Panat in postcardThe Ranums'

Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


De Thou Studies

Return to Table of Contents

Transtemporal Words

Did de Thou find it difficult, for lack of words, to describe the religious and political actions that he narrates? Faction, ambition, superstition, tyranny, people, adulation, religion, authority, king, spirit, tumult, sedition and war constitute his vocabulary (in Latin) for characterizing all he has to say about the Lorraines-Guises. More learned readers than I may be able to sense strains on meanings. While touring in the Southwest, he notes that the Gascon word testa no longer means what it does in Latin. (1) Though very familiar with the editions and commentaries of such jurists-humanists as Cujas, de Thou does not seem to stop and reflect on whether a phrase from Roman law has changed in meaning. He expresses nostalgic feelings about life in ancient times and during the early years of the Christian religion, but it is not the same sense of anachronism found in his comment about testa. At one point he omits one of his Latin poems because he thinks it is better in Scévole de Sainte-Marthe's translation into French. (2)

Here is a writer who recognizes how difficult it is to express his own thought in words that please him, the writer.

The words that de Thou used about politics and religion are all strongly transhistorical. They all have some meaning in the first century, in the sixteenth century, and in the twenty-first century, and only specific contexts enable readers to elucidate nuances in meaning from Latin to French to English. It was, of course, possible to create new Latin words in 1600, or to stretch meanings to convey something that had not existed in Antiquity. (3) Note also the problem of translating Latin into French: French lacks some necessary words! A translator's note reads: "M. de Thou dit: Abcissis prius genitalibus, et deformi utique Spectaculo ad os applicatis. Notre langue n'a point de termes pour exprimer un pareil supplice." (4) It is our more contemporary inclination to create, or not to create, a new word for something, be it new or be it familiar, simply because we find that the new word captures something that the old words do not. Or we put two words together to create a new meaning, as with "political culture"; or we talk of selbstbildformung, "self-fashioning."

In his general writing, de Thou frequently turns to ancient Greek, which for him is a "heightened language" (John Barton on performing Shakespeare) most appropriate for conveying profound truths and emotions. Are there occasions in the Histoire where he turns to Greek because he finds Latin inadequate? I leave this question for someone else to answer. My regret is my inability to do close reading in Latin.

The scholarly monument that is Samuel Kinser's The Works of Jacques-Auguste de Thou (The Hague, 1966) stood as a brake against any attempt on my part to work on the History. But Robert Descimon's recent article on de Thou, (5) so deeply excited and interested me that I dared to read the 1734 Paris edition. The result was "Taking off the Toga."

Faced with insurmountable difficulty caused by the eighteenth-century translation, I sought to read and reflect on only the facts that de Thou provides. This is not really a solution to the problem at hand. I dared to do a close reading of the Preface (translated by Hotman de Villiers), because if de Thou did not approve it, he at least did not reject it. It is, of course, impossible to delineate facts from their very meaningful contexts; but perhaps by reading all the French history in the first ten volumes the History, I have developed a critical distance while discerning the religious and the political as fact? (6) De Thou's emotional valences become apparent through the themes selected, and the facts. Ingrid de Smet (7) has found Tacitean and Lipsian resonances, directions that I very much hope she will develop further.

So, the vocabulary that de Thou uses to describe the Guises must be considered to be heavy with meaning. One did not assert that a family or an individual was ambitious without reflecting on it. And repeating the charge (a moral castigation) strengthened it. As is the case for all great prose writing, the reader must always bring to mind what is not said, but what might be expected to be said. De Thou never says that Henri de Guise was devout!

Also to be noted is the frequent repetition of all the terms that are key to de Thou's understanding of tyranny. There is an intensity that surpasses most, if not all political-philosophical writing of the sixteenth century. Less intense than in Machiavelli, but certainly more intense than in the more dispassionate major texts by Seyssel and Bodin. Even the prose of the author(s) of the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos can seem balanced and analytical in comparison to the key passages in de Thou's Histoire about violence, the Guises, and the last Valois.

