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  • Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Culture in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751
  • Bertrand Van Ruymbeke
Neil Kamil . Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Culture in the Huguenots' New World, 1517–1751. Early America: History, Context, Culture. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, xxiv + 1058 pp. index. illus. tbls. map. $75. ISBN: 0–8018–7390–8.

In Fortress of the Soul Neil Kamil carefully weaves transatlantic threads between Huguenot France, especially La Rochelle and its hinterland (the provinces of Aunis and Saintonge), and the New World. This is not a book on the Huguenot diaspora (or Refuge) per se but a history of the ties, tangible and immaterial, between France's Protestant minority and the Anglo-American Atlantic world from the early days of the Reformation to the mid-eighteenth century, when Huguenot refugees in North America and Britain started to become less visible. The book is ambitious, reflects profound erudition, and is based on extensive research both in France and in New York. It draws on a multiplicity of sources, is abundantly illustrated, and each figure is accompanied by a detailed and informative caption. Kamil's innovative thesis argues that Huguenot artisans from southwestern France were the main carriers of a Huguenot subterranean and secretive culture best expressed through the artifactual and literary works of Bernard Palissy 1510-90, with apocalyptic accents and a metaphysical dimension, and which emerged in the violence of France's Catholic reconquest of Protestant bastions and was transplanted first to England and then to colonial New York. The author's thorough training in material culture enables him to offer very sophisticated analyses of furniture, especially the leather chairs in vogue in Boston and New York in the late seventeenth-century — and through meticulous description [End Page 185] he manages to identify a "hidden in plain sight" (title of chapter 15) Huguenot artisanal influence on early American material culture. The book contains fascinating passages on, among other things, the entrance of Charles IX into the fortress of La Rochelle during his royal tour of France in 1562, the devastating siege of La Rochelle in 1627-28, John Winthrop, Jr.'s library and artisanal clientele, William Hogarth's painting Noon L'église des Grecs, Hog Lane, Soho (chapter 14), and the Huguenots' capture of the New York leather chair market.

Although the Refuge is not its sole focus, Fortress of the Soul is an important contribution to the study of the French Protestant diaspora in the Atlantic world and to our understanding of Huguenot artisans' training, inspiration, and styles, as well as how these were transplanted to America. Kamil's regional and cultural approaches to the Huguenot Atlantic diaspora imaginatively sheds new light on an old topic. The regions of La Rochelle, Normandy, Dauphiné, and Eastern Languedoc were the main cultural hearths from which North American Huguenot refugees originated and any study of their migration cannot be complete without an analysis of the cultural baggage that they brought with them. Fortress of the Soul therefore provides us with a major piece of the larger diasporic puzzle. Kamil also stresses the importance of the Huguenot experience in the Anglo-American Protestant world, a role that has been largely ignored by French and Anglo-American historians for various linguistic and historiographic reasons. The fate of France's Protestant minority mattered in England and in early America as the Huguenots' successes and defeats alternatively weakened and strengthened the Protestant cause on the continent. Kamil's elaborate study of Anglo-Huguenot furniture also shows that the French merchants and artisans did more than successfully adapt to the economic context of the New World and to the settlers' tastes. The merchants controlled part of the trade while the artisans introduced a French regional artisanal style to North America. The Huguenot refugees did not just assimilate, but influenced New York's economy and artisanry through kin and regional networks.

Unfortunately the inattentive reader can lose the thread of the author's thesis due to the sometimes-Baroque prose, long chapters, and digressions. Surprisingly Kamil also does not use the most recent works on the Huguenot diaspora, relying, for example, too heavily on...


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pp. 185-186
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2009
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