Rustic Artisans and the Diffusion of Paracelsian Discourses to New Worlds
To stay in the woods was impossible, for I had been robbed so completely of everything that I could no longer subsist there. Nothing was left except a few books that lay scattered pell-mell here and there.
— HANS JAKOB CHRISTOPH VON GRIMMELSHAUSEN,
The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus
The natural-philosophical paradigm associated with the German-Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus, born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493?-1541), found a particularly receptive audience among early modern Protestant artisans.1 Paracelsianism operated on at least two levels that Huguenot artisans found compelling during the interminable war years of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: one metaphysical, the other (for want of a better word) ideological. Palissy showed that he embraced both completely in his work.2 The metaphysics of Paracelsianism rested on the Neoplatonic foundation associated with the christianizing Florentine humanist-philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–99)—a protégé of the great Renaissance patron Cosimo de’ Medici (and his successors)—whose astrological formulations of the infinite movements and aspirations of the universal soul (the “bond and knot” of the cosmos) as it circulated between the complex hierarchies of substances descending from the purity of God to corrupt matter was appropriated by Paracelsus in the early sixteenth century and then adapted to the Germanic context. Above all, the Paracelsians absorbed Ficino’s soulish concepts from Theologia platónica (1482), Epistolae (1495), and his medical and astrological treatise De vita libri tres (1489), all of which were commentaries on sacramentality in the natural world and secular material life, through the analogy of the macrocosm and the microcosm.3
Ficino’s Christianization of Plato, therefore, centered on the subtle operation of aspiring souls in the material world; that is, the corporification of spirit. Plato’s system of intelligible reality was superseded by Ficino’s monistic universe, given coherence by the soul’s quest through matter as it climbed toward God’s purity at the apex of the macrocosm. Ficino’s metaphysics thus privileged soulish experience by stressing the primacy of hidden realities in everyday life. This resonated deeply with Palissy and other Protestant Paracelsians during the religious wars, because Ficino characterized the essential condition of man’s inner life as a melancholy combination of grief, pain, and unrest—a condition, under the sign of Saturn, that exists beneath even the most polished public performance of social interaction or commerce.
Man’s external impressions of Nature and history amplified inner sorrow. Because sensible things were fallacious except when viewed by a soul unfettered by corruption in the lower zones of human and natural bodies, all man perceived with bodily (as opposed to soulish) eyes was a shadow world of forms attenuated by chaos, disorder, and obscurity of purpose. Forms thus became more diffuse as they emanated further away from their origin in God. Still, dialectical consciousness of this inner reality of grief and pain led to the soul’s aspirations toward the higher realities of divine joy, perfection, and visibility. When the soul was animated by such resonance, whether dissonant or harmonic, it ascended toward love, purity, and light. If man’s inner condition of pain and disquietude resonated with similar conditions as the outer world of events and personal experience, then, with discipline, as was the case in Palissy’s narrative of his own personal history, it was possible to accelerate the process toward consciousness, soulish epiphany, and synthesis of macrocosm and microcosm. Here was the domain of the philosopher magus: that hidden self-mastery wherein the soul builds a “citadel” to protect the purity of its operations and separates from the corrupting domain of the body, while still remaining within—and controlling—its outer shell.
The soul also possessed potential to overcome the various levels of corruption intrinsic to corporification through inner experience heightened by the contemplative life, extended into the outer world by industriousness in the manual arts. Both disciplines encouraged self-mastery while amplifying soulish knowledge—and hence knowledge of God—and both helped the soul to manipulate, animate, and separate bodily matter. Palissy combined artisanry and contemplation to achieve the status of manual philosopher. For him, to follow Paul Oskar Kristeller on Ficino: “the totality of all human life and consciousness thus fills a homogeneous sphere which extends in a straight line from common experience to the highest intuition of God.” In this brief, prophetic moment of unity between macrocosm and microcosm, grief and disquiet were replaced by joy and calm; diffuse rays of divine light, once distanced from their source, emanated to suffuse the bodily vessel in flames of revelation; and soulish eyes allowed the mind to perceive universality in the true form of things hidden beneath the shadows of empirical reality. These were to become the subjects of Paracelsian artisanry, moments of linkage between inner experience and external reality made material.4
If the Paracelsians received Platonic ideas from Florence via Switzerland, Germany, and Protestant France, it should be remembered that Plato, a “culture-hero of the enemies of school-divinity,” had already been received, directly or indirectly, by every Christian—in particular, those seekers who favored the reconstitution of the purity of primitive Christianity in early modern times—through St. Augustine’s widely venerated text On the Spirit and the Letter.5 The metaphysical foundation for Ficino and Paracelsus was thus laid centuries earlier in Augustine’s powerful and universally diffused analysis of justification by faith. Moreover, there are provocative data to suggest that the monastic revival of the tenth century, accompanied by its extensive program of reform, rebuilding, and new building projects in Europe and Britain, was based on architectural systems that relied on plans formulated from Neoplatonic geometry, which “became accepted by the Latin Church in the form of Christian Platonism principally through the influence of Augustine.”6 Hence, Neoplatonic metaphysics informed Christian material life, as “early Christian and non-Christian writers,” had “posited a divine Creator bringing into being cosmos out of chaos.” In this cosmos, “harmony was maintained by the constituent parts of creation being formed in proportion to each other and to the whole.” It has therefore been hypothesized, for example, that “the octagonal shrine stands as an architectural model in which number, geometry, liturgical function and inaugural dedication come together in signifying salvation architecturally.” Just as significant for our purposes, is the corollary thesis, that a category of builders—drawn both from monastic founders and also certain masons—used their mastery of such Neoplatonic mathematical and philosophical secrets to set themselves apart as architects or philosophers of godly forms in matter, in much the same manner that Palissy did five hundred years later in Saintonge.7 Perhaps many Neoplatonic revivals had occurred silently among pre-Reformation Christian artisans when it was perceived that cosmos had to emerge out of chaos.
A lot has been written about the material-holiness synthesis from multidisciplinary perspectives. Briefly stated, it posited a cosmology to encompass man’s relation to the universe. This was animated by an active circulation between small and large, low and high, whereby “the body and soul of man are a miniature replica of the body and soul of the world, and that between these two worlds, the great and the little, there are correspondences, sympathies and antipathies, which the philosopher, the magus, could understand and control.”8 This framework demonstrated how these “correspondences, sympathies and antipathies” formed a universal system of spiritual and material hierarchies that enveloped the earthly hierarchies of man and that often operated most powerfully in minute elements of Nature. In this system, spiritual reality was virtually invisible to most fallen men; meaning lay hidden beneath the appearances of words and things (or, for Palissy, was so tiny as to be overlooked by enemies). Ficino called such blindness the “deception of the senses.” The natural philosopher—the magus (or adept)—possessed a singular personal power, as he, almost alone, yet beset by vulgar and corrupted seekers after this secret, received the gift of pure inner sight from God. Magi comprehended meanings hidden to others, beneath the surface of materials, through the mystical manipulation and control of the spiritual powers of the macrocosm in everyday life.
Paracelsus’s adaptation of Ficino’s doctrine of the macrocosm and the microcosm for philosophical medicine was less contemplative than experiential—Paracelsians sought experiences distant from the cloistered spaced of Florentine academic life and then elucidated them in earthy speech intended to sully the rarified language of schoolmen—and alchemic; although dependant on the contexts in which it was practiced, it had social implications that stretched far beyond alchemy. Paracelsus imagined that the macrocosm functioned chemically, like an enormous alchemical crucible. This meant, in effect, that the universe must have been created by God in Genesis as a primordial act of chemical distillation of gigantic proportions. This was conceptualized materially in postlapsarian time as the “separation” of pure from impure matter in nature’s fallen microcosm.9 It followed that the human body, centering the microcosm, functioned as an extension of this chemical system, one that should be treated thera-peutically by chemical medicine. Hence, Paracelsians assailed the established orthodoxy of the Galenic paradigm, which conceptualized the body as controlled largely by a system of “humours.” The two paradigms had coexisted in both university and popular medicine for centuries, but Paracelsus argued that Galen’s humoral system was merely based on scholasticism, not actual experience with suffering bodies. Galen was therefore superseded by the three chemical principles of sulfur, mercury, and salt. The chemical triad now represented the subtle materialization of the Holy Trinity in nature. An obsession with the properties and motions of salt, as we shall see, signified Palissy’s abiding belief that salt was the “fifth element” animated by the holy spirit. This paradigmatic rift was momentous; in fact, Charles Webster’s main claim that “the first major confrontation of the Scientific Revolution was between Paracelsus and Galen, rather than between Copernicus and Ptolemy” is considered axiomatic by most historians of science.10
Balancing their emphasis on materiality, however, Paracelsians depended on their performance of spiritual medicine. Most chemical therapy was thus understood to stem from a synthesis of spirit and matter. Building on Luther’s fundamental metaphor of the good artisan as the source of good works, Paracelsus reimagined Ficino’s universalist framework to signify that God’s medical intermediaries achieved material and ontological knowledge, but only through practical and manual experience, and then only if the physician and his ailing patient possessed uncorrupted souls and so inner bodies. Illness was an extension, therefore, of spiritual corruption in the microcosm. So therapy had to rely on spiritual remedies hidden in the material world to all but the experienced Paracelsian physician, who manipulated alchemy in order to release cures from the shackles of filth and decay. Separation by fire of purity from impurity—that is, the transmutation of bodily matter with its great implications for manual application—attracted attention from literate artisans working in every material. Potters, glaziers, miners, blacksmiths, and brewers were especially open to experiment, however, as they used furnaces regularly in their work. Protestant artisans were among the most literate and interested in books, and numerous artisan-autodidacts understood the basics of Paracelsian natural philosophy enough to recognize the spiritual and economic potential that a comprehensive material-holiness synthesis had for innovation, and so profits, in their crafts. A philosophical system with a new language thus became available to experimental Huguenot artisans like Palissy. Once mastered and taught to apprentices and spiritual followers through both literary and oral traditions that tended to reinforce one another, this system helped local artisans gain religious, economic, and political authority in their rural towns and the countryside.