Imprecise though de Thou's terms appear, they can bear considerable specificity within a specific context. An over-mighty subject may, or may not, be a tyrant. Quarreling over his inheritance and hoping to take advantage of popular discontent and elite obstructionism, in 1523 the cardinal de Bourbon opened negotiations with all the major European sovereigns, in an attempt to humiliate and defeat young Francis I and his mother. (8) Bourbon stormed about, mostly as an Imperial military officer. Attempts to raise French nobles and the populace were soon found to be ineffectual. De Thou discusses Bourbon only briefly, but in his account of the Fiesque Conspiracy, Fiesque, the tyrant-to-be, is at its heart. De Thou is at ease over determining his choices of theme, and the number of words or pages he wants to give them. Thus an over-mighty subject did not turn out to be a tyrant.

As previously mentioned, F. Baumgartner remarks that"the term tyrant was applied to the king only in isolated instances and then usually indirectly." (9) Prior to the execution of the Lorraines-Guises, tyranny was certainly a topic to be discussed by any and all philosophers and commentators, but there seemed to be no immediate danger of tyranny, given the weaknesses of the last Valois reigns.

In the Monarchie de France, Seyssel offers, as his own thought, what is generally thought to be a truth, namely, that if the king were religious, tyranny would not be a danger: "Or, vivant le Roi selon la Loi et Religion chrétienne, ne peut faire chose tyranniques. et s'il en fait quelqu'une, il est loisible à un chacun prélat ou autre homme religieux bien vivant et ayant bon estime envers le peuple...." (10)

De Thou wrote his Histoire over more than a decade when tyranny by a king had become one of the principal themes in an intense and violent political climate. All the themes about tyranny as perverted monarchy or democracy found in Greco-Roman and medieval treatises about politics, turned on types of tyrants and their relation to the people. There may be exceptions, but sixteenth-century French writers did not consider religion to be the instrument by which the tyrant gained power -- yet they certainly were readers of Machiavelli! (11)



1. Vita, p. 419.

2. Vita, p. 823.

3. See I. de Smet, Thuanus (Geneva, 2006), p. 232.

4. HU, vol. 8, bk LXVII, p. 60.

5. Robert Descimon, "Jacques-Auguste de Thou (1553-1617), une rupture intellectuelle, politique et sociale," Revue de l'Histoire des religions (2009), pp. 485-495.

6. My inspiration for this emphasis o fact results less from recent studies of the fact than from James Westfall Thompson's very factual The Wars of Religion in France (Chicago, 1909).

7. De Smet, chapter 5.

8. Vincent Pitts, The Man Who Sacked Rome (New York, 1993), p. 264.

9. Radical Reactionaries (Geneva, 2976), p. 107.

10. La Monarchie de France, ed. J. Poujol (Paris, 1961), p. 116. In his De regno et regali potestate of 1699, Barclay argues that only a usurper might be a tyrant. Cf. W.F. Church, Constitutional Thought in Sixteenth-Century France (Cambridge, 1941), p. 321, n. 42.

11. For a recent study, M. Turchetti, Tyrannie et tyrannicide de l'Antiquité à nos jours (Paris, 2001). In his Pratiques et pratiqueurs, la vie politique à la fin du règne de Henri III (2584-1589) (Geneva, 2002), Xavier de Person has, by close reading, contributed enormously to the study of the political vocabulary that lies beneath such terms as dissimulation and, most notably, pratiques. (See my review, Renaissance Quarterly, 57 (2004), pp. 633-636. Not to be forgotten: Edmund H. Dickerman, "Henry III of France, Student of the Prince," Bibliothèque d'humanisme et Renaissance (1978), pp. 281-288; and my "French Ritual of Tyrannicide," Sixteenth Century Journal (1980), pp. 65-82. The two-volume study by Arlette Jouanna, Le Pouvoir absolu... (Paris, 2013) and Le prince absolu... (Paris, 2014) may be read as an introduction to all the issues raised in this chapter, and specialists will benefit from the careful and mature insights throughout her book.