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A Book Review Francois de Belleforest’s Le Cinquiesme Tome des Histoires Tragiques

Hervé-Thomas Campagne must be commended on this volume. Published under the
auspices of Librairie Droz’s Textes Littéraires Français, this is the first modern critical edition of the French historian and cosmographer François de Belleforest, and it does not disappoint. Campagne’s introduction, which goes on for more than a hundred pages, presents a comprehensive and highly sophisticated study of the historical and cultural background behind Belleforest’s work.

François de Belleforest was a prolific and well-regarded historian during the reigns of Charles IX and Henri III . The first volume of the Histoire Tragique appeared in 1559, and subsequent volumes continued until Belleforest published the first edition of the Cinquiesme Tome in 1570, which was quickly revised with four additional chapters and pub- lished in 1572 . Despite the current obscurity of Belleforest’s works, his Histoires Tragiques present important insights into the practice of history in sixteenth-century France. The first four volumes of the Histoires Tragiques were based on translations and retellings of the works of the Italian storyteller Matteo Bandello. Campagne argues that Belleforest’s reliance on Bandello’s stories indicates how deeply Italian dramatic models had permeated French historical writing by the 1560s, which transformed history into a form of theatrical performance. Sixteenth-century readers would have recognized the sense of performance suggested by the term histoire tragique. Tragic histories find their origins in classical Greek tragic drama revived during the Renaissance.

Imitation of the structures of Greek tragedy amplified the didactic power of the Histoires Tragiques. Moral lessons were to be gleaned from Greco-Roman tragedies that were given new life by European humanists. Adopting classical dramatic structures, the twelve chapters that comprise the Cinquiesme Tome should be regarded as mises en scène in which Belleforest’s historical subjects perform as on stage. For example, chapter 11 recounts the downfall of the medieval Danish king Canute, at the hands of his brother Olav who led a rebellion of the nobility against the king after his conversion to Christianity. The narrative structure of this chapter, as in the case of the other chapters, is based on lengthy harangues in the Thucydidean tradition. In the end, Canute is murdered at the altar of a Christian church by the pagan and barbarous Danes.

Campagne argues that these “seditious” harangues are performances for a theatrum mundi . The invented speeches populating this chapter were scripted precisely to demon- strate to the audience the evils arising from sedition against legitimate and godly rulers . As Campagne further notes, even the narrative of Canute’s demise takes on the guise of stage directions . Indeed, these harangues, in keeping with the structures of tragic dramas, serve the same function as Greek choruses through which Belleforest could transpose important moral lessons into the historical narrative.

Belleforest’s work also reveals the extent to which confessional and cultural identities shaped his historical narratives. None of the twelve chapters in the Cinquiesme Tome deals directly with contemporary French history, and yet each speaks to Belleforest’s own identity as a Catholic and loyal subject to the Valois monarchy. In Belleforest’s version of the history of Hamlet, or Amleth as it appears in this French text, which appears thirty years prior to Shakespeare’s version, the reader was to reflect on the atrocities of the fratricidal nature of the violence of the Religious Wars. The story of a Christian—read Catholic—king, murdered by his barbarous and pagan subjects would have resonated with his French read- ership . Even more to the point, the story of Canute and his rebellious brother Olav became a cautionary tale of the fratricidal conflict between Henri III and the duc d’’Alençon, with the Danish rebel nobility standing in for the malcontents whom Henri had to face down in 1570.

The editors at Droz should also be commended. The scholarly apparatus of this edition
is excellent . Each of the chapters is followed up by ample and comprehensive contextual
endnotes that provide much-needed explanations for the more obscure aspects of Bellefo-
rest’s work. This is a first-rate work that leaves this reader hopeful that Belleforest’s other
volumes of the Histoires Tragiques will be given the same critical treatment. And now with
Librairie Droz’s new publication of a critical edition of Matteo Bandello’s Aleran et Adélasie,
scholars of France’s early modern cultural and intellectual history have at their hands even
greater resources to trace the currents in the cultural and intellectual developments of late
Valois France.

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