Tag Archives: 17th century

From China to Paris: a 1693 account of one woman’s journey

We recently completed cataloging the Saint-Sulpice Collection at the Newberry Library, which contains about 2,500 pamphlets and manuscripts chiefly in French that are nearly all biographical. These items, dating from the 16th to early 19th centuries, were collected and eventually bound into volumes by the Sulpician priests of Paris and used as educational models to teach their seminarians rhetorical writing skills.

While it is unsurprising that the Sulpicians would collect biographical pamphlets on kings and saints, the Saint-Sulpice Collection also contains pamphlets on both the notorious, such as infamous poisoners, and obscure. One such example of the latter is an anonymous manuscript letter regarding the past travails of a Chinese woman in Paris identified only as Ina (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8).

Lettre de Mademoiselle *** a Made. *** contenant l'histoire de la Chinoise (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8)

According to the letter, Ina was born in Beijing to a noble family and married a man at a young age of similar noble birth. During a journey down the coast to Nanjing with her husband and young son, she and her party were attacked by Dutch pirates. While her husband was killed during the skirmish, Ina, her son, and a number of servants were captured and taken on board. Although most of her possessions were taken from her, she was treated well for a time.

However, subsequent captains and crew mistreated her during many years of life at sea. Eventually, her son and all of her servants died of a fever. During a port stop in Paris, Ina was paraded around the city, where both the ship’s crew and the citizens of Paris stared at and jostled her now tattered traditional Chinese clothing. The crew abandoned her in Paris without money or possessions.

While Ina and her Chinese culture are exoticized throughout the text, some moments of human compassion are apparent, such as the moment when a nun finds Ina alone and destitute on a Parisian street and offers her shelter. The anonymous correspondent offers these reflections:

Compren[n]ez, s’il vous plait, dans quel désespoir vne femme qui est née auec du bien, qui a esté touiours heur[eu]se, et qui a de la naissance, se trouue réduite, au milieu de la rüe, pendans la nuit, au coeur de l[']hiuer, dans une des plus grandes villes du monde, sans argent, sans connoissances, sans pouuoir dire un seul mot de la langue, du païs à six milles lieuës du sien, et sans pouuoir demander du secours au vray Dieu qu’elle n’auoit pas encore le bonheur de connoistre.

[Understand, if you will, the despair of a high-born, wealthy woman, who was always happy, and now finds herself reduced to nothing, out in the street at night in the middle of winter in one of the largest cities in the world, without money and friends, without knowing a single word of the language in a country six thousand leagues from her own, and without the ability to ask help from the true God whom she has not yet had the good fortune of knowing.] (p. [16])

The letter appears to have been sent to or originated from the convent of the Augustines de la Miséricorde de Jésus in the Saint-Marcel quarter of Paris in 1693. Presumably, the nun who discovered Ina in the streets of Paris or one of her fellow sisters is the author of the letter.

Lettre de Mademoiselle *** a Made. *** contenant l'histoire de la Chinoise (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 40 pt. 1 no. 8)

Ina became an object of fascination to many prominent members of Parisian society, as they tried to discern where she was from based on her appearance and language, which they could not identify for some time. Eventually, Ina joined the other sisters in the convent as a nun. I have been unsuccessful in finding any other documents to corroborate Ina’s story or to attest to her existence at all. But this manuscript is a fascinating document that reveals Western attitudes toward the East in late 17th-century France.

Giovanni Battista Andreini’s ‘La centaura’

Throughout the project to catalog all of the Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection I have become more and more interested in the dramas and festival pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries that are scattered throughout this collection.  One of my more recent finds is Giovanni Battista Andreini‘s La centaura (BLC 788 – Case PQ4562.A7 C46 1622).  Andreini (1576-1654) was an Italian actor, dramatist and poet, and son of the famous commedia dell’arte players Isabella and Francesco Andreini.  Anderini himself became a prominent figure in of the commedia dell’arte and by 1604 Andreini had formed his own troupe, Compagnia dei Fedeli, who were a resident company at the Gongzaga court in Mantua.  Andreini and his troupe performed in Paris beginning in 1613, through an invitation from the royal family, and were again in residence in 1622 when La centaura was premiered.

La centaura BLC 788

Andreini’s dramas are known for pushing the boundaries of traditional theatrical practices, and many of his works used music as important component.  La centura  amply demonstrates these qualities as it is divided into three acts, each of which is a different dramatic genre (Act 1-comedy, Act 2-pastorale, Act 3-tragedy) and  contains “substantial provision[s] for musical performance, including a sung prologue, finale, eight choruses and scenes sung in stile recitativo.” (New Grove dict. of music and musicians I, p. 625)

Cataloging this work was interesting because at first it was not clear whether it should be classified as an opera or drama (i.e. Italian literature) as is the case with many works from this time period that blur the line between play and opera. It was obvious from indications in the text that, indeed, there were portions of the work that were intended to be sung, as in the case of the prologue and choruses (as can be seen in the images below), but after a bit of research into Andreini and his works it was clear this work is a play.

