Shouting Down Abraham: How Sixteenth Century Huguenot Women Found Their Voice

Article excerpt

Il fit sa confession de foi avouant qu'il avoit beaucoup renu et peu profite. Et comme on lui repondait qu'il avoit fidelement employe son talent: "Eh! qu'y a-t-il du mien?" s'ecria-t-il. "ne dites pas moi, mais Dieu par moi."

- Philippe Du Piessis Mornay, on his deathbed, 1623

The strange case of French Calvinist women writers poses one of the more puzzling questions that scholars face in their efforts to reanimate the lost or silenced voices of early modern women. The pool of possibilities for the examination of these Huguenot writers is paltry, due to many factors, all of which obstruct a clear hearing of their voices. Admittedly, since women writers are relatively rare in sixteenth-century Calvinism, there is an inevitable temptation to stretch meager evidence too far. However, those few Calvinist women who did assert themselves literarily did so in pronounced ways that show the process of writing behind the content conveyed, demonstrating the active nature of the female stylist's contribution to the Calvinist literary scene. Jean-Pierre Faye theorizes narrative in a way consonant with the sorts of writing that we can see in Huguenot women writers. He avers that "because history is consummated only by being narrated, a critique of history may be practiced only as a narrative about how history, in narrating itself, is accomplished."(1) Thus, Calvinist women writers blow away the smoke screen of their male colleagues: for example, when Charlotte de Mornay talks about her famous husband, Philippe, it is she, rather than he, who is actually creating history precisely because she uses him as a pretext for narrative, and narrative allows for a critique of dominant ideologies written and perceived from the margins (woman's traditional place and, now, her triumphant recourse). In this essay, I shall examine a uniquely literary expression that is generally elitist in form and conception. The reasons for this approach are obvious: the few Huguenot writers available to us were well-educated, highly-placed women of their time. This argument is not intended to supplant a more broad-based analysis built upon a social historian's perception of problematic aspects inherent in Calvinist expression, but simply to offer one side of a many-faceted issue. If nothing else, my approach is faithful to that implemented by Charlotte de Mornay herself, who although occasionally expressing concern about other Huguenots in general, remained wedded to a focus on her "great man" husband as the window through which events are to be portrayed, understood and recorded.(2)

Calvinist male writers already faced certain obstacles to their self-expression, when John Calvin established the stylus rudus, or the plain style, as normative for a writer's expression. Such stylistic and thematic strictness resulted in an often slavish conformity to the contours of the biblical word, since nothing individual could be added to it, and no liberties could be taken with the model text) Calvin's successor, Theodore Beza, was even more rigorous as he renounced his lovely, humanist, and pre-libertine collection of Poemata and stubbornly subordinated the vagaries of his self and his speech to the divine Word.(4) In Abraham sacrifiant, a play that explicates the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac, Beza explicitly makes a burnt offering of his own self-expression and roundly criticizes Pleiade writers such as Ronsard and Du Bellay for pagan and ungodly writing.(5) Scholars have documented this uneasiness regarding literary creation among male Calvinist writers.(6) Nevertheless, writers such as Agrippa d'Aubigne and Beroalde de Verville devised strategies to write about themselves, even while insisting on their adherence to a theological system that rejected the self as an obstruction of, or a diversion from, the necessary and salutary focus on the divine. Possessing larger public roles, these men had the ambition and the ability to live with this ambiguity and to write through it. …