Paracelsus and Palissy relied upon folk traditions, biblical exegesis, and experience with nature in their recipes, so this pattern of communication cannot be construed as a trickle-down process. Much of what we now call Paracelsianism was very familiar to rustic artisans, farmers, herdsmen, and midwives, mostly from practical experience, or just intuitive understanding of the process of transformation from the same basic set of sources. Much can be learned about chemical action and fermentation from the belly of a sheep. It is very clear by now that artisans—especially the potters to whom Palissy was apprenticed in Saintonge—practiced alchemy as part of their daily work. There is plenty of evidence that the language of distillation and sublimation was spoken in rural artisans’ shops as well as princely courts and university laboratories. Material evidence is especially convincing for Saintonge. Hence, in the wake of the Reformation’s earliest teachings on the universal priesthood of Christians who achieved autonomy over their spiritual and material bodies through self-mastery, it makes sense that those who were already master artisans would assert their own experiences in accommodating Paracelsian natural philosophy. And the nearly universal experience of mimetic religious violence was analogous at the most basic level of both scientific and artisanal practice to the alchemical synthesis of spirit and matter in the fire of the crucible.
The “ideological” level at which the new Paracelsian discourse intersected with local artisanry grew directly out of Paracelsus’s chemical modification of Ficino’s Neoplatonic metaphysics. As Kurt Goldammer explains in his exegetical reading of Paracelsus, when Florentine Neoplatonism was transformed by Paracelsus into chemical principles, it acquired a powerful eschatological force—indeed, an ideological force—when read together, as it usually was, with the appropriate biblical text.11 Just as Genesis recounted the origin of the universe, so too did the Old Testament Daniel and New Testament Revelation prophesy its finiteness and end. If the creation of the universe was an act of chemical distillation, then it followed that its end would also be chemical. Thus, prophesies could be read and miniature millennial endings brought to fruition by adepts in their studies, workshops and laboratories.
Paracelsus’s work was given credence by many because he was also considered one of the greatest prophets of his time. As a result, his prophetic and astrological tracts were immensely popular, and they were his only writings that were published immediately upon completion. Paracelsus contended that prophesy was the highest form of magic. Webster has noted that prophesy was indispensable “in the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Reformation and Radical Reformation,” for “there was no sense that creation was a stable entity destined to run its course for an unlimited duration.” For Paracelsus, “the instability of history was translated into cosmological terms.” The Paracelsian cosmos was a mutable place, beset by trial and impermanence. Halley’s Comet was said to have appeared on August 12, 1531, over the town of St. Gallen, in southern Germany, at the same time that Paracelsus visited the town. Meanwhile, St. Gallen was also a center of the growing conflict between Anabaptists, Zwinglians, and Catholics. Soon after these events, Paracelsus famously prophesied: “Each destruction of a monarchy ... is raised at God’s behest, [hence it] is announced by indications and signs, so that everyone will be able to recognize the destruction or ruin, and have fore-warnings of such monarchies and their fall or rise.” That Ulrich Zwingli was killed subsequently at Kappel was considered positive proof of this prophesy, as were “indications and signs” that appeared in advance of other acts of apocalyptic violence during the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.12 Popular representation of ominous portents became a mainstay of early modern—particularly Germanic—iconography. These were read as millennial “signatures.” Eschatological interpretations of Paracelsus were particularly alive and compelling to Protestants during the pan-European wars of religion. They had inherited the apocalyptic prophesy of the aging earth, originally devised and disseminated by the twelfth-century Calabrian abbot Joachim of Fiori (1132–1202), from radical friars of the later Middle Ages. Again building on the basic Trinitarian paradigm, Joachim prophesied there were three ascending ages of the world: the age of the Father, the age of the Son, and finally, the age of the Holy Spirit—for enthusiasts, the earth’s present age. This age abhorred outer bodies. Its evangelists were thus spiritual brothers of the Lutheran frères who “returned” the Reformation to Saintonge from the Germanic regions in the 1540s and 1550s. For Joachim, the third and final age of earth would simultaneously herald the return of the prophet Elijah and the coming of the Antichrist. Paracelsus chose to rename Elijah “Elias Artista” (also “Elijah the Artist” and “the Alchemist”), and he prophesied that Elias would appear exactly fifty-eight years after his own death. Elijah’s role as alchemist of the millennium was to join secretly with the other philosophical artisans and alchemists, hidden strategically throughout the shadowy subterranean world, who had already begun the process independently. Together, the adepts would complete this long and laborious process of the final transmutation of the earth, which was already undergoing changes associated with geological old age. The alchemical millennium, was “to be not an operatic epiphany or a battle of Armageddon but ... a chemical act of separation.”13 That was because God worked inside his adepts and helped their cause on earth incrementally through an accumulation of war and violence, which was part of the greater process of the destruction of the corrupt and the renovation of the world.
The Paracelsian millennium was conceptualized, therefore, as an uncharacteristically slow and hidden operation, in contrast to the instantaneous and theatrical results prophesied in Revelation. How such final things would manifest themselves on this grand scale was unclear, because such an operation would be untheatrical, intensely private, and visible—at first—only to adepts. Events would unfold through prophesy, to be sure, but also according to secret internal rhythms of individual magi and of enthusiastic artisans, a lesser category of “operators,” who were not philosophers, but were also engaged in the alchemic separation of pure from corrupted matter.
Huguenot craftsmen had a specific role. Their province was to use “industriousness” to separate their immediate domestic or fortress environments—and their family, artisanal networks and confessional communities—from the chaos and impurities rampant in their part of the world, despite the fact that Huguenots were often compelled to stay in close proximity to corruption among their neighbors. This abhorrence of, yet familiarity, with corruption activated interior, microcosmic building and maintenance projects founded on motions of the soul. Such projects would eventually effect a chemical, or, for Saintonge, an artisans’ millennium. As we shall see, Palissy aspired to separate himself out and achieve the exalted status of philosopher, in addition to his innovative manual skills as artisan-operator. So in his particular case, the movement that he inspired in Saintonge acquired charisma as his natural philosophy focused on those apocalyptic aspects of the southwestern Huguenot millennial experience that were animated by its tiniest elements, not the grandest or most plainly visible. These minima, once refined by the crucible of war—as was Palissy himself—were transmuted into the purest, most uniform “corpuscles” available in the natural world. Reduced by violence, diminutiveness thus intensified purity in the microcosm, and animated the awesome power of the macrocosm, with which the minima were inextricably entwined by “sympathies and antipathies.” Such hidden, animate power was embodied in Palissy’s ceramic basins (or cosmologies) by tiny amphibious creatures.14
An artisans’ millennium could not promise immediate salvation from the trials and inequities that the children of God had to endure, so proponents of Paracelsian artisanry inculcated patience as their primary virtue and associated it with smallness and an eschatology of industrious waiting. Private refuges of patience were built to function in domestic settings over a long duration of time. Thus, Palissy’s tiny, slow-moving snail, its shell industriously crafted from inside out, was a useful metaphor for artisanal sûreté. The Saintonge limace, having two spiral bodies, used defensive systems that depended on its ability to communicate between them, as would the soulish intermediaries between the macrocosm and the microcosm. The tiny limace, like the Saintongeais Huguenot artisan, circulated the eternal and animating light of grace into the light of Nature, which “descended into his soul from the angels via the stars” and moved in a spiral motion from the greater body into the smaller one and back again. The impetus for these deliberate artisanal motions were “imagined” from the heart, the most secret and vulnerable part of the self.15 This organ was the province of the soul shared only by man and God; it circulated the power of weakness. Such refuges of patient industriousness had potential to provide for individual artisans, families, and communities. At the same time, they housed laboratories and workshops where the slow processes of purification that advanced in secret from macrocosm to microcosm—and from rural localities to other places in the Atlantic world—were invented and reinvented through dissemination by adepts, masters, apprentices, and journeymen, often beset by the chaos of religious war and under threat of personal insecurity and bodily pain.
