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Queen Jeanne and the Promised Land: Dynasty, Homeland, Religion and Violence in Sixteenth-Century France.

David M. Bryson, Queen Jeanne and the Promised Land: Dynasty, Homeland, Religion and Violence in Sixteenth-Century France

(Brill's Studies in Intellectual History, 97.) Leiden: Brill, 1999. xiv + 2 pls. + 385 pp. ISBN: 90-04-11378-9.

This innovative and scholarly book about Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre and mother of Henri IV, is not a biography in the usual sense but concentrates on two issues that the author claims are neglected in the late Nancy Lyman Roelker's Queen of Navarre: Jeanne d'Albret, 1528-1572 (1968) -- rather slightingly described as "a psychological interpretation" (69). These two issues are Jeanne's idee fixe about making southwest France a Protestant homeland, and her role as a militant leader of the Calvinist cause in the last years of her life, especially during the third religious war of 1568-1570.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, entitled "The Promised Land," deals with the historical background to Guyenne and its associated provinces; the manner in which the Albret dynasty acquired its lands, titles and political authority in the region; and the spread of Protestantism there, including Jeanne's own evangelization. Part 2 (Exodus) concerns her political and religious role in the years 1561-1568, stressing her rule as sole sovereign of Navarre and Bearn after the death of her husband, Antoine de Bourbon, in November 1562, and her flight from her own lands to La Rochelle in September 1568. The final part (Sanctuary) follows her direction of the Calvinist cause from the death of her husband's brother, Louis de Conde, in March 1569, through the uneasy peace of Saint-Germain seventeen months later, to her own death after negotiating with Catherine de Medicis the marriage of her son to the queen mother's daughter, "la Reine Margot," a few weeks before the massacre of St. Bartholomew.

Bryson rejects the picture of the queen as "the caring, nurturing mother of Heny IV, creator of a united nation of France" (82-83) presented by Yves Cazaux and others. Instead, he suggests "a harder image of a militant Queen Jeanne ... whose dedication to the Reformed cause [after the death of Antoine] became determined to the point of fanaticism" (308-09). This view, as Bryson is well aware, raises the problem of reconciling her intense faith with the need to dissimulate and conciliate in political negotiation. His interpretation is not as different as he at times implies from Roelker's, who certainly stresses Jeanne's maternal role but also describes her as suspicious and audacious, dissimulating and aggressive by turns. Nevertheless, Bryson frequently criticizes Roelker's lack of attention to detail, and accuses her of mistranslating passages in Jeanne's correspondence, distorting context by partial quotation, mistaking dates, and confusing scholarly references.

Much of the evidence for the "hard" image is derived from the correspondence with the Vicomte de Gourdon, which proponents of the "soft" version reject as forgeries, but which both Bryson and Roelker cautiously accept as genuine. These letters were collected by a certain Dr. Valiant in the seventeenth century and subsequently copied. In an appendix, and on numerous occasions throughout the book, Bryson debates the issue of authenticity. He points out, as others have failed to do, that after the death of the elder Gourdon in 1559 Jeanne's letters were addressed to his son and successor, and also that the queen's own son continued the correspondence until 1605. The letters contain errors of fact and dating, but Roelker and Bryson conclude that these are the mistakes or embellishments of the copyist. Since doubt remains, Bryson provides unexpurgated versions of the letters he considers relevant, and, arguing that his inferences are supported by other evidence, encourages the reader to reach his or her own concl usions.

One example that is not provided in the appendix raises doubts, at least in the mind of this reader. A letter quoted in part by both Bryson and Roelker and dated January 10, 1557, refers to peace negotiations between Henri II of France and the Emperor Charles V. If this remark refers to the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, for which negotiations began in the fall of 1558, Charles V could not have been involved, having abdicated two years earlier and being at the time on his deathbed. Roelker, it may be noted, suggests that the letter was written in the summer or autumn of 1558, and makes sense of the passage by substituting "Spain" for "Charles" in her translation. If the letter is genuine and the context fits, it could have been written at the start of 1556, when Charles V was negotiating the treaty of Vaucelles and handing over the crown of Spain to his son, Philip II. Bryson argues elsewhere that the repetition of phrases from the Valiant letters in other correspondence and propaganda published by the queen su pports authenticity, but a skilful forger might have used available contemporary material to lend credibility to his work. The author stares that "the strongest arguments for forgery can be shown to be invalid" (308). He might have done better to pay more heed to his own warning.

Even if the Gourdon letters cannot be trusted, Bryson's themes are convincing. He makes excellent use of contemporary Huguenot analogies with the Old Testament, such as the chosen people, the promised land, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the city of refuge. One may doubt whether the campaign of Jeanne's captain Montgomery and his army of the Viscounts to recover Bearn in the second half of 1569 was really inspired by Judges 11.18 (going round "the land of Moab," i.e., lower Guyenne, 229), but the account of this episode is masterly. The climax of the book follows when, after the defeat of the northern Huguenot army at Moncontour, its commander, Gaspard de Coligny, marched south to link up with the Viscounts, and would have taken Bordeaux had not his bridge of boats across the Garonne been broken. Thereafter, Coligny's journey to the Mediterranean and his move northwards to defeat the royal army at Arnay-le-Duc represents a departure from Jeanne's strategy of creating a bastion in the west. However, the que en returned to her policy by attempting to persuade Catherine de Medicis to convert Henri de Navarre's governorship of Guyenne into an apanage as a part of the marriage settlement. In this she failed but, as Bryson points out, even if she had succeeded, her son's policies when he became king of France would have invalidated her hopes of creating the promised land.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:SALMON, J.H.M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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