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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme (d. 1614)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
EVERY historian of the Valois period is indebted to Brantôme for preserving the atmosphere and detail of the brilliant life in which he moved as a dashing courtier, a military adventurer, and a gallant gentleman of high degree. He was not a professional scribe, nor a student; but he took notes unconsciously, and in the evening of his life turned back the pages of his memory to record the scenes through which he had passed and the characters which he had known. He has been termed the “valet de chambre” of history; nevertheless the anecdotes scattered through his works will ever be treasured by all students and historians of that age of luxury and magnificence, art and beauty, beneath which lay the fermentation of great religious and political movements, culminating in the struggle between the Huguenots and Catholics.  1
  Brantôme was the third son of the Vicomte de Bourdeille, a Périgord nobleman, whose family had lived long in Guienne, and whose aristocratic lineage was lost in myth. Upon the estate stood the Abbey of Brantôme, founded by Charlemagne, and this Henry II. gave to young Pierre de Bourdeille in recognition of the military deeds of his brother, Jean de Bourdeille, who lost his life in service. Thereafter the lad was to sign his name as the Reverend Father in God, Messire Pierre de Bourdeille, Abbé de Brantôme. Born in the old château in 1527, he was destined for the church, but abandoned this career for arms. At an early age he was sent to court as page to Marguerite, sister of Francis I. and Queen of Navarre; after her death in 1549, he went to Paris to study at the University. His title of Abbé being merely honorary, he served in the army under François de Guise, Duke of Lorraine, and became Gentleman of the Chamber to Charles IX. His career extended through the reigns of Henry II., Francis II., Charles IX., Henry III., and Henry IV., to that of Louis XIII. With the exception of diplomatic missions, service on the battle-field, and voyages for pleasure, he spent his life at court.  2
  About 1594 he retired to his estate, where until his death on July 15th, 1614, he passed his days in contentions with the monks of Brantôme, in lawsuits with his neighbors, and in writing his books: ‘Lives of the Illustrious Men and Great Captains of France’; ‘Lives of Illustrious Ladies’; ‘Lives of Women of Gallantry’; ‘Memoirs, containing anecdotes connected with the Court of France’; ‘Spanish Rodomontades’; a ‘Life’ of his father, François de Bourdeille; a ‘Funeral Oration’ on his sister-in-law; and a dialogue in verse, entitled ‘The Tomb of Madame de Bourdeille.’ These were not published until long after his death, first appearing in Leyden about 1665, at the Hague in 1740, and in Paris in 1787. The best editions are by Fourcault (7 vols., Paris, 1822); by Lacour and Mérimée (3 vols., 1859); and Lalande (10 vols., 1865–81).  3
  What Brantôme thought of himself may be seen by glancing at that portion of the “testament mystique” which relates to his writings:—
          “I will and expressly charge my heirs that they cause to be printed the books which I have composed by my talent and invention. These books will be found covered with velvet, either black, green or blue, and one larger volume, which is that of the Rodomontades, covered with velvet, gilt outside and curiously bound. All have been carefully corrected. There will be found in these books excellent things, such as stories, histories, discourses, and witty sayings, which I flatter myself the world will not disdain to read when once it has had a sight of them. I direct that a sum of money be taken from my estate sufficient to pay for the printing thereof, which certainly cannot be much; for I have known many printers who would have given money rather than charged any for the right of printing them. They print many things without charge which are not at all equal to mine. I will also that the said impression shall be in large type, in order to make the better appearance, and that they should appear with the Royal Privilege, which the King will readily grant. Also care must be taken that the printers do not put on the title-page any supposititious name instead of mine. Otherwise, I should be defrauded of the glory which is my due.”
