Richelieu & Marie de Vignerot : "Piety & Power" by David A. Bell (NYRB)



Duchesse 1

La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France by Bronwen McShea Pegasus, 466 pp., $28.95


In the premodern history of women, few places and times were more remarkable than seventeenth-century France. It is true that the vast majority of women there were peasants who spent most of their lives helping to scratch sustenance out of a recalcitrant soil. But for a small number of wealthy, aristocratic women, the period afforded extraordinary opportunities. They could exercise substantial political influence. They could act as patrons of the arts and charitable institutions. If not subject to a father or a husband, they could control their own fortunes. While they could hardly ever choose their husbands, they might still enjoy a surprising degree of sexual freedom—marital fidelity was generally expected of neither partner in the highest circles of French society. They could become writers and engage in daring philosophical and political speculations. In 1622 the prolific Marie de Gournay published a work entitled The Equality of Men and Women, arguing that if given the same education as men, women could match their achievements.

Yet they were in no sense modern women avant la lettre. Whatever their thoughts on sexual equality, they mostly took for granted the enormous social inequality of the day: their elegant existence depended on the possession of vast tracts of land and the exploitation of thousands of servants, workers, and artisans. Although even aristocratic women rarely received much formal education, they were drilled from an early age to exercise tight control over their physical movements and facial expressions when in public, to master complex rules of etiquette, and generally to live a part of their lives as a conscious, carefully gauged piece of performance art. They did so, moreover, in a political world of constant intrigue and frequent episodes of brutal violence.

Perhaps strangest from our point of view, all of this—the privilege, the etiquette, the violence, even the sexual freedom—often coexisted with an intense, demanding, passionate religiosity. Many of the women who took lovers, plotted at court, and spent fortunes decorating their châteaus were also deeply devout Catholics. Some dreamed of taking vows, of renouncing the world, of shutting themselves up in convents, or of devoting their lives to charitable work. They had ecstatic visions and spiritual epiphanies, and they spoke enviously of martyrs who had clung to their Christian faith through gruesome tortures and trials. They supported missionaries who set out for distant parts of the globe to save supposedly benighted souls from damnation.

While these women have received copious scholarly attention as a group, biographers have singled out relatively few for serious treatment—primarily royals, royal mistresses, and prominent writers. Of course, these are the women who left the most abundant source material. Gournay wrote essays, novels, poetry, and translations from her early adulthood until her death at age seventy-nine in 1645. Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné, wrote over 1,100 brilliant, witty, and insightful letters to her daughter over a twenty-five-year period toward the end of the century. Observations about France’s queens or Louis XIV’s mistresses filled the pages of private journals, memoirs, diplomatic correspondence, and seditious pamphlets. But even less well known aristocratic women left plentiful traces in France’s archives and libraries, and their lives have much to reveal about the period. Historians should have remedied this lack of attention long ago.

Doing so is precisely the task that the American historian Bronwen McShea has set herself in La Duchesse, her lively and instructive portrait of Marie de Vignerot, a seventeenth-century Frenchwoman of whom the only previous substantial biography, by an amateur Catholic historian, appeared in 1879. Marie was the niece, the confidante, and the principal heiress of Cardinal Richelieu, who effectively ruled France for decades and did more than any other figure to construct what is often called its absolute monarchy. During his lifetime, she advised and comforted him, and he made her Duchesse d’Aiguillon. After his death in 1642, she used his vast fortune to defend the family’s interests, to support Catholic charities and missionary work, and to patronize artists and writers.

La Duchesse has its flaws. A more attentive editor might have saved McShea from describing one character as a “cheating rapscallion” or writing of a courtier that he “learned to play [King] Louis like a fiddle.” I am guessing that an editor or the publisher, rather than McShea, insisted on the overblown subtitle “Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France.” (Why do so many commercially published history books today have dreadful subtitles like this?)

McShea has also succumbed to that common biographer’s temptation: falling in love with her subject. At every turn she defends Marie de Vignerot against her seventeenth-century critics, writing that she “endured slanderous accusations with stoicism” (how can we know?) and was “measured and wise beyond her years.” Praising Marie’s financial acumen, McShea calls her an “early prototype of the modern entrepreneur, philanthropist, and global businesswoman.” Anachronistic language of this sort elides the enormous differences between seventeenth-century France and our own time, leading us to forget just how strange it was by our standards and how difficult it is to understand the minds and motivations of the men and women who lived there.

Fortunately she is on much firmer ground when it comes to the governing passion of Marie de Vignerot’s life: religion. The author of an excellent study of Jesuit missionaries in early modern French Canada, McShea has a keen sense of the period’s religious zeal and an excellent grasp of its theological complexities.

