The Unseen World, and other essays, by John Fiske


29 Historical Difficulties and Contested Events. By Octave Delepierre, LL. D., F. S. A., Secretary of Legation to the King of the Belgians. 8vo. London: Murray. 1868.

History, says Sainte-Beuve, is in great part a set of fables which people agree to believe in. And, on reading books like the present, one certainly needs a good deal of that discipline acquired by long familiarity with vexed historical questions, in order to check the disposition to accept the great critic’s ironical remark in sober earnest. Much of what is currently accredited as authentic history is in fact a mixture of flattery and calumny, myth and fable. Yet in this set of fables, whatever may have been the case in past times, people will no longer agree to believe. During the present century the criticism of recorded events has gone far toward assuming the developed and systematized aspect of a science, and canons of belief have been established. which it is not safe to disregard. Great occurrences, such as the Trojan War and the Siege of Thebes, not long ago faithfully described by all historians of Greece, have been found to be part of the common mythical heritage of the Aryan nations. Achilleus and Helena, Oidipous and Iokasta, Oinone and Paris, have been discovered in India and again in Scandinavia, and so on, until their nonentity has become the legitimate inference from their very ubiquity. Legislators like Romulus and Numa, inventors like Kadmos, have evaporated into etymologies. Whole legions of heroes, dynasties of kings, and adulteresses as many as Dante saw borne on the whirlwind, have vanished from the face of history, and terrible has been the havoc in the opening pages of our chronological tables. Nor is it primitive history alone which has been thus metamorphosed. Characters unduly exalted or defamed by party spirit are daily being set before us in their true, or at least in a truer, light. What Mr. Froude has done for Henry VIII. we know; and he might have done more if he had not tried to do so much. Humpbacked Richard turns out to have been one of the handsomest kings that ever sat on the throne of England. Edward I., in his dealings with Scotland, is seen to have been scrupulously just; while the dignity of the patriot hero Wallace has been somewhat impaired. Elizabeth is proved to have befriended the false Mary Stuart much longer than was consistent with her personal safety. Eloquent Cicero has been held up as an object of contempt; and even weighty Tacitus has been said to owe much of his reputation to his ability to give false testimony with a grave face. It has lately been suspected that gloomy Tiberius, apart from his gloominess, may have been rather a good fellow; not so licentious as puritanical, not cruel so much as exceptionally merciful — a rare general, a sagacious statesman, and popular to boot with all his subjects save the malignant oligarchy which he consistently snubbed, and which took revenge on him by writing his life. And, to crown all, even Catiline, abuser of our patience, seducer of vestal nuns, and drinker of children’s blood — whose very name suggests murder, incest, and robbery — even Catiline has found an able defender in Professor Beesly. It is claimed that Catiline was a man of great abilities and average good character, a well-calumniated leader of the Marian party which Caesar afterwards led to victory, and that his famous plot for burning Rome never existed save in the unscrupulous Ciceronian fancy. And those who think it easy to refute these conclusions of Professor Beesly had better set to work and try it. Such are a few of the surprising questions opened by recent historical research; and in the face of them the public is quite excusable if it declares itself at a loss what to believe.

These, however, are cases in which criticism has at least made some show of ascertaining the truth and detecting the causes of the prevalent misconception. That men like Catiline and Tiberius should have had their characters blackened is quite easily explicable. President Johnson would have little better chance of obtaining justice at the hands of posterity, if the most widely read history of his administration should happen to be written by a radical member of the Rump Congress. But the cases which Mr. Delepierre invites us to contemplate are of a different character. They come neither under the head of myths nor under that of misrepresentations. Some of them are truly vexed questions which it may perhaps always be impossible satisfactorily to solve. Others may be dealt with more easily, but afford no clew to the origin of the popularly received error. Let us briefly examine a few of Mr. Delepierre’s “difficulties.” And first, because simplest, we will take the case of the Alexandrian Library.

