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D' Aubigneé, Theodore-Agrippa

Category: Poet

Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné (8 February 1552 – 29 April 1630) was a French poet, soldier, and chronicler. His epic poem Les Tragiques (1616) is “widely regarded as his masterpiece”.  We have him on the site in part because he and another witness saw a UFO, but he and his poetry is of great interest in their own right. 

In the introduction to Les Tragiques "Aux Lecteurs," Aubigné confirms the fact (also found in his autobiographical Sa Vie à Ses Enfants), that the content of the Tragiques came to him as an ecstatic vision.

Background - childhood

Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné  was born at the Aubigné Château of Saint-Maury near Pons in the present day Charente-Maritime, the son of Jean d'Aubigné.  Théodore-Agrippa’s father was a Huguenot.  Huguenots were French Protestants who ‘held to the Reformed tradition of Protestantism’. In contrast, the Protestant populations of eastern France, in Alsace, Moselle, and Montbéliard were mainly ethnic German Lutherans.   They were all persecuted in a country that was essentially Catholic.

In his Encyclopedia of Protestantism, Hans Hillerbrand said that, on the eve of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572, when Théodore-Agrippa  was just 20, the Huguenot community was as much as 10% of the French population. By 1600, it had declined to 7–8%, and was reduced further after the return of severe persecution in 1685 under Louis XIV's Edict of Fontainebleau.   And little Théodore-Agrippa witnessed these massacres as a child, and himself became a victim as an adult.

Right 'Preparation for the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre', a 19th-century painting. Catholics were instructed to wear a white cross on their clothes,

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 - Aubigné, Théodore Agrippa d'

AUBIGNÉ, THÉODORE AGRIPPA D’ (1552-1630), French poet and historian, was born at St Maury, near Pons, in Saintonge, on the 8th of February 1552. His name Agrippa (aegre partus) was given him through his mother dying in childbirth. In his childhood he showed a great aptitude for languages; according to his own account he knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew at six years of age; and he had translated the Crito of Plato before he was eleven.  His father, a Huguenot who had been one of the conspirators of Amboise, strengthened his Protestant sympathies by showing him, while they were passing through that town on their way to Paris, the heads of the conspirators exposed upon the scaffold, and adjuring him not to spare his own head in order to avenge their death.

So here we have a young child, who had lost his mother at birth and was being brought up by a father who appeared to be inflicting subjects which are hardly apt for a six year old, who is then further traumatised by showing him sights which we might consider today to be terrifying.  It does not stop there.....

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 - Aubigné, Théodore Agrippa d'

After a brief residence he was obliged to flee from Paris to avoid persecution, but was captured and threatened with death. Escaping through the intervention of a friend, he went to Montargis. In his fourteenth year [sic] he was present at the siege of Orléans, at which his father was killed.

And so, still a child, he acquired a guardian who sent him to Geneva, where he studied under the direction of Beza.  

But in 1567, he ran away from his schooling, and attached himself to the Huguenot army under the prince of Condé. He was just 15. 

The West, these days, looks on dumbfounded at the pictures of children sporting machine guns and knives in the armies of third world countries, well once France had its child armies, and exactly the same sort of traumas created them.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 - Aubigné, Théodore Agrippa d'

Subsequently he joined Henry of Navarre, whom he succeeded in withdrawing from the corrupting influence of the house of Valois (1576), and to whom he rendered valuable service, both as a soldier and as a counsellor, in the wars that issued in his elevation to the throne as Henry IV. He was in the battle of Coutras (1587), and at the siege of Paris (1590).

Left:  Henry III (19 September 1551 – 2 August 1589) King of France from 1574 until his death.  Henry was the thirteenth king from the House of Valois, and the last male of his dynasty. France was at the time plagued by the Wars of Religion, and Henry's authority was undermined by violent political parties funded by foreign powers: the Catholic League (supported by Spain and the Pope), the Protestant Huguenots (supported by England and the Dutch) and the Malcontents . Henry III's legitimate heir was his distant cousin, King Henry III of Navarre, a Protestant.  In 1589, Jacques Clément, a Catholic fanatic, murdered Henry III. He was succeeded by the King of Navarre who, as Henry IV, assumed the throne of France after converting to Catholicism, as the first French king of the House of Bourbon.

The origins of the Tragiques

We can already see that d'Aubigné was denied a childhood, had none of the soothing influence from motherly love and already his life was ‘tragic’-  a tragedy in the making.  But it was after a furious battle at Casteljaloux, and suffering from fever from his wounds, that he wrote his Tragiques (1571).

The Tragiques of Theodore Agrippa d'Aubigné was published in 1616.  To avoid censorship, the 1616 edition of the Tragiques was printed by d'Aubigné himself (under pseudonym) in Maillé, his property [Maillezais France], on the printing presses of Jean Moussat who also printed the Universal History of Aubigné.  A further much later edition of the Tragiques was based on the text (published in two volumes) edited by Charles Read and published in 1896. The spelling of this edition differs from the original, long s [ƒ], for example, have been eliminated.

