that, as a consequence of disobedience, will fall, but, rather, of individuals capable of acting courageously, prepared to suf­fer death to obtain knowledge. 

Spring is the appropriate season for this event to take place, given that when Adam and Eve eat, there is a rebirth, and a new life comes into be­ing.  The two become recognizable human beings with the capacity to re­flect on their conduct and adjust their conduct to norms of their choos­ing.  Virtuous action becomes a possibility.  They acted nobly in eating; and now after eating, the idea of a noble action, not before available to them, can guide their future conduct. They can now reflect upon death and con­sider whether or not it is in all circumstances evil, and they can think about knowledge and reflect whether in all circumstances it is productive of good.  With such thoughts they would move from knowledge to wis­dom. They were before as children to be admired and to be loved; now they are creatures capable of dignity and worthy of respect.  Poussin has depicted two individuals whose conduct is not distinguishable from that of no­ble Stoic heroes whom he has on a number of occasions depicted.[18]

What is it, should we accept this pictorial re-invention of the Adam and Eve tale, that we are to imagine God, floating in the clouds above, think­ing about it all?  His ways are notoriously inscrutable, and prohibit­ing his creatures from acquiring knowledge of good and evil, central to the biblical tale, is significant evidence that this is so.  Can a loving God in­tend for the human beings that he has created to remain forever as chil­dren, that there be no place in human life for moral beauty, for moral vir­tue, for a realization of all of the human’s natural capabilities?  What could be made of the idea of a human being made in the image of God if they remain as little children?  Still, the biblical tale is one in which God informs Adam that on the day he eats of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil he shall surely die.  Such language does sug­gest death as a punitive response and God’s desire for obedience.  God turns his back on Adam and Eve and this suggests disappointment, turning away from them, because God foresees their disobedience, in their immi­nent turning away from him. 

My conjecture on this issue is as follows.  First, there is another exam­ple in Genesis of God commanding what one may find perplexing.  He commands Abraham to sacrifice what is most dear to him, his son Isaac.  He does so to test the strength of Abraham’s faith.  God is ultimately pleased with the evidence Abraham provides of his willingness to kill Isaac and the strength of attachment to his Lord.[19] Likewise, we may sup­pose that Poussin’s God, in his Stoic re-telling of the tale, means to test the strength of Adam and Eve’s attachment to knowledge by indicating death as the outcome of obtaining it.  They pass the test. 

Second, God is looking forward and his left arm is raised, his hand fac­ing forward (Fig. 11).  Some scholars view God’s hand as raised in a blessing.[20]  This interpretation is highly improbable, not simply because the hand does not appear raised, but, more significantly, because neither God nor priests bless with other than their right hand and, of course, it is God’s left hand that is stretched out in a forward direction. 

What meaning, then, is to be attributed to this hand gesture? There is an­other similar gesture in Spring itself and another in a Poussin painting, Hagar and the Angel, dated 1660 (Fig. 12), and the gestures serve to direct at­tention, either to a subject within the painting or to the viewer of the painting.  Eve’s left hand is raised and points to the Tree of Knowledge.  God’s left hand is directed toward the light of the morning sun, a light that il­luminates the world, the most fitting of symbols for knowledge.  God, by this gesture, appears to be validating, rather than condemning, Adam and Eve’s con­duct.  The radical reconstruction of the tale from a Stoic perspec­tive is completed with a significantly radical depiction of God.

Spring was painted between 1660-1664.  Poussin was ill and his hands were trembling.  He died in 1665.  It is reasonable to believe that his atten­tion focused, at least occasionally, on his own death and how he would confront it.  No more light; no more color; no more shapes; no more giv­ing and receiving love; no more thought and knowledge.  There is reason, I believe, to think that with Spring Poussin was preparing himself to die in the manner of the wise man so revered by the Stoics, surveying in his mind’s eye much of what he so cherished in life, and at the end – a sense of gratitude and a calm acceptance of what nature brings to all that is liv­ing.