Every one has heard how Amrou, after his conquest of Egypt, sent to Caliph Omar to know what should be done with the Alexandrian Library. “If the books agree with the Koran,” said the Caliph, “they are superfluous; if they contradict it, they are damnable; in either case, destroy them.” So the books were taken and used to light the fires which heated water for the baths; and so vast was the number that, used in this way, they lasted six months! All this happened because John the Grammarian was over-anxious enough to request that the books might be preserved, and thus drew Amrou’s attention to them. Great has been the obloquy poured upon Omar for this piece of vandalism, and loud has been the mourning over the treasures of ancient science and literature supposed to have been irrecoverably lost in this ignominious conflagration Theologians, Catholic and Protestant, have been fond of quoting it as an instance of the hostility of Mahometanism to knowledge, and we have even heard an edifying sermon preached about it. On seeing the story put to such uses, one feels sometimes like using the ad hominem argument, and quoting the wholesale destruction of pagan libraries under Valens, the burning of books by the Latin stormers of Constantinople, the alleged annihilation of 100,000 volumes by Genoese crusaders at Tripoli, the book-burning exploits of Torquemada, the bonfire of 80,000 valuable Arabic manuscripts, lighted up in the square of Granada by order of Cardinal Ximenes, and the irreparable cremation of Aztec writings by the first Christian bishops of Mexico. These examples, with perhaps others which do not now occur to us, might be applied in just though ungentle retort by Mahometan doctors. Yet the most direct rejoinder would probably not occur to them: the Alexandrian Library was NOT destroyed by the orders of Omar, and the whole story is a figment!

The very pithiness of it, so characteristic of the excellent but bigoted Omar, is enough to cast suspicion upon it. De Quincey tells us that “if a saying has a proverbial fame, the probability is that it was never said.” How many amusing stories stand a chance of going down to posterity as the inventions of President Lincoln, of which, nevertheless, he is doubtless wholly innocent! How characteristic was Caesar’s reply to the frightened pilot! Yet in all probability Caesar never made it.

Now for the evidence. Alexandria was captured by Armrou in 640. The story of the burning of the library occurs for the first time in the works of Abulpharagius, who flourished in 1264. Six hundred years had elapsed. It is as if a story about the crusades of Louis IX. were to be found for the first time in the writings of Mr. Bancroft. The Byzantine historians were furiously angry with the Saracens; why did they, one and all, neglect to mention such an outrageous piece of vandalism? Their silence must be considered quite conclusive. Moreover we know “that the caliphs had forbidden under severe penalties the destruction” of Jewish and Christian books, a circumstance wholly inconsistent with this famous story. And finally, what a mediaeval recklessness of dates is shown in lugging into the story John the Grammarian, who was dead and in his grave when Alexandria was taken by Amrou!

But the chief item of proof remains to be mentioned. The Saracens did not burn the library, because there was no library there for them to burn! It had been destroyed just two hundred and fifty years before by a rabble of monks, incited by the patriarch Theophilus, who saw in such a vast collection of pagan literature a perpetual insult and menace to religion. In the year 390 this turbulent bigot sacked the temple of Serapis, where the books were kept, and drove out the philosophers who lodged there. Of this violent deed we have contemporary evidence, for Orosius tells us that less than fifteen years afterwards, while passing through Alexandria, he saw the empty shelves. This fact disposes of the story.

Passing from Egypt to France, and from the seventh century to the fifteenth, we meet with a much more difficult problem. That Jeanne d’Arc was burnt at the stake, at Rouen, on the 30th of May, 1431, and her bones and ashes thrown into the Seine, is generally supposed to be as indisputable as any event in modern history. Such is, however, hardly the case. Plausible evidence has been brought to prove that Jeanne d’Arc was never burnt at the stake, but lived to a ripe age, and was even happily married to a nobleman of high rank and reputation. We shall abridge Mr. Delepierre’s statement of this curious case.

