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Jean de Léry (1534-1613?)

Gordon 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, p. 105).

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 Histoire.



Tupi 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.

"Ameriquaines 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 failure.

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 essayist Michel de Montaigne's famed "Des cannibales."

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 tribes.

---Elsa Conrad


English translation of the Histoire d’un voyage:

Léry, Jean de. History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil. Translation and introduction by Janet Whatley. Berkeley: University of Californina Press, 1993.

Further Reading:

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.

Internet Resources:

• Annotated excerpt from an early English translation of Léry’s account of Brazil in the Norton Anthology of English Literature: http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/16century/topic_2/delery.htm

• Transcription of the second editon of the Histoire: http://www.mafua.ufsc.br/BT1730002.html

• Agrégation 2000, Jean de Léry, Bibliographie selective établi par Frank LESTRINGANT: http://193.52.215.193/sfdes/sfdes/Biblery.htm


Material on this page was generously provided by Elsa Conrad.


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