- Performance, Poetry and Politics on the Queen's Day: Catherine de Médicis and Pierre de Ronsard at Fontainebleau
In February, 1564, Queen Catherine de Médicis, who was about to embark upon a two-year journey of reconciliation throughout the kingdom with her son, the young king, Charles IX, organized an elaborate festival intended to promote good will among the warring nobles of France. Performance, Poetry and Politics on the Queen's Day, a series of interrelated essays recounting the events of this special day, is valuable as much for its form as its content: as much for demonstrating the advantages of interdisciplinary study as for shedding light on the queen's strategies for creating concord within the divided kingdom through this particular event. In alternating chapters, literary specialist Sara Sturm-Maddox and theatre historian Virginia Scott exhaustively analyse the two performances believed to have been held on the Queen's Day. Their densely researched study recreates the tense and complicated background of religious strife against which the plays reveal their meanings, and illuminates [End Page 250] the fabulously complex relationships between politics and performance at the Valois court.
In 1564, the worst of the Wars of French Religion were yet to come. Had Catherine's energetic efforts to create peace among the battling factions – such as the effort exemplified in this study – met with success early on, the queen's reputation would have been entirely different. Throughout her life, Catherine appears to have worked steadfastly for peace, always believing that it was within her grasp if only the nobles would cooperate. However, her strategies for creating harmony have been obscured by the violent controversy she aroused for her presumed role in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. After it, she was cast as a divisive agent, playing the warring sides off against each other, rather than as a mediator for peace. To the everlasting detriment of her reputation, she was unable to bring the powerful nobles to heel.
This study thus supplements our knowledge of Catherine's creative modes of operation. But it also adds a little-discussed dimension to the popular image of Pierre Ronsard, author of the first of the pieces performed on that day, the dramatic poem, Bergerie. Ronsard's interventions in politics have been largely overshadowed by his fame as a lyric poet. This study, however, clarifies the extent to which the poet was active in the promotion of royal policy. Despite his fame, he had difficulty obtaining royal preferment early in his career (his epic the Franciade was never completed). Finally in 1558 he assumed a public role with a royal pension as a chronicler of the events of his day. Still, the Bergerie was his last attempt at a poetic play, and his attempts to create national peace generally have been forgotten.
The first chapter, 'Setting the Scene', sets out the historical context of the Queen's Day festival. Meant to effect reconciliation among the houses of Guise, Bourbon and Montmorency, which had entered into conflict after the death of Henri II in 1559, the festival encouraged loyalty to the crown through the performances it presented. Chapter 2, 'The Prince of Poets and the Medici Queen', complements the historical contextualization of the preceding chapter with information on Ronsard's lyric career and Italian literary interests, and it traces how these appealed to Catherine in her search for an idiom through which to express her political programme.
Chapters 3 and 4, 'Carlin the Shepherd-King: Pastoral at Fontainebleau' and 'Performing Bergerie', address more specifically Ronsard's contribution to the festival. A script of Bergerie remains, however, no definitive proof that it was actually performed at the festival. First, Sturm-Maddox offers an interpretation [End Page 251] of this pastoral as a means of promoting peace. In the matching chapter, Scott presents her case that the piece was performed. Except for the young king, the royal children served as...