 Although her previous book emphasized the Jesuits’ secular activities as empire builders helping to secure French colonial territory, it still took their religious beliefs seriously, arguing for their “simultaneously otherworldly and this-worldly mission.”

The first half of the seventeenth century was a period of Catholic resurgence, as the Church struggled to win back both territory and converts from the Protestant Reformation. Catholic clergy encouraged fervor, even religious frenzy among the faithful. Before the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 outside Prague—a crucial Catholic victory in the Thirty Years’ War—the Carmelite friar Domingo Ruzola paraded before the troops with an image of the Virgin and Child supposedly desecrated by Protestants, sending them into a wild rage.

At almost exactly the same moment Marie Guyart, a twenty-one-year-old bourgeois widow (and future saint) in western France, had a vision of Christ’s blood washing over her and purging her of her sins. Her spiritual director, a priest of the Feuillant order, encouraged her devotions, which included self-flagellation with nettles and wearing chains and a hair shirt under her clothes. In 1631 she entered an Ursuline convent, abandoning her young son. Eight years later she sailed to French Canada to aid in the Church’s missionary efforts among Native Americans, writing that she longed for martyrdom. As the historian Natalie Zemon Davis has written, for women like Guyart (now known as Marie de l’Incarnation),

Martyrdom was not a passive affair, a mere acceptance of meritorious suffering and death…. Martyrdom was a prize one sought, a mobilizer for audacious action, a priming of that flesh already disciplined by nettles, an enflaming of the heart…already fueled by union with the heart of Christ.

Marie de Vignerot was born in 1604, five years after Guyart, and was likewise widowed before her twentieth birthday. Her husband, a young nobleman selected for her by her uncle, died in combat against French Protestants. She then felt a religious calling and retreated to a Carmelite convent, where she lived austerely while receiving spiritual direction from Pierre de Bérulle, one of the leading figures of the French Counter-Reformation. She hoped, like Guyart, to become a nun. But the sly, brilliant, and deeply ambitious Richelieu had other ideas for his niece. He planned eventually to make another marriage for her to help his family’s political position. In the meantime, he placed her in the household of the domineering queen mother, Marie de’ Medici, his principal rival for influence over the young King Louis XIII.

This was a plunge into a political universe that had more than a little in common with Game of Thrones. Just a few years before, King Louis had had his chief minister, Concino Concini—the queen mother’s favorite—murdered in broad daylight on the streets of Paris, after which Concini’s wife was tried as a sorceress and beheaded. Richelieu became the target of multiple assassination plots, and Marie de Vignerot, as her uncle’s effective spy within the queen mother’s circle, ran considerable risks as well. In 1630, on the so-called Day of the Dupes, Marie de’ Medici accused Richelieu of treason and seemingly succeeded in having him dismissed from office—with his execution the likely next step—only to have the indecisive king, in a sudden about-face, banish her from court instead. Two years later the cardinal learned of a plot to kidnap his niece and hold her hostage in Brussels until he agreed to bring the queen mother back into favor. Marie de Vignerot, at no little danger to herself, allowed the plot to develop until Richelieu’s agents had sufficient information to disrupt it.

McShea has few sources in Marie’s own words from this period, but it is clear that Richelieu came to value having his niece at his side and never followed through on numerous possible marriages for her. His enemies spread baseless rumors that she had become his mistress and even borne him several children. While the evidence suggests that she played the part of a grand courtier while secretly longing for the convent, hostile pamphleteers suggested the reverse: that beneath the mask of a pious dévote she gave herself over to all manner of lubricious desires. In fact, Marie had a passionate but platonic relationship with the nobleman, soldier, and cardinal Louis de Nogaret de La Valette, which lasted until his death in 1639.

Marie also became one of France’s most important literary patrons. While still in her early twenties, she fell under the influence of the Italian-born Marquise de Rambouillet, whose “Blue Room” was the first of the country’s great aristocratic and literary salons. There she met the playwright Pierre Corneille, who dedicated his masterpiece, Le Cid (1637), to her. Marie defended the play when members of the Académie Française (founded by her uncle) attacked it for violating classical models of tragedy. She also helped to support Pascal, Descartes, and female scholars including the pioneering mathematician Marie Crous. But she never warmed to Molière, who in turn parodied women like her in his play Les Précieuses ridicules (1659).

Over the course of the 1630s, Richelieu solidified his control over the French state, strengthened the monarchy, and in the process accumulated a huge fortune. He built what is now the Palais Royal in Paris (originally the Palais Cardinal), designed a new town called Richelieu, and expanded the Château de Rueil near Paris. The treasures he owned included a reliquary of Saint Louis studded with nine thousand diamonds. Marie benefited from this wealth—the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars today—but also gave copiously to Catholic charities. She became the principal patron of the future saint Vincent de Paul, the founder of the Congregation of the Mission.