After Palissy arrived in Paris around 1565, he soon exploited the reputation he had earned from the Recepte as a rustic practitioner of Paracelsianism. We know this from clear references to books in his scientific library in the Discours admirables (Paris, 1580)—instead of veiled ones in the Recepte—and evidence that he won an honored position in the scientific and publishing circle of Jacques Gohory, leader of the most influential Paracelsian academy in Paris in the 1570s. Thus, the rustic library Palissy implied he used in rural Saintonge can be reconstructed retrospectively with explicit evidence that he provided for a well-read audience of the most prominent physicians, alchemists, and bibliophiles in Paris.
Gohory’s reception and dissemination of Paracelsus reveal much about why Palissy and this Parisian translator and publisher had been drawn together.16 Gohory developed powerful patronage in the capital and “had a wide circle of friends which included many of the most important scientific and literary figures of his time and country,” according to D. P. Walker. Hence, “his championship of the magical tradition of Tritheminus, Agrippa and Paracelsus may therefore have had considerable diffusion and influence by means of personal discussion.”17 Palissy’s connections at court, interests, and growing reputation drew him into that “wide circle.”
Gohory’s main contribution to Parisian science was his ability to recognize and underscore the Neoplatonic impulses in Paracelsus’s discourse (also, he must have known, quite strong in Palissy’s Recepte) and to write (and presumably talk) frequently about Paracelsus in terms of Marsilio Ficino’s microcosm/macrocosm paradigm. While Gohory recognized Ficino’s fundamental contribution to the Paracelsian project, he privileged Paracelsus, representing the Florentine as overly cautious in that he had failed to perform any great operation of magic as Paracelsus had done. For Gohory and his Paris circle, Ficino’s “magic was eminently private, individual, and subjective and hence was nearer to being a religion than a science.”18 It was thus more concerned with theory than practice. Gohory had defined himself as a natural philosopher whose primary interest in alchemy was in the practical aspects of distillation of matter by fire.
Beginning in the Recepte, Palissy’s artisanry and natural philosophy had itself accentuated his own intensely “private, individual and subjective” alchemical and religious system, which fitted the specific context of security-minded Huguenot artisans in Saintonge. Yet Gohory’s main project to further refine and synthesize Ficino and Paracelsus for his scientific community by deemphasizing private and theoretical aspects of Neoplatonism and privileging open practice influenced Palissy’s similar rhetoric in the Discours. To be sure, furthering practice was a primary legacy of Paracel-sianism, but Palissy’s move ostensibly from private and individual practice in the 1560s to a public, performance-based one by the 1580s should be considered in part as a function of changing political and geographical context and his continued desire to maintain courtly patronage while belonging to the minority sect. This stance was particularly useful after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. Gohory may have been trying to detheologize the French Paracelsian movement, distancing his academy from enthusiast involvement. This does not mean that Palissy foreswore his earlier position on the natural-philosophical function of interiority, only that his new public persona, associated with courtly performance and entertainment and so belonging to a scientific network that was sanctioned by the Louvre, had become a requirement.
Palissy’s relation to Gohory’s vision of Paracelsianism was further explained in the Discours, where in the chapter “Treatise on Metals and Alchemy,” he remarked that “a book on drinkable gold was printed at Lyon at the time when King Henri III was there on his way back from Poland, in which book it is clearly written that alchemy must be revealed only to the children of philosophy. If they are children of philosophy, they are children of knowledge, and consequently children of God. If that were so, it would be well for all of us to belong to the religion of the alchemists.”19 Palissy’s Calvinist understanding of the key role of salvation in the creation of adepts is revealing; moreover, it is very likely that this book, “printed at Lyon,” was Alexandre de La Tourette’s 1575 Bref discours des admirable vertus de l’orpotable . . . (Brief Discourse on the Admirable Virtues of Potable Gold . . .). Potable gold was an alchemical cure famously championed by Paracelsus. La Tourette also promised to augment his discourse with the comprehensive analysis of “the origins and causes of all illness,” as well as a lively “defense of the very useful science of Alchemy, against those who condemn it.”20
Palissy’s cryptic allusion to the Brief Discourse was arguably prompted by these complex and still largely obscure debates within the Parisian Paracelsian community on the balance between religion and scientific practice, rooted in Ficino’s influence over Huguenot natural philosophy, to which Palissy directed much of his attention in the Recepte and later Discours. Gohory and his circle were without a doubt the focus of La Tourette’s vicious attack—he cursed opponents as “counterfeits, thieves, and frauds”—inasmuch as Gohory rushed a reply into print later that year under the polemical title Discours responsif a celuy d’Alexandre de La Tourete, sur les secrets de l’art Chymique & confection de l’Orpotable (Discourse Responding to Alexandre de La Tourete’s, on the Secrets of the Art of Chemistry and Making Potable Gold).21 Palissy, a member of the Gohory circle, would have associated his science and artisanry with the “new Paracel-sism.” Still, it is noteworthy that he expressed sympathy in print for the synthesis of religiosity and natural philosophy he read in La Tourette’s treatise. Palissy’s statement suggests that he may have tried to hold the middle ground in this debate, thus allowing spiritualism to combine with practice in some definitions of the “new Paracelsism,” even in post-1572 Paris. Such a position was certainly true to Paracelsus himself, and it is clear that Palissy was able to parse his position with such care because he had complete access to all the latest Paracelsian treatises and opinion.22
In a crucial passage taken from his dedication of the Discours to his aging Saintongeais patron Antoine de Pons, Palissy listed a long progression of texts central to his scientific development, while claiming to be a deeply pious autodidact who had taught himself alchemy from the most venerated sources in the medieval medico-alchemical tradition, as well as the books of Paracelsus and his followers:
I have tried to bring to light the things which it has pleased God to make me understand according to the measure in which he has been pleased to endow me, in order to benefit posterity. And because many men, under beautiful Latin, and other well polished language have left many pernicious talents to delude youth and waste its time: thus a Geber, a Romance of the Rose, and a Raymond Lule, and some disciples of Paracelsus, and many other alchemists have left books in the study of which many have lost both their time and wealth.23
Palissy added the name of Arnald of Villanova (1235–1311) to those of the early ninth-century alchemist Geber and Ramon Llull (1234–1315) to complete his list of medieval writers who had left texts that he read and used but felt compelled to repudiate to establish his personal reputation and the primacy of modern natural language and philosophy.24 In spite of conventional quarrels with “ancient” predecessors (“Do you think that the men of olden times could not lie?”),25 his understanding of their “pernicious talents” formed the basis of his early work. When Palissy referred to “ancients,” or “men of olden times,” his frame of reference seems to have been mostly medieval, a relatively small body of scholastic literature he apparently read more avidly than the classics.
Walter Pagel has established the Gnostic and magical writings of Arnald, Llull, and Geber as fundamental to the natural philosophy of Paracelsus. Like Palissy, Paracelsus absorbed but then claimed to reject his scholastic predecessors’ work, for reasons (and in language) similar to those explained in such harsh rhetoric by the potter.26 William R. Newman, a historian of early modern British-American science who has thought deeply about the relation between the medieval natural philosophers in Palissy’s library and the work of Paracelsus and his followers, has argued persuasively that there were two distinct and yet interrelated paradigmatic moments in the history of alchemy (and scientific rhetoric) in the West, which he calls (less persuasively), “revolutions”:
The first revolution occurred directly after the high period of Latin translation in the twelfth century, when the difficult and often intricate works of Arabic alchemy were rendered into the learned language of the West. Certain scholastically oriented alchemists, such as those writing under the names of “Geber,” Ramon Llull, and Bernard of Trier, appropriated and transformed the alchemy of the Arabs, making it one with the peripatetic [that is, “Aristotelian”] program for the development of the sciences. The second alchemical revolution occurred when the iconoclastic Swiss physician . . . Paracelsus, revised the doctrines of medieval Latin alchemy and crafted a veritable system of natural philosophy. Paracelsus was the temporal head of a long line of reformers—including Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Robert Boyle—who felt that the Aristotelianism of the universities could not be discredited without the aid of vituperation.27
The essence of the Paracelsian revision—followed closely by Palissy in the sixteenth century—was to focus on what both Geber and Llull, in particular, wrote about the tiny, invisible particles and subtle soulish operations that underlie perceptible chemical changes in elemental matter—that is, “corpuscular science”—as a means to attack the Aristotelian scholastic program, where change was understood to result from the interaction of matter and form. The ninth-century Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan, also known as Geber, is accurately called pseudo-Geber, since most of the works published under this name in the West were forgeries. “Geber” was “a sort of ‘trademark’” representing a particular school of scientific and eschatological thought that began producing texts at least a century after Jabir’s death.28 “The Jabir school assumed,” Newman explains, “that every material substance contains its opposite, but in a ‘hidden’ fashion. Thus every substance has . . . an ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’,” which were used interchangeably with “‘occult’ and ‘manifest’. . . ‘center’ and ‘circumference’.” The system of Jabirian alchemy and its interior/exterior metaphysics became available in the West with the Latin translation of Seventy Books, the school’s major work.29
The key to Jabirian alchemy therefore lay in the inversion of interior and exterior qualities. This privileged the purity of all inner bodies, for when the hidden qualities of silver were inverted, the alchemist arrived at gold. The motion by which this process of inversion took place was corpuscular and placed particles into tiny but distinct layers of hidden and manifest matter. These tiny, hidden, pure and potent substances were separated and freed alchemically from their elemental corruption by fermentation and/or distillation.
