Catherine de Medici by Balzac

“Hers was virile power, dishonoured neither by the terrible amours of Isabella nor by those, even more terrible, though less known of Marie de’ Medici.”

Given Balzac’s fascination with women, I’m not too surprised that he wrote about  Catherine de Medici. I was surprised, however, to find that some of this piece is more or less an apologia. Given her nicknames were Madame Snake (Serpent), the Black Queen and Jezebel (I’d argue that the latter was ill-deserved), I expected some really juicy scenes involving Catherine–perhaps one scene of her peering through one of the peepholes she had made  as she spied on her wandering hubbie spending an amorous moment with his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Or perhaps a scene of Catherine organising the delivery of poison to one of her enemies. And then there are also infinite possibilities with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Instead, Balzac seems to admire Catherine, and while there’s no argument that she was an incredibly strong woman, as a human being, she left a lot to be desired.

According to Balzac’s biographer, André Maurois, “after the 1830 revolution,” Balzac essentially believed in a strong monarch and that “absolute rule by a legitimate monarch was the best system of government.” But Balzac was a complex man, and he also admired Napoleon:

A man who is depicted with his arms folded, but who did everything! The greatest power ever known, the most concentrated, the most incisive, the most astringent of all powers. … A man who could do everything because he willed everything … arbitrary or just, as the case demanded–the true king!

Balzac seems to be saying that a king’s legitimacy is found in the raw material that makes the man or in the case of Catherine de Medici–the woman. Was the raw material in Catherine de Medici good or bad? Is it possible to be a ‘good’ king or queen (whatever that means) and still be a horrible human being? These days kings and queens are expensive, high-maintenance puppets whose continued justification seems rooted in tradition and tourism, but back in Catherine’s time, it didn’t hurt your job security if you were ruthless and capable of striking your enemies hard and fast if they gave you as much as a dirty look.

In Catherine de Medici, Balzac begins with a few statements about how history has been unfair to Catherine:

In France, and that, too,  during the most serious epoch of modern history, no woman, unless it be Brunehaut or Fredegonde, has suffered from popular error so much as Catherine de’ Medici; whereas Marie de’ Medici, all of whose actions were prejudicial to France, has escaped the shame that ought to cover her name. Marie de’ Medici wasted the wealth amassed by Henri IV; she never purged herself of the charge of having known of the king’s assassination; her intimate was d’Eperon, who did not ward off Ravillac’s blow, and who was proved to have known the murderer personally for a long time. Marie’s conduct was such that she forced her son to banish her from France, where she was encouraging her other son, Gaston, to rebel; and the victory Richelieu at last won over her (on the Day of the Dupes) was solely due to the discovery the Cardinal made, and imparted to Louis XIII., of secret documents relating to the death of Henri IV.

Catherine de’ Medici, on the contrary, saved the crown of France; she maintained the royal authority in the midst of circumstances under which  more than one great prince would have succumbed. Having to make head against factions and ambitions like those of the Guises and the house of Bourbon, against men such as the two cardinals of Lorraine, the two Balafres, and the two Condes, against the queen Jeanne d’Albret, Henri IV, the Connetable de Montmorency, Calvin, the three Colignys, Theodore de Beze, she needed to possess and to display the rare qualities and precious gifts of a statesman under the mocking fire of the Calvinist press.

I’d add the name Lucrezia Borgia to that list of names of those who suffered from “popular error.”

Balzac then follows with a summary of Catherine’s life. Reading it over, I had to acknowledge that as a 14-year-old, sent from Italy to the court of France, Catherine had a number of difficult situations to surmount, and Balzac argues she was intelligent enough to bide her time and not always show her true hand. I can’t disagree with that.

I ran into problems with Balzac when he offers justifications for Catherine’s behaviour:

All power, legitimate or illegitimate, must defend itself when attacked; but the strange thing is that where the people are held heroic in their victory over the nobility, power is called murderous in its duel with the people. If it succumbs after its appeal to force, power is then called imbecile.

