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Pierre de Bourdeille Brantome

French writer (ca. 1539-1614)

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Brantome, PIERRE DE BOURDEILLE, SEIGNEUR DE, 3ne of the most famous of French writers of memoirs, b. in 1539, or a little later; d. July 15, 1614. He was the son of a nobleman of Perigord and spent his childhood at the court of the Queen of Navarre. He studied at the College of France, at Paris, and at the University of Poitiers. When his education was completed he returned to court at a date not later than 1556, for he saw Mary Stuart “at the age of thirteen or fourteen, in the presence-chamber of the Louvre, publicly recite a Latin oration which she had composed, before King Henry, the queen, and all the court”. In 1557 Bourdeille was granted the Abbey of Brantome, the name of which he took.

Brantome’s life explains his writings, for it is the life of a traveller, a soldier, and a courtier. He himself in a few lines thus sums up its characteristics: “From the time when I began to outgrow subjection to father, and mother, and school, besides the journeys I made to the wars and the courts in France, I have made seven, when there was peace, outside of France to find adventure by war, or by seeing the world; I was in Italy, Scotland, England, Spain, Portugal—then in Italy again, at Malta for the siege, at La Goulette in Africa, in Greece, and other foreign places, which I have liked a hundred times better for sojourn than my own country, having the disposition of wandering musicians who love the houses of others better than their own.” In 1558 he went for the first time to Italy. He returned to France only to leave it again in the suite of Mary Stuart who went to Scotland to take possession of her kingdom. Brantome has left a touching account of this journey of the unfortunate queen. In 1562 he took part in the first civil war between the Catholics and Protestants of France and was present at the battle of Dreux, his first engagement. Then he began again to travel, going to Portugal, Spain, and to Malta; at this last place he spent three months and a half, the active and adventurous life of the Knights pleasing him so greatly that he thought for a moment of entering the order. On his return to France he took part in the second and third civil wars, was present at the battles of Meaux and St.-Denis, at the engagement at Jarnac, and the siege of La Rochelle. His military career came to an end in 1574 after the campaign in Perigord. The office of gentleman of the bed-chamber kept him near King Henry III, and his journeys now were merely to follow the court, where all that interested him seems to have been the love intrigues, the duels, the rivalries, and the assassinations.

Notwithstanding the services he had rendered, his bravery, and the amusement which his Gascon animation afforded the king, Brantome never obtained an important post, but remained among “the minor attendants”. This made him indignant and he contemplated going into the Spanish service when an accident—a fall from his horse—put an end to his active life. An invalid for four years, he retired to his chateau Richemond and resolved, in order to pass the time, to take up his pen and recount his past life. This was the occasion and the beginning of his career as a writer. But for this fortunate accident posterity would not have had the precious “Memoirs” of Brantome and would have lost in them an unequalled source of instruction concerning the men and affairs of the sixteenth century. The works of Brantome include: “Vies des capitaines strangers et francais”; “Vies des dames illustres”; “Vies des dames galantes”. His manner of writing is between the style of a biography and that of a personal memoir. At times he himself appears in his recital and most often he relates what he has personally seen. He says: “I have seen”, “I have known”. He has the most important qualification for a writer of memoirs: curiosity. Wherever he went, and he travelled in countries of all kinds, he observed, he listened, he asked questions, he informed himself. But he has no power of criticism; he is a doubtful witness. He has, moreover, no sense of morality, in the modern meaning of the word. He admires but one thing in men and that is bravery; that this courage may be of a. criminal character is of little consequence to him. He is not the man to bear malice towards others under pretext that they have “some little trifle of murder” on their conscience. In like manner he has few scruples either as to a choice of means or as to the sources of profit and ways of making gain. He writes in one place: “Nothing is so delightful, so sweet and attractive as spoils of any kind, whether gained by land or by sea.” And he is strongly suspected of having plundered his benefice. In truth, when he talks of “honesty” and “virtue” he means what the Italians of that age called virtu, that is, personal courage, force, and elegance. Above all other spots Brantome enjoyed the chamber and antechamber of the queen. He was never perfectly happy except when surrounded by the ladies who formed the real ornament of the court. This court of Catherine de Medici and its “flying squadron” of three hundred ladies made his paradise on earth. “Never since the world was made has its equal been seen.” He made himself the historiographer of these dames of the Renaissance, both of the famous and of the notorious. Among his numerous portraits mention should be made of those of his favorites, Marguerite of Navarre and Mary Stuart. Light and frivolous, Brantome passes over without mention some of the occurrences of his time of the greatest importance and most fraught with consequences. But we owe to him all sorts of small details, fingerposts to uses of the times. This brilliant and corrupt society, stamped with the characteristics of the sixteenth century, lives again in his “Memoirs”.

Brantome is an uneven, incorrect, and rambling writer, but his works contain clever witticisms, imagination, and unexpected turns. He took more pains with his style than one would be apt to think, and sought renown as a man of letters. He directed his heirs to have the writings printed which he had made and composed “by his understanding and imagination, all very carefully corrected with much pains and time … I wish that the said impression be in beautiful and large type and in a stately volume in order to appear better. Otherwise I should lose my trouble and the glory that is due me.” His desires, however, were not granted at once. His works did not appear for the first time until 1655 and then in a very imperfect and incorrect edition. It was not until the eighteenth century that his reputation, one of not very high order, was established. His writings are regarded, above all, as a collection of dubious anecdotes. From him the chroniclers of scandalous stories, the Tallemants des Reaux and the Bussy-Rabutins, are descended.


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