France Beneath the Wars



THE religion whose varieties gave specious excuses for so many wars was beginning to suffer from its political employment; there was a growing number of men who questioned the divinity of doctrines that argued by the competitive shedding of blood; and in the upper classes doubts of the Christian ethic began to mingle with skepticism of the creed. It was a sign of the times when a good priest, Pierre Charron, explained the respectability of sex and its absurd apparatus.1

The peasants retained their faith, and honored the Christian code even when violating it; they might kill one another in passing ecstasy, they might diverge from monogamy when opportunity called and surveillance slept, but otherwise they led a tolerably decent life, heard Mass regularly, and, at least once a year, consumed the body and the blood of the Lord. The middle classes—Catholic or Huguenot—gave the best example of Christian morality: they dressed modestly, married once, attended to their business and their children, went to church, and gave the state its priests, physicians, lawyers, magistrates, and stability. Even in the aristocracy there were exemplary women; Charles IX called his wife, Elizabeth of Austria, the most virtuous woman in the world. But generally, in the leisure classes of the capital and in the artisans of the towns, erotic matters were getting out of hand. It was an age of frankly physical drive. Something of the platonic love that had amused Bembo and Castiglione in Italy and Marguerite of Navarre in France survived in the circle of Mme. de Rambouillet (herself an Italian), but it was mostly a feminine device, a resistance in depth to glorify the citadel.

So far as we know, Catherine de Médicis was a faithful wife and solicitous mother, but gossip accused her of training pretty women to seduce her enemies into obedience,2 and Jeanne d’Albret (something of a prude) described Catherine’s court as “the most corrupt and accursed society that ever was.”3 Brantôme was a scandalmonger, but his testimony should enter the picture:

As for our fair women of France … they have in the last fifty years learned so much gentleness and delicacy, so much attraction and charm in their clothes, in their fair looks and wanton ways … that now none can deny that they surpass all other women in every respect…. Moreover, the wanton language of love is in France more wanton, more exciting and sweeter-sounding, than in other tongues. And more than all, this blessed liberty which we have in France … renders our women more desirable and captivating, more tractable and easy of access than all others; and further, adultery is not so generally punished as in other lands … In a word, it is good to make love in France.4

The kings set the fashion. Francis II died too soon for sinning. Charles IX had his Marie Touchet. Henry III passed from mignonettes to mignons. Henry IV was faithfully heterosexual. Neither he nor his mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées seems to have objected to her being portrayed naked to the waist.5 When his daughter Henrietta Maria of France, aged seventeen, married Charles I, she had had so many liaisons that her confessor advised her to take the Magdalen as her model and England as her penance.6

Even so, the complaisance of the women lagged behind the eagerness of the men, and prostitutes labored to meet the swelling demand. Paris recognized three types: the chèvre coiffée (she-goat with a hairdo) for the court, the petrel (chattering bird) for the bourgeoisie, and the pierreuse, who served the poor and lived in a stone basement. There were educated tarts for aristocrats, like Marion Delorme, who, dying, confessed ten times, since after each shriving she reminded herself of untold sins.7 Charles IX and Henry III issued edicts outlawing brothels, and an ordinance of Louis XIII (1635) required that all detected prostitutes should be “whipped, shaved, and banished,” and that all men concerned in the traffic should be sent to the galleys for life.8 Several men, including Montaigne and a Huguenot clergyman, protested against such measures, and advocated the legalization of brothels in the interest of public morals.9 These laws remained on the statute books till the late eighteenth century, but were seldom enforced. Other decress fought in vain against nature’s perversions and vagaries; Montaigne tells of a girl who at twenty-two was changed into a man.10 Obscene literature found a ready market, and print-shop windows displayed erotic pictures without incurring any now known interference.

Social and political morality suffered from the wars. The sale of public offices was extended to a nearly universal venality. The financial administration, before Sully cleansed it, was corrupt to the point of chaos.11 War was not as indiscriminately devastating as it was soon to be under Louis XIV; yet we hear of armies, Huguenot as well as Catholic, engaging in wholesale massacre, pillage, and rape, stringing citizens up by the thumbs, or kindling a fire under their feet, to extort hidden gold. Dueling became more frequent in the sixteenth century, perhaps because the sword became a regular part of male dress. It was forbidden by Charles IX, under the urging of Michel de L’Hôpital, but it became almost an epidemic under Henry III; seconds as well as principals were expected to fight; duels, said Montaigne, were now battles. Richelieu’s edict against dueling differed from its predecessors in being vigorously and impartially enforced. After his death the practice revived.

Crime was frequent. Nocturnal Paris was mostly unlit; robbery and murder flourished; violent brawls disordered the streets, and travel in the countryside endangered life as well as limb. Penalties were barbarous; we are not sure that they were effective deterrents, but probably crime would have been still worse without them. Imprisonment was genteel for gentlemen; aristocrats sent to the Bastille could pay for comfortable quarters equipped with their own furniture and wives. Common criminals might be sent to stifling dungeons or be deported to colonies or condemned to the galleys. Traces of this last penalty go back to 1532, but its earliest known enactment in French law belongs to 1561. The galériens were usually sentenced for ten years; the letters GAL were branded on their backs. In winter they remained in their docked galleys or were herded into prisons, chiefly at Toulon or Marseille. During the Religious Wars many captured Huguenots were sentenced to the galleys, where they received such brutal treatment that death must have seemed a boon. Epidemics of suicide broke out in those bitter decades, above all among the women of Lyon and Marseille.

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