The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 4 – “Fortunes de France” Translated Into English
Robert Merle’s 13 volume series of historical novels on the 16th and 17th century religious wars in France, Fortunes de France, is now being translated into English. The first volume, entitled The Brethren in English was published earlier this month, in early March. The second volume, in French En nos vertes années, in English City of Wisdom and Blood, is also scheduled to come out already in September, according to an email received from the publisher, Pushkin Publishers, with a third volume also being prepared.
The historical background for the series begins in the decades after Protestantism emerged as a major challenge to Catholic doctrine in Europe. This epic struggle within Western European Christianity, emerges, not coincidentally, about a half century after the first printing press with movable type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg roughly about 1450 extending the use of the written word. As literacy spread beyond the monasteries and very narrow financial circles, what followed was an explosion in curiosity, science and a re-evaluation of sacred scripts, especially the Christian bible both Old and New Testaments. In 1517 Martin Luther posted – what might be considered an ideological declaration of war against the Catholic Church – his Ninety Five Theses, on the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, German. In these he elaborated his critique of the corrupt practices of Catholicism in those days. In 1521, when Luther refused to retract his writings he was excommunicated ushering in one of the two profound divisions in Christianity which continues until today, some 500 years later.
On the heels of Luther’s rebellion, in 1530, a French humanist lawyer, John Calvin, broke with Catholicism too, embracing many of Luther’s ideas but in many ways going further, constructing his version of a Protestant utopia, developing both prescriptions of how to live both individually and in a social context. His work would have reverberations far beyond Geneva where he was based, extending throughout Europe, most especially in Germany, Netherlands (then a Spanish colony), Belgium, what is today the Czech Republic and in France as well. The speed with which the movement grew, especially among the ranks of the lower nobility and the now-established bourgeoisie, led to armed confrontations, civil war throughout the continent on a scale that would not be repeated until the 20th century.
It is this period that Robert Merle addresses in the series. From its outset, the Calvinist rebellion was both of a religious and political nature, and what can be seen in it are early stirring for the emergence of full-blown capitalism, the attempted overthrow of feudal structures. During this same period, these succeeded in “the low countries” in what emerge after 1579 as “the United Provinces” – today’s Netherlands. In the France of Robert Merle’s Fortunes de France, the situation was not so clear-cut with the monarchy first strengthening itself until the French Revolution of 1789 blew those structures asunder.
The first rumblings, declarations that Protestantism was considered by the Catholic hierarchy as a heresy began in the 1540s when already an inquisition was set in place by Rome, carried out to one degree or another by the French and Spanish nobility especially throughout the Catholic realms, but with particular severity in what was then the Spanish Netherlands and France. These were countered by Protestant counter attacks in which Catholic churches were looted, priests attacked and killed, referred to as the iconoclastic fury. Some of the first instances of the iconoclastic fury and the subsequent repression of the new Protestantism took place in Rouen (as well as La Rochelle on the coast and Carcassonne and Cahors in the South.) By the 1560s, in France, these skirmishes resulted in full scale civil war with pitched battles. The most intense warfare between Catholic and Calvinist Protestants took place between 1562 and 1598, although there were violent episodes both before and after this period. Before it was over France would become a graveyard of both The exact casualty figures, just for the religious wars in France alone, is not known but some estimates put the dead at between 2 and 4 million.
Technically, these conflicts came to a halt in 1598, in France anyway, with Henry IV’s issuing of the Edict of Nantes. An example of uncharacteristic tolerance at the time, legally the Edict of Nantes guaranteed freedom of religion for French Calvinist Protestants, referred to as Huguenots, on the same level as Catholics. In the same manner that here in the United States, racism continues some fifty years after the civil rights legislation in the 1960s, although it reduced it some, the issuing of the Edict of Nantes did not end religious violence in France, nor Catholic hostility towards Huguenots, which continued. Another agreement, agreed upon after another decade of intense civil warfare, the 1629, Peace of Alès stripped Protestants of their political rights, but permitted them to practice their religion. From then on Protestant security could only depend on the good will of the king which fluctuated depending on the ruler. At the end of the 17th century, in 1685, King Louis XIV issued his anti-Huguenot edit, the Edit of Fountainbleau, which effectively revoked the privileges Huguenots had won and enjoyed with the Edict of Nantes. Louis XIV feared the Huguenot element as a challenge to his absolute rule. He ordered the destruction of Protestant churches and the closing of Protestant schools.