Palissy’s version of Jabir’s program, by emphasizing geology, agricultural innovation, and the inner working of elemental earths, experimented with such processes in everything from pottery production to manuring, composting, and fertilizing, in particular in championing marl, a white, “fatty earth” consisting of clay and calcium carbonate. Fermentation and distillation, along with other heat-induced actions, including corrosion, by working to dissolve or sublimate, continually refined the freed corpuscles, so that they finally passed airily through the pores in all manifest structure. Actions such as these might purify a base metal into gold, make powerful transmutative elixirs, or reform local history and geography, since all earthly matter is porous and filled with interstices providing hidden access for these tiny agents of purification.
The potential for convergence with Protestant—especially early Lutheran spiritualist or pietist—ideology is self-evident here. It is, moreover, easy to perceive Palissy’s rustic basins with tiny metamorphosing creatures filtering in and out of the earth, water, and sky as an artisanal version of Saintongeais Huguenot corpuscularism. This perception may be seen in an even clearer light by considering Palissy’s understanding of Llull (or “pseudo-Ramon Lull,” as Newman suggests), who in the fourteenth century harnessed alchemy and the quest for the philosopher’s stone to the vitalistic, hidden workings of the soul toward salvation. Here was precisely the same soulish framework that inspired Palissy’s comment in defense of La Tourette and of vitalistic alchemy in the debate with Gohory.30
Llullian texts were profusely emblematic and hence particularly useful to artisans. Frances Yates demonstrated long ago that the cosmologies were especially sought after. “Most libraries of any size contain one of the sixteenth or early seventeenth-century Ars Brevis,” Yates found, “with which are often bound a version of the Ars Magna and commentaries by Renaissance Lullists.”31 If Palissy was unable to read rudimentary Latin—an unlikely supposition, since there is countervailing circumstantial evidence—he could lay his hands on many French translations available and circulated in the form of unpublished manuscripts. Gohory noted the presence of 500 copies of Llull in French translation at a Paris bookseller in 1561, as well as numerous copies “written by hand.”32 As for the Roman de la Rose, it was celebrated by the sixteenth century as one of the oldest surviving poems written in French. Begun sometime around the end of the thirteenth century, probably by Guillaume de Lorris, it was completed by Jehan de Meung, first poet to Philippe-le-Bel. The Roman includes two alchemical tracts in verse, both of which weave sexual allegory together with a tale about the philosopher’s stone and the transmutation of base metals into gold. This convergence of sexuality and alchemy was a common theme by the fourteenth century, following the works of Bernard of Trier, who understood mineral substances to function sexually and to form from seed. Thus the philosopher’s stone was made of liquid mercury, a spermlike seminal liquid. We know well how this reproductive framework influenced Paracelsus, but it also had an impact on Palissy’s geology and artisanry. The revival of the Roman in Paris was spearheaded by the publication of De la transformation métallique, trois anciens tractez en rithme françoise (Paris, 1561). Gohory commented approvingly on the appearance of this volume, which included among its medieval verses “The Remonstrances of Nature to the alchemist errant [see fig. 8.22]: with the response of the said Alchy. by J. de Meung. Together with a tract of his Romant de la Rose, which concerns said art,” and noted that sales were brisk.33
Gohory’s “quite private, informal” academy of new Paracelsian science and revised Ficinian Neoplatonism opened in an apothecary’s garden near the Faubourg Saint-Victor in 1571 and was called the “Lycium philosophal San Marcellin.”34 Here, Gohory engaged in his performances of the new science (which he opposed to the “antique” in experiments, or “proofs”) and “prepared Paracelsian medicines, did alchemical demonstrations and made occult talismans ‘after the opinion of Arnaud de Villeneuve, & de Marsilius Ficinus.’” Gohory also “received learned visitors who admired the rare plants and trees, played skittles, and performed vocal and instrumental music in the ‘galerie historiee.’”35 Palissy was included among Gohory’s learned visitors when the Lycium opened six years after his arrival in Paris. Palissy’s friend Ambroise Paré, the Huguenot surgeon to Charles IX, was also among the erudites.
Palissy’s filial interest in Paré went beyond religion. Both were artisans born in rustic provinces (Paré in Maine) who went on to develop connections to the French court in Ferrara. Paré apprenticed as a compagnon barber-surgeon (two brothers were also tradesmen; one a chest maker, the other a barber-surgeon), rose to master status, and was predictably reviled by the schoolmen of Paris for supporting the controversial, largely artisanal project of eliminating the formal boundary between the magisterial physician—who directed the instrumental hand of his artisan assistants—and the surgeon. Galenic physicians never came into contact with patients, a failure for which the followers of Paracelsus and the new science took them to task. Paré argued that surgeons and apothecaries deserved the same status as physicians, since surgeons learn their trade by experience with wounded and diseased bodies. Paracelsians argued that the experience of contact with the ill was preferable to knowledge taken by physicians antiseptically from university lectures or scholastics’ books and applied indirectly through a surgeon. Similarly, Paré published his books in French, not Latin, so that the artisanal branches of medicine could read them, a threatening departure from rigid scholastic convention.36
Palissy’s local method of Saintongeais Paracelsism was formed by personal experience in the religious wars, and so he was keenly interested in Paré’s scientific writing on “monsters and marvels,” which in large part grew out of Paré’s over thirty-year experience on the road as a military surgeon. Paré chronicled this period in Journies in Diverse Places, which reflected firsthand knowledge of the local and folkloric in the “excesses” of nature and the martial context of grotesque disfigurement.37 In his most famous treatise, Des monstres—the first of many editions was published in 1573—the surgeon begins with a loaded sentence that Palissy would have appreciated, since the language and conceptual framework are similar to his own: “Monsters are things that appear [emphasis added] outside the course of Nature.”38 Monstrosity might thus result from misperceptions of superficial appearance of the abnormal. Natural philosophy was the scientific way to peer beneath the “deception of the senses” to uncover true causes. Indeed, of the thirteen “causes of monsters” that Paré lists in his first chapter, “the first is the glory of God,” not sin, degradation or corruption, “in order that the works of God might be magnified.”39
Huguenots were condemned as monsters whose religion and culture “appear[ed] outside the course of Nature,” in particular after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which had occurred only the year before and should be considered the immediate context for Des monstres. Paré divided his subject, in part, into physical and moral monsters; in both cases, most fell victim to a fatal lack of self-discipline and morality that was implicitly opposed to the virtuous qualities of moderation and piety he attributed to Calvinists. Paré’s Des monstres may thus be compared with de Léry’s Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil, which asks ironically where the real savages and cannibals are—in Brazil or Paris—after the horrific events of 1572.40
The elemental structure of the narrative and subtle politico-religious themes of Des monstres, all of which were constructed in the language of natural philosophy, resonated powerfully with many similar impulses in Palissy’s Recepte. As in Palissy’s rustic basins, Des monstres’s narrative was carefully divided into four sections on the grotesque and trivial creatures of earth, water, air, and fire: the four elements that structured inquiry in early modern natural philosophy and representation of the tiny and overlooked in Palissy’s “art of the earth.” Above all, however, as in Palissy’s epiphany on artisanal security in experiments with the Saintongeais snail, Paré understood the works of God that appeared to be “outside the course of Nature,” not in pathological terms (as monsters), but as evidence of the infinite variety of God’s creation and the multiplicity and diversity He encouraged and hence revealed about the world, as well as God’s own complex essence. The question thus became one of expanding the definition of what was natural for every area of human experience, religious diversity in particular. Out of their shared experience as Huguenot natural philosophers and artisans during the wars of religion, Palissy and Paré gave impetus to the scientific conception and historical study of pluralism in the Atlantic world. Variety was, for them, a positive sign of emerging inner vitality in material life. Des monstres was thereby a “sustained attempt,” as Jean Céard has shown, “to ‘naturalize’ monsters” and to bring “the scandal associated with monsters . . . to a halt.”41
Gohory died in 1576. By then, Palissy had learned enough about the courtly art of natural-philosophical performance and seen his reputation advance in Paris to the point where he could step into the vacuum and set up a profitable academy of his own, charging an écu entrance fee to each auditor. Paré was among some thirty-five érudits listed attending his cabinet for lectures “On Rocks.” The “birth” of rare, grotesque, or curious earths Palissy conceptualized and explained as “experiencing” the same interior reproductive and obstetric processes as did Paré’s “monsters.”42 Palissy also gave lectures and practical workshops in geology in his cabinet in Paris twice, in 1575 and 1576, and probably again in 1584. Given the subject of the lectures and the credentials and religious backgrounds of visitors to his academy, it is reasonable to speculate that Palissy sought to reactivate the enthusiastic aspects of Ficino’s contributions to Parisian Paracelsianism, which Gohory minimized.