University of California, Los Angeles

All images are available at www.artstor.org

 

              Title                                                             Artist                      Location

Fig. 1   Spring or The Earthly Paradise           Nicolas Poussin         Musée du Louvre, Paris

Fig. 2   Expulsion from the Garden of Eden   Masaccio              Cappella Brancacci, Florence

Fig. 3   Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice                            Nicolas Poussin             Musée du Louvre, Paris

Fig. 4   Landscape w/ a Man Killed by a Snake                             Nicolas Poussin             The National Gallery, London

Fig. 5   Landscape w/ a Man Pursued by Snake                            Nicolas Poussin             Montréal Museum of Fine Arts

Fig. 6   Two Nymphs and Snake in a Landscape                            Nicolas Poussin             Musée Condé, Paris

Fig. 7   Apollo and Daphne                                  Nicolas Poussin         Musée du Louvre, Paris

Fig. 8   Winter orThe Flood                                Nicolas Poussin         Musée du Louvre, Paris

Fig. 9   The Fall of Man     Lucas Cranach the Elder               Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Fig. 10                                                                        Detail of Fig. 1           

Fig. 11                                                                        Detail of Fig. 1           

Fig. 12                                                                        Landscape with Hagar and the Angel    Nicolas Poussin    Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome


[1] Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions, ed. P. Rosenberg/ K. Christiansen (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008).  Professor Rosenberg writes, “The paintings of the Four Seasons are incontestably the most famous works by Poussin and the most often illustrated as has been frequently repeated, they constitute his ‘artistic and spiritual testament.’” 292.  See general discussion 292-296.  See also N. Milovanovic, Nicolas Poussin Les Quatre Saisons (Musée de Louvre: Paris 2014).  The Duc de Richelieu, grand-nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, commissioned the paintings, and then, either paying off a debt to King Louis XIV occasioned by losing a tennis match or selling the paintings to the King, delivered them in 1665 to the King who, in turn, arranged for them to be hung in the Louvre.  Poussin is known to have worked on the paintings during the period 1660–64, a period in which he suffered from the effects of both age (1594–1665) and illness. It is not known in what sequence the paintings, each of which is on a Biblical story— Adam and Eve, Boaz and Ruth, The Gathering of the Grapes, The Flood—was painted.

[2] I refer to the woman as “Eve” even though she is only so named in Genesis 3:20 after the events discussed in this essay.

[3] Gen. 2:8.

[4] A common pictorial representation of the serpent, of course, has its upper body as that of a young woman despite Genesis 3:1 in which the Serpent is identified as male.  

[5] A. Blunt, Nicolas Poussin (New York: Pallas Athene, 1967), I, 315, Fn 3: “The snake, which is the central theme of the Landscape with Two Nymphs, appears to have become something of an obsession with Poussin in his later years.”  See also T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006) “ Snakes, it is clear, were the members of the animal kingdom Poussin was most drawn to: they appear in paintings and drawings all through his life, time and again charged with a specially repellent beauty,” 178.  Professor Clark’s discussion of snakes is the most thorough in the Poussin literature, but however illuminating his remarks about a snake when it appears, he neglects to shed any light on the issue that is dealt with in this paper, not saying anything about the absence of a snake in Spring.

[6] See on the difference between “causing” and “meaning” H.P. Grice, “Meaning”, Studies in the Way of Words  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 213-23.

[7] On the topic of Stoicism and Poussin, see Blunt, 157-76.

[8] Gen. 3:1

[9] K. Clark, Landscape into Art (London: Penguin, 1956) 81: “…the Spring that perfect illustration to Paradise Lost, which by the art of design our first parents are given their true place in nature.”   

[10] J. Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1957), Book IX.

