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Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood

October 7, 2015
Montpellier circled

Montpellier circled

City of Wisdom and Blood


The second volume of Robert Merle’s thirteen volume historical epoch in fictional form, City of Wisdom and Blood, has been translated from French into English and published last month (September, 2015) by Pushkin Press. It appeared about six months after the first volume, entitled in English The Brethren appeared. The third volume which deals with the St Bartholomew Day Massacre of late August, 1572 is already scheduled to publication in February, 2016. So volume after volume, the entire series, one of France’s most popular historical novel epochs, will soon be out in English. There are few better and more enjoyable ways of learning the twists and turns of 16th and 17th century French history than reading through the series.

Robert Merle came to writing historical novels rather late in his career, when he was already past the age of seventy. Prior to that, he had written on a number contemporary themes along with a few political biographies and a serious academic study of the life and writings of Oscar Wilde. I’ve read several of them (both in French in English) – Weekend à Zuydcoote, La Mort est Mon Metier, Day of the Dolphin, Ahmed Ben Bella among them. They – and the others he wrote – were thoughtful well written works but that attracted only a limited audience despite their social value.

Over the course the next twenty years, the French peoples’ taste for politically oriented writings had begun to wain. Having won the Prix Goncourt in 1949, often considered France’s version of the Pulitzer for his account of the chaos surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation (in which Merle was a participant), still despite a number of interesting literary efforts, his literary work failed to attract the kind of mass audience for which he had hoped. He began to consider other options. The series “Fortunes de France” was the result. With it, so to speak, Merle struck gold, both financially and in the minds and hearts of the French public. The series sold more than five million copies.

From the first volume (entitled in French “Fortunes de France”, in English “The Brethren), the series was an immediate hit. In it Merle was able to blend the accurate and extremely violent history of the French religious wars between Catholicism and the emerging Calvinist form of Protestantism in France with the rise of the rationalist-scientific thinking, sprinkled (generously) with what amounts to soft pornography. The series follows its main protagonist, Pierre de Siorac, son of a lower Calvinist nobleman living in the south of France, through his life, a life of joys and pain in which mundane experiences quickly turn into dangerous episodes. Along the way, Merle paints what amounts to an extraordinary historical sociology of the times that reflects what must have been literally an exhaustive amount of research of the period on his part.

Historical personalities, Rabelais, Montaigne, Philip II of Spain, Catherine de Medici, Coligny, Henry IV among them, come alive as do some of the emerging scientists, philosophers of the day. There is also a considerable amount of information of a religious nature concerning the theological differences of the day, the differences between the Catholic and Protestant theologies , the mutual distrust and distaste of the one for the other. Throughout the series Merle focuses much on the rise of a more scientific medical tradition, on the rationalist philosophical breakthroughs of Descartes (and much later, Spinoza) and on the emergence of what might be called political tolerance in an age of extremes. The painful and uneven birth and evolution of freedom of expression, respect for the views of others in an age of religious factionalism and bigotry (on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant conflict) is the series most salient them. No doubt Merle uses the history of these religious conflicts to mirror the current political sectarianism and factionalism between the advocates of Capitalism and Socialism today. Indeed in so many respects, in its world view, the lives of its characters, this is a completely modern work what is meant to suggest how little the basic thinking and structures of modern life has changed over the centuries, just perhaps only the “playing field” – from religion to politics.

Vassy Massacre of 1562 - one of 40 prints by Holgenberg

Vassy Massacre of 1562 – one of 40 prints by Holgenberg


The “city of wisdom and blood” is Montpellier, in the s. of France. During the period in this second volume of “Fortunes de France” approximately 1566-8, it was a dynamic town, with both a Protestant and Catholic population and a medical school, “where Rabelais defended his thesis” that was one of the best in France. As was the case in the rest of the county, the religious wars between Catholicism and the emerging Calvinist Protestant movement were heating up, dividing the country’s two million Protestants, concentrated mainly in France’s center and South against the majority sixteen million Catholics.

Catholic massacres of Protestants in France has started as early as 1545 in Meridol, in France’s southeast. In response, beginning soon after, but especially in the 1560s, Protestants in the cities attacked Catholic Churches (as they did in Spanish Netherlands) in what became known as the “iconoclastic fury.” Protestant mobs destroyed altars and images in churches, and sometimes the buildings themselves were torn down. Ancient relics and texts were destroyed; the bodies of saints exhumed and burned. Within two years, an unprecedented wave of “the fury” had spread to virtually the entire country. In 1560, the first French cities where the iconoclastic fury broke out were Rouen (in Normandy) and La Rochelle (on the Atlantic coast). A year later, the anti-Catholic rioting spread to Angiers, Beauvais, LeMans, Paris, Pontoise, Touraine as well as towns in Langedoc ; It was followed over the winter of 1561-2 with similar outbreaks in Abeville, Auxerre, Bayeux, Bourges, Caen, Marseilles, Meaux, Montalban, Orléans, Sens and Tours.

The country was nervous. Catholic-Protestant relations remained tense with Catholics preparing to strike back. A year prior to the novel’s beginning, in 1565, Catherine de Medici, who was then ruling France as Regent, had met secretly with the Duke of Alba, Philip II of Spain’s lieutenant; it was rumored that Catherine had proposed the hand of her daughter Margot with Don Juan, Philip’s son, in exchange for a Spanish attack on French Protestants. Phillip II rejected the offer but that same year the Pope, angered by a Huguenot settlement in Florida so close to Catholic colonies, ordered the massacre of all its inhabitants, which was carried out.