Also in 1576, Francis Bacon left Cambridge for Paris, along with Sir Amyas Paulet, and stayed three years. Bacon certainly attended Palissy’s well-known lectures or visited his cabinet.43 What is beyond speculation, however, is the extent to which the potter’s efforts to naturalize the monster of religious difference in Paris, and perhaps London as well, were influenced by his personal role in the diffusion of Paracelsism to the rustic Huguenot artisans of Saintonge before 1565. In the southwestern French countryside, after all, the scene of reading was Nature itself.
The earliest clues revealing Palissy’s intellectual debts to Paracelsus’s ideas come from the ubiquity of coded Paracelsian language in the Recepte. Because of Montmorency’s role as a patron and savior, Palissy dedicated the Recepte to him in 1563. In his dedication, he described the volume as the work of a simple artisan who was accustomed to earn his living by the “uncorrupted labor” of his hands and so proclaimed his “love of virtue” unconventionally, without benefit of a classical education:
Monseigneur, the talents, which I consign to you, are, in the first place, many beautiful secrets of Nature and Agriculture, which I put in a book, with the goal of provoking all the men of the earth to restore their love of virtue and uncorrupted labor. . . . If these things are not written with the grace that Your Highness merits, I beg your forgiveness ... [for] I am neither Greek, nor Hebrew, nor Poet, nor Rhetorician, but a simple artisan poorly trained in letters: nevertheless, these deficiencies do not make one less virtuous than a more eloquent man. I prefer to speak the truth in my rustic language than to lie in rhetorical language.44
Palissy elaborated this rhetorical attack on rhetoric in the subsequent dedication “to the Reader” with his exorbitant apology for the “smallness and abject condition of the author, as well as his rustic and inelegant language.”45 Attentive readers noted the potter’s strategic fascination with the hidden powers of small, overlooked fauna and flora, their connections to the heart of the macrocosm, and their God-given abilities to dissemble for self-mastery and protection. To be sure, Palissy’s ubiquitous references to his status as a poor, unlettered artisan have classical precedents in great number, involving purportedly unlettered rustics, whether plowmen or artisans, who proceeded in time to reveal hidden learning disguised beneath crude and unpolished exteriors.
American colonial historians recognize the reemergence of this classical trope in Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Poor Richard,” or perhaps Washington’s self-fashioning after Cincinnatus. Moreover, one common source for classicizing writers on the rustic tradition in Europe, as well as early modern British America, was Tacitus’s life of his father-in-law, De vita Iulii Agricolae. Religious and political aspects of this influential first-century text were revived extensively during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by authors ranging from Calvinist divines like Cotton Mather to English advocates of the “country party ideology” and America’s revolutionary elites and pamphleteers during the 1760s.46 Another important source centered on Origines and De re rustica by Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 B.C.). Cato’s texts advocated rustic simplicity and self-discipline, which were perceived to be the Stoic keystones of primitive Roman virtue. Cato’s influence was particularly strong among French Protestants during the sixteenth century and in eighteenth-century British America, where his name was invoked by a number of polemicists to connote the revolutionaries’ repository of primitive English virtue, often styled in the theatrical moral tradition of Joseph Addison (1672–1719).47
Still, in what ways can the cultural historian pursue further Palissy’s artisanal discourse from the perspective of the immediate context and traditions from which Palissy constructed his identity as an “artisan sans lettres,” that is, the Paracelsian tradition of Protestant natural philosophy in southwestern France? We have seen how both the religious and cultural foundations for this tradition in Saintonge were prepared initially and diffused along the coastal islands by conventicles of monastic heretics, who were converted in unspecified Germanic regions before returning to evangelize island Huguenots. Shortly thereafter, this tradition was reinforced and synthesized by the Genevan-inspired discipline of Hamelin, further refined by Palissy during the artisans’ interregnum, and only then (so far as we know) written down as a history to order its memory. Dissemination was accomplished through available texts, diffused in various oral, written, and material forms, which gave Palissy, as well as other, anonymous artisan reformers and their followers, substantial local control over, and identification with, the rustic style of international Paracelsianism.
Following Palissy’s practice of artisanal sûreté, which asserted the power of weakness to be its fundamental force, what would appear to be liabilities when performed in interaction with the dominant culture were transformed into lay assets by experienced Huguenot artisans. Therefore, to speak the “natural” truth rather than to “lie” rhetorically was simultaneously to condemn the old Latin scholasticism of the Church and to embrace the experiential science and speculative discourse of the Paracelsians, which devalued prior learning unless proven by physical and spiritual engagement to overcome the corruption of Nature in the human body. Hence, the possibly apocryphal story that before his famous lectures on medicine at the University of Basel in 1526—where he scandalized faculty by speaking German rather than Latin—Paracelsus was said to have overseen a ritual burning of books by Galen and Avicenna, venerated ancients he claimed to supersede. Over a half-century after the Basel lectures, Palissy subscribed to a related ritual when he characterized Paracelsus in the Discours as “a personage, who has written more than fifty books on medicine, who was said to be unique, even a king among physicians.” This was understood by some of Palissy’s sixteenth-century readers as a direct quotation from Paracelsus, revealing Palissy’s intellectual kinship with him. Paracelsus famously introduced himself to readers of his own books as “Theophrastus [that is, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus], and in addition I am monarcha medicorum, monarch of physicians, and I can prove to you what you cannot prove ... I will not defend my monarchy with empty talk.”48
By explicitly subscribing to this vernacular framework, the potter concurred that scholastic education was an impediment, an artificial veil that obscured God’s truth, which resided only in natural experience, amplified by the enthusiastic lay spiritualism of the Paracelsian natural philosopher. Indeed, the Roman medical writer Celsus, over whom “Paracelsus” declared his dominance through the invention of this sobriquet,49 was renowned in the Renaissance as the Cicero medicorum—Cicero of physicians—for his elegant style of rhetoric (that is to say, his “empty talk”). It followed that Palissy’s apology for using “inelegant” and “natural language” was defiantly ironic. Natural language was the speech of renovation, of empowerment; it was the best hope for the restoration of man’s primitive spiritual language. “A more eloquent man” built a Babel of lies to obscure this original foundation. Ciceronian eloquence was therefore the rhetoric of sophistry, the corrupt Roman Catholic Church, royal inquisitors, and ultimately, the Antichrist himself.
Paracelsian discourse enabled Palissy to reverse old scholastic conceptions of both wisdom and beauty. What was rustique and mal orné embodied beauty and truth, because it contained the wild and the natural. Scholastic artifice was suspect precisely because it was overtly and willfully artificial. Every product of human willfulness was harnessed to the corruption of the flesh (and of the earth as well) and hence eloquent artifacts conflated—in fact sullied—the transparent quality of luminosity natural to perfect products of the motions of man’s soul unimpeded by flesh. To be covered “with light as with a garment,” as the divine craftsman was described in Psalms [104:2], signified absence of material corruption and the beholder’s knowledge of God in Nature.50
Palissy certainly read Paracelsus in French, or perhaps in German or Latin. This encounter first occurred in Saintonge perhaps, but arguably before. “Have you not seen the book printed long ago,” he wrote suggestively in the Discours, “which says that Paracelsus, the German physician, has cured a number of lepers with drinkable gold?”51 Yet even Paracelsus was not above Palissy’s reproach. Every figure of authority, Hamelin excepted, was fair game. Predictably, points of contention were often linguistic. “And you who are nothing but a laborer without knowledge of languages, except the one your mother taught you,” Palissy wrote playfully in a dialogue in the Discours—as Theory needled the potter’s alter ego, Practice, for his bold claim to the primacy of experience over knowledge received uncritically from books—“do you really really dare talk against such a personage [as Paracelsus]?”52
Unless he could test Paracelsus’s claims through experimentation and personal experience, Palissy relegated the master’s texts to the lesser category of mere theory. Palissy also tended in his books to downplay overt displays of Paracelsian occultism. This is not to say that Palissy denied magic or the supernatural, only that such theatricality was falsely manipulated by charlatans claiming to be alchemists and adepts to obscure the reality of their inability to perform authentic natural-philosophical tasks. That Palissy found an early audience in England among Paracelsians who were (at least for public consumption) skeptical of the master’s occult practices may have been on account of his skeptical tone.
