A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 6.

Calvin and Amyot.

Prose Writers of the Renaissance.

It has been pointed out that Rabelais, in his capacity of representative author of the French Renaissance, exhibits all the characteristics of that Renaissance — its interest, half-enthusiastic and half-sceptical, in religious and philosophical questions, its devotion to ancient literature and learning, and the ardent zest with which it attacked at once the business and the pleasures of the world. The four most remarkable of the remaining prose authors of the century illustrate these characteristics as vividly but less universally. Montaigne indeed is almost as complete a representative of the entire character for the last half of the century as Rabelais is of the first. But even in him one note, the note of sceptical philosophy, is more dominant than any to be found in Rabelais. In the same way Calvin was the first, if not the most distinguished, of theologians who wrote modern French prose; Amyot the representative of erudition; and Brantôme of that attention to mundane business and pleasure which produced so many admirable memoir-writers. Round each of the four, but especially round Amyot and Brantôme, numerous figures, sometimes of hardly less magnitude, have to be grouped. Chronological reasons, and the convenience of subdividing the subject, make it, however, advisable to take Calvin and Amyot first, leaving the authors of the Essais and the Dames Galantes with their train for another chapter.


Jean Calvin209 was born in 1509, at Noyon, in Picardy, where his father held the post of procurator-fiscal to the bishop. He took orders very early, and obtained some preferment. Before long, by a transition very usual in that age, he exchanged divinity for law; but his interest was still in the former study, and he eagerly embraced the Reformed doctrines. Like other French reformers, he was at first rewarded by the favour of Francis and his sister Marguerite, but the tide soon turned, and he left France in 1534 for Basle. It is said that it was not till then that he learnt Hebrew. At Basle his Institution was published. After a year or two he went to Italy, where he was received by the Duchess of Ferrara, Renée of France, the steadiest of all the royal patrons of the French reformers. At last he established himself at Geneva, where, as is well known, he succeeded in setting up a kind of theocratic tyranny, which was for centuries the model and pattern of his faithful followers the Scotch Presbyterians. He was once banished, but recalled, and exercised his sway for about a quarter of a century. Into the too famous and much argued matters of his relations with Servetus, his intrigues with the French inquisitors to establish a kind of Zollverein of persecution and the like, there is no need to enter here. He died in 1564. Calvin's greatest work in literature, as in theology, is the Institution of the Christian Religion, which, as has been said, was published at Basle in 1536. It was written in Latin, but four years later was republished in French, the author himself being the translator. The minor works of Calvin, both in Latin and French, are very numerous, but from the point of view of literary history they may be neglected, except certain satirical pamphlets wherein the writer displayed a considerable command of vigorous, if occasionally clumsy, satire and invective. The scurrility with which the debates of the Reformation were carried on on both sides is but too well known. Calvin was not so guilty in this respect as Luther, but he must bear a considerable portion of the blame. What is really valuable in Calvin's satiric style may be found more worthily represented in the less abstract passages of the Institution, notably the Address to the King.

The Institution itself is beyond all question the first serious work of great literary merit, not historical, in the history of French prose. It is strongly Latinised in form and construction, as might indeed be expected considering the circumstances of its production. But the point in which it differs from preceding works in which the classical influence is prominent, is that the author no longer attempts to give his classical colour by means of wholesale importations of terms. The vocabulary, though rich and varied, is still in the main genuine French, and the Latinism is more observable in occasional constructions and in the architecture of the clauses than in the mere selection of words. This clause-architecture was a matter of the last importance, for it was exactly in this respect that French, like most of the vernacular tongues, was deficient. The entirely artless and mainly conversational array of the sentence which, out of verse, had hitherto been common, served for narrative well enough, but not at all for argument or discussion. Calvin threw his French clauses into the mould in which his Latin had been cast, and without unduly stiffening them produced a regularity of form which was entirely novel. Even when his sentences are of considerable length, there is clearness and simplicity in them, which in some languages, English for instance, was not generally reached in prose till much later. It is remarkable, too, that the besetting sin of serious French prose, its tendency to the declamatory, is well kept under by Calvin. Next to the graceful stateliness of his phrase, its extreme sobriety, not rejecting legitimate ornament, but seldom or never trespassing into the rhetorical, has to be observed. Considering that the whole of it was written before the author was seven-and-twenty, it is perhaps the most remarkable work of its particular kind to be anywhere found — the merits being those of full maturity and elaborate preparation rather than of youthful exuberance. The book consists of four parts; the first on God, the second on the Atonement, or rather on the Mediatorial Office of Christ, the third on the results of that Office, the fourth on Church Government. Its end, it need hardly be said, is double — the establishment in the most rigorous form of the doctrine of predestination and original sin, and the destruction of the sacramental and sacerdotal doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Minor Reformers and Controversialists.

