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Benoist Pierre, Le Père Joseph; l'Éminence grise de Richelieu

(Paris: Perrin, 2007), pp. 476

reviewed in September 2008

Scholars have known for decades that the works of L. Dedouvre and G. Fagniez on Father Joseph, though of value, lacked the detachment and depth that his life and stature required. In the fall of 1957 Roland Mousnier proposed to me "the social and economic thought" of Father Joseph as a subject for a doctoral dissertation. I respectfully declined! He did not want me to research the Conseil du roi, which I was determined to do.

While by no means Descimonian, Benoist Pierre's reconstruction of the Le Clerc du Tremblay family in the sixteenth century is strong. It turns on a marriage alliance with the Duprat: Antoine II Duprat (a notorious royal fiscal-judicial manager, who belonged to a long line of officials, from Jacques Coeur to Abbé Terray), who had a sister who married a Le Clerc du Tremblay, thereby very probably enabling a shift from office in the Châtelet to the Parlement as well as university and chancellerie posts. There would also be military captaincies of the type the required absolute fidelity to the sovereign. Certainly both robe and sword, the Le Clerc du Tremblay were in fact much more than that, with various levels of connection and protection that depended on their willingness to serve but that did not necessarily bring great wealth or more prestigious aristocratic titles.

At his death in 1587, Jean IV Le Clerc du Tremblay, father of the future Capuchin, was a président aux requêtes du Parlement, an ardent Catholic whose final trajectory either toward the League or toward Henri III and Henri of Navarre cannot be inferred. Father Joseph's mother, Marie de Lafayette, came from a sword noble family with high-court connections and occasional service. She was the only one of a numerous progeny to make a marriage alliance that was more long-robe than sword. Her husband's death left the only child and his mother in straightened circumstances. The borrowing and lending in these elite families are more difficult to interpret than it might seem, but the sale of the seigneury of Muffliers would seem to indicate stress that could easily be interpreted as humiliating or degrading, hence a fear of being unable to sustain one's rank.

When he died, Richelieu's father had been taking great financial risks in order to make a lot of money. His widow not only had a low income for her rank, she also had to pay her husband's debts. Joseph du Tremblay was, like Richelieu, destined for a military career; but family circumstances that are well-known in Richelieu's case, obliged Armand du Plessis to take up a career in the Church, as his mother wished. For some time, Joseph Le Clerc du Tremblay's mother resented her son's decision to become a monk. Benoist Pierre does not discern some "interior calling" in the case of Le Clerc du Tremblay, but rather a progressively strong attitude of disgust for life in a corrupt world and then a decision to join one of the most rigorous orders.

In the surviving correspondence between son and mother there is not only an obvious tension, there are already some remarks linking quite abstract notions about the stabilizing role of kingship and concern for the fate of the Christian Catholic world. His mother accepted the decision, perhaps because the stain of Protestant blood in her lineage (the references to blood come from Joseph) had weakened her authority over a son whose search for a pure Catholic ascendance had become obvious to her. Economic and social historians quite often reduce transactions such as the sale of a noble estate to the price. In this instance, the purchaser was not only a relative with whom there had been quarrels and litigation, it was someone with a brother ― Forget ― who had helped draft the infamously compromising Edict of Nantes, a fact that might make an ardent Catholic feel personally aggressed.

The clarity and brevity of Benoist Pierre's account of du Tremblay's conversion, spirituality and labor as a Capuchin and founder of the Calvairiennes, reveal how Joseph participated in the doctrinal and institutional activities of the Catholic Reformation. Benoist Pierre sums up: "Toute la démarche du père Joseph consista à joindre le modèle de la sainteté héroïque à la pratique du pur amour ..." (p. 108). Except in his ways of joining the practices of others ­ for example, Theresa of Avila, Benoît Canfield and the Rhineland-Flemish mystics such as Eckhardt ― Father Joseph concentrated on evangelization, more with a view to returning heretics to the Church than in expanding the faith by proposing new arguments, analogies and devotions. Activist to the core, his role in founding the Calvairiennes came only after he perceived the religious lives of female Benedictines as too constraining. The emphasis would always be on teaching and on personally showing the way of faith through his writing and preaching.

Even as a young man his connections at court opened the way to a minor diplomatic post and a sense of what the "affairs" were at the highest levels of government. It is not surprising that the very aristocratic and reformist idea of a crusade again the Ottomans would become an intensely pursued aim that prompted years of efforts on Joseph's part. With Charles de Gonzaga's support, and the perhaps ambiguous support of Pope Paul VI and Louis XIII, and the unqualified willingness to go to battle of the Polish knights, the Capuchin would spend years trying to bring about a war with the Turks in order, he thought, to bring about peace among Christians. Throughout this veritable campaign Le Clerc du Tremblay developed a network of devout activists all across Europe that would serve him in good stead.

Throughout this effort, the Capuchin came to believe that such a unified effort as a crusade would work to diminish conflicts between Christians; but as it turned out, the two poles of extreme tension ­ the Netherlands and Bohemia ― would exacerbate not only relations between Catholics and Protestant allied states, but between Catholics themselves. The revolt of the princes in France during the Regency of Marie de Medicis could not be interpreted in religious terms, as the duc de Rohan's leadership of the Protestants took on the guise of an aristocratic revolt as well. Clearly, du Tremblay's mode of analyzing strategic aims and military and dynastic circumstances did not square with his understanding of the course of events, an understanding not at all grounded on Realpolitik but rather on attempts to perceive the present of 1620 through the eyes of 1559, if not those of 1259!