Balzac seems to be arguing that ‘the people’ vs. the ruling power are held to different standards of behaviour with the latter, according to Balzac, getting the short end of the stick when it comes to moral justification of the use of force. Since he brought in the word “nobility,” he appears to be referring to ‘the mob’ of the Revolution whose violent actions against the ruling class are seen as “heroic.” On the other hand, he argues that when “power” fights back, actions against the people are called “murderous.” I thought of two revolutions which targeted the nobility: The Russian and the French. Balzac was long dead by the time the Russian Revolution occurred, but the French Revolution was recent history for him, so perhaps those words “murderous” and “heroic” were tossed around in the popular culture of his day. There are many points to be made here–rulers or governments killing or punishing people in an unfair contest of power, people frustrated by the abuse and repression of the rulers, etc., but now in the 21st century, do we see the actions of the French Revolution as “heroic?” Then Balzac makes a strange statement:

The massacres of the Revolution have replied to the massacres of Saint-Bartholomew. The people, become king, have done against the king and the nobility what the king and the nobility did against the insurgents of the sixteenth century. Therefore the popular historians, who know very well that in a like case the people will do the same thing over again, have no excuse for blaming Catherine de’ Medici and Charles IX.

That sounds like justification of the bloodshed of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, or is it a vilification of the revolution? Or then again is Balzac trying to go for something more subtle here? Personally, although I don’t think he’s entirely successful, I think it’s the latter.

Balzac’s defense of Catherine de’ Medici is followed by three stories: The Calvinistic Martyr, The Ruggieris’ Secret, and The Two Dreams. I could have done without the torture details of the first story. The second story is a tale of court intrigue which involves the occult. The third story takes place in 1786 at the home of Bodard de Saint-James, a Parisian financier. There are two guests–a lawyer and a surgeon–who don’t fit in with the rest of the company. During the course of the evening, the lawyer recalls a conversation he swears he had with Catherine de Medici, “a grand shade,” in which she justifies the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

“You call that a crime which was only a misfortune,” she said. “The enterprise, being ill-managed, failed; the benefit we expected for France, for Europe, for the Catholic Church was lost. Impossible to forsee that. Our orders were ill executed; we did not find as many Montlucs as we needed. Posterity will not hold us responsible for the failure of communications, which deprived our work of the unity of movement which is essential to all great strokes of policy; that was our misfortune! if one the 25th of August not the shadow of a Huguenot had been left in france, I should go down to the uttermost posterity as a noble image of providence.”

And there’s a lot more of Catherine’s speech, but it boils down to Catherine’s argument that she should have done a better job of wiping out the Huguenots, and that allowing a few to live was a horrible mistake as the decision to spare some Huguenots “caused ten times more blood to flow in France.”  The man who relates Catherine’s fictional summary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is none other than Robespierre, and so we can conclude that he’s taking a tip from Catherine de’ Medici when it comes to slaughtering one’s enemies in an ends-justifies-the-means sort of way.

Anyway, a difficult piece from Balzac, the first two stories are fairly straightforward, but with the preamble and the third story, by tieing in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre to the Revolution, and Catherine advising Robespierre to show no mercy when it comes to slaughtering one’s enemies, Balzac skirts dangerously close to condoning a heinous event that left thousands slaughtered in the streets. Even that old hypocrite, Ivan the Terrible, an expert in his own right on the slaughter of innocents, expressed “horror” at the mass killings.


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

13 responses to “Catherine de Medici by Balzac

  1. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary here Guy. I now want to know more about Catherine de Medici. She sounds like a very interesting figure,

    As someone interested in history as well as government this sounds like something that would appeal to me. Though I agree with you, based upon your commentary it sounds like Balzac is justifying some really bad actions, when one really tries to apply conventional morality to powerful political leaders, one can get easily tied into all kinds of logical knots.

    • Brian: for you, if you haven’t read them already, I would heartily recommend The Rougon-Macquart cycle (20 volumes) by Zola. I have a page devoted to the series if interested. Some volumes are amongst the best books I’ve ever read, and some are weak, but all in all a wonderful overview of France for that time.

      • Brian Joseph

        I have not read them. I checked out some of your posts on them and they look right up my ally. Thanks for the recommendation. I will really try to get to them.

  2. I wonder whether he isn’t judging too much from the point of view of a novelist. Catherine de Medici was a larger than life figure, a very complex one with some striking features which certainly led to her being perceived in a very evil way. It seesm to me as if Balzac, being a novelist was just fascinated by the complexity of that charcater and forgot that suffering through her was less fascinating than horrifc. On the other hand I suppose he wanted to point out that hse wasn’t born that way.
    Last but not least Balzac isn’t always a refined thinker. I could very well imagine that he got carried away by his emotional response to her.