In the archives of Metz, Father Vignier discovered the following remarkable entry: “In the year 1436, Messire Phlin Marcou was Sheriff of Metz, and on the 20th day of May of the aforesaid year came the maid Jeanne, who had been in France, to La Grange of Ormes, near St. Prive, and was taken there to confer with any one of the sieurs of Metz, and she called herself Claude; and on the same day there came to see her there her two brothers, one of whom was a knight, and was called Messire Pierre, and the other ‘petit Jehan,’ a squire, and they thought that she had been burnt, but as soon as they saw her they recognized her and she them. And on Monday, the 21st day of the said month, they took their sister with them to Boquelon, and the sieur Nicole, being a knight, gave her a stout stallion of the value of thirty francs, and a pair of saddle-cloths; the sieur Aubert Boulle, a riding-hood, the sieur Nicole Groguet, a sword; and the said maiden mounted the said horse nimbly, and said several things to the sieur Nicole by which he well understood that it was she who had been in France; and she was recognized by many tokens to be the maid Jeanne of France who escorted King Charles to Rheims, and several declared that she had been burnt in Normandy, and she spoke mostly in parables. She afterwards returned to the town of Marnelle for the feast of Pentecost, and remained there about three weeks, and then set off to go to Notre Dame d’Alliance. And when she wished to leave, several of Metz went to see her at the said Marnelle and gave her several jewels, and they knew well that she was the maid Jeanne of France; and she then went to Erlon, in the Duchy of Luxembourg, where she was thronged,. . . . and there was solemnized the marriage of Monsieur de Hermoise, knight, and the said maid Jeanne, and afterwards the said sieur Hermoise, with his wife, the Maid, came to live at Metz, in the house the said sieur had, opposite St. Seglenne, and remained there until it pleased them to depart.”

This is surprising enough; but more remains behind. Dining shortly afterwards with M. des Armoises, member of one of the oldest families in Lorraine, Father Vignier was invited to look over the family archives, that he might satisfy his curiosity regarding certain ancestors of his host. And on looking over the family register, what was his astonishment at finding a contract of marriage between Robert des Armoises, Knight, and Jeanne d’Arcy, the so-called Maid of Orleans!

In 1740, some time after these occurrences, there was found, in the town hall of Orleans, a bill of one Jacques l’Argentier, of the year 1436, in which mention is made of a small sum paid for refreshments furnished to a messenger who had brought letters from the Maid of Orleans, and of twelve livres given to Jean du Lis, brother of Jeanne d’Arc, to help him pay the expenses of his journey back to his sister. Then come two charges which we shall translate literally. “To the sieur de Lis, 18th October, 1436, for a journey which he made through the said city while on his way to the Maid, who was then at Erlon in Luxembourg, and for carrying letters from Jeanne the Maid to the King at Loicher, where he was then staying, six livres.” And again: “To Renard Brune, 25th July, 1435, at evening, for paying the hire of a messenger who was carrying letters from Jeanne the Maid, and was on his way to William Beliers, bailiff of Troyes, two livres.”

As no doubt has been thrown upon the genuineness of these documents, it must be considered established that in 1436, five years after the public execution at Rouen, a young woman, believed to be the real Jeanne d’Arc, was alive in Lorraine and was married to a M. Hermoises or Armoises. She may, of course, have been an impostor; but in this case it is difficult to believe that her brothers, Jean and Pierre, and the people of Lorraine, where she was well known, would not have detected the imposture at once. And that Jean du Lis, during a familiar intercourse of at least several months, as indicated in the above extracts, should have continued to mistake a stranger for his own sister, with whom he had lived from childhood, seems a very absurd supposition. Nor is it likely that an impostor would have exposed herself to such a formidable test. If it had been a bold charlatan who, taking advantage of the quite general belief, to which we have ample testimony, that there was something more in the execution at Rouen than was allowed to come to the surface, had resolved to usurp for herself the honours due to the woman who had saved France, she would hardly have gone at the outset to a part of the country where the real Maid had spent nearly all her life. Her instant detection and exposure, perhaps a disgraceful punishment, would have been inevitable. But if this person were the real Jeanne, escaped from prison or returning from an exile dictated by prudence, what should she have done but go straightway to the haunts of her childhood, where she might meet once more her own friends and family?

But the account does not end here. M. Wallon, in his elaborate history of Jeanne d’Arc, states that in 1436 the supposed Maid visited France, and appears to have met some of the men-at-arms with whom she had fought. In 1439 she came to Orleans, for in the accounts of the town we read, “July 28, for ten pints of wine presented to Jeanne des Armoises, 14 sous.” And on the day of her departure, the citizens of Orleans, by a special decree of the town-council, presented her with 210 livres, “for the services which she had rendered to the said city during the siege.” At the same time the annual ceremonies for the repose of her soul were, quite naturally, suppressed. Now we may ask if it is at all probable that the people of Orleans, who, ten years before, during the siege, must have seen the Maid day after day, and to whom her whole appearance must have been perfectly familiar, would have been likely to show such attentions as these to an impostor? “In 1440,” says Mr. Delepierre, “the people so firmly believed that Jeanne d’Arc was still alive, and that another had been sacrificed in her place, that an adventuress who endeavoured to pass herself off as the Maid of Orleans was ordered by the government to be exposed before the public on the marble stone of the palace hall, in order to prove that she was an impostor. Why were not such measures taken against the real Maid of Orleans, who is mentioned in so many public documents, and who took no pains to hide herself?”

