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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


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Sophie Vergnes, Les Frondeuses

Sophie Vergnes, Les Frondeuses, une révolte au féminin (1643-1661), Seyssel: Champs Vallon, 2013), 522 pp.

Important studies of women have been published in the English writing world, but none so deeply politically contextualized for the seventeenth century, and none about so many women. Sophie Vergnes' (henceforth "SV") book establishes a benchmark for further research and publication on French political culture for virtually every decade, with the roles of women occupying center stage. Some years ago I met SV briefly and listened to her summary of her project. I concluded that it could not be done — that there was 1) too much to master and 2) not enough sources that would permit elucidation of political roles. I was wrong, dead wrong, on both counts.

The book's cover displays a color reproduction of a portrait of the Grande Mademoiselle by Beaubrun — wonderful as she holds a commander's baton and shield. Roman military motifs decorate the bottom and sleeves of her bodice. The air of confidence and superiority conveyed by her composure suggests more than self confidence: it suggests audacious contentment with herself.

A word on SV's sources. Not only all the published materials, of course. But without saying why, she went back to Mazarin's correspondence and worked through not only all the letters he received (mostly in the series France of the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), but also his own letters — as if, in all the careful sorting, Chéruel, the great historian, had winnowed out facts about the roles played by women in the Fronde. Perhaps he did; he was fundamentally a neo-classical republican (see his work on the city government and society of late-medieval Rouen), and misogyny almost always lurks in the perspective. To be sure, there are foreign diplomatic correspondences that have never been edited and that might supplement a perspective here and there; but in comparison to the sovereign value of the correspondence of key figures and the memoirs that have been edited (including, of course, Chéruel's edition of la Grande Mademoiselle), gossip would be hard to sort out from fact. True, Mme de Motteville's voice is often heard; but only as a source, not as a woman engaged or disengaged in the Fronde; and historians who work on the Ancien Régime must always place as an activist in the political culture the Commynes, the Mottevilles et al who, standing in the coulisses, had access to one or more of the principal actors center stage. I sense that Motteville really gave Anne advice, whether the queen took it or not, just as Gabriel Naudé advised Mazarin, not so much about daily policy as on, for example, about the need to reply to the criticisms in the mazarinades. The care that SV takes with the sources impresses throughout.

SV has overcome the often unstated, but nonetheless powerful, feminist perspective that has inhibited the study of the highest-ranking women in French society.

If it is not the literary impulse that impedes studying princesses in an exemplary mode (none of them is a great writer), it is the egalitarian impulse. Writers with ethical impulses find it difficult to write about persons who are not a bit like themselves. If only we knew more about Mme de Lafayette and Mme de Villedieu, so that their heroic status as woman writers (and novelists at that) could be further strengthened! But it is pointless to try to characterize what has been at work in seventeenth-century French feminist scholarship, when we have Les Frondeuses to write about. SV forges ahead and shows as much as can be known about some fifteen women, their powers by rank, their "affine" relations (the British like that word rather than "client," and they are right), their cultural training at court, and their actions a wielders of power. What follows is an essay, not a review, of a major contribution to seventeenth-century French scholarship, especially on women of power.

*      *     *

Queen Anne's role is characterized with precision, but owing to Mazarin's shadow, SV shows somewhat less interest in her than, say, in Mme de Chevreuse. Grounding her analysis at times on the measurement of absolute freedom of action as a heuristic device, SV characterizes no one, male or female, who had that freedom of action. She does not pursue a close reading of Anne's politics during Mazarin's exile. Perhaps she was correct not to do so. Anne developed a really quite firm knowledge of politics during her decades living at or near the court; from Mazarin she acquired a skill in personal relations, but not a political understanding grounded on principles. In Mazarin et ses amis (Paris, 1968), Georges Dethan shows how personal bonding and intimacy constituted a veritable technique of governance for the Roman prelate. One of Mazarin's favorite words to characterize someone from whom he wished support was "gagné." To be won over to the cardinal meant having strong, direct, one-on-one relations with him. There are, of course, diplomatic instructions laying out aims and principles, but these rarely involved internal politics. Mazarin's carnets are notes to help him remember something; they are not at all like Richelieu's Political Testament.

