Friday, October 8, 2021

The Pepys of Paris?

‘The diaries of Pierre de l’Estoile ‘do for the Paris of Henry IV what Pepys does for the London of Charles II, and a great deal more . . .’ This is the opinion of Nancy Lyman Roelker, an American history professor who first translated into English and edited l’Estoile’s diaries. L’Estoile - who died 410 years ago today - was a royal secretary and very well placed to observe the religions and political shenanigans of the age. Most recently, his diaries have been used extensively by Durham University’s Tom Hamilton for a first biography of the man in English.

Pierre de l’Estoile was born in Paris in 1546 into a middle class family. His father and grandfather had both held prestigious positions in the royal bureaucracy. His father, though, died when Pierre was only twelve, and he was placed under the care of Mathieu Béroalde, a Hebraic scholar with Protestant inclinations. In l’Estoile’s earliest foray into writing, a miscellany on the early Wars of Religion, he adopted a neutral tone, presenting the attitudes and opinions of both Catholics and Protestants, while supporting the Crown’s efforts at mediation.

L’Estoile studied law at Bourges, trained as a notary, and like his forefathers became a royal secretary, though not achieving particularly high office. He married Anne de Baillon, but she died in 1580, shortly after the birth of a daughter. Two years later he married the 18 year-old daughter of Colombe de Marteau. During the latter years of his life, he maintained a close interest in religious and papal controversies, all the while amassing a huge library. He died on 8 October 1611. There are only very sketchy biographical details available online, at Wikipedia.

L’Estoile’s main claim to historical fame stems from the diaries he left behind - these are also the main source of information about his life. A century or so after his death, one of his descendants, the abbot of  Abbey of Saint-Acheul, deposited the diaries in the abbey’s library, and when the abbey was dissolved they passed through the hands of a bookseller before being acquired by the Royal Library. Although the diaries were not intended for publication they have been used as a prime first hand source for histories of the reigns of Henry III and IV of France. 

Extracts from the diaries were first published in English by Harvard University Press in 1958 in The Paris of Henry of Navarre as seen by Pierre de l’Estoile - Selections from his Mémoires-Journaux, as translated and edited by Nancy Lyman Roelker. Here’s a paragraph from the introduction in which the editor likens l’Estoile to Samuel Pepys.

‘The Mémoires-Journaux of Pierre de l’Estoile do for the Paris of Henry IV what Pepys does for the London of Charles II, and a great deal more, because l’Estoile was a serious student of politics and morals, and combined his acute observation with keen judgment of men and events. In his diary, which covers thirty-seven years, 1574-1611, the reader finds an eyewitness account of the wars of religion, the court of the Valois, and a full account of the reign of Henry IV, complete with an enormous cast of characters who take part in these events, their idosyncrasies, their clothes, their food, their jokes, diseases, and love affairs - so that the reader knows many of them more intimately than the family across the street. In effect, that family has ceased to be across the street, for the reader is living in the quarter of St. André-des-Arts on the left bank of the Seine opposite the Palais de Justice, and the Palais, seat of the Parlement de Paris, the highest court in France, has become the hub of the universe, as it was to the diarist, who earned his living as audiencier, or lerk-in-chief of the Parliament. Seated with Pierre de l’Estoile in his cabinet the reader has a window on Paris; he sees too the events of the great world as they are seen at the Palais, where men are hotly disputing the merits of Mary Stuart’s execution, or laughing at the sign which been informally posted, “Lost! The Great Invincible Naval Army . . . [Armada] if anyone can give news of it . . . let him come to St Peter’s Palace where the Holy Father will give him wine.” ’

More recently, the diaries have been used extensively for a biographical work by Tom Hamilton (Oxford University Press, 2017): Pierre de L’Estoile and his Word in the Wars of Religion. Some pages can be freely read at Googlebooks. Hamilton says the diaries ‘provides a fascinating portrait of his private life, his social world, his role as a collector of curiosities, and his own personal experiences of living through the era of the French religious wars.’ And there is an informative review available online at H-Net (Michigan State University Department of History).

