Jean de Léry (1534-1613?)
1578 .L47 (Click on the call number to view digital facsimile)
Histoire d'un voyage
fait en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite Amerique....
A La Rochelle: Pour Antoine Chuppin, 1578
"Quant a son fruit
que les Sauvages nomment Paco, il est de
plus de demi pied de long, de forme assez ressemblant
à un Coucombre, & ainsi iaune quand il
est meur: toutefois croissans vingt ou vingt cinq
serrez tous ensemble en une seule branche.... "
Translation: "Its fruit, which the savages
call paco, is more than half a foot long; when it
is ripe, it is yellow and rather resembles a cucumber.
Twenty or twenty-five of them grow close together
on a single branch" (trans. Janet Whatley,
To a reader who sees bananas
every day, this passage seems curious, but Jean de Léry
(1534-1613?) set out to describe them for sixteenth-century
French readers, few of whom would ever see the actual
fruit. His Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre
du Bresil, autrement dite Amerique attempted to
provide French readers with an accurate description
of exotic plants and animals of the new world, and a
sympathetic but shocking cannibalistic people. The
Gordon copy is a very rare first edition of Léry’s
family, with their hammock bed in the background,
and in the foreground a pineapple, "la figure
du fruict qu'ils nomment Ananas, lequel [...]
est des meilleurs que produise ceste terre du Bresil."
Born in 1534
in Margelle (Bourgogne), Jean de Léry's life
changed radically when he decided in 1556 to accompany
a group of Calvinist ministers and faithful to Brazil.
We know little of Léry's life before this choice,
but it seems unlikely that he was from an important
family or that he received an extensive education.
In Geneva, he was possibly working as a shoemaker
and studying theology. Léry left for Brazil
with thirteen others in November 1556, headed for
the colony founded the year before by Nicolas Durand,
Chevalier de Villegagnon.
Although Villegagnon had promised the Protestants
religious freedom, he quickly began to contest their
beliefs and persecute them. After eight months, the
Protestants left the colony (located on an island
in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro) and spent two months
living on the mainland in close proximity to the Tupinamba
Indians (Tupi) of the region. Their return home, in
an unseaworthy vessel, became a harrowing voyage.
These experiences were the origin of Léry's
Histoire d'un voyage.
After returning to France, Léry married, apparently
unhappily, became a Protestant minister, and joined
with Protestant troops in France's religious wars.
One of his most difficult experiences, the siege of
Sancerre, became the subject of his first published
work, the Histoire mémorable de la ville
de Sancerre (1574). Léry recounted that
his Brazilian experience served him well, as he taught
his fellow soldiers to make hammocks and eat anything,
even the soles of their shoes. He remained shocked
by cannibalism, however, especially when committed
by members of his own supposedly civilized culture.
plorans la biernvenue" (traditional greeting
for newcomers to a Toupinamba village)
Léry did not publish
an account of his experiences in Brazil until 1578.
He explained that this was due to a combination of
circumstances: the wars and the loss of his original
manuscript. He felt forced, however, to publish his
version of events in response to the 1575 publication
of the Cosmographie universelle of André
Thevet, a Catholic observer who had left
Brazil before Léry's arrival. Thevet had blamed
the Calvinists for the failure of Villegagnon's colony,
conquered by the Portuguese in 1560. Léry's
Histoire d'un voyage defended the Protestants
and blamed Villegagnon and his aides for the colony's
While religious polemic was an underlying pretext of the
book, another of its most fascinating aspects is its
description of the flora and fauna of Brazil as well
as the life of the Tupi. Léry's descriptions
of the Tupi were so detailed that anthropologist Claude
Lévy-Strauss would later refer to the Histoire
d'un voyage as "the breviary of the ethnographer."
Léry also served as a source for sixteenth-century
de Montaigne's famed "Des
Léry reedited and added to his Histoire
d'un voyage multiple times, with editions in
1580, 1585, 1600 and 1611. Many of his additions took
the form of religious polemic; others found parallels
between the Brazilian culture and those of other American
English translation of the Histoire
Léry, Jean de. History of a Voyage to the
Land of Brazil. Translation and introduction by Janet
Whatley. Berkeley: University of Californina Press, 1993.
Certeau, Michel de. L'écriture de l'histoire.
Paris: Gallimard, 1975.
Jeanneret, Michel. "Léry et Thevet: comment
parler díun monde nouveau?" Mélanges
à la mémoire de Franco Simone IV: Tradition
et originalité dans la création littéraire.
Geneva: Slatkine, 1984. 227-45.
Lestringant, Frank. "L'Excursion brésilienne,
note sur les trois premières éditions de
L'Histoire díun voyage de Jean de Léry,
1578-1585." Mélanges sur la littérature
de la Renaissance à la mémoire de V.-L.
Saulnier. Geneva: Droz, 1984. 53-72.
---. Le Huguenot et le sauvage. Paris: Aux
amateurs du livre, 1990.
Majer, Irma Stazer. "La fin des voyages: écriture
et souvenirs chez Jean de Léry." Revue
des sciences humaines. 90 (1989): 71-83.
Tinguely, Frédéric. "Jean de Léry
et les vestiges de la pensée analogique."
Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance.
57 (1995): 25-44.
Whatley, Janet. "Food and the Limits of Civility:
The Testimony of Jean de Léry." Sixteenth
Century Journal. 15 (1984): 387-400.
---. "Une révence réciproque: Huguenot
Writing on the New World." University of Toronto
Quarterly. 57 (1987-99): 270-89.
Annotated excerpt from an early English translation
of Léry’s account of Brazil in the Norton
Anthology of English Literature:
Transcription of the second editon of the Histoire:
Agrégation 2000, Jean de Léry, Bibliographie
selective établi par Frank LESTRINGANT:
Material on this page was generously provided
by Elsa Conrad.
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