Despite the fervid interest taken in religious disputation and the masterly example which Calvin had set both to friends and foes, theology proper did not contribute very much of value to literature during the period. Beza wrote chiefly in Latin, his Histoire des Églises Réformées being the chief exception. Pierre Viret, a Swiss by birth, who passed the last twenty years of his life at various towns in the south of France as a preacher and theological teacher, wrote a considerable number of treatises, both serious and satirical. The titles of some of the latter, L'Alchimie du Purgatoire, La Cosmographie Infernale, etc., are characteristic of the time. But Viret's literary merit was not remarkable. This kind of theological pasquinading was in great favour throughout the period, and authors of very various merit, such as Marnix de Sainte Aldegonde, Doré, Claude de Saintes, Arthus Désiré, and others, contributed plentifully to it. But the interest of their work is for the most part historical and antiquarian only. The title of 'Protestant Rabelais' has been absurdly given to Marnix. It is only so far deserved that the scurril language and gross images which with the master were but accessories, were with the pupil the main point. In the latter part of the century, after the quieting of the troubles of the League, two more serious disputants arose, each of considerable literary eminence. These were on the Protestant side, Philippe de Mornay, better known as Duplessis-Mornay, who distinguished himself equally as a soldier, a diplomatist, and a man of letters, and the still more famous Cardinal Du Perron, a converted Calvinist, who was supposed to be the most expert controversialist of a time which was nothing if not controversial. The chief theological work of Duplessis-Mornay was his Traité de la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne. The chief written theological work of Du Perron was a Traité du Sacrement de l'Euchariste, in reply to a work on the same subject by Mornay.

Preachers of the League.

Between the controversies of the earlier part of the century and those of the latter, preaching, if not dogmatic theology, held an important place because of its political bearing. The pulpit style of the sixteenth century was for the most part an aggravation of that (already described) of the fifteenth, the acrimony of sectarian and factious partisanship leading the preachers to indulge in every kind of verbal excess. During the League the partisans of that organisation, especially in Paris, were perpetually excited against Henri III. and his successor by the most atrocious pulpit diatribes, the chief artists in which were Boucher, Rose, Launay, Feuardent, and Génébrard. The literary value of these furious outpourings however is very small. After their cessation a reaction set in, and for some time before the splendid period of pulpit eloquence, which lasted from St. Francis de Sales to Massillon, the general style of French homiletics was dull and laboured.


Jacques Amyot210 was born at Melun in 1513, and belonged to the lowest class. He was educated as a servitor at the famous Collège de Navarre, and took his degree in arts at the age of nineteen. He then held various tutorships and attracted the notice of Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, the constant patroness of men of letters, who gave him a Readership at Bourges. After some years of University teaching in the classics, he began his series of translations with the Theagenes and Chariclea in 1546. This was three years in advance of Du Bellay's manifesto, and though not a few translations had already appeared, none had even approached Amyot's in elegance. As usual at the time his literary reputation was rewarded by Church preferment and employment in the diplomatic service. He was also made tutor to Charles IX. and Henri of Anjou. His elder pupil, when he came to the throne, made him, first, Grand Almoner of France, and then Bishop of Auxerre, while Henri III. added the honour of a commandership in the order of the Holy Ghost. For a time, in the midst of the troubles of the League, Amyot was driven from his palace, but he returned and died, at the full age of fourscore, in 1594.

Besides the work of Heliodorus, Amyot translated Diodorus Siculus (1554), Daphnis and Chloe, Plutarch's Lives (1559), and Plutarch's Morals (1574). It may seem at first sight that his selection of authors to translate was somewhat peculiar. It was however, either by accident or design, singularly well suited to the age which he addressed. The positive merit of Heliodorus, and still more of Longus, is certainly greater than is usually admitted nowadays. But for that time they were peculiarly suited (and especially Longus) by their combination of romantic and adventurous description with graceful pictures of nature and amatory interludes. Plutarch, on the other hand, expressed, more than any other author, the practical and moralising spirit which accompanied this taste for romance. Montaigne confessed that he could not do without Plutarch, and it may be doubted whether any other single author of antiquity, after the Ciceronian mania was over, exercised such an influence as Plutarch, through Amyot, North, and Shakespeare (a direct succession of channels), upon France and England.

