About Catherine de’ Medici: The Calvinist Martyr by Honorè De Balzac

Sur Catherine de Médicis: Le Martyr Calviniste
About Catherine de’ Medici: The Calvinist Martyr

Balzac always enjoys setting the scene, and he does this with a vengeance in the first reading selection from this chapter.

The first scene takes place in Paris in 1560. We are introduced to the Lecamus family of merchants and their riverside home on the Rue de la Vieille-Pelleterie (Street of Ye Olde Fur Shoppe) near the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame Cathedral. Our interest is quickly riveted on the heir to the powerful merchant family, Christophe Lecamus. The young man has taken a leaning toward Protestantism at a very dangerous time, and we find him being enlisted to perform a mission for various Huguenot conspirators led by the hunchbacked Prince de Condé.

Because the Lecamus family is official furrier to members of the Royal Family, the Huguenots want to deliver a message to Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother. (Francis II and his bride Mary Stewart, later to be known as Mary Queen of Scots, are the reigning King and Queen.) Christophe receives permission from his father to deliver an order to Catherine and collect the money for it–knowing full well what his son is about: He had espied the Prince talking to his son. The elder Lecamus is a Catholic, along with his even more devout wife, but he feels it would be a good thing to be on good terms with both parties.

The scene switches to the Royal Palace at Blois on the Loire River that Balzac loves so much. He delivers another valentine to the Touraine (as he did in A Woman of Thirty and The Centenarian) and describes the old palace in great detail.

We are introduced to the main combatants: The arch-Catholic Guises are led by the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Duc de Guise, known as le Balafré from being scarred in battle. They wish to influence the young King and Queen and diminish the power of the Queen Mother Catherine, who in turn appears to be open to an overture from the Huguenots as a counterbalance to the Guises. (And that is just what is happening with young Christophe heading toward Blois with a Huguenot offer.)

This gets very complicated quickly, but Balzac is taking so much relish in recounting his tale that I was fairly entranced by it.

We are now getting into the heart of the action in this, the longest chapter in Balzac’s About Catherine de’ Medici. Where before, we saw the ultra-Catholic Guises, led by the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Grand Master, alias the Duc de Guise and Le Balafré, now we see all the players moving about on the chessboard.

The chapter is marred by the introduction of scores of characters. We poor readers who have only the sketchiest idea of French history during this period, must make snap decisions as to who are the most significant players to follow. Is Balzac trying to show off his knowledge of French history at this point? Hmmm.

The Guises announce that the young King (Francis II) and Queen (Mary Stewart) are in danger and must immediately evacuate the Chateau de Blois because of the Huguenot threat. This threat is being announced as part of an coup d’état to isolate the royal pair from the nefarious influence of the Queen Mother Catherine and her presumed Huguenot advisers.

At this time, Catherine has not yet been approached by the Huguenots, but that is shortly to change. Christophe Lecamus–bearing a message from the Prince de Condé and other Huguenot leaders–has arrived at the palace, ostensibly to meet with the Queen and Queen Mother about their new ermine cloaks. Lecamus is grilled to see whether or not he is a Protestant and apparently passes the test (mainly because he comes from a known Catholic family).

Too many things are happening at one time: The King and Queen get up from bed and are lolling around before the Council orchestrated by the Guises. Catherine is meeting with her advisers (I love her motto: odiate e aspettate, “hate and wait”). Lecamus is trying to get to Catherine.

Unfortunately for young Christophe, he gets to Catherine just as the Council convenes. Catherine is missed, and Mary Stewart decides to fetch her. She walks in on Catherine and Lecamus just as the latter is giving her a suspiciously thick package of papers for a furrier’s bill. To save herself from suspicion, Catherine accuses Christophe of carrying messages from the Huguenots, which is what he ostensibly was doing, and orders him arrested on the spot.

Once Christophe Lecamus is arrested, we see Balzac at his most masterful. The Queen Mother Catherine is forced to throw in her hand with the ultra-Catholic Guises in their little coup d’état to seize the effective power in Francis II’s kingdom. Francis himself is a little nothing who is more interested in canoodling with his young Queen (Mary Stewart) than exercising the power of the State.

Christophe himself is put to the torture. The Guises want very badly to incriminate the Prince de Condé, who was one of the party that recruited the young furrier to send a message to the Queen Mother. They need the evidence from the torture to incriminate Condé and execute him. But Christophe is made of sterner stuff. He incriminates only Captain Chaudieu, who is already a prisoner. Enduring excruciating pain that will leave him a lifelong cripple, he refuses to name any other names. The Guises are impressed by the young man’s strength (most died during this torture), and offer him a place of trust on their side should he play ball with them. But Christophe holds firm to his Huguenot principles at all costs.

The Guises obtain the position of the Lieutenant Generalcy and decide to move the court to Amboise for the safety of the young King and Queen. There, they stage a mass execution of hymn-singing Huguenot nobles and gentlemen who have been captured in skirmishes with the troops of the King and the Guises. Old Monsieur Lecamus is present to learn what has become of his son, but he is unable to find out anything. . .

. . . until he is contacted by the Queen Mother’s astrologer, Ruggieri, who predicts that Francis II will die soon, and that Catherine de’ Medici will become regent to the Prince who will become Charles IX. He informs the old man that Christophe Lecamus is still alive. He is to be used to stand where the Prince de Condé can see him when he passes by: If there is any mutual recognition, it will be a death warrant for both men.

