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A Broken Oak: Andre Thevet’s Rehabilitation of the Valois monarchs

Charles_IX---Francois-Clouet---1570---Paris--BNF--Estampes

A Valois nose what he knows.

In last Thursday’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins wrote a piece on the possibility of the country of Yorkshire being afforded “European minority status” and what that might mean for a future independence movement in the north of England(http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/08/mighty-yorkshire-minority-cornwall-london-payback). To be fair, the Yorkshire dales have a long history of sticking it to London’s centralizing efforts (just ask William I during the 1060s and 1070s and Henry VIII, who found the Pilgrimage of Grace anything but in 1536). The piece was a fascinating thought experiment, taking into consideration as it did, how the identity of what Yorkshire is assumed to be, and quite prescient given the national movements that are springing up throughout Europe. Scotland and the Catalans are not the only ones with aspirations of independence – they’re just currently the loudest.

This question of what constitutes a national identity is one that interests me a great deal. Benedict Anderson examined this question in his Imagined Communities (1983, revised 1991). He argued, quite rightly I think, that nations are social constructs created by various groups who together imagine a homogenous sense of community. Anderson’s argument rested on his study of modern nation states and how symbols and rituals fashioned a common national experience that all members could relate to, even if they lived thousands of miles away from each other. For example, the in the US baseball is considered a successful symbol of national identity because it has been able to convince an entire nation to overlook just how dull the sport of baseball is.

One of the reasons for my interest in this subject is I am teaching a course this summer at Wilfrid Laurier University this summer on some of these issues. But I am not looking at the nation states of the 20th and 21st centuries, but rather the monarchial states of the 13th – 16th centuries. One of the most fascinating aspects of medieval and early modern history is how the political, intellectual and ecclesiastical elites consciously invented their own identities. To be fair, the efforts of monarchial states to invent their own identities lack the democratic participation of its subjects in the way that modern states do (although based on the baseball example, less democratic involvement may not be such a bad thing), but these effort were no less effective.

Students in my course will be reading a lot, Brazilian rain forests worth of texts really. One of the works they will be reading are excerpts from André Thevet’s Vrais Pourtraits et Vies des Hommes Illustres (in an English translation of course, I’m not a Maratesque tyrant- bibliographic details below). I love this book and any time I get to use it makes me happy.

Published in 1584, the Vrais Pourtraits is a masterpiece of sixteenth-century French biography. Thevet’s compendium of famous men established him as one of the central figures of the French Renaissance. Based on Plutarchan models, the Vrais Pourtraits is more than a slavish imitation of the Roman biographical genre that had been revived since the mid-fifteenth century. Looking to Stephen Greenblatt’s work of Renaissance self fashioning, the Vrais Pourtraits is part of a discourse which attempted to fashion the Valois monarchy for its own purposes. As Cosmographer to Henri III and because of his experience writing about his experiences in the French Antarctic, Thevet was well positioned to join the efforts to fashion an image of the Valois which would counter anti-Valois attacks which were very popular during the 1560s and 1570s. To fashion a positive image of the Valois monarchy that would be effective, Thevet attempted to fix the malleability of representation through the use of the I-witness.

The success of Thevet’s use of the I-witness is dependent upon the interplay between text and image which was central to Thevet’s project. A triumph of Renaissance printing, the copperplate engravings allowed Thevet to fix the representational meaning of his subjects in order to transmit his intended message. They were not simply decorative portraits, but rather “natural effigies” and “living paintings.”

The images granted a certain kind of immortality, permanently fixing the virtues or vices of the subject in the mind of the reader. They “have an energy and interior virtue which lead us to cherish virtue and detest vice.”

With new translations of Plutarch’s Lives in the sixteenth century, humanist historians had access to new biographical templates with which to work. One of the best known of these translations was that by the French Protestant Jacques Amyot. His translation of Plutarch’s Greek Lives first appeared in 1572. Amyot’s Dedication to Henri II and Epistle to the Reader reveals some of the shifts the function of these Lives had undergone during the sixteenth century, and would impact Thevet’s own work. Pleasure and contemplation were not the sole purpose of these biographical histories. To assume that the acts of the virtuous were solely the purview of contemplation was condemned by wise men. The reading of the acts of virtuous men and in the rare case, women, was to spur the reader to not just imitate virtuous acts privately, but rather to lead to greater service to the state.

