Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Kelly Peebles: "From the Queen of Navarre"

Kelly D. Peebles

Book Review

Jeanne d’Albret, Letters from the Queen of Navarre with an Ample Declaration. Edited and translated by Kathleen M. Llewellyn, Emily E. Thompson, and Colette H. Winn. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, Vol. 43, ITER Academic Press & Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Toronto, Canada & Tempe, Arizona, 2016), 116 pp. ISBN: 9780866985451

“Among an infinite number of examples of suffering, humiliation, and dishonor that they inflicted on [my husband], I will recount one here, which, if it were fiction would need a poet to depict it well, and if it were of little consequence, would need an orator to color it. But the naked truth of this tragicomedy provides its own ornament.”
—Jeanne d’Albret, Ample Declaration (53)

1> Writing six years after the death of her husband, Antoine de Bourbon, Jeanne d’Albret seeks to rehabilitate his memory and her reputation by exposing the pernicious machinations of her chief nemeses at the French court, François de Guise and his brother, the Cardinal de Lorraine.[1] In her Ample Declaration, a collection of letters followed by an explanation of their content first printed in 1569, the author sets up a premise of truthfulness. In addition to the declaration above, Jeanne frequently peppers her text with affirmations of its veracity: “I truly know,” “you have witnessed,” “I [...] explain in my letters,” “you can see from this,” “everyone knows,” “there I pointed out,” “as God is my witness,” (43, 50, 51, 53, 57, 69). There are many such examples.

2> A decade earlier, Jeanne had been instrumental in the posthumous printing of a book written by her mother, Marguerite de Navarre (20). In the prologue to the Heptaméron, Marguerite’s collection of tales first printed in 1558, the author sets up a specific set of rules that each of ten storytellers will follow: the tales will be truthful, based solely on eyewitness testimony or heard from a trustworthy source, and they will be devoid of “rhetorical ornament,” so as to avoid bending the truth. By telling “the unadulterated truth,” each storyteller illustrates a life lesson, many of which focus on religious, political, and familial devotion, often critiquing social practices or exposing corruption in the church.[2] While Jeanne publicly declared her Calvinist faith in December of 1560, Marguerite never formally broke with the Catholic church. However, she played an essential role in promoting early church reform in France and in protecting those fleeing religious persecution, including John Calvin.[3]

3> Although the Ample Declaration is a very different type of work from her mother’s writings, Jeanne also sets out to demonstrate her devotion to God, to the French king, and to her family lineage, three preoccupations of which she reminds the reader nearly as often as her truthfulness. To that end, Jeanne exposes corruption at the French court, plots that rendered difficult her devotion and harmed (or threatened to harm) the objects thereof. Thus, the works of mother and daughter have much in common despite their differences. As Kathleen Llewellyn, Emily Thompson, and Colette Winn convincingly point out in their introduction, Jeanne relies both on epistolary diplomacy to pacify and to make requests of her interlocutors (the king, the queen mother, the king’s brother, her brother-in-law, and the queen of England), and on literary conventions associated with the still-popular genre of the novella. While she eschews all poetic and rhetorical ornament, her manner of narrating intercalated stories and reproducing the atmosphere of oral storytelling is an effective strategy for “dramatizing events and structuring them into narrative modules.” What this does is provide a “mnemonic evocation of specific historical moments” (21). In other words, Jeanne manipulates the familiar story-telling and organizational practices of the novella (practices used in her mother’s Heptaméron) in order to ease her readers into understanding the events leading up to 1568 and persuade them to accept her decision to leave Navarre for the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle.

4> This was a complicated situation. But just as Jeanne guides her reader through events in her Ample Declaration, so do the editors guide us through the historical context in their highly approachable, ample introduction of 35 pages. Approximately half of that space is devoted to situating Jeanne's work within of the years leading up to the Third War of Religion (1568-1570). At the time, the heads of the most prominent noble families were pitted one against another as they jockeyed for power and sought to realize their religious and political ambitions. Charles IX of the reigning Valois family sought to stabilize his reign and pacify factions. Jeanne’s husband Antoine sought to regain lost territory and ensure the place of his son (the future Henri IV) at court. Because of this, his religious faith turned in the direction of the political winds, or as Jeanne puts it, “he embrac[ed] the ephemeral at the expense of the everlasting” (51). The staunch Catholic François de Guise, whose niece, Mary, Queen of Scots, was the widow of the recently deceased François II, fiercely protected his favored position and influence at the French court and, according to Jeanne, plotted to assassinate her husband and his Bourbon brothers. But the wives, mothers, and daughters of these men also played central roles in the religious, political, and literary life at court: Catherine de’ Medici (mother of Charles IX and regent), Anne d’Este (wife of François de Guise and daughter of the Protestant-leaning Renée de France), and Catherine de Bourbon (daughter of Antoine and Jeanne), to name but a few.

