About Catherine de’ Medici: The Ruggieri’s Secret by Honoré de Balzac

Sur Catherine de Médicis: La Confidence des Ruggieri
About Catherine de’ Medici: The Ruggieri’s Secret

It is now 1573. Thirteen years have passed. In the last section of The Calvinist Martyr, we saw Catherine de’ Medici assuming the supreme power in the kingdom with the death of her son Francis II. Now another one of her sons is king, Charles IX. In 1572, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre had taken place, in which thousands of Huguenots were hunted down and killed by order of Catherine and Charles. It is apparent that the negotiations we saw in their early phases between the Calvinists and Catholics have come to naught. Killed in the massacre was none other than Admiral Coligny, military leader of the Huguenots.

This chapter begins with another long list of nobles and notables associated with the court. Don’t worry about most of them: They are showing up here only to be summarily dropped for the rest of the book. Conspicuously absent are the two Guise brothers who caused much of the mischief in the earlier chapter. (The Duke had been assassinated in 1563.)

Charles’s queen, Elizabeth of Austria, has been supplanted in her husband’s affections by a courtesan, Marie Touchet, with whom the king spends most of his quality time (with Catherine’s tacit approval).

At one point, Balzac makes an interesting point: Two words will fully summarize this strange woman [Catherine], so interesting to study, whose influence left such deep traces on France. These two words are dominion and astrology. Catherine de’ Medici was excessively ambitious; she had no passion but for power. Superstitious and fatalist, as many a man of superior mind has been [Balzac is here congratulating himself], her only sincere belief was in the occult sciences. Among the shadowy figures with whom Catherine consorted were none other than Nostradamus and St. Germain. We have already been introduced to Cosmo Ruggieri in the previous chapter, but we are about to see more of him.

As king, Charles IX is much more mistrustful of his mother than his brother Francis had been. In fact, he has some reason to think that she would take his life. One evening, he and several of his trusted cronies decide on a rooftop lark through Paris en route to Marie Touchet’s house on the Rue de l’Austruche. On the way, he peeks into the window of René, the court perfumer, long suspected of being an alchemist. He casually drops in on René and arrests him and several accomplices, taking them in tow to Marie Touchet’s house.

Charles IX is having an intimate conversation with Marie Touchet. She notices how fatigued he looks; on his side, he complains about the sad fate of all the other kings of France named Charles. “I am tired of wearing the crown,” he says at one point; “All I ask is to die in peace.” She brings in her young infant son by Charles, and the two play with him quietly.

She asks him about the “prisoners” he had brought with him and whom his loyal German friend Solern is guarding. Charles describes the scene when he and his friend Tavannes intruded on the perfumer and saw a young woman wrapped in a shroud, Cosmo Ruggieri the Queen Mother’s astrologer and his aged father Lorenzo as well as the perfumer. The king continues: “And now, sweetheart, as I hold the key of the Cabala, the kings of Thunes, the chiefs of witchcraft, the princes of Bohemia, the masters of the future, the inheritors of all the famous soothsayers, I will read and know your heart, and at last we will know what is to become of us.”

The two decide to question the prisoners for themselves. This strange conversation takes up the remainder of the chapter. Balzac, who loves the strange and exotic is in his element here, and more effectively than in Louis Lambert. In charge of the answers is Lorenzo, who knows that he is in danger. He admits that he is an alchemist, but that the transmutation of base elements into gold is only part of his researches. He says that although “I do not believe that God troubles Himself about human affairs,” he does not deny God. He predicts his son Cosmo will one day believe as he does before he dies in his bed at the age of one hundred.

Both the King and Marie are awestruck at the sweep of Lorenzo’s knowledge and his enunciation of a heretical creed so contrary to Christianity.

Lorenzo then predicts the fate of Charles and of Henri III, his brother and next king. He predicts that Marie will marry the Governor of Orleans after Charles’ death and live to be eighty.

Charles lets the old astrologer and his son and the perfumer go, as they have answered all his questions honestly, even though many of the answers have rocked his world.

Reading this chapter, I saw that Balzac was reaching for a philosophy of history.

By the way, if you’ve been sitting this book out, note that this week’s selection makes for interesting reading in its own right.

 

Read it here (Part II)

Summary by Jim, January 2008

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5 comments on “About Catherine de’ Medici: The Ruggieri’s Secret by Honoré de Balzac

  1. Pamela thomas says:

    Good summary comments, Jim. The only other summary I could find was pretty unintellible to me.

    A few years ago I spent about 18 months reading with a friend Proust’s monumental work “In Search of Lost Time.” About a year after we finished, quite a challenge with many hills and valleys, a local Knoxville group was formed to read the work. We couldn’t resist joining, and off we were on a second read of the work with some great companions. I thought I’d pick up on all the details that I didn’t absorb in the first reading – the cast of thousands, their intricate relationships, their relationship with the royalty of France, etc. I had all the tools – including an index of all the characters (real and imaginary), places, etc. But much to my surprise I didn’t gain much in the absorption of details the second time around. I did gain in other ways, though I don’t necessary recommend two readings of Proust when there is so much else out their begging for attention. What I learned is I just didn’t care about the details, period.

    Well, now I’m just about finished with Balzac. I decided not to reread him but rather to gather material on each work – summaries, critical comments, etc. and review each work- perhaps taking an hour or so a work. I started back and am working through the reading order we at the Balzac yahoo group followed, and I’m on my 22nd of 98 works.

    And, like my experience with Proust, I’m finding that with Balzac’s convoluted plots I just don’t care all that much about absorbing his details. I’m especially disinterested in Balzac’s historical novels – not because he picks uninteresting times, but because he tries to cram too many books in one short novel. “About Catherine d’Medici” is a perfect example. My head just spins with all the characters and intricate political twists and turns. Any one of the stories would have been worthy of a novel, but cramming them all together just doesn’t work.

    So here I am on “The Ruggieri’s Secret” and I just barely know who the Ruggieri are and don’t really care much about the secret, LOL. Cosmo Ruggieri is Catherine’s astrologer, and he predicts that Catherine’s sons will all die young. Catherine continues to exercise powerful control in the government – but he story of Catherine d’Medici is much clearer on Wikipedia or in a history book than in anything that Balzac writes.

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  2. I am not fond of historical novels either. Of the three sections to Balzac’s About Catherine de’ Medici, The Ruggieri’s Secret is my favorite.

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    • scamperpb says:

      I agree that Ruggieri is the most interesting. We are bombarded with fewer new characters, and there’s quite a bit of action in the story line.

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  3. Reading to Erich Auerbach about the representation of Reality in Western Literature would open the analysis on “La Comédie Humaine” taking the small distance of the fiction to the happened history. I think on Balzac is a genius of the novel, but now I read a book about the importance of Balzac for the historians of the civilization…

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