The Edict of Fountainbleau effectively put an end to French Protestantism, forcing Huguenots to choose between conversion and exile. Many converted, but the period of about a decade perhaps as many as a million Huguenots left France, emigrating to the Netherlands, Prussia, Great Britain and the American colonies, depriving France of much of it most industrious manufacturing and financial class. There is speculation, reasonable, that in so doing, Louis XIV slowed the French transition to capitalism with the advantage passing to Britain, and denied France the possibility of emerging as a world hegemonic power. I do not think this idle speculation. The issue of Protestant (and Jewish and Muslim) rights would emerge again, a century later in the 1790s, when the French Parliament determined that citizenship be based on residency, not on religion or ethnicity.
Merle’s series covers most of this turbulent period, the historic background for the series and one of the main elements in the narrative as the danger of religious war, tension is always there, at times erupting with great fury, at other moments lingering in the background, but regardless, never absent throughout the entire 13 volumes. Merle explains in the forward of “The Brethren” that he is “not a Protestant” but that he chose a Protestant family of the lower nobility to “ensure that [he] would miss none of the charming, vivid, horrible or savory details that abound in the memoirs of this period.” He portrays the values of this family as rational, politically radical and ethnically tolerant for the times, classic portrait of not just a Protestant family, but of the emerging French bourgeoisie (which was in large measure, Protestant). Whether their side wins the battle for France or not, in the period of the Renaissance, the de Siorac family (the “de” or “from” being a sign of nobility) is nothing short of the progressive spirit of the times and Merle gives us a vivid description of how hard and long was France’s struggle towards modernism. In fact, it, modernism, never quite appears in the near century over which the series is concerned, a lesson perhaps to those (of us) working to democratize and rationalize the current inequities and injustice that plague the world of our day. The forces of political and cultural reaction are forever at work and never that far from the surface of the narrative.
The narrative begins with the birth of Pierre de Siorac’s father, Jean in 1514 in Rouen, Normandy but soon moves to the south of France, to what is essentially the Dordogne Valley region somewhere in the neighborhood if Montignac and Cahors in an imaginary château Merle calls Mespech. Over the course of the series, very much like Hugo’s Les Miserables, the scene will shift to virtually all the regions of France with each one getting some coverage. Yet placing the de Siorac family in “Le Midi”, the French South, puts the family story square in the middle of the religious wars, as even before the rise of Calvinism, Le Midi was the scene of numerous religious experiments, attempts to re-work Christianity, virtually all of which, declared heresies by the Papacy in Rome, were crushed militarily in the sea of blood known as the Inquisition, among the more well-known ones, the Albigensians, the Waldensians.
Early in the book, mention is made of Francis I’s 1545 earlier crushing the Waldensian movement in the Luberon region of southern France in a week of bloodshed. According to one source, in all, 2700 were slaughtered and another 600 were essentially enslaved to work on galleys (ships). Merle relates (pp. 21-22) one incident in Merindol where 800 people alone were murdered, burnt alive, women and daughters raped in the church there with bullets shot up their vaginas and prisoners eviscerated alive “to have their guts displayed on sticks.” This was but the opening act to what would follow. Historians estimate that France’s Provençal troops killed hundreds to thousands of residents there, and in the 22-28 nearby villages they destroyed. Hundreds of captured prisoners were also sent to labor in the French galleys. The representative of the Spanish king congratulated Francois I on the results of the purge. As an indication of how long and deep the religious conflict smoldered, a century later, an even uglier massacre of Protestants would take place in the same region, one that would provoke a wide outcry that included a poem by John Milton, “On The Late Massacre In Piedmont.”
