The Faces of Judith: Nationhood and Patronage in la Judit of Guillaume Salluste Du Bartas

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In the "Avertissement au lecteur" of his poem La Judit, the Huguenot poet Guillaume Salluste Du Bartas states that he chose to write about the biblical figure Judith because he was asked to do so by Jeanne d'Albret, "ayant este commande, il y a environ quatorze ans, par feu tres illustre et tres vertueus Princesse Jane, royne de Navarre, de rediger l'histoire de Judit en forme d'un poeme epique ..." (1) At the same time that he wrote an epic poem for his patroness, Du Bartas wrote for her subjects in the sovereign territories she controlled in southwest France. (2) Threatened by Catholic forces from Spain and northern France, Jeanne's Huguenot subjects were in need of strong leadership, both spiritual and military. It does not seem unreasonable that, at a moment of crisis in the mid-1560's, Jeanne asked for an epic poem about Judith to serve as a guide. (3) Judith's story legitimizes the actions of an isolated group of Elect in their fight against an invading imperial power. In the context of its production, Du Bartas' poem invited readers to link the patroness and the heroine Judith and to link her people and the inhabitants of Judith's village Bethulia. For Jeanne d'Albret and her subjects, La Judit thus carried a message of solidarity and rebellion.

Jeanne d'Albret died in 1572 and a new queen of Navarre, Marguerite de Valois, succeeded her. Du Bartas responded to these events by proclaiming Marguerite the patroness of La Judit:

   Fille du grand HENRY, et compagne pudique
   D'un autre grand HENRY, o MARGUERITE unique,
   Qui decores la France, oy ce vers qui ne dit
   RIEN, si non ton beau los sous le nom de Judit. (J 1.5-8) (4)

Such a move can easily be explained as opportunism on the part of the poet, but to dismiss the difference in patronesses too quickly would be to miss the complexities of the poem's second incarnation. The shift from Jeanne to Marguerite was not merely an exchange of one prominent noblewoman for another. The two women belonged to different sides of the religious and political controversies of the sixteenth century: Jeanne was an outspoken and at times militant Protestant, and Marguerite, whose marriage to Jeanne's son Henri had set the scene for the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre, was firmly Catholic. Furthermore, whereas Jeanne d'Albret often found herself at odds with her Valois cousins ruling the north, Marguerite was the sister of the king of France and supported the interests of the French monarchy.

For Du Bartas, a Protestant born in Jeanne d'Albret's territories, offering Marguerite de Valois a poem whose subject was originally conceived by her mother-in-law required a reconfiguration. (5) Interestingly enough, these changes rarely occur within the poem itself. (6) Although the poet made numerous revisions to the text between the first and second editions, his main concern seems to have been improving the language in the newer edition; few of the revisions grant a new meaning or message to the earlier edition. Instead, the re-orientation of the poem takes place on the level of the paratext. Within a letter addressed to Marguerite and in the second version of his "Avertissement au lecteur," Du Bartas manages to present his potentially divisive poem as a welcome gift that unifies north and south, Catholic and Protestant.

In the course of this essay, I will examine La Judit in its original context and above all the political implications it held for Queen Jeanne d'Albret and for the adherents of the Reformed Church in southwest France. As a Protestant version of a classical epic commanded in the 1560s, La Judit was an expression of Jeanne d'Albret's political power and an iteration of the nation served by it, reinforcing the legitimacy of the Protestant cause in the face of the imperial (and Catholic) other. I will consider how Du Bartas edited his text for Marguerite de Valois by dissociating the new patroness from the more political content of the poem, adapting the poem's message to promote a peaceful coexistence for all of the citizens under Marguerite's influence. …