There is yet another document bearing on this case, drawn from the accounts of the auditor of the Orleans estate, in the year 1444, which we will here translate. “An island on the River Loire is restored to Pierre du Lis, knight, ‘on account of the supplication of the said Pierre, alleging that for the acquittal of his debt of loyalty toward our Lord the King and M. the Duke of Orleans, he left his country to come to the service of the King and M. the Duke, accompanied by his sister, Jeanne the Maid, with whom, down to the time of her departure, and since, unto the present time, he has exposed his body and goods in the said service, and in the King’s wars, both in resisting the former enemies of the kingdom who were besieging the town of Orleans, and since then in divers enterprises,’ &c., &c.” Upon this Mr. Delepierre justly remarks that the brother might have presented his claims in a much stronger light, “if in 1444,” instead of saying ‘up to the time of her departure,’ he had brought forward the martyrdom of his sister, as having been the means of saving France from the yoke of England.” The expression here cited and italicized in the above translation, may indeed be held to refer delicately to her death, but the particular French phrase employed, “jusques a son absentement,” apparently excludes such an interpretation. The expression, on the other hand, might well refer to Jeanne’s departure for Lorraine, and her marriage, after which there is no evidence that she returned to France, except for brief visits. Thus a notable amount of evidence goes to show that Jeanne was not put to death in 1431, as usually supposed, but was alive, married, and flourishing in 1444. Upon this supposition, certain alleged difficulties in the traditional account are easily disposed of. Mr. Delepierre urges upon the testimony of Perceval de Cagny, that at the execution in Rouen “the victim’s face was covered when walking to the stake, while at the same time a spot had been chosen for the execution that permitted the populace to have a good view. Why this contradiction? A place is chosen to enable the people to see everything, but the victim is carefully hidden from their sight.” Whether otherwise explicable or not, this fact is certainly consistent with the hypothesis that some other victim was secretly substituted for Jeanne by the English authorities.

We have thus far contented ourselves with presenting and re-enforcing Mr. Delepierre’s statement of the case. It is now time to interpose a little criticism. We must examine our data somewhat more closely, for vagueness of conception allows a latitude to belief which accuracy of conception considerably restricts.

On the hypothesis of her survival, where was Jeanne, and what was she doing all the time from her capture before Compiegne, May 24, 1430, until her appearance at Metz, May 20, 1436? Mr. Delepierre reminds us that the Duke of Bedford, regent of France for the English king, died in 1435, and “that most probably Jeanne d’Arc was released from prison after this event.” Now this supposition lands us in a fatally absurd conclusion. We are, in fact, asked to believe that the English, while holding Jeanne fast in their clutches, gratuitously went through the horrid farce of burning some one else in her stead; and that, after having thus inexplicably behaved, they further stultified themselves by letting her go scot-free, that their foolishness might be duly exposed and confuted. Such a theory is childish. If Jeanne d’Arc ever survived the 30th May, 1431, it was because she escaped from prison and succeeded in hiding herself until safer times. When could she have done this? In a sortie from Compiegne, May 24, 1430, she was thrown from her horse by a Picard archer and taken prisoner by the Bastard of Vendome, who sold her to John of Luxembourg. John kept her in close custody at Beaulieu until August. While there, she made two attempts to escape; first, apparently, by running out through a door, when she was at once caught by the guards; secondly, by jumping from a high window, when the shock of the fall was so great that she lay insensible on the ground until discovered. She was then removed to Beaurevoir, where she remained until the beginning of November. By this time, Philip “the Good,” Duke of Burgundy, had made up his mind to sell her to the English for 10,000 francs; and Jeanne was accordingly taken to Arras, and thence to Cotoy, where she was delivered to the English by Philip’s officers. So far, all is clear; but here it may be asked, WAS she really delivered to the English, or did Philip, pocketing his 10,000 francs, cheat and defraud his allies with a counterfeit Jeanne? Such crooked dealing would have been in perfect keeping with his character. Though a far more agreeable and gentlemanly person, he was almost as consummate and artistic a rascal as his great-great-great-grandson and namesake, Philip II. of Spain. His duplicity was so unfathomable and his policy so obscure, that it would be hardly safe to affirm a priori that he might not, for reasons best known to himself, have played a double game with his friend the Duke of Bedford. On this hypothesis, he would of course keep Jeanne in close custody so long as there was any reason for keeping his treachery secret. But in 1436, after the death of Bedford and the final expulsion of the English from France, no harm could come from setting her at liberty.