Although there are several incidents, the key historical event that sets the tone for the religious tension is the slaughter of Protestants at Vassy on March 1, 1562. Although there are others, this event is usually thought to be the first major event in the French Wars of Religion, which would continue sporadically for the next century. At Vassy (also called Wassy), his anger provoked by a Protestant service taking place in a church where his troops were passing, Guise ordered his armies to fortify the town and  burn down the building refusing to let Protestants within escape. At least 63 unarmed Huguenots were burnt to death, hundreds more were wounded. The event provoked a Protestant response, opening what was referred to as the first of four wars of religion. Major battles erupted soon thereafter at Rouen, Dreux and Orléans. At first the Protestants rebelled and took control of Rouen, but the Catholics laid siege to the city and were able to retake it, after which a terrible slaughter of Protestants followed.

This second volume, City of Wisdom and Blood will culminate in a different massacre, what became known as the Michelade: that of Catholics by Protestants in the southern French city of Nîmes on Michaelmas, September 29, 1567. Following their failure to abduct the King and Queen Mother in retaliation for the suppression of Protestant beliefs, Protestants took up arms massacring Nîmes Catholics, among them 24 priests and nuns. So we go from the massacre of Protestants in Volume 1 to that of Catholics in Volume 2. In both cases, the violence is indiscriminate, bigoted and without mercy, bringing out the worst in humanity.  Both Catholics and Protestants are capable of such blind violence with the moderates on both sides of the religious fence isolated, and themselves often targets, as was the case of Merle’s protagonist, Pierre de Siorac.




With this historical background in mind, most of the action in this volume takes place in Montpellier where Pierre de Siorac is studying medicine, his half-brother Sampson pharmacy. They find lodging at the home of a kindly, highly respected pharmacist, Maître Sanche, a nominal Catholic, but actually a Spanish Sephardic Jew earlier forced to convert to Catholicism during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and then to flee from France to Spain after Louis XI offered them asylum in Provence (France’s south near the Riveria). Although nominally Catholic, the Sanches retains their Jewish identity and proactive their religion in secret.

Earlier in his career, Maître Sanche had given lodging to Siorac’s father, Jean de Siorac when the elder de Siorac had pursued medical studies in Montpellier. He welcomes his old friend’s sons with open arms, and tolerates their (well Pierre’s) often erratic behavior, doing so much better than his rigid wife. At the beginning of their Montpellier stay, Maître Sanche invites the de Siorac brothers to the secret chamber where he kept his pharmaceuticals, a detailed description of which is worth detailing as it reveals the degree to which already, Southern France was integrated into the global economy of the times. The spice trade was already of global dimensions. As Maître Sanche describes it:

“Then there are the plants, grains, saps, juices, extracts and crystals that we have brought here from faraway places at great expense: sugar from Candia, pepper from Malabar, rose-water from Damascus, indigo from Baghdad, saffron from Spain, henna from the Levant, henbane from Persia, opium from Thebes, ginger from Italy, cinnamon from Ceylon…senna from Alexandria.”

Largely through Pierre de Siorac’s many affairs, Merle paints a sociological port of the time as the reader moves from one de Siorac sexual encounter to another. Frankly, after having read a few of them, I became rather bored with the affairs themselves but more interested in Merle’s extraordinary ability to describe the personal life and values of everyone from the French nobility to the very poor. He captures not only their material situation, but also their language, values, the degree to which they retain old superstitions or are open to new ideas. Many of the stories are quite moving – and credible – like the tragic tale of Sanche’s maid, Fontanelle, whom his wife fires for having an affair with de Siorac, after which her life collapses. Actually the personalities of all of the characters are well sketched and as one goes from the first volume of the series through the rest, it is not uncommon for the readers to develop a personal relationship and genuine interest in the fate of all of them. This is no small literary feat.

De Siorac is a bright young man, politically a profound democrat and liberal who truly cannot stand torture, fanaticism regardless of the practitioner. So while he defends Calvinists against Catholic excesses in Sarlat in The Brethren at the culmination of City of Wisdom and Blood he finds himself defending in Nîmes Catholics against Protestant barbarism. But Montpellier is a city – as is France – with more than just Catholics and Protestants. Not only do Jews (Sanche and Martinez) enter the narrative in this second volume but also a closet gay, Fogacer, an important figure throughout, and Cabassus, the priest who at heart is an atheist. While being surprised, shocked with these new relations, de Siorac treats them all with respect, if not compassion. It is only the fanatics, Catholic or otherwise that he gives short shrift. De Siorac  conscience gets him trouble and ultimately, in this volume will force him to hightail out of Montpellier to escape Catholic fanatics, the latter furious that de Siorac ended the suffering of an atheist, Cabassus, burning to death slowly on the stake by shooting him with a rifle from his bedroom window

The plot moves along well enough. It is reminiscent in some ways of Alexander Dumas’ classic, The Three Musketeers, as the book moves from one adventure to another, through the south of France in these days of hope and darkness in the city of wisdom and blood. I look forward to Volume 3 where the scene moves to Paris and the contrast between mirth and horror is even greater than in the first two volumes.



The Rouen Chroicles: Amsterdam – 1965

The Rouen Chronicles: Arques la Bataille – Dieppe

The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe 2 – The Botched Raid (Part One)

The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe 2 – The Botched Raid (Part Two)

The Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir

The Rouen Chronicles – The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 1

The Rouen Chronicles – Rober Merle – 2: On the Political Career of Algerian Political Figure Ahmed Ben Bella. 

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 3: Robert Merle in October, 1964

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 4: Fortunes de France Translated Into English

The Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish Heritage


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