On the large canvas of French history, Catherine is aligning herself slowly with the King of Navarre, whom Francis II places under arrest despite a promise of safe-conduct. From that house is to come the future Huguenot king, Henry IV. But before Henry IV arrives on the scene, there are several princelings who must occupy the throne under the control of Catherine rather than the power-hungry Guises. Catherine’s apparent alliance with the Guises is only for show until she can put herself and her sons beyond danger.

I must say that this story has grown on me. At first, I was afraid that the author was losing control of his story; but he staged an impressive recovery with his study of the power politics of the French Court as practiced by Queen Mother Catherine, the Guises, the Huguenots, and the redoubtable John Calvin.

King Francis II is dying. The Prince de Condé is in jail (apparently he recognized Christophe Lecamus, and the fact was noted by Guise spies). Huguenot surgeon Ambroise Paré thinks he can cure the king by trepanning his skull, but neither his medical colleagues nor the Queen Mother will have any truck with such an invasive procedure.

Both the Duc de Guise and his brother the Cardinal of Lorraine, arch-conspirators par excellence, suddenly realize that the court is beginning to gather around Antoine de Bourbon, the King of Navarre. So much of their power in the kingdom is based on their control of Francis II, who is not long for this world. At this critical juncture, Queen Catherine coolly outmaneuvers the Guises at her son’s deathbed and arranges to get herself chosen Regent for the next Valois monarch, Charles IX, still in his early teens.

Just as Francis is about to give up the ghost, the escaped Prince de Condé walks into the bedchamber with the King of Navarre. As the king dies, Catherine looks at the Guises and says, “Your reign is over, gentlemen.” Mary Stewart is packed off to Scotland, where she will be captured and beheaded by England’s Queen Elizabeth I, and where she will be known as Mary Queen of Scots.

Catherine has not lost her deft touch with politics. To delay another flare-up of the religious wars, she sends the Huguenot preacher Chaudieu to John Calvin in Geneva to request a meeting in the Paris area to iron out religious differences. Balzac’s portrait of Calvin is masterful: He is a fat, choleric, sickly, and envious religious leader who comes across as another Napoleon:

“So at last [says Calvin] I have a court, a king, a dynasty on my side. My doctrine has had its effect on the masses. The citizen classes understand me; henceforth they will call those who go to Mass isolaters, those who paint the walls of their places of worship, and put up pictures and statues there. Oh, the populace find it far easier to demolish cathedrals and palaces than to discuss justification by faith or the real presence! Luther was a wrangler, I am an army! He was a reasoner, I am a system! He, my child, was but a tormentor, I am a Tarquin!”

There is also this exchange between Calvin and Theodore de Bèze:

“I should prefer a peaceful victory, brought about by time and reason,” said de Bèze.

“By time!” cried Calvin, flinging over his chair. “By reason! Are you mad? Conquer by reason? Do you know nothing of men, you who live among them–idiot?”

A final coda brings us full circle: Christophe Lecamus is recovering from his torture, with some signs of royal approbation from the Regent and Queen Mother. He decides to go into the law as a pleader for the Parlement of Paris. His family and the family of his fiancée agree to put up the money to qualify him for this high office. The Queen Mother herself along with Charles IX decide to pay a surprise visit to the Lecamus house. There, Catherine insists that Christophe take an oath as a practicing Catholic. Much to my surprise, he does. Lecamus begins an illustrious career in the law, France is momentarily at peace, and Catherine is in charge.


Read it here (Part I)

Summary by Jim, November 2007


2 comments on “About Catherine de’ Medici: The Calvinist Martyr by Honorè De Balzac

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I was determined not to check out a summary here until after I’d read the story myself, but I am so glad you have clarified it all for me, Jim. (Too many characters, too many things happening is right!!!!)


  2. scamperpb says:

    This is the beginning of a three-part series on the history of Catherine d’Medici’s involvement in the ruling of France. According to Saintsbury, this is Balzac’s none too perfect but best attempt to write a historical novel. Balzac always had an interest in history and aspired to be a Dumas, but in spite of occasional flashes of brilliance never mastered the technique. In reading Balzac’s historical pieces I am always exhausted by too many characters and too many plot details, and “The Calvinist Martyr” follows this pattern. I recently ran across a Balzac rarity, a summary of a lesser work, in this case the “About Catherine d’Medici” series. I have to admit even after having read the novel (albeit 3 years ago), I had a hard time following this summary – simply because Balzac jam-packed the work with so many characters and plot twists.

    It’s all about the struggle for control of France pitting queen mother Catherine against the reigning monarch, her rather frail son and his Catholic supporters. She wants to keep things stirred up in hopes of preserving the future throne for herself and her family. The Calvinist Martyr I presume is Christophe Lecamus, who was sent to Catherine with messages indicating an agreement between Catherine and the Huguenots. Caught and tortured, he never gives in to reveal that the Prince de Conde was behind the agreement and that Catherine was part of the plot. After Catherine’s son the King dies and Catherine becomes regent, Christophe is released and goes on to become a successful lawyer with support from Catherine.

    If you read this story, it’s worth a trip to Wikipedia to learn the history first. You might also try to run down the article “Catherine De’Medici” in the “Authors Digest: The World’s Great Stories in Brief”, editor Rossiter Johnson, vol 2, NY: the Authors Press, 1908. I found it in my library’s online research facilities in the Gale resources.


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