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  • Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751
  • Paula Wheeler Carlo
Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751. By Neil Kamil (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005) 1058 pp. $75.00

Kamil's innovative historical monograph richly deserves to be described as interdisciplinary. He deftly interweaves religious, scientific, political, and economic history with geography, demography, genealogy, and cultural anthropology, generously interspersed with provocative analysis of material culture, the visual arts, music, and esoteric texts in this profusely illustrated volume.

Kamil's study begins in sixteenth-century France amidst Protestant–Catholic confessional violence. The end of the Religious Wars and the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598 heralded a truce for the Huguenots. Thirty years later, their military might was broken during the devastating siege of their stronghold at La Rochelle. Subsequently, [End Page 279] Huguenots in southwestern France devised ways to live, work, and worship in secret. Their intensely private, metaphysical faith was influenced by continental pietism and the arcane knowledge of Bernard Palissy, potter, alchemist, and natural philosopher. For Palissy, the snail was emblematic of the Huguenots, carrying a "portable fortress" and surviving by "dissimulation and camouflage" (5). Although they could worship openly in England, Huguenot artisans were sometimes targeted by native artisans fearing competition. Hence, they bypassed the guilds through underground economic networks much like those they had used in France. As Kamil explains, William Hogarth's painting, "Noon, L'Eglise des Grecs, Hog Lane, Soho," in which the Huguenots recede into the shadows as they exit the French Church, illustrates this secrecy.

The tide of Huguenot migration intensified in the 1680s as persecution mounted in France and culminated with Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The closing chapters carry the story to the environs of New York City. But the Huguenots' New World was not encompassed by geographical boundaries. Rather, it consisted of a new mentalité, based on a deeply spiritual, often mystical, theology and material culture.

Kamil challenges the standard thesis that the Huguenots rapidly assimilated, even vanished, in their places of refuge.1 This alleged disappearance was purposely cultivated as a survival mechanism. Huguenot identity was preserved by artisans who created distinctive styles and whose handiwork "hid in plain sight" symbolic images, like the snail (711). For example, Huguenot-crafted cupboards were outsized, even inefficient in design. These movables had many shadowy compartments that could function as a memory fortress. Eventually, non-Huguenot artisans adopted Huguenot styles in their furniture for colonial elites, thereby perpetuating Huguenot influence. Kamil probes Huguenot connections with Quakerism, another persecuted sect attractive to artisans, rather than the more heavily examined and more extensive Huguenot–Anglican connection. In sum, his interpretation of the Huguenot experience and his methodology are highly original.

Deeply researched, elegantly written, and brilliantly conceived, Fortress of the Soul is a major contribution to numerous disciplines, including intellectual history, Huguenot studies, the Atlantic World, and research on early modern and colonial material culture.

Paula Wheeler Carlo
Nassau Community College


1. For example, see Jon Butler, The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 199-215.



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