Moreover, there was no shortage of booksellers in La Rochelle. This was a center of Protestant learning with a grande école, which aspired to compete with Geneva as a sacred city in the sixteenth century. Great libraries were formed in La Rochelle, only to be dismantled in 1628. The Huguenot population, which focused on male literacy, and emphasized interpretation of God’s wisdom through the Scriptures, provided a ready market for printed materials carried from all over Europe, especially Frankfurt and London. The Bertons and several other Protestant publishers flourished. Booksellers peddled polemical tracts from Saumur, Lyon, the Cévennes, and Charenton—the site of the influential Huguenot temple near Paris—among many other strongholds of the Reform. During times of persecution, Huguenots maintained a dedicated network of underground traffic in these printed materials. The conservative Rochelais Consistory, responding to questions raised by the national synods during the religious wars, also entered into the frequent political, military, and theological debates with the publication of tracts and pamphlets of its own. Even more complicated are the old problems of judging book circulation among acquaintances, of reading aloud to the illiterate, and the availability of unpublished manuscripts. But this much seems certain: Palissy had already read widely enough before and during his time in Saintes that when he was prepared to publish the Recepte at La Rochelle in 1563, he merited the title of a first-generation “rustic” follower of Paracelsus.53
I have maintained that Palissy’s narrative functioned as New World historiography in the French civil wars of religion, even as it recounted one French Huguenot artisan’s written representation of the social, historical, material, and providential origins of the Saintongeais assemblies of the désert. The term désert was used by Huguenot refugees of the diaspora to identify themselves during times when congregations became shepherdless flocks, their pasteur (or “shepherd”) gone, and their churches demolished. With Hamelin’s execution, and after the subsequent surrender of Saintes to Catholic forces, Palissy and the remnants of Hamelin’s artisans’ congregation entered the Saintongeais désert. These lay wanderers were left to their own spiritual devices, seeking evidence of God’s presence without the protection of an established place de sûreté or a pastoral guide in an ambiguously open, contested, and vulnerable liminal space. Located in history between an already (destruction of the visible Church) and a not yet (the millennium), this was an earthly Purgatory dominated by laymen. The geography of such an unstable space was most often conceptualized as wild and uncultured, or even unmapped and unnamed hidden territory.
Palissy had had to labor underground in Saintes, and the désert was also typically dominated by enemies. At the same time, however, inhabitants of the désert, and the désert itself, were transformed in both spiritual and material ways. In Saintes, Palissy gained personal access to spiritual power, which he represented as hidden below the broken skin of the natural world. Sacred violence and the chaos of historical events enveloped and shattered all the outer bodies of refuge, but this served God by revealing the extent of spiritual progress and security growing deep inside the exposed wombs of the refugees’ inner bodies. The désert was thus a durable metaphor for the instability of psychological and social alienation. Yet it contained eschatological hope for wise and patient craftsmen who were capable of effecting alchemic material transformations, and hence Christian reversal, for the dispossessed and their communities in the diaspora. In this shattered spiritual and material world, pious rebuilders among the lay community gained unprecedented opportunities.54
Palissy’s rustic library and Hamelin’s triple occupation as a printer, minister, and colporteur showed that the désert was filled with books.55 Yet what of the elusive but vital historiographical problem of the diffusion and coherence of lay thought and action in the Saintongeais désert? Palissy attempted to position himself at the center of this for Saintes, but if he dropped coded hints from time to time, he systematically obscured sources while assuming the pose that became his credo and public persona. As the subversively rhetorical “poor, simple, and unlettered artisan,” whose trove of secrets were the products of piety and rustic experience alone, the potter could claim originality for patrons desiring novelty, while attacking scholasticism with the uncorrupted and sui generis wisdom that grew naturally out of spiritual reading in the open air of the countryside. Meanwhile, Palissy’s rhetorical posturing also served as a literary signpost that revealed his rustic library in the form of bona fides shared with fellow adepts, who proved by cracking the bibliographic codes that just as he possessed the appropriate books and understood their secrets, so too his readers had the experience to recognize the validity of his sources.
As we have seen, Palissy’s work of the 1560s was responsive to the early publications of both Luther and Calvin. The writings of Calvin, de Bèze, and other “magisterial” Genevan theologians were available locally in new, small-format editions published by Hamelin and distributed in Saintonge by Hamelin and his loyal colporteurs. Although Palissy did not mention his beloved master’s books by title, he acknowledged their influence indirectly. Hamelin’s interpretations of them, as well as of the text from his tiny Genevan Bible, was inferred, when the potter assumed lay leadership of the artisans’ Church and wrote “all these things were done following the good examples, advice and doctrine of Master Philibert Hamelin.” Palissy also made it clear that Hamelin put his life in danger by colportage of such books into rural areas of Saintonge without personal protection to distribute the printed word to unlearned country people. For his followers in coastal Saintonge, it would have been nearly impossible to separate the image of the master printer Hamelin walking into their isolated villages from the sack of books slung over his shoulder.
The key texts in Palissy’s natural-philosophical library were written by Paracelsus, however. Still, books by Paracelsus and his followers—whether possessed by Palissy in the original form or in translations, reinterpretations, or loose transcriptions—were, in effect, activated by reading Protestant theology and by the conversion experience. As Charles Webster has demonstrated so abundantly and well that he needs no rehearsal here, Paracelsus’s deeply mystical, universal, anti-scholastic, folkloric, and experiential science was harnessed by Protestant natural philosophers, alchemists and artisans such as Palissy to Calvin’s challenge to reform Catholicism56—this despite evidence that Calvin was deeply mistrustful of all Protestant philosophers. Hence, far from being as original as claimed, Palissy is best understood as a creature of his books. His natural-philosophical writings were largely derivative, with the exception of his essay on the relationship between ceramics and alchemy, “On the Art of the Earth,” written expressly from Palissy’s personal experience as a master glass painter and potter for the Discours admirables.
This is not to underestimate Palissy’s contribution. Rather, perhaps it is useful to reevaluate the importance of originality in this context and to suggest larger social historical implications for the potter’s rustic science and artisanry. If Palissy was a cipher for the international book trade in Protestant theology and Paracelsian natural philosophy, this fact must be tempered by knowledge that he was also a critical reader in the tradition of enthusiastic seekers, an innovative artisan, and an autodidact. Hamelin and Paracelsus reinforced his inclination to read books and to comprehend the macrocosm and microcosm though the material and manual senses of artisanal experience. Just as Palissy read Calvin and his attack on Nicodemism from the very local perspective of the civil war history of Saintonge and the martyrdom of Hamelin, so too he read Paracelsus and the Paracelsians from the perspective of its natural and craft history.
So Palissy does not, in a larger sense, provide historians with an opportunity to explore the voice of a unique individual with an original take on the world. Indeed, his writing and even, to a lesser extent, his material production represents one local adaptation of an international tradition that—due to the uniquely expansive diasporic history of the Huguenots of Aunis-Saintonge—was diffused throughout the Protestant Atlantic world. We can only guess how many other “simple artisans” shared Palissy’s association with this international tradition, if not the specificity of his local reading or indeed his artfulness, luck, or talent for self-promotion. How many labored in obscurity (except perhaps to neighbors and family members) in the shops, mills, and farms of early modern Europe and the Americas, having self-consciously reinvented themselves in the mode of such “original” Paracelsians? Substantial values within the manual philosophical tradition were derived from the opportunities its rhetoric gave literate artisans to craft personal discourses of innovation, and claim the material and spiritual rewards that attended its mastery and the ability to control the revelation and concealment of its secrets.57
Yet, even a detailed genealogy may limit understanding of the diffusion process that illuminates the cosmologies of different artisan networks that operated in the Saintongeais désert. Much of what they knew and practiced intuitively or after many centuries of training, had been returned to Huguenot artisans in printed form, as natural philosophy. Paracelsus openly admitted this strategy, acknowledging his closeness to artisanal culture and large debts to venerable folk practices. For their part, artisans such as Palissy claimed that they had known it all along. As Mikhail Bakhtin argued long ago and Carlo Ginzburg and others have reiterated in ways that are now axiomatic, the process of social and cultural diffusion in the early modern period cannot be captured in terms of asymmetry alone, but should rather be viewed as “a circular relationship composed of reciprocal influences, which traveled from low to high as well as from high to low.”58 But even such “firm” categories as high and low should not be accepted complacently. In practice, these were turned inside out as artisans and natural philosophers poached in one another’s territory to such an extent that differences became permeable and boundaries notoriously unclear.
In the complex and vague framework of circularity, the whole notion of intellectual responsibility—indeed, artisanal knowledge in the désert—remained muddled. In this respect, art reflected life. Bound to the confusion of social action, such an intellectual milieu was as ambiguous as the désert. For Palissy, however, ambiguity was useful, convenient, and very much intentional. Consider that Palissy encouraged Huguenot artisans in the désert to deploy strategies intended to exploit the communicative potential of such ambiguity—whether oral, written, or material—to maximize the mute voices they suppressed in their choked dialogues with the culture of absolutism and its analogous competitors, Genevan and Rochelais Calvinism.