While a biographical collection of the lives of the ancients were popular, Thevet’s work stands out in that it includes a substantial number of contemporary figures, including several non-European persons, for example the Brazilian chief Quoniambec and Montezuma whose inclusion served an ambitious purpose; that of rehabilitating the image of the later Valois monarchy.

While the nadir of the Valois would have to wait until the reign of Henri III, the prestige of the crown was hardly any better under Charles IX. The unpopularity of Catherine de’Medici’s regime and the ill health of the young king had provided both Catholic and Protestant propagandists a target on which to aim their polemics. As the final Valois king to make an appearance in the , Thevet took the opportunity to use the biography of Charles IX to counter the negative opinion that had swamped French discourse throughout the 1570s and 80s. In contrast to the image of a modern day Ahab, Thevet presents his audience a Charles who was literally born to lead during the crisis of the civil wars:

His bells were rung from the cradle or, at least, from his tender childhood by the varied alarms of fortune, however, he proved to be so well anchored that there was no assault, which could make him lose ground but, like a great fat tree, the more he was shaken by storms of wind the more strength he seems to have gained: thus by the blows of fortune, however thick and violent, this Charles stiffening himself in the encounter, took on more grandeur and puissance from it.

A far cry from the portrayal of a weak and duplicitous king that dominated anti-Valois rhetoric.

To commemorate the royalist victory over the Protestants at Rouen in 1562, Charles IX entered the city in a royal procession. While there, he met with native representatives from Brazil. The meeting elicited several reactions, many of which were negative. For Montaigne, the vitality displayed by the Brazilians contrasted starkly with the physically and mentally weak Charles IX of France. The comparison between the Brazilian chiefs and young king could not have been more unfavourable. The Brazilians found “odd that all those full grown men, strong and bearing arms in the King’s entourage, should consent to obey a boy rather than choosing one of themselves as Commander.” A clearer statement of the condition of the Old World and in particular France could not be made. Charles IX represented the decay that was destroying France as its entrails were ripped out during a homicidal series of civil wars. The New World on the other hand was still in its infancy and if it could avoid corruption through contact with the Old World, there was no question that Europe would be eclipsed.

In contrast to Montaigne’s pessimism, Andre Thevet’s portrait of the Brazilian chief Quoniambec undercuts the sentiment that France’s best days were behind it. In so doing, Thevet turns on its head a discourse that had dominated French thought on the New World while supporting the late Valois dynasty. Twelve years earlier, Henri II, during his own royal entry into Rouen was presented with the spectacle of an imaginary Brazilian village dramatizing “a pre-civic world without a founder.” Under Henri II, the New World represented a barbarous and cannibalistic Other. For Thevet, this is not the case. By including New World rulers in his gallery of illustrious people, Thevet erases the barbarous Otherness of people like Quoniambec.

For the biography of Quoniambec to serve as a way of enhancing Charles IX’s prestige, Thevet had to rehabilitate the image of Quoniambec first. In another striking example of how Thevet took advantage of the malleability of late Renaissance representation for his own agenda.  Contextualized as a Plutarchan subject, Quoniambec lent Thevet’s image of Charles IX symbolic capital. By having the French king connected to the vitality and vibrancy of the New World, the person of the king was rejuvenated what was perceived to be a decaying regime

Seen as an innovation, the inclusion of contemporary and New World figures along side with the illustrious men and women of antiquity, allowed Thevet to present a counter narrative in face of the almost inexhaustible output of violent polemics threatening the crown. Paired with the great of Rome and the New World, Charles IX was rehabilitated as a strong monarch, or less charitably, a Potemkin village of royal authority as Thevet’s image of Valois vitality was to be finished off with Jacques Clement’s blade.

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