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Discours merveilleux de la vie, actions et deportemens de Catherine de Medicis Royne mere

Gordon 1575 .E78

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Discours merveilleux de la vie, actions & deportemens de Catherine de Medicis Royne mere, Auquel sont recitez les moyens qu'elle a tenu pour usurper le gouuernement du Royaume de France, & ruiner l'estat d'iceluy.








The 1575 copy of the Discours Merveilleux de la vie, actions et deportements de Catherine de Medicis Royne Mere represents the first, extant French edition of a polemical pamphlet that attracted enormous attention immediately upon its publication.  Issued soon after the death of Charles IX (1574), it was to all appearances written by an author who lived in Paris at the time, and was thus witness to the political and religious upheavals that agitated the capital during the first half the 1570s.  Conventionally attributed to Henri Estienne – scion of the Estienne printing dynasty in Paris, Hellenist, and a reformist – the earliest extant versions of the Discours Merveilleux bear an imprint date of 1575, but the text may have been circulated in print as early as 1574.  Between 1575 and 1579, at least 9 French editions were published, and the text appeared in English, Latin, and German versions as early as 1575.  Modeled satirically on a Latin “Saint’s life” or legenda, the Discours Merveilleux purports to expose the devious and perverse character of Catherine de Medici, which threatens to lead to the destruction of the French kingdom.  At once an anti-Italian and misogynist assault on the Queen Mother, the Discours Merveilleux represents one of the foundational texts behind the notorious image of Catherine as the Black Queen.

Although it is largely presumed that the present edition was the first version of the text to be published, at least one scholar has suggested that the Latin version may have circulated first.  The 1575 French edition, in this case, would represent a strategic translation that specifically targeted a popular French audience.  Likewise, although authorship of the French text is usually credited to the reformist Estienne, both historical and textual evidence trouble this attribution, at least for the first 1575 edition.  The pamphlet was ostensibly published anonymously; like all 1575 copies, the Gordon imprint gives no author’s name, nor does it list the place of publication or the name of the printer.  Whereas the 1576 French edition, which was heavily reworked from the 1575 version, shows revisions that strongly suggest the anonymous editor’s reformist convictions, the religious leanings of the 1575 edition are more obscure.  On the one hand, readers from the sixteenth century on have assumed that such vindictive libel against the Queen Mother most likely would have been the work of those who felt most oppressed by her, namely the Protestants, especially in the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572).  On the other, in the power vacuum left by the death of Charles IX, the Queen Mother was incurring the animosity of both Catholics and Protestants.  As the contemporary chronicler Pierre de L’Estoile noted in a September 1574 entry in his Journal, pamphlets against the Queen’s person were welcomed by Catholics and Huguenots alike, “…tant le nom de ceste femme estoit odieux au peuple….”  The voice of the 1575 Discours Merveilleux ultimately reveals little about the religious inclinations of the author, who at times seems to address the Catholics as “nous” and the Huguenots as “eux” or “leur,” while at others to reverse this identification of “us” and “them.” 

There remains at the very least, then, the possibility that the anonymous author could have been a Catholic, which throws Estienne’s authorship into question.  That Estienne was in Geneva during the year 1572-1574, and thus ill-equipped to follow closely the affairs of Paris during those years, and that he explicitly pursued French court patronage as early as 1576, also casts some doubt on his authorship of a libelous tract against the Queen Mother.  Other possible authors – including Théodore de Bèze and Jean de Serres – as well as a collaboration among multiple authors, have been proposed and disputed.  Due to the lack of definitive evidence, however, the authorship of the Discours Merveilleux remains to this day a mystery.

Whoever the author may have been, the 1575 Discours Merveilleux is best characterized as political rather than religious invective.  The focus of its calumny is Catherine de Medici who, as the pamphlet makes clear from its title page, has “usurped the government of the Kingdom of France” and is solely responsible for the “ruin of the State.”  Catherine is the text’s primary object; the work tends to exonerate, for example, fervent Catholics such as the Guises, and portrays Charles IX merely as Catherine’s hapless victim. The 1575 pamphlet leads the reader from Catherine’s inauspicious birth – where it was foretold that she would be the “ruin of her house in the country where she would marry” – to her orphaned childhood, to her years as queen consort, regent for the young Charles IX, counselor during his reign, and finally usurper of the regency before the ascendancy of Henri III.  In the course of its 164 pages, the narrative develops the myriad libelous images of Catherine de Medici that have led to her notorious legacy:  as a woman of ruthless jealousy and ambition, a master dissimulator, an unnatural and corrupting mother, the murderess of multiple notables of the kingdom (through her favorite instrument of poison, no less), and the principal, and even the sole cause of the numerous wars of religion that have plagued the kingdom since mid-century.


