Religion, Nation, Literature: France

by Katherine Maynard, Washington College

In the middle of the sixteenth century, a French literary coterie called the Pléiade gathered around a common poetic manifesto. The work, written by Joachim Du Bellay and entitled the Defense et illustration de la langue française, urged the renovation and embellishment of the French vernacular to raise it to a level equal to Greek or Latin. Closely linked to the linguistic goal was a national one to put France on the cultural map (and to prove France's preeminence to the rival Italians). For the Pléiade, all forms of Ancient poetry were worthy of imitation, but the epic was the greatest achievement of the poet (albeit in theory more than in practice!) because, as Thomas Greene has suggested, the stakes of the epic include national pride and the dignity of the vernacular language in which the epic is written. [Note 1] Furthermore, the epic poem establishes a narrative of nation, a tale that justifies the existence of the powers that be by depicting them as original and eternal, inextricably linked to the existence of the nation itself. [Note 2] Thus, when Pléiade member Pierre de Ronsard first proposed the Franciade to the French king Henry II in 1550, he made sure to mention both the ancient origins of the Valois kings and the future expansion and glory of the French empire under Henry's rule. [Note 3]

The Franciade represents one of several literary iterations of national community and nationhood in sixteenth century. And, like many of these works, it bears the mark of the troubles of its era. During the last decades of the century, France was torn apart both politically and socially by religious conflict and the task of writing nation became difficult. In the words of Timothy Hampton, "One cannot 'write' the French nation because, haunted as it is by discontinuity, violence, and fragmentation, it escapes representation." [Note 4]

The fate of the Franciade underlines some of the central issues of nationhood and religion in the sixteenth century. At the same historical moment when Ronsard was attempting to convince Henry II to fund his Franciade, Jean Calvin was sending missionaries from Geneva to France to expand the Reformed Religion. His converts included some of France's most powerful aristocrats, including Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne d'Albret, Louis the Prince of Condé, and Gaspard de Coligny. Tensions rose as other powerful nobles, like the Guise family, took an opposing stance, hoping to eliminate Protestantism entirely. Efforts to find consensus, led notably by Michel de l'Hospital at the Colloquium of Poissy (1561), ultimately failed. Instead, France entered into years of civil war, temporarily interrupted with moments of peace.

After the beginning of the Religious Wars, it seems that Ronsard had more or less abandoned his project to write the Franciade. In 1564, however, during a period of peace after the first religious war, the poem was brought back to life by Catherine de' Medici and her son king Charles IX who hoped to unite the divided French nation. The pair had just completed a nearly two-year tour of France, meant to reestablish the power of the monarch and the unity of his people, when they were purported to engage Ronsard to complete the Franciade. The poem's message was, after all, one of a united France under one sovereign, a message that corresponded with the royal cultural program.

The gestation of Ronsard's poem extended through two subsequent religious wars (and many changes in royal policy) and, in the end, the poet wrote only four of the twenty-four promised books, published in 1572 just a month after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. While Ronsard himself claimed that Charles IX's death in 1574 left him without a source of inspiration, the real explanation for the Franciade's incompletion seems at best intangible. The poem set as its goal the impossible task of recounting the origins and future of the French nation at a time of political uncertainty and rupture.

The attempts to write national epic in sixteenth-century France do not end with the Franciade. In fact, the only sixteenth-century epic poem still appreciated today, les Tragiques of Agrippa d'Aubigné, depicts national rupture instead of national unity. D'Aubigné's poem is a textual murder of the idea of a unified France: early in the poem, France is depicted as a mother torn apart by her two warring sons, one representing the Catholics and the other the Protestants. She struggles to save her youngest son, her "Jacob", but is destroyed in the process. The nation that d'Aubigné consistently triumphs is not the French nation state, but a nation in the original sense of the word, that is a race, in this case, a race of Elect to be saved during Judgment Day. The poet describes the triumph and ascension of this nation in the last book of his poem, leaving behind the narrative of nation under the Valois kings that Ronsard had proposed.

As different as these two poems might be ideologically, they do have a key point in common: neither allows for religious difference in their idea of nationhood. Ultimately though, the concept of nationhood that emerges at the end of the religious wars with the aid of the Edict of Nantes (1598) includes both Protestants and Catholics, living separately, not always equally, but sharing the nation under one king in relative peace.

Footnotes

  1. Greene, Thomas. The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963, p. 3.
  2. The idea has been elaborated more explicitly by David Quint in his book, Epic and Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).
  3. "Ode au Roy Henry II" (III.i) in Ronsard, Pierre de. Oeuvres Complètes. Vol I. eds. Céard, Ménager, Simonin. Paris: Gallimard,1993, p. 722-3.
  4. Timothy Hampton, Literature and Nation in the Sixteenth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), p. xi.

Suggested Readings

  • De l'Hospital, Michel. Discours pour la majorité de Charles IX : et trois autres discours / Michel de L'Hospital; présentation de Robert Descimon. [Paris]: Imprimerie nationale, 1993.
  • Hampton, Timothy. Literature and Nation in the Sixteenth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.
  • Wanegffelen, Thierry. Ni Rome Ni Genève: Des fidèles entre deux chaires en France au XVI siècle. Paris: Honoré Champion Editeur, 1997.
  • Yardeni, Myriam. La conscience nationale en France pendant les Guerres de Religion (1559-98). Louvain: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1971.
  • Mack Holt
  • Barbara Diefendorf

Key Questions

  • In the Early Modern period, how do writers in France and other (European) nations include religion in their articulation of nationhood?
  • How does the leadership of these nations define themselves in terms of religion? (or do they?)

Image

  • A painting depicting the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in Paris (Aug. 14 1572) when groups of Catholics murdered Huguenots. The massacre was sparked by the murder of the Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny. A large number of those who perished were Huguenot gentry visiting Paris for the wedding of the French king's sister, Marguerite, and the Huguenot Prince Henry of Navarre (later king Henri IV of France).
  • Click here to view this image.