5> The great interest of Jeanne’s Ample Declaration, which the editors carefully highlight, is the insight that it gives us into just what types of roles these women played. Indeed, as is the goal of this series, this volume highlights an “other voice,” one that has not yet received the same scholarly attention as her male counterparts. However, Winn, Llewellyn, and Thompson show us the relevance of Jeanne’s work for students and scholars of a variety of disciplines. In addition to their discussion of how Jeanne constructed her image via epistolary correspondence and organized and presented that information using practices associated with the novella, which will interest literary students and scholars, the editors also discuss the influence of religious polemic and memoirs in the second half of their introduction (14-35), which may pique the interest of historians. We learn, for example, that just as Protestant polemic, the Ample Declaration “was designed to sway the emerging public opinion and vilify Catholics while rehabilitating the image of Protestants” (27). Memoirs serve a similar function, for at the time, “the memoirist aimed either to bring to light certain truths by relating events personally witnessed or to inform posterity of an injustice committed against the author.” As the editors point out, “Jeanne writes with both objectives in mind” (31). And indeed, they do an admirable job of discussing the polyvalent nature of Jeanne’s work and suggesting ways to mine the text that are pertinent to various areas of specialization.

6> The critical apparatus of this volume benefits greatly from each editor’s area of scholarly expertise. My only quibble concerns treatment of both primary and secondary sources in the bibliography. While the list of secondary sources is comprehensive, spanning religious history and literature, additional references to French Calvinism and the Wars of Religion would have been useful to the reader, such as, for example, the work of historians Hugues Daussy and Raymond Mentzer. The editors identify which edition of the letters and Ample Declaration on which they base their translation (a 1570 compilation titled Histoire de nostre temps, contenant un recueil des choses mémorables passées & publiées pour le faict de la religion & estat de France depuis l’edict de la pacification du 23 Jour de mars, jusqu’au present), but they do not identify which sixteenth-century copies they were able to consult, nor do they indicate where to find other sixteenth-century primary sources listed in the bibliography. As they note in the introduction, one may find sixteenth-century primary sources on the USTC (Universal Short Title Catalog), and while this is an extremely useful resource, USTC entries do not always account for digitized source texts. This quibble is admittedly minor, and it is important to point out that the critical apparatus of this volume is far superior to that of the 2007 French-language edition.[4] In this 2016 English-language edition, generous footnotes gloss important figures and place names, explain complex political and administrative practices, untangle family relationships, clarify chronological ambiguities, and point the reader to relevant background reading. The translation itself is artfully done. It reads fluidly and manages to capture the “feel” of the original French while at the same time rearranging syntax or modernizing the vocabulary when necessary to transfer the message effectively. Within the translation, the editors indicate the pagination of their source text with square brackets, which greatly facilitates comparison with the original French for those who are able to access a copy of the 1570 edition. Following the translation are a brief chronology of events spanning the period of 1559-1572, several genealogical tables (Valois, Bourbon, and Guise families), and maps indicating Jeanne’s territories at the time of her Ample Declaration. Students, instructors, and scholars of sixteenth-century French history, literature, culture, and gender studies will want to have a copy of this book on their shelf.


[1] For a detailed study of their ambitions and machinations, see Stuart Carroll, Martyrs & Murderers: The Guise Family and the Making of Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] Marguerite de Navarre, The Heptameron, trans. Paul Chilton (London: Penguin, 2004), 68-70.

[3] For further contextual information on Marguerite de Navarre and her network, Jonathan Reid’s two-volume biography is an important resource. King’s Sister – Queen of Dissent: Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549) and her Evangelical Network (Leiden: Brill, 2009). Those considering adopting this volume in a course may also find inspiration in Approaches to Teaching Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron, ed. Colette Winn (New York: MLA, 2007).

[4] Bernard Berdou d’Aas, ed. Jeanne d’Albret reine de Navarre et vicomtesse de Béarn. Lettres suivies d’une Ample Déclaration (Biarritz: Atlantica, 2007).


Kelly D. Peebles is Associate Professor of French at Clemson University. She is the editor and translator of Jeanne Flore’s Tales and Trials of Love, vol. 33 of The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe (CRRS / Iter, 2014), and has articles forthcoming in the Journal of Medical Humanities and Women in French.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature and Culture,
Volume Ten (2017): Artefacts

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