Carlo Ginzburg’s famous analysis of inquisitorial transcripts from which he reconstructed the cosmology of another sixteenth-century artisan who considered himself a master of originality and innovation—the Friulian miller and carpenter Domenico Scandella, or Menocchio—still provides revealing insights that can supplement what the potter tells us himself about the effect of his library on culture in the Saintongeais désert:
A case such as Menocchio’s was made possible by two great historical events: the invention of printing and the Reformation. Printing enabled him to confront books with an oral tradition in which he had grown up and fed him the words to release that tangle of ideas and fantasies he had within him. The Reformation gave him the courage to express his feelings to the parish priest, to his fellow villagers, to the inquisitors—even if he could not, as he wished, say them in person to the pope, to cardinals, and princes. The enormous rupture resulting from the end of the monopoly on written culture by the educated and on religion by the clergy had created a new and potentially explosive situation.59
Precisely the same case can be made for Palissy’s written and artisanal texts. But Ginzburg also writes:
The gulf between the texts read by Menocchio and the way in which he understood them and reported them back to the inquisitors indicates that his ideas cannot be reduced or traced back to any particular book. . . . The roots of his utterances and of his aspirations were sunk in an obscure, almost unfathomable, layer of remote peasant traditions.60
The last sentence of this quotation, when read together with Ginzburg’s epigraph from Céline for The Cheese and The Worms: “Tout ce qui est intéressant se passe dans l’ombre . . . / On ne sait rien de la véritable histoire des hommes” (“All that is interesting happens in the shadows . ../One knows nothing of men’s real history”), disclosed a characteristic fascination with the ineffable. No one can doubt the influence of Menocchio’s “peasant traditions” upon his comprehension of what he read. But this is also to underestimate their effect on rustic readers while limiting the methodological potential of circularity. No matter how “obscure, almost unfathomable” Ginzburg perceives those traditions to have been, without further inquiry into practice, it feels impossible to share his confidence that Menocchio’s claims “have an original stamp to them.”61
Certainly Palissy’s claims and rhetoric do not. It is folly to attribute the totality of Palissy’s discourse to the passive reception of information from one particular book (implicitly and explicitly, he provided titles for many books that influenced him), but it is also impossible to ignore evidence that while the potter was an authentic autodidact, his autodidacticism was deeply informed by his status as a first-generation Protestant reader of Paracelsus. While in fairness Ginzburg did not intend to provide evidence of Menocchio’s active awareness of Paracelsus, the miller’s language had a lot in common with Palissy and the Germanic Protestant tradition of alchemic and animate materialism. Our sense of their common use of available language suggests bonds that were probably more historical than ineffably folkloric in origin. It is not mere coincidence, as Ginzburg suggests, that when Menocchio was finally executed at the turn of the seventeenth century by order of Pope Clement VIII himself, the great Counter-Reformation show trial of the influential natural philosopher and alchemist Giordano Bruno was also drawing to a violent end in Rome.62
All three men were bound by common spiritualist beliefs owing to intensive exposure to German sectarian thought. And all three were skilled artisans (Paracelsus worked in the silver mines) well before they began to use written texts in any public or systematic way to express their ideas. As in Jean de Léry’s History, because of this conflation of merging artisanal and linguistic skills, one feels engaged with thinkers perceiving, pondering, and elucidating sensations about their worlds as much with their hands—a palpable sense of touch—as with the eye and mind. Artisans like Palissy and Menocchio, both of whom struggled to make the infusion of novel words from the available print culture communicate as eloquently as the potter’s wheel or properly maintained mill gears had done, were acutely aware of the importance of their hands and sense of touch—in both the practical and spiritual sense—to their crafts, as well as the coherence of their natural-philosophical strategies.
The leading international proponent of the synthesis of man’s spiritual and linguistic aspects with manual philosophy, and the true seventeenth-century inheritor and popularizer of the mystical ideas of Paracelsus and Palissy, was a German: the Görlitz shoemaker, and enormously influential Rosicrucian alchemist, Jakob Böhme (1575–1624). Böhme’s unabashedly occult program gained prominence in philosophical, scientific, and religious communities throughout northern Europe, and he was a transatlantic force over the course of three hundred years, particularly among Quakers and Continental pietistic groups in Britain and the American middle colonies, from the seventeenth through the late nineteenth century. “Hands,” he wrote, possessed the spiritual power to effect change in Nature, through agriculture (“that which is grown) and artisanry (“the work and Being of the whole”), since they “signifie God’s Omnipotence: for as God in Nature can change all things, and make of them what he pleaseth: so man also can with his Hands change all that which is grown in Nature, and can make with his Hands out of them what he pleaseth: he ruleth with his Hands the work and Being of the whole Nature, and so they very well signifie the Omnipotence of God.”63
An animate sense of touch assumed special primacy—resonating with spiritual powers sometimes ascribed to chiromancy—in Böhme’s writing and experience. Inasmuch as touch equated with “feeling,” Böhme implied that “touch,” in combination with the inner ecstasy of spiritual enthusiasm, caused deep “feeling” to “stir,” infusing corresponding feelings in the Trinity. Indeed, Böhme argued that the chemistry of “touching” preceded, and so inspired, the harmonic and biological passage—the “tuning, sounding, generating, blossoming, and vegetation or springing”—of rational impulses (or “powers”):
Feeling ... ariseth also from all the powers of the Body in the Spirit, into the Head ... if one did not touch the other, nothing would stir at all, and so this touching maketh the Holy Ghost stir so that he riseth up in all the powers, and touchest all the powers of the Father, wherein then existeth the heavenly joyfulness of triumphing; as also tuning, sounding, generating, blossoming, and vegetation or springing, all which, hath its rising from this, that one power toucheth the other. . . . Wheresoever one qualifying or fountain-spirit in the divine power is touched or stirred, let the place be where, or thing what, it will, except in the Devils and all wicked damned Men; there is the fountain of the divine Birth or Geniture, clearly at hand.64
It followed that Behmenist bodies—individual, “joyful,” human bodies, the metaphorical body of the reunited, primitive, “gathered church,” in fact, all natural bodies—were composed of a plurality of resonating “powers,” which touched one another along vertical axes, in effect, reversing both the flow and authority of emerging Enlightenment models. For Böhme, natural knowledge traveled from bottom to top. It coursed upward from the earth itself through the medium of living human tissues by negotiating corpuscular passages unblocked by spiritual ecstasy, generated by “the heavenly joyfulness” of hypersentient religious bodies, through green, vegetal conduits, finally “springing,” like a blossom blooming on its fertile stem, “into the head”: “Thus one power continually toucheth and stirreth the other in the whole Body, and all the powers rise up into the head . . . which proveth the stirring of all the powers.”65
Hence, Böhme’s interior, alchemic experience of touching and feeling animated perception of “half-dead nature,” reconstituting an edenic state of green rebirth while simultaneously reviving the “dead letter of the word.” Paracelsus’s relationship with Luther was tense; despite Paracelsus’s obvious intellectual debts to the theologian, they remained at arm’s length. Luther is celebrated without ambivalence, however, in Böhme’s Paracelsian natural-philosophical text on the origin, present history, and coming apocalyptic end of the world, Aurora (1612).