But as soon as we cease to reason a priori, this is seen to be, after all, a lame hypothesis. No one can read the trial of Jeanne at Rouen, the questions that were put to her and the answers which she made, without being convinced that we are here dealing with the genuine Maid and not with a substitute. The first step of a counterfeit Jeanne would have naturally been to save herself from the flames by revealing her true character. Moreover, among the multitudes who saw her during her cruel trial, it is not likely that none were acquainted with the true Jeanne’s voice and features. We must therefore conclude that Jeanne d’Arc was really consigned to the tender mercies of the English. About the 21st of November she was taken on horseback, strongly guarded, from Cotoy to Rouen, where the trial began January 9, 1431. On the 21st of February she appeared before the court; on the 13th of March she was examined in the prison by an inquisitor; and on May 24, the Thursday after Pentecost, upon a scaffold conspicuously placed in the Cemetery of St. Ouen, she publicly recanted, abjuring her “heresies” and asking the Church’s pardon for her “witchcraft.” We may be sure that the Church dignitaries would not knowingly have made such public display of a counterfeit Jeanne; nor could they well have been deceived themselves under such circumstances. It may indeed be said, to exhaust all possible suppositions, that a young girl wonderfully similar in feature and voice to Jeanne d’Arc was palmed off upon the English by Duke Philip, and afterwards, on her trial, comported herself like the Maid, trusting in this recantation to effect her release. But we consider such an hypothesis extremely far-fetched, nor does it accord with the events which immediately followed. It seems hardly questionable that it was the real Jeanne who publicly recanted on the 24th of May. This was only six days before the execution. Four days after, on Monday the 28th, it was reported that Jeanne had relapsed, that she had, in defiance of the Church’s prohibition, clothed herself in male attire, which had been left in a convenient place by the authorities, expressly to test her sincerity. On the next day but one, the woman purporting to be the Maid of Orleans was led out, with her face carefully covered, and burnt at the stake.

Here is the first combination of circumstances which bears a suspicious look. It disposes of our Burgundy hypothesis, for a false Jeanne, after recanting to secure her safety, would never have stultified herself by such a barefaced relapse. But the true Jeanne, after recanting, might certainly have escaped. Some compassionate guard, who before would have scrupled to assist her while under the ban of the Church, might have deemed himself excusable for lending her his aid after she had been absolved. Postulating, then, that Jeanne escaped from Rouen between the 24th and the 28th, how shall we explain what happened immediately afterward?

The English feared Jeanne d’Arc as much as they hated her. She had, by her mere presence at the head of the French army, turned their apparent triumph into ignominious defeat. In those days the true psychological explanation of such an event was by no means obvious. While the French attributed the result to celestial interposition in their behalf, the English, equally ready to admit its supernatural character, considered the powers of hell rather than those of heaven to have been the prime instigators. In their eyes Jeanne was a witch, and it was at least their cue to exhibit her as such. They might have put her to death when she first reached Rouen. Some persons, indeed, went so far as to advise that she should be sewed up in a sack and thrown at once into the Seine; but this was not what the authorities wanted. The whole elaborate trial, and the extorted recantation, were devised for the purpose of demonstrating her to be a witch, and thus destroying her credit with the common people. That they intended afterwards to burn her cannot for an instant be doubted; that was the only fit consummation for their evil work.

