1902 Encyclopedia > France > 17th Century French History (Historical Writing)

(Part 52)


17th Century History (Historical Writing)

In historical composition, especially in the department of memoirs, this period was exceedingly rich, yet the first and perhaps the greatest of its historical works was not composed in French. The Thuana, or history of De Thou, was written in Latin, and only translated into French more than a century after its author’s death. But, also at the beginning of the century, another writer composed on a larger plan an entire history of France. This was Mézeray (1610-1685) whose work, though not exhibiting the perfection of style at which some of his contemporaries had already arrived, and though still more or less uncritical, yet deserves the title of history. The example of Mézeray and De Thou was followed by a large number of writers, some of extended works, some of histories in part. Mézeray himself is said to have had a considerable share in the Histoire du Roi Henri le Grand by the Archibishop Péréfixe (1605-1670) ; Maimbourg wrote histories of the Crusades and of the League ; Pellisson (1624-1693) gave a history of Louis XIV. Still later in the century, or at the beginning of the next, many lengthy historical works were composed. The Père d’Orléans (1644-1698) wrote a history of the revolutions of England, the Père Daniel (1649-1728), like D’Orléans a Jesuit, composed a lengthy history of France and a shorter one on the French military forces. Finally, at the end of the period, comes the great ecclesiastical history of Fleury (1640-1723), a work which perhaps belongs more to the section of erudition than to that of history proper. Three small treatises, however, composed by different authors towards the middle part of the century, supply remarkable instances of prose style in its application to history. These are the Conjurations du Comte de Fiesque, written by the famous Cardinal de Retz (1614-1679), the Conspiration de Walstein of Sarrasin, and the Conjuration des Espagnol contre Venise, composed in 1672 by the Abbé de St Réal, the author of various historical and critical works deserving less notice. These three works, whose similarly of subject and successive composition at short intervals leave little doubt that a certain amount of international rivalry animated the two later authors, are among the earliest and best examples of the monographs for which French, in point of grace of style and lucidity of exposition, has long been the most successful vehicle of expression among European languages. Among other writers of history, as distinguished from memoirs, need only be noticed Agrippa d’ Aubigné, whose Histoire Universelle closed closed his long and varied list of works, and Varillas (1624-1696), a historian chiefly remarkable for his extreme untrustworthiness. In point of memoirs and correspondence it. The Régistres-Journaux of Pierre de l’Étoile (1540-1611), only now being published as a whole, consist of a diary something of the Pepys character, kept for nearly forty years by a person in high official employment. The memoirs of Sully (1560-1641), published under a curious title too long to quote, date also from this time, as do the Letters of Cardinal d’Ossat (1536-1604), much and deservedly praised by Lord Chesterfield as models of business writing, and the Négociations of the President Jeannin (1544-1622), who conducted the affairs of Henry IV. in Holla d. The king himself has left a considrable correspondence, which is not destitute of literary merit, though not equal to the memories of his wife. The rule of Richelieu was scarcely favourable to memoir writing ; but both this and earlier times found chronicle in the singular Historiettes of Tallement des Réaux (1619— ?), a collection of anecdotes, frequently scandalous, reaching from the times of Henry IV. to those of Louis XIV., to which may be joined the Letters of Guy Patin (1602-1676). The early years of the latter monarch and the period of the Fronde had the Cardinal de Retz himself, than whom no one was certainly better qualified for historian, not to mention a crowd of others, of whom Madame de Motteville (1621-1689) is perhaps the principal. From this time memoirs and memoir writers went ever multiplying. The queen of them all is Madame de Sevigné (1627-1696), on whom, as on most of the great and better-known writers whom we have had and shall have to mention, it is impossible here to dwell at length. The last half of the century produced crowds of similar but inferior writers. The memoirs of the Duchesse d’Orléans, of Fouquet, of Bussy-Rabutin (author of a kind of scandalous chronicle called Hitoire Amoureuse des Gaules), and of Madame de Maintenon, perhaps deserve notice above the others. But this is truth the style of composition in which the age most excelled. Memoir writing became the occupation not so much of persons who made history, as we the case from Comines to De Retz, as of those who, having culture, leisure, and opportunity of observation, devoted themselves to the task of recording the deeds of other, and still more of regarding the incidents of the busy, splendid, and cultivated if somewhat frivolous world of the court, in which, from the time of Louis XIV.’ majority, the political life of the nation and almost its whole history were centred. Many, if not most, of these writers were women, who thus founded the celebrity of the French lady for managing her mother-tongue, and justified by results that taste and tendencies of the blue-stockings and précieuses of the Hôtel Rambouillet and similar côteries. The life which these writers saw before them furnished them with a subject to be handled with the minuteness and care to which they had been accustomed in the ponderous romances of the Clélie type, but also with the wit and terseness hereditary in France, and only temporarily absent in thoe ponderous compositions. The efforts of Balzac and the Academy supplied a suitable language and style, and the increasing tendency towards epigrammatic moralizing, reached its acme in La Roche foucauld (1663-1680) and La Bruyère (1639-1696), added in most cases point and attractiveness to their writings.

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