On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
by John Milton
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learnt thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
It was with this background of the emerging conflict that the opening volume of the series takes place.
The de Siorac family and its entourage set themselves up in their working château not far from the Luberon massacres. French patriots as much as they are Protestant reformers, the de Siorac’s establish what amounts to a feudal domain, but one that is clearly “in transition” to early capitalism. One follows the lives of the family through a series of soap opera-like incidents, the drama intensified by the fact that the family father, Jean de Siorac marries a woman from the Catholic nobility who refuses to convert to “the new faith,” Protestantism. De Siorac, along with his bosom friend and fellow Calvinist-Protestant, Jean de Sauveterre are “The Brethren.” Together, for nine years, they had fought in the French army of Francis I, in his wars to liberate northern France from British control, after which, having gathered together a fair amount of wealth both from salary and “the fortunes of war” (otherwise known as looting), they move to the south of France where they are able to purchase an old château and surrounding property, Mespech. There the two “blood brothers” as I guess they would today be called, build a prosperous life around the chateau, in a period of grave insecurity just as the religious wars between Catholicism and Protestantism are about to get underway.
The period covered in this first volume is one in which the Catholic-Protestant confrontations and massacres intensify to a disturbing degree. Protestants respond to Catholic repression (arrest, torture, burning at the stake, assassinations, massacres) with like actions – their own massacres, desecration of Catholic Churches and the like.) All this takes place prior to the “grand finale” of Catholic attempts at Protestant ethnic cleansing: the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 23-24, 1572 in which France’s Protestant leadership is slaughtered and decapitated.
Rouen’s Place in the Religious Wars
One of the regions where “the Reform” (ie, the growth of Protestantism) took hold the strongest during the mid 1500s was Normandy. Reform “temples” as the Protestant churches were called, sprang up at St. Lo, Rouen, Dieppe, Caen, Le Harvre and Coustances. As a result, Rouen was one of many major flash points of the 16th century religious wars. By this time, the city along the Seine half way between Paris and Le Havre had become the main port of commerce doing trade with Brazil to which it exported its fine produced draperies in exchange for Brazil wood. An episode in this first volume of Merle’s epic includes the 1562 Catholic seige and sacking of the city, then a Protestant stronghold, and the slaughter that followed. Having emerged as an early center of Calvinist Protestantism, it became an early military target for the Catholic forces, organized in what was called the Catholic League. A massacre of Protestants in a church at Vassy (see illustration) provoked what is referred to as the “First War” (1562-3).
All in all, there will be eight periods of civil war until the end of the 16th century. In April, 1562, Protestants seized control of Rouen.The Protestant forces had achieved some military support from Queen Elizabeth and English forces were granted entry to Le Havre. Fearing an English attack on Rouen from this new British stronghold, in an effort to stem any British led attack on Paris, Guise shifted military gears and turned his attention on Rouen. With Catholic reinforcements coming to his aid from all over France, Guise was able to lay seige to and take the city. One of the Catholic League’s leaders, Antoine de Navarre, the father of Henry IV, through his own carelessness bordering on stupidity, died in the fighting. The sacking of Rouen which followed the military rout was one of the worst of that period. The slaughter of Protestants that it entailed would only intensify the religious civil war and result in Protestant revenge massacres.
While there are many characters, whose personalities reflect the diverse sociological trends of the time, the protagonist is de Siorac’s son, Pierre, at the insistence of his Catholic mother named after Saint Peter. Although he will grow up a convinced Protestant, Pierre de Siorac will carry the Catholic cross he swore to his mother he’d wear round his neck as the she lay dying. In the Brethren, Merle traces Pierre de Siorac’s formative years from his birth to the moment, at the age of fifteen, when with his half brother, Samson and “valet” (valet = personal servant) Miroul, he lives Mespech for Montpellier to study medicine, as his father did before him. In Pierre de Siorac’s early life at Mespech, Merle paints a sociological portrait of the times as it existed in a classic feudal manor, one that was in the process of being transformed into a modern agricultural business, ie, we see the transition from feudalism to capitalism in microcosm.