Now when, at the end of the week after Pentecost, the bishops and inquisitors at Rouen learned, to their dismay, that their victim had escaped, what were they to do? Confess that they had been foiled, and create a panic in the army by the news that their dreaded enemy was at liberty? Or boldly carry out their purposes by a fictitious execution, trusting in the authority which official statements always carry, and shrewdly foreseeing that, after her recantation, the disgraced Maid would no more venture to claim for herself the leadership of the French forces? Clearly, the latter would have been the wiser course. We may assume, then, that, by the afternoon of the 28th, the story of the relapse was promulgated, as a suitable preparation for what was to come; and that on the 30th the poor creature who had been hastily chosen to figure as the condemned Maid was led out, with face closely veiled, to perish by a slow fire in the old market-place. Meanwhile the true Jeanne would have made her way, doubtless, in what to her was the effectual disguise of a woman’s apparel, to some obscure place of safety, outside of doubtful France and treacherous Burgundy, perhaps in Alsace or the Vosges. Here she would remain, until the final expulsion of the English and the conclusion of a treaty of peace in 1436 made it safe for her to show herself; when she would naturally return to Lorraine to seek her family.

The comparative obscurity in which she must have remained for the rest of her life, otherwise quite inexplicable on any hypothesis of her survival, is in harmony with the above-given explanation. The ingratitude of King Charles towards the heroine who had won him his crown is the subject of common historical remark. M. Wallon insists upon the circumstance that, after her capture at Compiegne, no attempts were made by the French Court to ransom her or to liberate her by a bold coup de main. And when, at Rouen, she appealed in the name of the Church to the Pope to grant her a fair trial, not a single letter was written by the Archbishop of Rheims, High Chancellor of France, to his suffragan, the Bishop of Beauvais, demanding cognizance of the proceedings. Nor did the King make any appeal to the Pope, to prevent the consummation of the judicial murder. The Maid was deliberately left to her fate. It is upon her enemies at court, La Tremouille and Regnault de Chartres, that we must lay part of the blame for this wicked negligence. But it is also probable that the King, and especially his clerical advisers, were at times almost disposed to acquiesce in the theory of Jeanne’s witchcraft. Admire her as they might, they could not help feeling that in her whole behaviour there was something uncanny; and, after having reaped the benefits of her assistance, they were content to let her shift for herself. This affords the clew to the King’s inconsistencies. It may be thought sufficient to explain the fact that Jeanne is said to have received public testimonials at Orleans, while we have no reason to suppose that she visited Paris. It may help to dispose of the objection that she virtually disappears from history after the date of the tragedy at Rouen.

Nevertheless, this last objection is a weighty one, and cannot easily be got rid of. It appears to me utterly incredible that, if Jeanne d’Arc had really survived, we should find no further mention of her than such as haply occurs in one or two town-records and dilapidated account-books. If she was alive in 1436, and corresponding with the King, some of her friends at court must have got an inkling of the true state of things. Why did they not parade their knowledge, to the manifest discomfiture of La Tremouille and his company? Or why did not Pierre du Lis cause it to be proclaimed that the English were liars, his sister being safely housed in Metz?

In the mere interests of historical criticism, we have said all that we could in behalf of Mr. Delepierre’s hypothesis. But as to the facts upon which it rests, we may remark, in the first place, that the surname Arc or “Bow” was not uncommon in those days, while the Christian name Jeanne was and now is the very commonest of French names. There might have been a hundred Jeanne d’Arcs, all definable as pucelle or maid, just as we say “spinster”: we even read of one in the time of the Revolution. We have, therefore, no doubt that Robert des Hermoises married a Jeanne d’Arc, who may also have been a maid of Orleans; but this does not prove her to have been the historic Jeanne. Secondly, as to the covering of the face, we may mention the fact, hitherto withheld, that it was by no means an uncommon circumstance: the victims of the Spanish Inquisition were usually led to the stake with veiled faces. Thirdly, the phrase “jusques a son absentement” is hopelessly ambiguous, and may as well refer to Pierre du Lis himself as to his sister.

These brief considerations seem to knock away all the main props of Mr. Delepierre’s hypothesis, save that furnished by the apparent testimony of Jeanne’s brothers, given at second hand in the Metz archives. And those who are familiar with the phenomena of mediaeval delusions will be unwilling to draw too hasty an inference from this alone. From the Emperor Nero to Don Sebastian of Portugal, there have been many instances of the supposed reappearance of persons generally believed to be dead. For my own part, therefore, I am by no means inclined to adopt the hypothesis of Jeanne’s survival, although I have endeavoured to give it tangible shape and plausible consistency. But the fact that so much can be said in behalf of a theory running counter not only to universal tradition, but also to such a vast body of contemporaneous testimony, should teach us to be circumspect in holding our opinions, and charitable in our treatment of those who dissent from them. For those who can discover in the historian Renan and the critic Strauss nothing but the malevolence of incredulity, the case of Jeanne d’Arc, duly contemplated, may serve as a wholesome lesson.

