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  • How Does a Woman Get into a History Book?
  • Stephen Murphy

One of the characteristic forms of historiography in early modern Europe is universal history that is also contemporary or, to use the term commonly used as a title, Historia sui temporis. That is what Paolo Giovio's history is called, that is the title of the Latin translation of Francesco Guicciardini's Storia d'Italia and of Giambattista Adriani's continuation of Giovio in Italian (Istoria de' suoi tempi), and it is the title of the hugely influential life's work of Jacques-Auguste de Thou (1553–1617). This last Historiae sui temporis, first published in eighteen books in 1603 and ultimately comprising 138 books in a posthumous 1620 edition, also influenced de Thou's contemporaries, most notably Agrippa d'Aubigné, who admits his considerable debt to de Thou in his Histoire universelle, published from 1616–1619, then in a revised edition in 1626.

In several important respects, de Thou and Aubigné follow the ancient example of Polybius. The Greek historian of the second century BCE was the contemporary of the events he narrates; he has been an actor in some of those events and has had access to other important actors for the documentation of his account; at the same time, he systematically embraces the known world as his stage, going far beyond national history. Polybius' practice combines koinē historia, or universal history, with autopsia, the ideal that the historian himself should have witnessed or experienced what he narrates.1

Among the heirs of Polybius, de Thou especially strives for totality: he has chosen for his subject everything judged to be important between the 1540s and 1607, and geographically he ranges from Florida to Persia, with several circumnavigations of the globe. Aubigné covers an only slightly shorter chronology, although with somewhat less detail than his Latin contemporary. With regard to autopsia, de Thou is occasionally present in his text as actor and witness, but he tries to make his gaze appear as a neutral one and advertises his freedom from passion. On the other hand, Aubigné makes his presence felt throughout the Histoire universelle, as a partisan (warrior and counselor) as well as an historian at work.

What holds together the varied subject matter of this kind of historiography is a principle of comparability. Although its annalistic structure (the events of 1547, then of 1548, and so on) may tend to obscure a linear plot or quasi-plot (in Paul Ricœur's term),2 de Thou's larger concerns do become clear. The historical facts (faits historiques) that compose his text can be [End Page 113] divided into the five classes distinguished by Krzysztof Pomian: individuals, forms (such as institutions), relations, trajectories, and singularities (or events).3 So, for example, similar trajectories can be observed first towards greater fanaticism, intolerance, and violence but then towards peace through contrary values in France, the Low Countries, England, and the German world. Institutions like the Paris Parlement (with its Gallican tradition) and the government of Venice (with its tradition of republican autonomy) are comparable in their resistance to papal and Spanish hegemony.

When it comes to individuals, a huge cast of characters exists but not an unlimited number of roles. One might ask: what kinds of women are included alongside the men who far outnumber them? Speaking schematically, for de Thou two classes of women deserve inclusion in his History: the important individuals possessing power, as one might expect, but also largely anonymous groups of women.

These collectivities comprise women behaving heroically, especially at sieges. In his account of the Turkish siege of the Hungarian city of Eger (Agria) in 1552, de Thou moves from the collective force of women to one particular heroic woman and finally to her daughter who, after her mother is killed, finishes the task of hurling a large rock.4 All these heroic women, as a group and individually, remain nameless. De Thou's repetition of this motif, ranging across Europe and with many variations, but generally involving defense of a besieged town or city, is one of the more striking commonplaces of his History. At the siege of La Rochelle in 1573, women...


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