The merit of the translator had not a little to do with the success of the books. Here is the testimony of the greatest in a literary sense of Amyot's readers. 'I give,' says Montaigne, 'and I think I am right in doing so, the palm to Jacques Amyot over all French writers, not only for the simplicity and purity of his vocabulary, in which he surpasses all others, nor for his industry in so long a task, nor for the depth of his learning which has enabled him to expound so happily a writer so thorny and crabbed. I am above all grateful to him for having selected and chosen a book so worthy and so suitable as a present to his country. We dunces were lost had not this book plucked us out of the mire. Thanks to it, we dare to speak and to write. By it ladies are in a position to give lessons to schoolmasters. It is our very breviary.' This praise, which is not exaggerated in itself, and still less when taken as an expression of the feeling of the time, refers of course to the 'Plutarch,' and in estimating it it is necessary to take account of Montaigne's especial affection for the author translated. But if we take in the lighter work, and especially the Daphnis and Chloe, Amyot will stand higher, not lower. His merit is not so much that he has known how to adjust himself and his style to two very different authors, but that in rendering both those authors he has written French of a most original model and of the greatest excellence. The common fault of translation, the insensible adoption of a foreign idiom — especially difficult to avoid at a time when no classical standards or models of the tongue used by the translator exist — is here almost entirely overcome. The style of Amyot, who had little before him, if Calvin and Rabelais be excepted, but the clumsy examples of the rhétoriqueur school, is, as Montaigne justly says, perfectly simple and pure; and so little is it tinged either with archaism or with classicism that the seventeenth century itself, unjust as it was for the most part towards its predecessors, acknowledged its merit.

Minor Translators.

Although Amyot was by far the most considerable of the French translators of the sixteenth century, he was not by any means the first. Claude de Seyssel translated many Greek authors, Pierre Saliat produced a version of Herodotus, Lefèvre d'Étaples was the author of the first complete French translation of the Bible, and a cluster of learned writers, some of them remarkable for other work, such as Bonaventure des Périers, devoted themselves to Plato. Among these latter there is one who was in many ways a typical representative of the time. Étienne Dolet211 was born at Orleans in 1509, lived a stormy life diversified by many quarrels, literary and theological, did much service to literature both in Latin and French, and, falling out with the powers that were, was burnt (having first been, as a matter of grace and in consequence of a previous recantation, hanged) in the Place Maubert, at Paris, on his birthday, August 3, 1554. Dolet had written many Latin speeches and tractates in the Ciceronian style — that of a curious section of humanists who entertained an exclusive and exaggerated devotion to Cicero. Then, becoming himself a master-printer, he wrote several small treatises on French grammar, some poems, a short history of Francis the First, and finally, a translation of the Platonic or Pseudo-Platonic Axiochus, which was the proximate cause of his death. He was one of the earliest of the French humanist students to devote himself to the vernacular, and, though his short and troubled life did not enable him to perfect his French style, he is very interesting as a specimen. His friendship with Marot and Rabelais had in each case an unhappy end. In the latter this was due to a pirated edition of Pantagruel and Gargantua, which reproduced expressions that Rabelais, in the rising storm of persecution, had been anxious to modify. As a Latin scholar Dolet was accurate and sound. His translations suffer somewhat from the want of a sufficiently definite and flexible French style, but the striving after such a style is apparent in them.

Dolet and the other persons just mentioned had translated for the most part prose into prose. Sanxon, Hugues Salel, Lazare de Baïf, Sibilet, and others, translated verse into verse; but the theory of French versification had not as yet been sufficiently studied to make the attempt really profitable. After the innovations of the Pléiade many of Ronsard's followers bent themselves to the same task with a better equipment and with more success. Almost all the poets mentioned elsewhere executed translations of more or less merit.