[11] See W. Sauerländer,”Die Jahreszeiten: Ein Beitrag zur allegorischen Landschaft beim späten Poussin,” Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst 7 (1956), 169-84. W. Sauerländer,  “’Nature Through the Glass of Time’: A Reflection on the Meaning of Poussin’s Landscapes,” Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions, ed. Pierre Rosenberg and Keith Christiansen (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 113-17.  I am unconvinced by Professor Sauerländer’s claim that an understanding of each painting in the series depends upon an understanding of the series as a whole.  I believe that Spring conveys meanings that are not necessarily linked to the meanings of other paintings in the series.  See Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) 367-368 for a critique of Professor Sauerländer’s views on this issue.

[12] Poussin and Nature, 113.

[13] Milovanovic in his recent Nicolas Poussin Les Saisons Quatre generally follows Sauerländer’s Christian interpretation of the series of paintings.  He observes, “Dans le tableau de Poussin, ce n’est donc pas le demon qui est en cause, mais le coeur humain.” p. 12.  We can, perhaps, conclude from this that Milovanovic believes that the Serpent is not present because he is unnecessary. This would differ from the view that I attribute to Sauerländer. Milovanovic sees the painting in exclusively Christian terms and does not discuss the Tree of Life or the significance of God’s position and gesture. 

[14] Gen. 3:24.

[15] J.H.Charlesworth, The Good and Evil Serpent  (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), 32-57, 269-351.

[16] See Blunt, Poussin, 334-335 where he suggests that each of the paintings in the Four Seasons can be seen as representing a different pagan god, in the case of Spring the god, Apollo.

[17] See Blunt, Poussin, Chapter IV, “Poussin and Stoicism” for the most thorough discussion of Poussin’s paintings dealing with Stoic heroes such as Phocion, Camillius, and Diogenes, and his general attachment to Stoic thought.  “His basic principle for the conduct of life is to live according to nature and reason. For him, as for the Stoics, these are more or less indistinguishable, and to live according to one is to follow the other” 167. Poussin would have also been acquainted with the works of a number of Neo-stoics, among them Justus Lipsius, Guillaume du Vair, and Pierre Charron, each of whom, while attached to the thinking of the ancient Stoics, sought to harmonize Stoicism and Christianity. On the issue of personal  responsibility most relevant is Justus Lipsius rejection of philosophic determinism, a view espoused by leading classical Stoics, see J. Lipsius, Two Books of Constancie, trans. by Sir J. Stradling; ed. by R. Kirk (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1939) “Four Modifications of Ancient Stoicism,” 1.20.  My argument presupposes that Poussin believed, as Lipsius did, in personal responsibility and his admiration for the ancient Stoics did not go so far as his relinquishing the idea of personal responsibility whether or not the ancient Stoics in fact did so. Attesting to the popularity of Neo-stoic ideas in France of the 17th century is the fact that P. Charron’s De la Sagesse livres trois (Bordeaux: Simon Millanges, 1601) appeared in 36 editions by 1672.  See “Neostoicism” in International Journal of Philosophy.  See also Chapter V, “Poussin’s Religious Ideas,” in Blunt and the little that is known about them. It should, perhaps, be mentioned that there is a distinction between attachment to everlasting life and a belief in the immortality of the soul. There is no Christian doctrine of which I am aware that supports the idea of an everlasting human life of the kind associated with the Tree of Life. In addition to the influence of Stoicism upon Poussin and, in particular with regard to his attitudes toward death, there would very likely be the influence of Lucretius and Montaigne both ofwhom he greatly admired.  See E. Cropper and C. Dempsey, Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 177-215.  See also Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays (London: Penguin Books, 1987), trans. by M.A. Screech.  Essay 20, 89-108, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” is particularly relevant.

[18] Blunt, Poussin, 160-68.  See also Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1989), Chap. 3 for discussion of gnostic perspectives similar to those that would inform a Stoic approach to Adam and Eve.  

[19]  Gen. 22.

[20] Sauerländer, see note 11 above; Poussin and Nature, 293. I am indebted to Professor H.A. Kelly of the Department of English, UCLA for bringing to my attention that blessings are always done with the right hand.

( categories: )
Syndicate content