If it seems superficially difficult to grasp what Richelieu saw in Father Joseph as a collaborating diplomat, Benoist Pierre makes it clear that it was the latter's steadfastness and command of information, not only on foreign-policy questions but on religious and court-royal zizanies as well. Hostility, even paranoia about the Hapsburgs, both Spanish and Imperial (see Magdalena Sanchez), gave them common ground for evaluating each move in one or another theater of tension during years when Ferdinand of Styria, under the guise of pursuing Catholic unity, sought to transform a polyglot body of states into something like the absolutizing French state. The Emperor's attempt to turn back the clock, in recovering the church lands lost to protestant aristocratic families, for example, confirmed suspicions and, although coordination between the Spanish and Imperial Hapsburgs was frequently disjointed, the rhetoric about it could be believed by someone such as the Capuchin.

The drafting of the treaty of Ratisbon had been a deep personal engagement by Father Joseph. One of the clauses that the Imperials wished, and that the Capuchin accepted, was that France would break its alliances and restrict its foreign relations with Protestant states and "condottiere." One wonders, from the Capuchin's acceptance of this clause, whether he ever understood (or accepted) the already centuries-old mechanisms governing (and misgoverning on occasion) European diplomacy and military action. Acceptance of that clause would have meant an end to French intervention in Germany, at just the moment when cries of danger to "German liberties" were again being heard. Benoist Pierre is right to weigh in the balance Louis XIII's health, the machinations of the parti des dévots and Richelieu's supposed weakness; but even with all these considerations, the fact that Louis XIII had accepted a policy that, in both Italy and Germany, staked out aims that simply could not be realized by France without Protestant allies, were not uppermost in his mind when the blindness of the pursuit of religious unity overcame him. For the Capuchin everything was in God's hands, but it is possible to ask whether, beneath the genuine expressions of support for Richelieu, there remained someone who, while not consciously or overtly ambitious, would be ready to assume the direction of French foreign policy.

Benoist Pierre's careful and convincing discussion of Father Joseph's role in various ministerial crises in the 1630's brought to mind research I published in Les Créatures de Richelieu (Paris, 1966). The Cardinal decided in the end who should be disgraced; but he never seems to have been directly involved in the machinations that led up to the decision, whereas the Capuchin seems to have been ready to be brutal.

Victories and defeats prompted exceptional outbursts of spiritual transcendence in the seventeenth century. The victory of the Huguenots at La Rochelle prompted a major high devotional moment among French elites; the loss of Corbie and the threat ― quickly overcome ― of Spanish attacks on Paris led the king and his principal councilors to extraordinary religious experiences, the most notable being the decision to put the realm under the protection of the Virgin. Richelieu strongly supported these moves, but his letters reveal someone obsessed by the efforts to defeat the Hapsburgs by human will. Father Joseph's faith seems more mechanical and routine, as carefully and thoughtfully presented here. Joseph saw the powers of man, with divine support, to effect political and military action, to be less than Richelieu. There might be a parallel with Olivares. The question not only brings to mind J.H. Elliott's brilliant Richelieu and Olivares, but R. von Albertini's Das Politische Denken in Frankreich zur zeit Richelieus (Marburg, 1951)

In 1635 Richelieu wrote: "Le père Joseph, à l'heure que je parle, respond des affaires d'allemagne pourveu que je face ce que ses pensées anthousiastiques luy diront" (p. 285). Having clearly stated who is in charge of policy, Richelieu assumes an almost ironic tone in his reference to the Capuchin's states of mind. It would not seem that Richelieu always believed that what Father Joseph came up with was divinely inspired. "Enthusiastic," in the prose of a theologian, could certainly have negative if not dangerous connotations, as unfounded or not conforming to reason. And though the relations between Richelieu and his in-law, Brezé, were often stormy, the latter writes about Joseph: "Je ne say comment M. le Cardinal, qui est l'esprit du monde le plus net, se peut servir d'un vizionnaire chimérique comme celuy-là, qui ne sait ce qu'il dit ni ce qu'il fait" (p. 287). Although he said it after the break with Richelieu, it is nonetheless interesting that Matthieu de Morgues referred to the Capuchin as a "prophète" (p. 305).

An "enthusiast," a "visionary," a "prophet": the terms employed by his contemporaries to characterize the Capuchin do not surprise, but like the question of how real the so-called "real" was in Richelieu's Realpolitik, the opposite politics were the mystical and the transcendental, centered on the belief that war against the Ottomans would bring increased unity among Europeans. Richelieu would have been in still greater difficulties with the dévots had it not been for the astute mystic's support at his side. As we see in Olivier Chaline's superb Bataille de la Montagne blanche (Paris, 2000), religious belief takes center stage in interpreting the life work of the third voice of French foreign policy in the 1620's and 1630's, just after those of Richelieu and Louis XIII.

Well researched, well written, and strongly analytical, Benoist Pierre's Père Joseph is a major and indispensable study of French high politics and religious culture. Do place it on the shelf next to J.H. Elliott's Richelieu and Olivares (Cambridge, 1984), W.F. Church's Richelieu and the Reason of State (Princeton, 1972), and Françoise Hildesheimer's Richelieu (Paris, 2004).