Richelieu died in 1642, bequeathing to Marie the major part of his wealth as well as the governorship of the port town of Le Havre. The next year Louis XIII died, leaving his queen, Anne of Austria, as regent for the five-year-old heir, Louis XIV. There followed years of political turmoil and then a full-scale civil war—known as the Fronde—between 1648 and 1653, as the high court of Paris and then leading aristocrats challenged the structure of royal authority Richelieu had created.

Marie maneuvered tirelessly to protect her family’s interests, notably by cultivating her close relationship with Anne of Austria. The family didn’t always appreciate her efforts, and one of her nephews even plotted unsuccessfully to kidnap her, in the hope of forcing her to surrender Richelieu’s fortune. During this period Richelieu’s successor as chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, came to see Marie as a rival for influence at court, calling her in 1651 “the greatest and most dangerous enemy that I have.” Mazarin returned to power after the Fronde but never managed to sideline Marie, who retained control over Le Havre and her family’s resources. The Richelieus remained major figures in France for centuries, with one duke becoming an eighteenth-century field marshal and another a nineteenth-century prime minister.

Throughout this period, and until her death from breast cancer in 1675, Marie remained a major backer of French mission work and colonization. Much of her support was purely charitable, but she also saw herself as promoting French power and invested substantially in overseas commercial companies. Like the Jesuits McShea previously studied, she made little distinction between otherworldly, this-worldly, and personal missions. In Quebec she endowed the hospital where Guyart ministered to Native Americans. She backed Catholic missions to East Asia and South Asia, helped the Congregation of the Mission establish itself in Madagascar, and worked to ransom white Christian slaves from captivity in North Africa. She was also the major investor in a company founded in 1651 to establish a new French colony in Guyana and chose the governor—a theology professor at the Sorbonne who drowned before he even left France.

In documenting this activity, McShea has revealed an important and little-known side of early French imperialism. Generally, the only women to have featured prominently in this history are missionary nuns like Guyart and the convict women sent out to French Louisiana in the early eighteenth century to provide wives for colonists (famously described in the Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel Manon Lescaut). Marie de Vignerot never set foot outside France, but thanks to her religious convictions she did a remarkable amount to promote French colonialism at a time when the French state, under Richelieu and then Louis XIV, cared more about expansion within Europe.

McShea, however, doesn’t look deeply enough into this story. How did Marie see the non-European men and women who were the objects of the missions she funded? She genuinely grieved at the prospect that lack of access to Christ’s word might leave them damned for all eternity. But she also clearly hoped that her efforts on their behalf would secure her own path to heaven. As McShea notes, in the theological controversies of the day, Marie sharply opposed those so-called Jansenist Catholics who argued that the Church had swung too far toward the position that salvation depended on the good works and free will of frail, sinful humans, as opposed to the decision of an omniscient and omnipotent God. Among Marie’s gifts to the hospital in Quebec was a large portrait of herself, doer of good works.

Moreover, saving the souls of Asians, Africans, and Native Americans hardly meant treating them as equal or free. In the late 1630s Marie took particular interest in a young Iroquois woman baptized as Anne-Thérèse, whom she took into her home and taught Christian doctrine and French customs. She urged the young woman toward a religious vocation and arranged for her to move to a Carmelite convent, where she soon tragically died. The nature of their relationship, as described by McShea, is not clear. Anne-Thérèse was not Marie’s slave, but how much freedom did she have? Most of the non-European territories where French missionaries went in the seventeenth century had systems of slavery, in which they participated. When Marie imagined what the missions she sponsored might lead to, it was most likely societies of poor, pious Catholic peasants and slaves who would find their reward in the next world while working in this one for the greater glory of the French king as well as the enrichment of the house of Richelieu.

This is not a reason to sit back in twenty-first-century self-satisfaction and condemn Marie de Vignerot for her benighted attitudes and actions. For her, more even than for the men of her century, and far more than for their descendants a century later who could choose (or not) to hear the message of early abolitionists and anti-imperialists, attitudes and actions that we might approve of were out of reach. But neither do we have any reason to treat Marie as a heroine, a model, or any sort of precursor of modern independent women. Seventeenth-century France, for all its fascination, has very few direct lessons for the world we live in today, and we should not study it in the hope of finding them. As one of Marie’s greatest contemporaries, Baruch Spinoza, wrote: “Smile not, lament not, nor condemn, but understand.”

David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Department of History at Princeton. His latest book is Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution. (April 2024)


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