Here are several extracts of the diaries from Roelker’s 1958 work. (However, it is worth bearing in mind that Hamilton argues, in his book, that the early diaries, at least, were composed after Henry III’s death, “relying on previous drafts that are now lost.” He bases this on an analysis of l’Estoile’s handwriting style, which is identical to the style of other writings that appear after 1589.)

30 May 1574
‘Sunday, May 30,1574, the day of Pentecost, at three o’clock in the afternoon, Charles IX, King of France, worn out by a long and violent illness and loss of blood, which had caused his death to be predicted for more than three months, died in the Château of Vincennes near Paris, at the age of twenty-three years, eleven months and four or five days, after reigning about thirteen and a half years full of continual war and strife. He left one daughter, about nineteen months old, named Isabella of France, by his wife Madame Isabella of Austria, and the kingdom of France troubled by civil wars (on the pretext of religion and the public welfare) in most of its provinces, especially Languedoc, Provence, Dauphiné, Poitou, Saintonge, Angoumois, and Normandy, where discontented Huguenots and the Catholics associated with them have seized various towns and strongholds which they hold with great force.’

31 May 1574
‘Monday, the last day of May, the Court of Parlement assembled in the morning, in spite of the holiday, and deputed certain presidents and conseillers to go to the Château of Vincennes to request Madame Catherine de Medici, mother of the late King, to accept the regency and undertake the government of the kingdom until the arrival of her son King Henry, who was in Poland. To this effect, the same afternoon . . . [she] willingly accepted the task, according to the intention of the late King, her son, who had decreed it a few hours before his death.

That same afternoon the body of the late King, who had lain in his bed . . . with his face uncovered for everyone to see . . . was opened and embalmed by the physicians and surgeons and placed in a metal casket.’

2 June 1574
‘Wednesday, 2nd, the Queen Regent had all the entrances to the Château of the Louvre locked, except the main gate . . . which had a large troop of archers stationed inside and one of Swiss outside. . . Rumor has it that she did this in fear of enterprises and secret conspiracies discovered at Easter, which had already resulted in the execution of Tourtet . . .  La Mole . . . and Coconas . . . in the Place de Grève in late April, and in the imprisonment of the Marshals Montmorency and Cossé.’

4 June 1574
‘Friday, June 4, three well-known gentlemen were sent by the Queen, in her own name and that of M. le Duc d’Alençon and the King of Navarre . . . to Poland to announce to the King the death of his late brother, congratulate him on his accession to the crown of France, and to urge him to hasten his return to his kingdom, to establish himself and to obviate the great evils and inconveniences which might be brought about by any further delay. . .’

1 July 1574
‘On Sunday,  the first day of July, in the great church Notre Dame in Paris, a solemn vow was taken taken in the name of the whole city, to Notre Dame de Lorette that if the city were delivered from the siege, they would present a silver lamp, and other ornaments. . . There was such a crowd at this occasion that a poor pregnant woman was suffocated in the mob, with her child.’ 

5 July 1574
‘Thursday, July 5, La Chapelle-Marteau, Prévost des Marchands, assembled the city [officials], read to them letters which the Duke of Mayenne had written to the Parisians, in which he exhorted them to hold fast and to cheer up, promising aid at the end of the month at the latest, and if he should fail, he gave them his wife and children to do with what they would. These beautiful words served the people for bread . . . although Boucher . . . and others have assured them of deliverance in two weeks, they were content to settle for a month, so anxious are they to gain that wonderful paradise which the preachers assure them will be gained by dying of hunger.’

8 July 1574
‘Thursday, July 8, the heart of the late King Charles was carried to the Célestins in Paris by M. le Duc, his brother, and there interred with all the solemnities and ceremonies usual in such cases.’

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