Below:  Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry, by Peter Paul Rubens

In style, the Tragiques belongs to the century in which it was written. “It should be noted that although the sixteenth century had ended and Malherbe was writing when d'Aubigné published his poem, he essentially belongs, as poet, in the century of Ronsard, his master, and it would be a real anachronism, as pointed out by Mr. Sainte-Beuve, to put him, among the writers of the seventeenth century, so much had he retained the vigor and language of his youth.  He wrote to the end, as he had fought, as an old Huguenot.

Les Tragiques is divided into seven books, a number symbolic of the ‘planets’ and the stages of ascent after death.   The entire story is told, however, as an allegory.  As for the general plan, d'Aubigné indicated that there was a common theme that ran through all the books ‘ between them’ he said ‘ a common bond, that of" effects and causes ".  The stages and the corresponding books are then

Livre I. — Miseres.
Livre Ii. — Princes.
Livre Iii. — La Chambre Doree.
Livre Iv. — Les Feux.
Livre V. — Les Fers.
Livre Vi. — Vengeances.
Livre Vii. — Jugement.

Commentators have noted that d'Aubigné drew his inspiration from the Bible and its allegorical stories.

  “He found in it striking phraseology and eloquence of analogy: witness the invectives against the "detestable flatterers" and the blindness of kings; the stanzas that end the Golden Room; the death of Jezebel; plague and hunger: Changing the earth of iron and the sky of brass.”

Right The death of Jezebel by 'defenestration' [being thrown out of a window]

It is impossible for us to select even a portion of the work for inclusion on the site, partly because of its length, but also because it is the wording and phraseology that give it its power. But copies in French are available.  Instead we have used the Summary section – leaving it in French – which describes the themes and action of each book.


In summary, the Tragiques are confused, exuberant, fierce, somehow, but sparkling with sublime beauties; where all the tones collide, all forms mingle, the epic, the satire, the biblical hymn, the idyll itself: it is like a mixture of the genius of the prophets and that of Juvenal. "

Later Life

Henry's accession to the throne of France entailed an, at least nominal, conversion to the Roman Catholic Church and Aubigné left his service to tend to his own Poitou estates.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 - Aubigné, Théodore Agrippa d'

Though he more than once found it expedient to retire into private life he never entirely lost the favour of Henry, who made him governor of Maillezais. After the conversion of the king to Roman Catholicism, d’Aubigné remained true to the Huguenot cause, and a fearless advocate of the Huguenot interests.   

When Marie de' Medici became regent following Henry's assassination in 1610, she embraced the Counter-Reformation and Aubigné's isolation made him an easy target.

Below: The death of Henry IV and the proclamation of the Regency (from the Marie de Medici cycle)

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 - Aubigné, Théodore Agrippa d'

In September 1620 its author was compelled to take refuge in Geneva, where he found a secure retreat for the last ten years of his life, though the hatred of the French court showed itself in procuring a sentence of death to be recorded against him more than once. He devoted the period of his exile to study, and the superintendence of works for the fortifications of Bern and Basel which were designed as a material defence of the cause of Protestantism. He died at Geneva on the 29th of April 1630.

Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné had one daughter - Louise Arthemise d'Aubigné; a son -  Constant d'Aubigné, who led a scandalous life of adventure; and another son Theodore (1613–1670).  His two sons, and then later his three grandsons, eventually settled in England in the late 1680s, to avoid the Huguenot persecution in Europe.

Below:  The UK's first real refugees, the French Huegenots arrive in England

References

The first two volumes of his Histoire universelle depuis 1550 jusqu'à l'an 1601, appeared in 1616 and 1618 respectively. The third volume was published in 1619, but, was immediately ordered to be burned.  The work is a lively chronicle of the incidents of camp and court life, and forms a very valuable source for the history of France during the period it embraces.

  • Literary and historical works
  • Histoire universelle (1616–1618)
  • Les Tragiques (1616)
  • Avantures du Baron de Faeneste
  • Confession catholique du sieur de Sancy
  • Sa vie à ses enfants

More details of the works of the poet can be found on the website of the Association of friends of Agrippa d’Aubigné:

L’association créée en décembre 1986 ( loi de 1901) "a pour vocation d'étudier et de faire connaître l’œuvre d’Agrippa d’Aubigné".   A ce titre elle organise, environ tous les deux ans, sur l’œuvre d’A. d'Aubigné, ou sur celles de ses contemporains - écrivains, artistes ou artisans, magistrats, serviteurs du roi ou hommes d'église - des Journées d’Etude ou des Colloques et publie la revue annuelle Albineana, Cahiers d’Aubigné (Champion-Slatkine, actuellement éditeur). Un numéro sur deux publie les Actes des Journées d’Etude ou des Colloques, le second étant consacré à des études générales, dites VARIA. Chaque numéro publie généralement une bibliographie albinéenne.  A la Médiathèque de la Ville de Niort, l’Association a créé un Centre de Documentation qui a pour objectif d’archiver les travaux qui paraissent sur l’œuvre, la famille et l’époque d’A. d’Aubigné.

 

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