1902 Encyclopedia > France > 16th Century French Historians

(Part 44)


16th Century Historians

As in the case of the tale-tellers so in that of the historians, the writers of the 16th century had traditions to continue. It is doubtful indeed whether many of them can risk comparison as artists with the great names of Villehardouin and Joinville, Froissart and Comines. The 16th century, however, set the example of dividing the functions of the chronicles, setting those of the historian proper on one side, and of the anecdote-monger and biographer on the other. The efforts at regular history made in this century were not of the highest value. But on the others hand the practice of memoir-writing, in which the French were to excel every nation in the world, and of literary correspondence, in which they were to excel even their memoirs, was solidly founded.

One of the earliest historical writers of the century was Claude de Seyssel (1450-1520), whose of Louis XII, aims not unsuccessfully at style. But it is not till close upon the end of the century that much effort was made at methodical history. Only one work falls properly to be mentioned here, and that is Du Haillan’s (1537-1610) Histoire de France, a history composed on Thucydidean principles, but Thucydidean principles transmitted through the successive mediums of Polybius, Guicciardini, and Paulus Aemilius. The instance invariably quoted after Thierry of Du Gaillan’s method is his introduction, with appropriate speeches, of two Merovingian statesman, who argue out the relative merits of monarchy and oligarchy on the occasion of the election of Pharamond. Besides Du Haillan, La Popeliniére (fl. 1580), who less ambitiously attempted a history of Europe during his own time, and expended immense labour on the collection of information and materials, deserves mention.

There is no such poverty of writers of memoirs. La Mark Du Bellay, Marguerite d’Angoulême, Villars, Tavannes, La Tour d’Auvergne, and many others, composed commentaries and autobiographies. Vincent Carloix (fl. 1550), the secretary of the Marshal de Vielleville, composed some memoirs abounding in detail and incident. But there are four collections of memoirs concerning this time which far exceed all others in interest and importance. The turbulent dispositions of the time, the loose dependence of the nobles and even the smaller gentry on any single or central authority, the rapid changes of political situations, and the singularity active appetite, both for pleasure and for business, for learning and for war, which distinguished the French gentleman of the 16th century, place the memoirs of Lanoue (1531-1591), Montluc (1503-1577), D’Aubigné, and Brantôme (1540-1614) almost at the head of the literature of their class. The name of the latter, indeed, is known to all who have the least tincture of French literature, and the works of the others are not inferior in interest, and perhaps superior in spirit and conception, to the Dames Galantes, the Grands Capitaines, and the Hommes Illustres. The commentaries of Montluc, which Henri Quatre is said to have called the soldier’s Bible, are exclusively military, and deal with affairs only. Montluc was governor in Guinne, where he represses the savage Huguenots of the south with a savagery worse than their own. He was, however, a partisan of order, not of Catholicism. He hung and short both parties with perfect impartiality, and refused to have anything to do with the massacre of St Bartholomew. Though he was a man of no learning, his style is excellent, being vivid, flexible, and straightforward. Lanoue, who a moderate in politics, has left his principles reflected in his memoirs. D’Aubigné, so often to bementioned, gives the extreme Huguenot side as opposed to the royalist partisanship of Montluc and the via media of Lanoue. Brontôme, on the other hand, is quite free from any political or religious prepossessions, an, indeed, troubles himself very little about any such matters. He is the shrewd and somewhat cynical observer, moving through the crowd and taking note of its ways, its outward appearance, its heroisms, and its follies. It is really difficult to say whether the recital of a noble deed of arms or the telling of a scandalous story about a court lady gave him the most pleasure, and impossible to say which he did best. Certainly he had ample material for both exercises in the history of his time.

The branches of literature of which we have just given an account may be fairly connected, from the historical point of view, with work of the same kind that went before as well as with work of the same kind that followed them. It was not so with the literature of theology, law, politics, and erudition, which the 16th century also produced, and with which it for the first time enlarge the range of composition in the vulgar tongue. Not only had Latin been invariably adopted as the language of composition on such subjects, but the style of the treatises dealing with such matters had been traditional rather than original. In speculative philosophy or metaphysics proper, even this century did not witness a great development; perhaps, indeed, such a development was not to be expected until the minds of men had in some degree settled down from their agitation on more practical matters. It is not without significance that Calvin (1509-1564) is the great figure in serious French prose in the first half of the century, Montaigne the corresponding figure in the second half. After Calvin and Montaigne we expect Descartes.

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