La centaura prologue

La centaura - chorus


The Less naughty work of Théophile de Viau

Sometimes, the organization of the Saint-Sulpice Collection makes for interesting juxtapositions.  I mentioned in a previous post how the FRC pamphlets enable readers to piece together the stories of these, occasionally insignificant, historical figures.  The subject-based organization of Saint-Sulpice makes piecing these stories together even easier (as I touched on in my previous post regarding Louis IX). This time around I have a series of nine pamphlets on a more obscure individual, famed writer of blue poetry Théophile de Viau.  Viau was celebrated during his life, surpassing even Maleherbe as the most popular poet of 17th century France, but for reasons explained below, was largely ignored once classicism took hold in France until a brief rediscovery during the Romantic period instigated by swashbuckler author Théophile Gautier.

The pamphlets concerning Théophile de Viau represented in the Saint-Sulpice Collection pick up after his imprisonment and exile from France by Louis XII.  Viau’s relationship with the powers-that-be in France was complicated. One of the original libertines, Théophile de Viau was even more controversial than his contemporaries due to his Huguenot background. He fought against the French monarchy during the Protestant revolts of the early 17th century, but was pardoned and became a famed poet at the French court. This acceptance lasted less than five years, and Viau was officially banished in 1619. He left for England, only to be un-banished in 1620 when he returned to Paris only to be denounced by the Jesuits in 1623 and sentenced to being burned alive.  Viau prudently decided not to appear before Notre Dame as the Jesuits demanded, and after attempting to flee to England was captured and thrown in the Conciergerie. This point is where the Saint-Sulpice Collection begins to chronicle Viau’s life.

Case folio BX4060.A1 .S25 ser. 1 v. 75 no. 5

Uniquely, these pamphlets (many written by Viau himself or at least published under his name) are predominantly poetic in nature, and despite the controversy surrounding the sexually explicit and often heretical content of his work, the Sulpitians seem to have collected only pamphlets published in support of Viau.  (I’ll leave an analysis of why this might have been the case to the reader’s imagination) These poems are generally entreaties to the King, insisting that Viau has changed his ways, accepted Catholicism, and now understands that it was inappropriate to write so many naughty verses.

Case folio BX4060.A1 .S25 ser. 1 v. 75 no. 9

One rather interesting item amongst these pamphlets concerning Théophile de Viau is one written in response to his “apologetic” poetry by Tircis, a pseudonym of an as-yet unidentified friend of Théophile (Case folio BX4060.A1 .S25 ser. 1 v. 75 no. 9). This item expresses concern that Viau is more concerned with his own entertainment than he is with actually defending himself or getting out of prison.  Unfortunately, this item is incomplete. Indeed, the situation concerning Viau’s imprisonment was deadly serious: Jesuit François Garasse was attempting to prove that Viau’s poems contained coded references to homosexuality, an offense that could have incurred the death penalty.

Ultimately, Garasse’s efforts were unsuccessful, and support for Viau from other influential thinkers increased, spurring many of the pamphlets collected at the Newberry on the subject. Viau was permanently exiled from Paris in 1625 and died only one year later. His irreverent poetry was not well received by the classicists, and thus languished in obscurity until the romantic period.

For favorites, pride goeth before a fall

For your consideration, two cautionary tales.

Royal favorites—whether confidants, lovers, or powerful political lieutenants—were magnets for controversy, their rise and fall followed closely by politicos and populace alike. In quick succession, the Saint Sulpice Collection has recently offered up pamphlets dealing with a couple of these characters.

The first, La disgrace de Baradas (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 6 no. 6) of 1626, lambastes François de Baradas (1602-1684), the handsome officer of the royal household who was Louis XIII’s first love. Written as an allegory in the voice of “Maistre Bontemps,” La disgrace de Baradas mercilessly takes to task “ces petits Phaetonneax d’orgueil & d’ambition” (these little Phaëtons of pride and ambition) who overreach and get their comeuppance. It took only six months for Baradas to fall from favor, either for fighting an illegal duel or for taking other lovers; the sources disagree. This episode made “la fortune de Baradas” a French idiom for short-lived good fortune.

The second pamphlet, the Histoire admirable, et declin pitoyable aduenu en la personne d’vn fauory de la Cour d’Espagne (Case folio BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 12 no. 7), tells the tale of Rodrigo Calderón (1580s-1621), secretary to Francisco Gómez de Sandoval, Duke of Lerma, who was, in turn, the royal favorite or valido of King Philip III of Spain. Wielding enormous political power, Lerma left much of the work—and eventually its consequences—to his trusted secretary. The duke was savvy enough to seek out a cardinalship, giving him ecclesiastical immunity from prosecution, so when he fell from power in 1618 he couldn’t be touched. His enemies, instead, set upon Calderón, who was convicted of several murders and a host of lesser charges. The Histoire admirable is devoted mostly to the pitiable decline (ever the more interesting part), specifically Calderón’s torture and execution in 1621, along with details of what became of his wealth.

Like Baradas, Calderón contributed to his nation’s lexicon.  He took his death sentence with such bravery (bravado?), that even today a person who is immoderately proud is said to “tener más orgullo que Don Rodrigo en la horca” (be prouder than Don Rodrigo on the scaffold).