We have devoted so much space to this problem, by far the most considerable of those treated in Mr. Delepierre’s book, that we have hardly room for any of the others. But a false legend concerning Solomon de Caus, the supposed original inventor of the steam-engine, is so instructive that we must give a brief account of it.

In 1834 “there appeared in the Musee des Familles a letter from the celebrated Marion Delorme, supposed to have been written on the 3d February, 1641, to her lover Cinq-Mars.” In this letter it is stated that De Caus came four years ago 1637 from Normandy, to inform the King concerning a marvellous invention which he had made, being nothing less than the application of steam to the propulsion of carriages. “The Cardinal [Richelieu] dismissed this fool without giving him a hearing.” But De Caus, nowise discouraged, followed close upon the autocrat’s heels wherever he went, and so teased him, that the Cardinal, out of patience, sent him off to a madhouse, where he passed the remainder of his days behind a grated window, proclaiming his invention to the passengers in the street, and calling upon them to release him. Marion gives a graphic account of her visit, accompanied by the famous Lord Worcester, to the asylum at Bicetre, where they saw De Caus at his window; and Worcester, in whose mind the conception of the steam-engine was already taking shape, informed her that the raving prisoner was not a madman, but a genius. A great stir was made by this letter. The anecdote was copied into standard works, and represented in engravings. Yet it was a complete hoax. De Caus was not only never confined in a madhouse, but he was architect to Louis XIII. up to the time of his death, in 1630, just eleven years BEFORE Marion Delorme was said to have seen him at his grated window!

“On tracing this hoax to its source,” says Mr. Delepierre, “we find that M. Henri Berthoud, a literary man of some repute, and a constant contributor to the Musee des Familles, confesses that the letter attributed to Marion was in fact written by himself. The editor of this journal had requested Gavarni to furnish him with a drawing for a tale in which a madman was introduced looking through the bars of his cell. The drawing was executed and engraved, but arrived too late; and the tale, which could not wait, appeared without the illustration. However, as the wood-engraving was effective, and, moreover, was paid for, the editor was unwilling that it should be useless. Berthoud was, therefore, commissioned to look for a subject and to invent a story to which the engraving might be applied. Strangely enough, the world refused to believe in M. Berthoud’s confession, so great a hold had the anecdote taken on the public mind; and a Paris newspaper went so far even as to declare that the original autograph of this letter was to be seen in a library in Normandy! M. Berthoud wrote again, denying its existence, and offered a million francs to any one who would produce the said letter.”

From this we may learn two lessons, the first being that utterly baseless but plausible stories may arise in queer ways. In the above case, the most far-fetched hypothesis to account for the origin of the legend could hardly have been as apparently improbable as the reality. Secondly, we may learn that if a myth once gets into the popular mind, it is next to impossible to get it out again. In the Castle of Heidelberg there is a portrait of De Caus, and a folio volume of his works, accompanied by a note, in which this letter of Marion Delorme is unsuspectingly cited as genuine. And only three years ago, at a public banquet at Limoges, a well-known French Senator and man of letters made a speech, in which he retailed the story of the madhouse for the edification of his hearers. Truly a popular error has as many lives as a cat; it comes walking in long after you have imagined it effectually strangled.

In conclusion, we may remark that Mr. Delepierre does very scant justice to many of the interesting questions which he discusses. It is to be regretted that he has not thought it worth while to argue his points more thoroughly, and that he has not been more careful in making statements of fact. He sometimes makes strange blunders, the worst of which, perhaps, is contained in his article on Petrarch and Laura. He thinks Laura was merely a poetical allegory, and such was the case, he goes on to say, “with Dante himself, whose Beatrice was a child who died at nine years of age.” Dante’s Beatrice died on the 9th of June, 1290, at the age of twenty-four, having been the wife of Simone dei Bardi rather more than three years.

October, 1868.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54