The anti-Italianism that marks the entire Discours Merveilleux is present from the opening pages of the pamphlet.  According to the text, Catherine’s corrupt influence is ethnically determined, stemming not simply from her gender, but from her inherently perverse Italian nature.  Anti-Italian sentiment was running high during this period, fueled by both French Catholics and Protestants who perceived in Italian nationals a convenient “other” against which to deflect their group animosity; consequently, Italians frequently found themselves caught up in mob violence by French Catholics that was otherwise directed against Protestants and vice versa.  One of the many anti-Italian tracts in circulation during this period, the Discours Merveilleux participates in this French xenophobia by identifying Catherine’s particular brand of malevolence, manipulation, and dissimulation as uniquely Italian –and moreover particularly Florentine – following in the footsteps of her uncles Leo X and Clement VII, and in the guise of that other famous Florentine, Machiavelli.  As one critic has noted, one particularly venomous strain of French anti-Italianism in this period adopted a vocabulary previously associated with anti-Semitism, thereby displacing anti-Semitism onto the Italian, and linking the “foreignness” of the Italian with that of the Jew.  Remarkably, the Discours Merveilleux begins to head in this direction, labeling the Medici repeatedly as merchants adept in “usury,” a trope commonly found in anti-Semitic writing.  It is perhaps not surprising that one of the accusations leveled against Catherine is that she took as her lover the Florentine Gondi, a Marran, that is, a convert from Judaism.

If the Discours Merveilleux claims not to dwell on the inherent vices of women, it does betray nonetheless an acute and pervasive misogyny.  This comes to the fore particularly in the final pages of the pamphlet in which the narrator compares the disastrous regency of Brunehault, the seventh-century Visigothic queen who assumed power over the Francs, with that of Catherine.  The narrator draws the comparison explicitly point by point: both are “foreigners,” Brunehault originally from Spain and Catherine from Italy; both prove themselves impious and mercilessly ambitious; both treacherously murder their rivals by sword or by poison; both women are governed by uncontrollable lust and scandalously take foreign lovers.  At the end of the text, the narrator uses Brunehault to make a cold prediction about Catherine.  Brunehault was ultimately torn to pieces, dragged through the dirt by a horse.  Who in their hearts, the narrator asks, does not wish for an even more brutal death for Catherine?


The Discours Merveilleux explicitly gives itself a nationalist and salutary objective.  In the preface, the author claims to write the pamphlet in order to expose Catherine’s treachery and prevent further harm to the kingdom; in the concluding pages he calls upon all the Princes of the Blood, and all Frenchmen to recognize that they are “tous François” and – in spite of religious differences – to proceed with one heart and overthrow the woman who sows discord and fratricide within France.  In the Discours Merveilleux, Catherine de Medici thus becomes an anti-heroine through which the text imagines, in the intersection of misogyny and xenophobia, a unified France and a cohesive French identity.









Discours Merveilleux de la vie, actions et deportements de Catherine de Médicis, Royne-mère. Ed. Nicole Cazauran.  Droz: Genève, 1995.

ffolliott, Sheila. “Exemplarity and Gender:  Three Lives of Queen Catherine de’Medici.”  The Rhetorics of Life-Writing in Early Modern Europe:  Forms of Biography from Cassandra Fedele to Louis XIV.  Ed. D.R. Woolf.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michgian Press, 1995.

Heller, Henry.  Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth-Century France.  Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Huchon, Mireille.  “Vie de Sainte Catherirne ou Discours merveilleux:  Les Avatars d’un pamphlet.”  Traditions Polémiques.  Ed. Nicole Cazauran.  Paris:  Ecole Normale Supérieure de Jeunes Filles, 1985. 


Materials on this page were generously contributed by Leah Chang, George Washington University (2007).


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