  4
  The old man delighted in complimenting himself and talking about his “grandeur d’âme.” This greatness of soul may be measured from the command he gave his heirs to annoy a man who had refused to swear homage to him, “it not being reasonable to leave at rest this little wretch, who descends from a low family, and whose grandfather was nothing but a notary.” He also commands his nieces and nephews to take the same vengeance upon his enemies “as I should have done in my green and vigorous youth, during which I may boast, and I thank God for it, that I never received an injury without being revenged on the author of it.”  5
  Brantôme writes like a “gentleman of the sword,” with dash and élan, and as one, to use his own words, who has been “toujours trottant, traversant, et vagabondant le monde” (always trotting, traversing, and tramping the world). Not in the habit of a vagabond, however, for the balls, banquets, tournaments, masques, ballets, and wedding-feasts which he describes so vividly were occasions for the display of sumptuous costumes; and Messire Pierre de Bourdeille doubtless appeared as elegant as any other gallant in silken hose, jeweled doublet, flowing cape, and long rapier. What we value most are his paintings of these festive scenes, and the vivid portraits which he has left of the Valois women, who were largely responsible for the luxuries and the crimes of the period: women who could step without a tremor from a court-masque to a massacre; who could toy with a gallant’s ribbons and direct the blow of an assassin; and who could poison a rival with a delicately perfumed gift. Such a court Brantôme calls the “true paradise of the world, school of all honesty and virtue, ornament of France.” We like to hear about Catherine de’ Medici riding with her famous “squadron of Venus”: “You should have seen forty or fifty dames and demoiselles following her, mounted on beautifully accoutred hackneys, their hats adorned with feathers which increased their charm, so well did the flying plumes represent the demand for love or war. Virgil, who undertook to describe the fine apparel of Queen Dido when she went out hunting, has by no means equaled that of our Queen and her ladies.”  6
  Charming, too, are such descriptions as “the most beautiful ballet that ever was, composed of sixteen of the fairest and best-trained dames and demoiselles, who appeared in a silvered rock where they were seated in niches, shut in on every side. The sixteen ladies represented the sixteen provinces of France. After having made the round of the hall for parade as in a camp, they all descended, and ranging themselves in the form of a little oddly contrived battalion, some thirty violins began a very pleasant warlike air, to which they danced their ballet.” After an hour the ladies presented the King, the Queen-Mother, and others with golden plaques, on which were engraved “the fruits and singularities of each province,” the wheat of Champagne, the vines of Burgundy, the lemons and oranges of Provence, etc. He shows us Catherine de’ Medici, the elegant, cunning Florentine; her beautiful daughters, Elizabeth of Spain and Marguerite de Valois; Diana of Poitiers, the woman of eternal youth and beauty; Jeanne d’Albret, the mother of Henry IV.; Louise de Vaudemont; the Duchesse d’Étampes; Marie Touchet; and all their satellites,—as they enjoyed their lives.  7
  Very valuable are the data regarding Mary Stuart’s departure from France in 1561. Brantôme was one of her suite, and describes her grief when the shores of France faded away, and her arrival in Scotland, where on the first night she was serenaded by Psalm-tunes with a most villainous accompaniment of Scotch music. “Hé! quelle musique!” he exclaims, “et quel repos pour la nuit!”  8
  But of all the gay ladies Brantôme loves to dwell upon, his favorites are the two Marguerites: Marguerite of Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, the sister of Francis I., and Marguerite, daughter of Catherine de’ Medici and wife of Henry IV. Of the latter, called familiarly “La Reine Margot,” he is always writing. “To speak of the beauty of this rare princess,” he says, “I think that all that are, or will be, or have ever been near her are ugly.”  9
  Brantôme has been a puzzle to many critics, who cannot explain his “contradictions.” He had none. He extolled wicked and immoral characters because he recognized only two merits,—aristocratic birth and hatred of the Huguenots. He is well described by M. de Barante, who says:—“Brantôme expresses the entire character of his country and of his profession. Careless of the difference between good and evil; a courtier who has no idea that anything can be blameworthy in the great, but who sees and narrates their vices and their crimes all the more frankly in that he is not very sure whether what he tells be good or bad; as indifferent to the honor of women as he is to the morality of men; relating scandalous things with no consciousness that they are such, and almost leading his reader into accepting them as the simplest things in the world, so little importance does he attach to them; terming Louis XI., who poisoned his brother, the good King Louis, calling women whose adventures could hardly have been written by any pen save his own, honnêtes dames.”  10
  Brantôme must therefore not be regarded as a chronicler who revels in scandals, although his pages reek with them; but as the true mirror of the Valois court and the Valois period.  11
 
 
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