    • Good point Caroline. I think part of this is that he tried to say that people can’t villify her for the St. B’s Day massacre and in the same breath talk about the heroes of the French revolution, but it didn’t come off that way, so he wasn’t entirely successful if that was the point he wanted to make.

      Of course we are looking at this from a historical perspective, so that adds even more layers. She was certainly a fascinating character but, for me at least, not admirable.

      I also thought about Catherine the Great–a German princess who overthrew her husband, and … well he ended up strangled. Rather handy as you don’t want a deposed Tsar hanging about. Under Catherine Russia expanded its territories and became a greater “world power,” but she overtaxed the Jews, lavished $$ on her many lovers, gave away serfs like unwanted pets, and overspent. So again that idea of queen vs human being.

      • These are all charcaters that are fascinating for a novelist. It’s much more interesting to analyze why someone is bad than to analyze why he or she is good.
        Maybe he should have stated more clearly when comparing St B’s massacre to the Revolution that he is against any type of violence.

        • yes, I think he should have been clearer on the issue. I wondered if the biographer thought, like me, that Balzac almost condoned the St B Massacre and yes, he stated the same thing. I don’t think Balzac intended that but as you said, he appeared to get carried away with the character. I would say that he saw condemning the St B massacre while lauding the excesses of the Revolution was hypocrisy more than anything else. Of course in his time, the revolution was still fairly recent, tender history.

  3. I recently purchased a French copy of Etudes Philosophiques by Balzac in a used book store in New Orleans and have just started to read Catherine de Medici. I’m glad to have read your summary and critique, first. A companion piece that I am reading to help me understand the biography of Catherine is Leonie Frieda’s “Catherine de Medici; Renaissance Queen of France”.

  4. Interesting piece, I suppose this tells a lot about Balzac’s political views.

    I’m amazed at how much you know about the history of France, btw. I wish I knew as much about England.

    I have read a series called Les Reines de France by historian Simone Bertière. It’s more than excellent, well written, the right level of details. I had a really bad image of Catherine de Medicis before reading Bertière’s books. She rehabilitates her too, putting things in perspective : she’s extremely young when she arrives in France, she’s separated from her people, she’s married to a king whose mistress Diane de Poitiers sort of rules the country, it takes her years to get pregnant (which doesn’t help) and she’s from a merchants’ family. She’s a foreigner and a woman. Plus she’s thrown in the worst century with the religion wars.
    Still, nothing can excuse the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre just as nothing can justify The Terror.

    What’s the imagery of the French Revolution now? The Marseillaise. (very bloody song when you hear the lyrics) Mostly destroying privileges by liberating the Bastille and getting rid of kings by killing Louis XVI, who is always pictured as a weak king more interested in clocks than in ruling the country and who deserved his fate since he tried to flee the country. The heroic actions are more in the fights against other nations to protect the young republic (Valmy Battle, for example) than in what happened in the country. There is no glamorous view of the guillotine but there are streets named “rue du 4 août” referring to August 4th, 1789, when the privileges were abolished.

    • Thanks for the modern view on the Revolution. All the French history comes from books and films, and of course, Balzac and Zola are both a great way to start learning.

      I’ve seen a number of films that show the St. B Day Massacre, and somehow seeing it, even a fictionalized version, makes you realise how terrifying the slaughter was. I saw another film which showed a tumbril full of heads delivered to be thrown in a big hole. Chilling really. I’d never thought of what happened to the bodies, or the heads in this case.

  5. leroyhunter

    It’s always a risky gambit to try to portray some kind of “equivalence of massacre”. Realistically you can’t expect people explosively freed from onerous oppression to react calmly to their erstwhile masters. It’s often more surprising when disorder and bloodshed doesn’t accompany a political upheaval.

    It’s interesting on the good ruler / good person question. I read an overview of 20th century US Presidents that made it clear most of them had severe flaws: rampant philandering, bullying, control freakery, paranoia and so on. Yet many were undoubedly fine leaders who faced complex situations fraught with danger and navigated through them.

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