Mazarin would forever promise things, and then not deliver. His sense of honor does not seem strongly linked to keeping his word. The technique of intimate friendship assured Anne's support; with the Grand Condé, it failed to hold. I think Anne had a quite firm knowledge of political principles and the technique of governance. Though Anne's power to act was restricted by a male world, she was free to listen, and I believe she pretty much knew what her husband and his principal minister were up to, at least from 1624 on. She had ladies in waiting who were very well connected, and it is plausible that the women around her believed it their civic duty to keep her informed.

In working out the political identities of aristocratic women, SV begins, as well she should, with the salons and the Amazonian feminist political exempla. Politics were not supposed to be discussed in salons; but, of course, if someone had just heard that young Gondi had been nominated for a bishopric, would this not be mentioned in a salon? I think it would, as might the names of hopefuls waiting for a nomination. Pensions and posts were at the very heart of politics in the seventeenth century, and women of high rank often had views, candidates and influence over appointments as brokers (Kettering).

This obvious point leads to an issue that puzzles, and that is not faced straight on by SV. Over the years, Mme de Chevreuse used all her influence on several occasions, to have de l'Aubépine de Châteauneuf reappointed to his old post or to a higher post such as ambassador to England. He and she were certainly a team imbued with that over-passionate, obsessive desire for power that Machiavelli wrote about (and that Montaigne sought to dampen); but which of the pair was calling the shots? Victor Cousin was not political enough to come up with such a question. I would like to know SV's views. Perhaps being a team that was constantly pushing a male toward high office is about as much as the sources confirm.

The presentation of the Amazonian moment is careful and convincing. Perhaps a bit more framing on exemplarity might have been desirable (I think of Laurence Giavarini in this regard). The Amazonian moment had at its core claims that women could be effective military actors (more classical republicanism). Anti-feminists might scoff and argue that all this applied to hundreds of young male nobles as well -- some of whom never returned from battle. The power of mimetic theatricality pervaded war-making in the seventeenth century. Here lay the difference between the disciplined and experienced battle-trained warrior, and the man who had studied war in an academy or read about antique warrior women (J. Huizinga on "historical ideals of life," whose historical example is Charles the Bold, who lived according to the principles he had read in romances and, as a result, became a victim of his reading

SV's account of women in Corneille's theater is appropriate: that is, she does not press exemplarity too strongly. But just think of the politics in his creation of Émilie. In a play such as Cinna, what Émilie brings to her spouse by way of family prestige and affines, is not unlike what a princess brought to her in the seventeenth century. There is so much more: Émilie wants revenge for the murder of her father, a republican killed by order of an emperor. Only through satisfying his wife's need for revenge will Cinna have her whole love. Auguste must be murdered, but Cinna is really a less intense republican:

Joignons à la douceur de venger nos parents
La gloire qu'on remporte à punir les Tyrans,
Et faisons publier par toute l'Italie,
La liberté de Rome est l'œuvre d'Émilie." (I, ii, 107-110)

Balzac would call her an "adorable furie."

Similarly, Préciosité, through an alternative language, fostered new roles and encouraged persons to dare to be non-conformists.

SV is right not to descend into exemplary examples, but there is so much intensity of engagement in the plays that I could not refrain from evoking at least one intriguer-mediator-instigator!
The next section of the book takes us more directly into political action through use of the concepts Intriguantes and Médiatrices. The roles played by princesses in negotiating loans from the Spanish, if not abandoned by males, may have been still more covertly played by women after the treason trials for negotiating with Spain of Cinq Mars and de Thou, as recently as 1642. Did aristocratic women assume that they could not possibly be prosecuted for lèse-majesté and executed? Their boldness in negotiations suggests that something like that may have occurred.

