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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


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Jean Le Clerc as Biographer of Richelieu

Known, indeed very well known for his critical powers on Biblical and theological questions, Jean Le Clerc (1) also wrote a biography of Cardinal Richelieu. There is extensive research on Jean Le Clerc (1657-1736), but to my knowledge there is nothing recent on his Richelieu. (2) My aim here is to propose a close reading of the Introduction to that work, in order to discern whether a critical perspective on the study of the Bible would prompt Le Clerc to abandon the ars historica that still prevailed in the generation of Bossuet, Griffet, Daniel, Maimbourg, and Varillas — practitioners of the reworked, but still recognizable tissue of commonplaces about writing history that appeared when ancient rhetoric really came into its own in the late sixteenth century and inspired writing history according to the rules laid down by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Cicero, and Quintilian.

My Artisans of Glory supplies considerable information on this movement, so it shall only be presented further here if Le Clerc is found to have continued in what had become a strong, even coercive approach to writing historical narrative, an approach that would stifle the more juridical and more analytical models developed by La Popelinière, Pasquier, du Haillan, and de Thou. To put it succinctly, Bodin's Method for the Easy Comprehension of History and La Popelinière's Histoire des Histoires were ignored in favor of the treatises by the ancients on the art of history, notably by Mascardi, who wrote an Ars Historica as late as 1636. René Rapin's writings on history are in the same vein, in 1677! I will want to bring in the perspective on biography and history in the late seventeenth century of Pierre Bayle, Le Clerc's learned and critical contemporary.

In the long article about Richelieu in the 1759 edition of Moréri, the bibliography (VIII, p. 406) mentions Aubery, Le Moine, and "celle qui a été imprimée à Amsterdam en 1695." (3) This is rather strange! The author's name is not given. Yet the article about Jean Le Clerc includes a 62-item bibliography, plus writings included in multi-author works. Item 20 reads: "La Vie d'Armand-Jean, cardinal de Richelieu, Cologne (Amsterdam), 1695, in-12o, deux volumes." (4) (The biography went through at least three editions: the title page of the copy at the Mazarine Library, published in "Amsterdam" in 1714, calls it the "third edition.") The author of the article continues: "Cet ouvrage est superficiel, froidement écrit, et dépourvu de detail et de plusieurs remarques essentielles." Moréri's Dictionnaire does not customarily provide a critical perspective on the works of history it cites; but here there would seem to have been a spill-over effect. The article often makes harsh criticisms about Le Clerc's works on the Bible and theology, but usually not about his works of history. This sharp critique about the two volumes on Richelieu may shed light on why the author of the 1695 work on Richelieu is not named!

* * *

Let us turn to the Avertissement in the third and augmented edition (1714) of Le Clerc's Richelieu. It is just over six pages long.

I must verify by checking Ciorenesco and the Dictionnaire de Biographie nationale, to ascertain whether Antoine Aubery has been the subject of a truly deep historical study. His last will and testament seems unknown at present — sleeping perhaps at the Archives nationales, in the Minutier central des notaires. Moréri gives only the Journal des savants (xxiii, p. 185) as a source to the effect that Aubery died in 1695 at the age of seventy-eight years, eight months and eleven days. There are claims that Le Clerc frequented the Cabinet Dupuy, but he certainly never was an érudit. His major works on the French royal prerogative (the French king takes precedence over the king of the Romans) and the history of cardinals are pretty carefully done; but they are partisan (pro-government) summaries of the enormous amount of research on these topics by érudits. Aubery's histories of Cardinal de Joyeuse, the Richelieus, and Mazarin were written and published in the honest hope of support, which he did in fact receive; but his Richelieu was not published until 1660.

Just where Aubery found his sources for the biography of Richelieu remains unclear. His five-volume edition of documents (Cologne) did not appear until 1667. It is fair to assume that both of the Dupuy brothers had many original documents and copies for the entire reign of Louis XIII, and Aubery cites some, but not all of them.

It was none other than Aubery himself who prepared this Marteau (Cologne) edition of hundreds upon hundreds of letters written by the Cardinal or received by him on every aspect of affairs of state. Did Le Clerc believe that Aubery had selected documents with a view toward a flattering portrait of the Cardinal? We have no way of knowing, because he does not refer to the Lettres in his avertissement to the biography of Richelieu. So smitten was he with the idea of achieving impartiality through a critical reading of two works on the same subject, that he ignored other sources.