The translation from French is, to my tastes, very well done, but here it is impossible that the narrative not lose a bit of the vibrancy of the volumes in the original French. The original French version of “The Brethren” entitled “Fortunes de France (both the name of the first volume and the series as whole) is linguistically rich. The dialogue goes back and forth to and from 16th century colloquial French, the French version of Shakespearean English, and what is called the “langue d’oc” , Provencal, the specific dialect of the southern regions which is, I am told, close to Catalan. All tolled, Merle presents us not only with a social history of France in the series, but also a history of the French language. Here one must not the depth of research that must have gone into preparing each volume of the series.
The values of the emerging bourgeois merchant class permeated with Calvinist precepts – belief in one God stripped of the authority of the Vatican, financial prudence, the spirit of rationalism – that holy trinity of values that together represented the pre-conditions for the rise of capitalism – are manifest in the de Siorac-de Sauveterre partnership/friendship. In sharp relief, the superstitions, moral corruption, medieval world view of the 16th century Catholic Church are as treated as stubborn holdovers of an earlier age. Merle’s use of the French language is rich and varied and includes many words of the southern French dialogue “langue d’oc.” The English translation manages to maintain the richness of the vocabulary. Having read this volume originally in French, this English translation appears to be a largely unabridged and very well done translation.
Fourteen years after the Luberon massacres, in 1559, Philip II signed truce with Francis I’s successor, the idiot king, Henry II, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, the secret clauses of which seal a French-Spanish united policy against Protestantism. A new wave of anti-Protestant repression followed, both in France and in what was referred to as the Spanish Netherlands (today the modern nations of the Netherlands and Belgium).
According to Wallerstein (Modern World-System Vol 1) the treaty marks “a rough and unstable balance between the French monarchy and the Spanish branch of the house of Hapsburg, the two leviathans that still towered over all the other powers and whose long quarrel was now rather suspended than ended.” It will lead directly to the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands and St. Bartholomew Massacre in France as well as the beginning of an intensified Spanish Inquisition in the Low Countries. Not long after the ink of the Cateau-Cambresis treaty was dry, an anti-Protestant campaign was again launched in southern France, beginning in November 1561 starting with the towns of Cahors and Montignac, the region where The Brethren took place. At Cahors, some 30 Protestants were slaughtered at the Orioles Temple. Soon thereafter, in March, 1562, the authorities moved on to Montluc and Vassey. In April of that year, 200 Protestants were bound, beaten and thrown into the Loire River.
By the time that Pierre de Siorac reaches puberty, in the early 1560s, the Inquisition in France has intensified, taking along in its wake, thousands of French Protestants, a prelude to pitched battles between the Calvinists and the Crown that would soon follow. The Religious Wars are never far away from the narrative , sometimes lurking in the background, sometimes bursting forth with the usual violence and ugliness that is associated with all forms of fanaticism. As the French royal family vacillates between appeasement and repression of its Protestant citizenry Calvinists agonized between loyalty to the crown and to their religious principles. Through thick and thin, and when at moments enduring horrific discrimination and repression the de Siorac’s – at least as Merle paints them – never lose site of the primacy of their allegiance to the crown, to the French nation, regardless of the viciousness of life’s cruelties. There is no hedging about the bigotry of the period and yet, this volume, and those that follow are imbued with a love of life, a resilience, an ability to overcome suffering and tragedy throughout.
This is a stirring beginning to a thirteen volume series that will preoccupy Robert Merle for the last 26 years of his life, until his dying days. He had finally in this series, found his voice, one that combines history, human hope and stupidity, technological progress, the spirit of Renaissance rationalism with other human pre-occupations: sex, good food and drink, human companionship, all knitted into a wondrous literary package….and now it is available in English! Finally!