The moral valences of the word intrigue were generally negative, but here and there in the sources are phrases recognizing special efficacy in carrying out secret political actions. The legal discourse of the Parlement was so specialized that it could not be taken up by the non-Robe, to develop a larger and stronger "public" opposition. There was, of course, a discourse about resorting to arms, and there was the the royal Council's official discourse; but almost all the rest of the politics in the Fronde may be characterized as "intrigue"! The word certainly characterized Retz's political actions, and Mazarin's as well. Retz constantly put together a planned intrigue, but then something would happen that would lead him to change that intrigue into another one! Madame de Chevreuse remained more rational, self-interested and constant in her intrigues than Retz. Master though he was, Mazarin would also be blind-sided in intrigues that he failed to conduct in a way that would bring the desired consequences. Offices and pensions constituted Anne's principal power, through her signature and seal. The contestations over governorships and bishoprics were tips of the icebergs of intrigue over marriages and positions on the Conseil d'en Haut.

Princely women also mediated in crucial turning-points during the Fronde. In doing so, they were not disinterested (e.g. Chevreuse's efforts to gain approval for Conti to marry her daughter. It would be the failure to construct more long-lasting "parties" through mediation and compromise that unleashed the movements to return to the status quo. Particularly strong is SV's elucidation of the roles played by Mme de Châtillon. Widows with wealth and rank did not simply withdraw into devotions. And some husbands were more sharing of their thoughts and intrigues than others. Retz recalled how Mme de Bouillon asked the servants to leave, so tht she, her husband, and the coadjutor cold work out a plan of action — an intrigue.

Part III of the book is a major study of the affines, that is, client networks. SV uses the term "clan," and it serves her purposes very well. More than the barricades, breakdowns in marriage negotiations tested the powers of a clientele to be extended. Much of the Fronde turns on marriage dreams, plots and veto powers within the Condé clan. More authoritarian than Louis XIV would ever be, the Grand Condé wielded absolute power over marriage negotiations. It is perhaps impossible to say which was the more important, wealth or rank; but the eye trained on weakening the other grandee families never closed.

The client networks begin, of course, with the family. Each member of a princely household had dozens of men and women hanging from their finger tips. The language of service could occasionally be reduced to a phrase about servitude, sweet or not. The very structures of gender and age opened or close opportunities. SV again quite rightly begins with the consequences of a key absence: the father. Anne kept her two sons close to her, and artist-engravers depicted the closeness between boy-king and regent — with the legitimation coming from the boy. Even today, in rural households a wife has little to say in the household until she produces an heir (and for the crown, a male heir). Thus Anne was humiliated, spied on and ignored until the birth of the God-Given, the source of her authority during the Regency far more than the declarations by the Parlement. The same was true for princely families; and interestingly enough, quite a few daughters were born when sons were wanted. The Grande Mademoiselle is a case in point, a pathetic figure left virtually alone to battle with a corrupt (and prevaricating) father who took her income for years.

Claire-Clémence de Maillé-Brézé, the spouse of the Grand Condé, would also be legitimated (not simply empowered!) by the births of male children. Richelieu once wrote: "Si on n'a pas d'argent, on n'est pas considéré." Claire-Clémence had brought enormous wealth to her marriage, but she lost control over it as her husband sank into debt as a result of paying pensions to householders and raising troops. Upon the death of her avaricious father-in-law, her mother-in-law, the dowager duchess, held the purse strings; she often declined requests from the Grand Condé for another 50,000 livres advance on his inheritance! A micro-study of the relations between the dowager and Claire -Clémence would be very interesting, especially since the Frondes made their lives quite untypical.

SV has rightly interpreted women's potential roles under the term "legitimation," not simply "empowerment." The latter could be researched under the term "cash-flow"! Specific characteristics are neither neglected nor moralized. The dowager duchess of Condé acted, and played an important role, but she was not so engaged that she mortgaged all the Condé estates in order to give her son still more money with which to pay his troops. SV also explores the relations between engagement and withdrawal; and further, not only withdrawal but devotional retirement — as was the case with her daughter, Mme de Longueville.

