- Le Cinquiesme Tome des ‘Histoires tragiques’par François de Belleforest
Translated into German, English, Spanish, and Dutch, pirated, anthologized, and widely imitated, François de Belleforest’s multi-volume Histoires tragiquesconstituted one of the most notable publishing successes of the late sixteenth century. From 1559 to 1570, initially with Pierre Boaistuau and then independently, Belleforest produced modified versions of Matteo Bandello’s tales, which he freely altered, selecting, as he put it, ‘les perles d’emmy un fumier et ordure’ ( Tome premier, 1567, 101 v). From the Quatriesme Tome(1571) he included narratives developed from other sources. As Hervé-Thomas Campangne’s substantial and enlightening Introduction shows, both kinds of material undoubtedly served as important nodal points in the dissemination and transmission of cultural memories. They helped to forge the iconic status of figures such as Hamlethus, prince of Denmark, Vlasta the Amazon, or Mustapha, and develop such modern myths as the bon sauvage, the desert island (through the story of Marguerite de Roberval, a precursor of Robinson Crusoe), and the Ottoman ‘Other’. Campangne notes a structure of six carefully arranged pairs of short stories, constituting six ‘pérégrinations historico-géographiques’ (p. xv) ranging from medieval to recent events and crossing three continents, thereby forming part of Belleforest’s wider authorial project of encompassing all periods and places through his Histoire universelleand his Cosmographie universelle. Whether ‘tragiques’ or ‘prodigieuses’, the ‘histoires’ as micro-history complement ‘la grande Histoire’, bringing into close focus aspects of human behaviour which Belleforest could not fully develop in his weightier works. In his four-part Introduction, Campangne explores several crucial strands of Belleforest’s concept of the histoire tragiqueand the place it occupied within the broader literary scene, most notably its two-way links to tragedy, its kinship with mythological narrative, and its marked preoccupation with truth, justice, and legal discourse (‘Témoignages’). In this last section, following on the work of Thierry Pech on judicial discourse and histoire tragique( French Studies, 55.4 (2001), 535–36), and his own earlier articles, Campangne accords particular attention to Belleforest’s examination of two contemporary French crimes that were brought to trial: Jean de Ligoure’s slaughter of his entire family and servants, and the gang-rape of a respectable married woman in Angers. He highlights Belleforest’s insistence on the veracity of his version, derived partially from print sources, partially from eye-witness accounts (invented if necessary), and his own direct observations, thus casting himself in the role of ‘témoin, enquêteur et procureur’ (p. lxxxviii). Belleforest successfully exploited historical material to comment not merely on the human condition and the nature of man, but also, from a relativist or specular perspective, on contemporary French society. However, the analysis of events close to home had obvious advantages and considerable reader appeal — later practitioners of the genre, especially François Rosset and Jean-Pierre Camus, were to ramp up this ‘actualité’ dimension in their collections. This impeccably presented edition and its important Introduction reinforce Belleforest’s position as a pivotal figure in the development of the histoire [End Page 238] tragique. Beyond that, it also provides a fascinating, closely documented study of the interconnectedness of the evolving genres in late-sixteenth-century France.