From a literary point of view, however, the exercises of the century, in what may be called applied scholarship, were, leaving out of sight for the moment Amyot's work, and also that, presently to be mentioned, of Herberay, of greater merit than its pure translations. All the mediaeval legends, assigning classical or semi-classical origins to the populations of France, were resumed and amplified by Jean Lemaire de Belges, in the first years of the century, in his Illustrations des Gaules. Lemaire belongs, as has been said elsewhere, for the most part to the earlier school of the Rhétoriqueurs, but his literary power was considerable. The style of research, mingling as it did antiquarian and historical elements with a strong infusion of what was purely literary, was illustrated during the period by three persons who deserve special mention. Claude Fauchet is a name of great importance in French literary history. So long as mediaeval literature actually flourished we should expect to find, and we do find, no attention paid to its history and development. Fauchet was the first person, so far as is known, who devoted himself to something like a critical examination of its results; and as many of the materials which he had at his disposal have perished, his work, with all its drawbacks, is still very valuable. His Antiquités Gauloises et Françoises are purely historical, but display a sound spirit of criticism. His Recueil de l'Origine de la Langue et Poésie Françoise, Ryme et Romans, plus les Noms et Sommaires des Œuvres de CXXVII Poètes François vivans avant l'an MCCC, is a work for its period (1581) almost unique. Philologically, of course, Fauchet is far from infallible, as, for instance, in his theory, obviously indefensible, that French is a cross between the tongues of the Gauls and the Romans. But his 'Noms et Sommaires' are actually taken from the study of manuscripts; and, as the works of the Trouvères had, with few exceptions, long dropped out of sight, except in late fifteenth-century prose versions, the attempt to make them known was as salutary as it was bold.


Fauchet unfortunately was not a good writer. This cannot be said of his principal rival, or rather successor, Étienne Pasquier. Pasquier was born at Paris in 1529, and early devoted himself to legal studies, which he pursued all through his life. His most famous performance as an advocate was his speech for the University of Paris against the Jesuits in 1565. He afterwards took a vigorous part in the Royalist polemic against the League. He did not die till 1615. His works, as yet unpublished in a complete form, are in modern times accessible chiefly in the selection of M. Léon Feugère212. They are voluminous, but by far the most important (with the exception perhaps of the valuable Letters) is the Recherches de la France. This is a somewhat desultory but very interesting collection of remarks on politics, history, social changes, and last, not least, literature. To us the most attractive part of Pasquier's literary history is the account he gives of the great poetical and literary movement of his own day, the revolution of the Pléiade, or, as he describes it picturesquely, 'De la Grande Flotte de Poètes que produisit le Règne du Roi Henry Deuxième.' But his notes on the previous history of literature in France, though necessarily based on somewhat imperfect knowledge, are full of interest, and not destitute of instruction, such, for instance, as his chapters on the farce of Pathelin, on Provençal poetry, on the formal measures of the fourteenth century, etc. Pasquier's style is very delightful. Despite his erudition, and even what may be called his Ronsardising, he does not aim at the new severity and classicism. But his manner is exceedingly picturesque, perfectly clear, and distinguished by a sort of gossiping ingenuousness without any lack of dignity, the secret of which the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in France and England seem to have possessed and carried off with them.

Henri Estienne.

The third of three not dissimilar names is that of Henri Estienne. His remarkable Apologie pour Hérodote, like not a few other works of the same kind, would be less remarkable if it were stripped of borrowed plumes; but his three treatises on French linguistics, the Traité de la Conformité du Français avec le Grec, the Précellence de la Langue Française, and the Nouveaux Dialogues de Langage Français Italianisé, would give him a considerable place in the history of French literature if he had written no Apologie and published no Thesaurus. All three works are more or less directed against the Italianising mania of the day.


Here, perhaps, better than elsewhere, may be mentioned the name of one of the best, if not the best, purely narrative writer of French prose during the century, Herberay des Essarts. It is to Herberay that the famous romance of Amadis of Gaul owes most of its fame. According to the most probable story, the Amadis was originally translated by the Spaniard Montalvo from a lost Portuguese original of the fourteenth century. There is absolutely no trace of a French original, the existence of which has been assumed by French critics. In form the Amadis is a long prose Roman d'Aventures, distinguished only from its French companions and predecessors by a somewhat higher strain of romantic sentiment, and by a greater abundance of giants, dwarfs, witches, and other condiments, which, even in its most luxuriant day, the simpler and more academic French taste had known how to do without, or at most, to apply moderately. It had been continued in the Spanish by more than one author, and was a very voluminous work when, in 1540, Herberay undertook to give a French version of it. He, in his turn, had continuators, but none who equalled his popularity or power. Readers of the Spanish complain that Herberay has not been a faithful translator, and, in particular, that he has been guilty of no few anachronisms. He probably troubled himself very little about exact fidelity or strict local and temporal colour. But he ranks, in order of time, second only to Calvin in the production of a clear, elegant, and scholarly French prose style. The book became immensely popular. It is said that it was the usual reading book for foreign students of French for a considerable period, and it was highly thought of by the best critics (such as Pasquier) of its own and the next generation. It had moreover a great influence on what came after it. To no single book can be so clearly traced the heroic romances of the early seventeenth century.