If Mme de Longueville's brother, the Grand Condé always alert to family politics and was intensely concerned about how marriages affected power relations, he was really no better than Retz when it came to working out aims and pursuing them for some length of time. His precipitous movements (e.g., his hasty return from Bordeaux, or his flight to Saint-Maur) strained his mother's and his sister's efforts to build support for him.

The dowager duchess's funeral conformed to what was expected for someone of her rank. The eulogy spoken there might (it is not certain) reveal some interesting features about her persona, and about what was not mentioned.

In reflecting on this and the previous chapter, the figure of Mademoiselle's father looms over so many of these personal relations. There is a difference between the legitimate power to assumes the role of mediator with considerable disinterestedness. In her war with Gaston d'Orléans did Mademoiselle think of him, always, as a protector? Later, she would certainly not think that, owing to her father's tervergisations. He could not be relied on, and his timing was always wrong, especially once he had ceased being anti-Condé. No matter what Gaston did, even when in prison, Condé loomed, gaining more power. I must reread Mademoiselle's memoirs to find which variables affected her decisions. So often she seemed alone in her decisions, whereas Longueville, the dowager duchess and Châtillon had quasi-official councilors (and lovers). Mademoiselle would seem to me to have been the most autonomous of the major Frondeuses, despite her father's attempt to bridle her.

The chapter on the withdrawal from active politics by most of the Frondeuses by 1652 constitutes a very original overview of what happens as "order" is restored. There were to trials for treason; but presence at court became impossible, at least for awhile. Heroic stances and actions seemed all but over, but the princely women most supportive of Condé continued to support him clandestinely, and they did some plotting too, while the hero himself continued to command Spanish troops against French troops who frequently were under the command of that ex-Frondeur, Turenne. Obliged to reside in their country chateaux, or to be a guest in a chic, high-status convent, humiliation seems to have left few scars of bitterness.

In the seventeenth century, the defeated and persecuted, for whatever reason, usually wrote lengthy personal memoirs to justify their actions. The scars of bitterness were not all that deep, because only one of these approximately fifteen grandes dames really wrote about the Fronde as a sublime moment in her life: the Grande Mademoiselle. The letter she received from her royal cousin, Louis XIV, asking her to move out of the Louvre was certainly humiliating; but it was a trifle in comparison to what her father had experienced after his rebellions, when his properties, pensions and offices would be taken from him — and usually restored and even increased. Mademoiselle withdrew to her country residence at Saint-Fargeau (it was modest compared to Chantilly and Blois) and had Louis Le Vau embellish the façade with bas-reliefs (did any of them depict women?); and she would visit her subjects in the principality of Dombes.

Madame de Châtillon lent her prestige and perhaps some of her wealth to a plot to kill Mazarin that went nowhere. Did the plans come from Condé rather than from Châtillon herself? SV stresses, and rightly so, that this daughter of a great noble house, whose father had been decapitated for dueling, really lived the role of the heroic, exemplary woman created by Corneille and Du Bosc. It should be noted that in the later chapters SV comes to see Corneille as giving to his female characters a greater exemplary strength than she credited him with in the early chapters. That is what happens to even the best of historians, as reading and reflecting cause the mental prism to turn, chapter after chapter.

The book is beautifully constructed: theme and chronology are put together brilliantly: as a result there is very little repetition. The ghost of Machiavelli's classical republicanism (the conceit that lies behind the Amazons in post-medieval times), in the form of bearing arms to defend one's cité (or farm!) or to topple a tyrant, is central to the larger paradigm of the unstable moment in republican politics. See J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment. The classical republican paradigm has pervaded American Feminism and the scholarship attending it. SV's book is destined to be very well received on this side of the Atlantic!

P.S., La Guirlande de Julie is in the grande réserve of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, as NAF 19735 (cf the scans of the volume, available on; and see also E. Hyde, Cultivated Power (Philadelphia, 2005)

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