It is doubtful that he had access to the documents worked through by the Cardinal's secretaries, to form the Mémoires; but as I write, uncertainty prevails. Aubery included a copy of the Cardinal's last will and testament, but it had already been published elsewhere.

As already discussed in Artisans…, the line between panegyric and history practically disappeared in the later seventeenth century. Favorable, even highly favorable to Richelieu, Aubery's Histoire laid out what were considered the Cardinal's accomplishments: the focus was largely on the diplomatic and the military, with some emphasis on coherence in policy and on actually carrying out stated aims. Aubery's text would contribute to the image of the Cardinal as a political wizard by supplying evidence. That image had not yet been created in "history," although it already flourished in poetry and panegyric.

Did Vittorio Siri consider himself to be a historian? While doing research in the Medici archives in Florence, we discovered a complete file regarding the publication of one of his works (the Mercurio?). The papers suggest aesthetic sensibilities (choice of type, format, mise en page), more than the issue of genre. In her article on Siri, Françoise Waquet admirably characterizes the relazione genre, and how much of Siri's vast writings conform to it. An information-gatherer, mostly about diplomatic affairs and court gossip, Siri wrote just that: information. On occasion he claims to have harvested secrets from his own special sources, but careful scrutiny only occasionally supports this assertion.

When Racine and Boileau were appointed historiographers royal in 1677 (see Artisans…), the former turned to reading Siri in order to glean facts about the early reign of the Sun King. When one comes across the hundreds and hundreds of handwritten reports by Siri, it is tempting to infer that he was an obsessive-compulsive writer, not unlike François Davant. (5) The Mercurio totals more than 16,000 pages — just one of his works. (6)

Le Clerc's announced aim in writing about Richelieu is to attain impartiality by comparing Aubery's flattering narrative with Siri's, in order to establish, through jugement, a balanced and accurate account of the Cardinal's ministry, in conformity with what Le Clerc refers to as "les lois de l'histoire." "Laws of history"? Tempting as it is to think of this phrase as an expression of legal historicism as first used by Bodin or La Popelinière, in fact Lucceius accuses Cicero of ignoring them, and Cicero refutes him and defends the practice (in biography) of "heightening dramatic elements." (7) Establish the facts, he says, and "on peut juger de beaucoup d'autres choses particulières sans courir risque de courir trop loin de la vérité." Le Clerc refers to Aubery as a "flatteur insupportable"; Siri, he says, lacks method, and misspells names!

The learned historians of the sixteenth century included terms, events, and facts in their studies. Le Clerc's use of the term fait has judicial origins, as does his belief that facts can be established. The implication is that both Aubery and Siri generally contain the same "facts," give or take a few that were unknown to each. It does not occur to Le Clerc that a historian might omit facts that do not conform to his overall "flattering" account. Richelieu's role in the trial and executions of Cinq-Mars and de Thou might be considered a fact. We may presume that Aubery's views would uphold the decision. What is Siri's view? For Le Clerc, la vérité would rest in the careful analysis of the two accounts, and would produce the material for a third account that would be more truthful than the previous two.

Set in an ethical context, and in the debate about the role played by bad examples, Pierre Bayle, according to Béatrice Guion, favors using as much material about private lives in history as the narrator's theme requires. Materials on private life belong in biography. (8) Le Clerc writes:
... je n'aye pas dit tout ce que l'on pouvoit dire de la vie du Cardinal. ... D'une grande multitude de faits, qui pouvoit entrer naturellement dans cette Vie, j'ai choisi ceux qui concernoient plus particulièrement la personne du Cardinal. ... Pour dire tout, il auroit fallu faire une Histoire de France complette depuis l'an 1624 jusqu'à l'an 1642. (9)

The entire subject was being expressed in antique commonplaces.

Also, through studying the unpublished dispatches of nuncios and ambassadors, the "génie de ce Ministre" will be uncovered. Previous historians had not done this, asserts Le Clerc; but Siri, he continues, provides the materials for such a study. Discovered through studying the Cardinal's actions, genie will also include an assessment of intentions and their ethical valences. Do intentions conform to stated principles? Are actions free of passion? Le Clerc's notion of moral political action holds that it must be free of passion.

Le Clerc makes a remarkable admission of his search for continuity and order between Richelieu's thought and his action:

C'est ce qui a été ma regle, dans tout cet Ouvrage, où j'ai donné aux choses le tour, que le caractere constant et perpetual du Cardinal demandoit qu'on leur donnât; sans rien néanmoins dissimuler des évenemens, ni en déguiser quoi que ce soit, au moins à dessin.

