- Société et mentalités autour de Henri III
When it first appeared in a limited edition in 1981, Jacqueline Boucher’s dissertation represented a significant break from the traditional representations of [End Page 554] the French King Henri III as the effeminate coward who had the Duke of Guise murdered by his guards while he hid behind a curtain and inadvertently saved France for absolutism. While some historians of previous generations had attempted to present him more sympathetically, none had ever published a serious study of the man or his reign firmly rooted in the available sources. Her work met that need, and encouraged a new generation of scholars to take a more balanced view of her subject. And while this work has been superseded in some ways over the past quarter century, it is still a valuable source, and Champion’s decision to reprint it is most welcome.
Aside from an addition to the bibliography to cover key works published since 1981, the text itself is the same as in the original edition. Given the number of studies relating to Henri III that have appeared since then, this is somewhat disappointing, since it would be interesting to see how Boucher would have revised her interpretations in response to them. Some scholars have followed her lead and attempted to rehabilitate Henri III to one degree or another, depicting him as more rational, practical, and effective ruler than traditionally assumed, and a good deal less dissolute than contemporary or later caricatures would have him. Together with Boucher, these authors were in turn sometimes accused of protesting too much, and more negative appraisals of him have continued to appear. However, the strength of Boucher’s work is in her extensive use of a wide range of primary source materials, and her interpretations of her evidence remain as sensible as they were to begin with.
What Boucher did particularly well was to bring her subject down to earth. She worked carefully through not only the usual letters, diaries, memoirs, diplomatic correspondence, and published histories from the period that had provided the basis for earlier accounts, but through more mundane archival records dealing with the costs of maintaining the king’s household and court, the size and population of the court itself, and the specific activities that the king, his family, servants, advisers, officials, and general hangers-on engaged in from day to day. What emerged from all of this was a remarkably well ordered community led by a monarch with a surprisingly strong work ethic and sense of duty. Instead of alternating between whiling away his days in illicit activities with his mignons and engaging in theatrical religious exercises, Henri seems to have spent most of his time at work. He had decreed early in his reign that he would read all dispatches that came in and all that went out, and seems to have taken that policy seriously. He spent a good deal of time closeted with his secretaries and advisers, and engaged in serious efforts to address the complaints of his subjects by reforming the fiscal and legal systems of his kingdom. Even when he retired from court to spend time in monasteries, which he did with some regularity in order to escape some of the pressures of the court and to restore his health, he took secretaries with him and continued to keep up with his correspondence in a manner not so very different from that of his contemporary, Philip II of Spain.
Unlike Philip, however, Henri III was intellectually and culturally eclectic, interested in the arts, especially philosophy and literature, and maintained a palace academy dedicated to those subjects that attracted many of the most creative [End Page 555] individuals in the kingdom. He had been favorably impressed by Italian court culture, and imported a good deal of it to France, something not always appreciated by his contemporaries. He also carefully structured his daily schedule to...