It may seem somewhat premature to speak of scientific writers in the sixteenth century. Yet there are three who usually and deservedly hold a place in French literary history, and who cannot be conveniently classed under any other head. There are few better known names of the time than Bernard Palissy. His famous enamels are no doubt partly the cause of this, but other artists as great or greater are not nearly so living to us as this maker of pottery. He was born in or about 1510, at a village, Chapelle Broin, near Agen, and he died in the Bastile, in 1589, a prisoner for his Protestantism. Catherine de Medicis had saved him from the massacre of St. Bartholomew. His long life was occupied mainly in art and scientific researches, partly also in lecturing on natural history and physics, and in writing accounts of his investigations, which are not very voluminous, but which possess an extraordinary vividness of style and description. His treatise on pottery, the Art de la Terre, contains the passage which has become classical, describing his desperate efforts to discover the secret of the Italian enamellers. He also wrote a Recepte véritable par laquelle tous les hommes de la France pourront apprendre à multiplier et à augmenter leurs Trésors, and, some ten years before his death, a Discours admirable de la Nature des Eaux et Fontaines. His literary work is an almost unique mixture of research with genuine literary fancy.


Ambroise Paré, also a famous name, was born about the same time as Palissy, and died the year after him. A freethinker in his way, he escaped all temptation to embrace the dangerous heresy which was so fatal, or, at least, so inconvenient, to many other men of science and letters, and for the last forty years of his life he was court-surgeon. His literary work is not inconsiderable in amount, consisting, as might be expected, chiefly of professional treatises. The most interesting of his books, however, from a general point of view, and, as it happens, also by far the best written, is his Apologie et Voyages, a kind of autobiography which contains a large collection of anecdotes and details, not unimportant for the history of the time, as well as of much personal interest. The style of this book is often vivid and picturesque, as well as clear and precise.

Olivier de Serres.

It was fitting that agriculture, which is the staple industry of France, should contribute to her literature at this period — the most genuine and exuberant period of its history, if not that which produced the most minutely finished work. The Théâtre de l'Agriculture et du Ménage des Champs of Olivier de Serres was published in the last year of the century. The author was a native of the town of Villeneuve du Berg, in the present department of Ardèche. He was a Protestant and a great favourite of Henri IV., to whom he was useful in developing Sully's plans of internal economy. The Théâtre de l'Agriculture was long the classic book on the subject, and the author has been honoured, in quite recent times, by statues and other demonstrations. Like most books of the kind, it is much overlaid with erudition, but this only adds to its picturesqueness; and, as the author's precepts were founded on a life's experience of his subject, it certainly cannot be reproached with a want of practical knowledge and aim.

Not a few other authors would require notice, if space permitted, in this class of scientific and erudite authors, particularly in the class of linguistics and literature. Such is Geoffroy Tory, a printer, grammarian, and prose-writer of merit in the early part of the century, who anticipated Rabelais in his protest against the indiscriminate Latinisation of the later Rhétoriqueurs. Not a few other writers, such as Pelletier and Fontaine, busied themselves during the period with grammar and prosody; while towards the close of it, the first French bibliographers of eminence, La Croix du Maine, and Du Verdier, made their appearance. But the works of all these, as rather ancillary to literature than actually literary, must here be passed over.

209 Cauvin or Chauvin is the more correct form, but the Latinised Calvinus made Calvin more usual. Calvin's works are voluminous. The Institution was published in convenient shape at Paris in 1859.

210 Most of Amyot is accessible only in the old editions. A beautiful edition of the Daphnis and Chloe has been published by L. Glady. London, 1878.

211 Dolet's works are not easily to be found except in public libraries. The standard book on him is that of Mr. R. C. Christie (London, 1880), one of the best monographs on French literary history to be found in any language.

212 2 vols. Paris, 1849.


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