He also admits that his reading includes little by the Huguenot historians. He says he is not writing about controversies but about matters of state, and that his emphasis is on the "pures idées de Politique."

Without mentioning the Machiavellians, Le Clerc begins his definition of politics by not accepting such principles as to "avancer les affaires" or "agrandir le Prince." For him, politics is "l'Art de rendre également et les Princes et les Peuples heureux, sous une certaine forme de gouvernement, par les moyens que la prudence et l'équité prescrivent." There are additional anti-Machiavellian criticisms, including the writing of history that integrates maxims.

The oral lies just below Le Clerc's direct and highly personal prose: "J'ai dit la vérité, autant que je l'ai suë, je n'ai rien inventé; comme on en pourra reconnoître, en examinant mes citations, et en comparant cette Histoire avec les autres." His claim to be seeking "la personne du Cardinal" is followed by recognition of the inevitable difficulty in distinguishing Richelieu's life and actions from a general history of France, 1624-1642. (10)

* * *

In his Vie d'Armand Jean, Cardinal de Richelieu, Jean Le Clerc worked out his own variant of the art of writing biographical history. In his Avertissement he pulls together the commonplaces about truth in history and the refusal to invent something that did not happen. His authorial voice is strong and emphatic in its claim to sincerity. The idea that he ought to check other sources — what historians call "record sources" — seems not to have occurred to Le Clerc; yet as noted earlier, the five-volume edition of the Cardinal's letters, plus those of the king and other officials, had been published in 1667. This material had been known to Aubery; but if Le Clerc had pursued an understanding of Richelieu as a person, based on the works of la Popelinière, Bodin, and Baudouin, his work might have deepened the understanding of Louis XIII's principal minister.


In this third edition of 1714 (Vol. II, pp. 510 ff), Le Clerc says that, not until recently did he learn about a work called the Testament politique. He generally accepts the Testament politique as authentic, and he quotes from it about Richelieu's desire to write a history of Louis XIII's reign. His attempted apology for the Cardinal's great wealth is very weak. We are left with the choice: Le Clerc either developed an ironic gaze about Richelieu's life and work, or else he developed a sympathetic admiration for him.

But let us give Le Clerc the last word:

La plus grande passion de ce Ministre étoit celle de commander, et de faire du bruit dans le monde; et pour cela il falloit se conserver dans son poste, et se rendre absolument necessaire au Roi. (11)


1. A short, recent biography may be found in "Le Clerc, Jean (1657-1736)," The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991). See the magnificent edition of his letters by M. and M.G. Sina, Epistolario (Florence: Olschki, 1987-1997), 4 vols.

2. See Béatrice Guion, Du bon usage de l'Histoire (Paris: Champion, 2008), pp. 108-109, on his view of whether judgments should be included in history. J.G.A. Pocock's Barbarism And Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), V, pp. 92-98, discusses some epistemological and historicist issues that Le Clerc addressed as a critic. I have not read Maria Cristina Pitassi, Entre croire et savoir: le problème de la méthode de critique chez Jean Le Clerc (Leiden: Brill, 1987). Le Clerc may well have written the Richelieu to increase his income, as he did with his Epigrammatum Graecorum Anthologia. See J. Hutton, The Greek Anthology in France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1946), pp. 273-275.

3. Louis Moréri, Grand Dictionnaire historique, ed. of 1759, vol. VIII, p. 406.

4. Moréri, ed. of 1759, vol. III, p. 746.

5. François Davant, "L'autobiographie d'un autodidacte," XVIIe Siècle, 113 (1976), pp. 78-93.

6. Françoise Waquet, "Mercure et Archimède. L'historiographe Vittorio Siri," Lias, 22 (1995), I, pp. 87-97. For a perspective on Siri's partiality as a result of selecting or ignoring sources, see Paul Sonnino, Mazarin's Quest (Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 2.

7. M.L.W. Laistner, The Greater Roman Historians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947), p. 34.

8. Guion, pp. 195-199, 245-248.

9. Le Clerc, "Avertissement," p. [6].

10. For the general context, Steve Uomini, Cultures historiques dans la France du XVIIe siècle (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1998), passim; and, more specific, Laurent Avezou, "La Légende de Richelieu. Fortune posthume d'un rôle historique du XVIIe au XXe siècle," thèse de doctorat dactylographiée, Paris, Université de Paris I, 2002, 2 vols.

11. Le Clerc, p. 507.