Luther’s early writing was a key to unlocking Böhme’s Neoplatonic sensuality, while “stirring” his spirit’s ascent through earth and bodily matter into the mind. Both Paracelsus and Böhme emulated Luther’s publication of the seminal Theologia deutsch in 1516, his influential compendium of fourteenth-century Germanic folkways and mystical teaching, wherein Luther staked his claim to a theology of spiritualism. Luther did not abandon openness on soulishness until after “Freedom of a Christian.” His formative writings deeply influenced the spiritualists, in spite of his famous schism with Böhme’s forerunners among the early Anabaptists and pietists. Luther later complained bitterly about sectarians in the notorious “Letter of Opposition to the Fanatic Spirit.” By then, Luther had publicly condemned enemies of his state Church as Schwärmer, a term encompassing both spiritual enthusiasts and religious fanatics.66
Yet in 1612, Böhme historicized Luther as foundational to spiritualist natural philosophers and linked him to other soulish reformers—including Böhme himself—who were overlooked by learned men because of their abject poverty, rustic employments, or lack of a classical education. Böhme cobbled together a Paracelsian discursive tradition that privileged the learned layman—with powerful echoes of Palissy’s rustic artisan and Anabaptist leveler rhetoric—to the primitive strain of the Lutheran Reformation. “Because I write here of heavenly and Divine things,” Böhme informed his readers at the start of chapter 9 of Aurora, “which are altogether strange to the corrupted perished Nature of Man”:
the reader doubtlesse will wonder at the simplicity of the Authour, and be offended at it. Because the condition and inclination of the corrupted Nature is, to gaze onely on high things, like a proud, wild, wanton and whorish woman, which alwayes gazeth in her heat or burning Lust after Handsome men. . . . Thus also the Proud corrupted perished Nature of Man, it stareth only upon that, which is glittering and in Fashion in this world, and sup-poseth, that God hath forgotten the afflicted, and therefore plageth them so, because he mindeth them not. Corrupt Nature imagineth, that the Holy Ghost regardeth onely high things, the high Arts and Sciences of this world, the profound studies and Great Learning. . . . Therefore I would have the Reader warned, that he read this Book with diligence, and not be offended at the meannesse or simplicity of the Author, for God looketh not at high things, for he alone is High: but he careth for the Lowly, how to help them.67
Having established his core natural-philosophical identity by invoking his place deep in the discourse of Paracelsianism, Böhme effectively harnessed both himself and his scientific tradition to the sacred history of rustic smallness—or, the power of weakness—from Abel to Luther:
look but back and then you will find the true Ground: What was Abel? A Shepherd. What was Enoch and Noah? plain simple men. What were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Herdsmen. What was Moses, that dear man of God? A Herdsman. What was David, when the Mouth of the Lord call’d him? A shepherd. What were the Great, and Small Prophets? Vulgar plain and mean People: some of them but Countrey people, and Herdsmen, counted the underlings or footstooles of the world: men counted them but meer fooles. And though they did Miracles Wonders and shewed great signs, yet the world gazed only on high things, and the Holy Ghost must be as the Dust under their feet: for the proud Devil alwaies endeavoured to be King in this world. And how came Our King JESUS CHRIST into this world? Poor and in great trouble and misery . . . What were his Apostles? Poor, dispised, illiterate Fishermen, and what were they that believed their preaching? The poorer and meaner sort of the people. The High Priests and Scribes were the Executioners of Christ, who cryed out, Crucifie him, crucifie him, Luk. 23.21. What were they that in all Ages in the Church of Christ stood to it most stoutly and constantly? The poor contemptible despised people, who shed their Bloud for the sake of Christ. But who were they that falsified and adulterated the right pure Christian Doctrine, and alwayes fought against and opposed it? Even the Learned Doctors and Scribes, Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and great Dons, or Masters and Teachers. And why did the world follow after them, and depend on them? But because they had great respect, were in great authority, and power. ... Who was it that purged the Pope[’]s Greedinesse of Money, his Idolatry, Bribery, deceit and Cheating; out of the Churches in Germany? A poor despised * Monk or Fryer [*Luther in margin]. By what power and might? by the power of God the Father, and by the power and Might of God the Holy Ghost.68
For Böhme, as for Paracelsus and Palissy before him, soulish truth “sheweth and declareth” itself to laymen in vernacular form, in “lowly” things. Here, defined as, “The Mother Tongue expounded according to the Language of Nature”:
For understand but thy Mother Tongue aright; thou hast as deep a Ground therein, as there is, in the Hebrew, or Latine: Though the Learned elevate themselves therein, like a proud arrogant Bride; it is no great matter, their Art is now on the Lees, or Bowed down to the Dust. The Spirit sheweth and declareth, that yet before the End, many a Layman, will know and understand more, then now the Wittiest or Cunningest Doctors know.
Reactivating Luther’s rhetoric on the marriage of inner and outer bodies, Böhme argued that the process of showing was made visible to the small, because “meeknesse and humility are its proper House or Habitation ... for the Gates of Heaven set open themselves; those that do not blind themselves, shall and will see it very well, the Bridegroom Crowneth his Bride.”69 The wealthy were seduced by the flesh, “a very Bath or Lake of hellish Wrath” and so were utterly unable to unlock the gates by inner sight. Citing the crucial text on Christ’s sacred poverty quoted in the gospels of Matthew [19:24] and Mark [10:25], Böhme sang the rallying cry of all early modern levelers from the Anabaptists to Gerrard Winstanley: “O Danger upon Danger! as our King Christ also saith; It is very hard for a Rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; a Camel will easier go through the Eye of a Needle, then a Rich man enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”70
Such subversive language poisoned whatever hope Böhme and his intellectual forebears (or inheritors) harbored for compromise with the magisterial Reformation. Luther’s followers, including Philipp Melanchthon, Justus Menius, and Urbanus Rhegius, clearly continued to distribute anti-Anabaptist literature. So did Calvin, who raged against Menno Simons, the great Netherlandish Anabaptist (from whose name “Mennonite” derives), that “nothing could be more conceited than this donkey, nor more impudent than this dog.” (Böhme celebrated Luther despite the latter’s final turn against the spiritualists, but he criticized Calvin for trivializing both works and free will with predestination.)71 Catholics attacked claims of revelation and prophesy by enthusiasts as seditious radicalism, challenging them with a fervor equal to that of the reformers. Catholic polemicists claimed spiritualists were an inevitable result of the original Lutheran or Calvinist heresy (both terms were applied indiscriminately to cover Protestant heterodoxy), and yet the Catholic language of condemnation of enthusiasm or unrestrained soulishness was remarkably similar to that of Luther and Calvin.72 In the end, the competing confessions made common cause to obliterate the brief and violent ascendancy in 1535 of Anabaptism in Münster.
The orthodox reformers’ greatest stake in suppression of the Anabaptist movement was threefold: first, the movement rejected the conflation of Church and state, and hence secular control of sacred matters; second, condemnation under Zwingli in Zurich of infant baptism as corrupted undermined the basis of virtually all other Christian ritual practices; and, third, like most Germanic sectarians (and despite their origins in textual literalism), many Anabaptists and their followers regarded communication inspired by spiritual motion to be superior to human interpretation of written text. This contradicted Calvinist orthodoxy, which decreed scriptural text to be the only reliable mode of communication between man and God in modern times (the last bits of holy text had been written in the apostolic era, ending direct communication with the deity). Anabaptism emerged within lay groups when uncompromising “radicals” began to require rigorous qualifications for baptism that were only rarely achieved by adults, making them impossible for infants. These emerged from a practical religion based on works—and thereby experience in spiritual, community, and material life—that infants born in sin but without experience could not yet possess.73 “Infant baptism,” Wolfgang Brandhuber argued in his open letter of 1529 to the Lutheran Church in Rattenberg, “is an abomination and the name of mockery of our God, which only John mentions in his revelation, but which shall be further revealed to us, if only we seek the Lord . . . until the end. Then He will reveal it to us, for interpretation belongs to Him alone.”74 Or at least to a soulish reader in hidden communication with God, by private spiritual intercession. Böhme, for one, claimed to have written the Aurora, “only for himselfe, according to the gift of Gods Spirit.”75
This emphasis on works and labor was understandably attractive to farmers and artisans, reflecting the basic publishing interests of Palissy and Böhme. Anabaptists were commonly admired in print for improvement and innovation in agriculture and the manual arts. Echoing Böhme, the sociologist Jean Seguy has written that French Anabaptists held convictions that their agricultural practices were a product of spiritual separation and purification. Thus, they were endowed with the ability to see deeply into the mysteries of the inner earth and Nature as the bearers of millennial secrets invisible to others.76
Aurora tied Böhme’s theory of agricultural production to his critique of Calvinist predestination. Nothing in nature was wholly corrupt or pure, but a mixture of the two—“wrath and love”—at war for dominance until the end of history. “There is still in all things of this world both Love and wrath,” Böhme wrote, “one in another, and they always wrestle and strive one with another.” Here was Palissy’s metaphysics again; if Palissy’s program was formed out of brutal experience in the French civil wars of religion, Böhme’s context was the Thirty Years’ War. As alchemists, both men believed that spiritual light was generated from the crucible of battle. Both also argued that corruption was tied to nurture or personal history, what Palissy had called “heritage.” “Neither,” Böhme argued, “ought any man to say”:
that he is generated in the wrath-fire of totall corruption or perdition, out of Gods predestinate purpose. No: the corrupted Earth doth not stand, neither, in the totall wrath-fire of God, but only in its outward comprehensibility or palpability wherein it is so hard, dry and bitter. Whereby every one may perceive, that this Poison andfiercenesse doth not belong to the Love of God, in which there is nothing but Meeknesse. Yet I do not say this, as if every Man were Holy as he cometh from his mother’s womb, but as the Tree is, so is the Fruit. Yet the Fault is not Gods, if a Mother beareth or bringeth forth a child of the Devil; but the Parents wickednesse. But if a wild twigg be planted in a Sweet Soyl, and be ingrafted with some other of a better and sweeter Kind, then there groweth a Mild Tree, though the twig were wild.
For here all is possible; as soon is the good changed into Evill, as the Evill into Good. For every Man is free, and is as a God to himself; he may change and alter himself in this life either into wrath or into light: such Cloaths or Garments as a man puts on, such is his ornament or lustre: and what manner of Body soever man soweth into the earth, such a Body also groweth up from it, though in another form clarity and Brightnesse: yet all according to the quality of the Seed. For if the Earth were quite forsaken of God, then it could never bring forth any Good Fruit, but meer bad and Evil Fruit. But being the Earth standeth yet in Gods Love, therefore his wrath will not burn therein Eternally, but the Love which hath overcome will spew out the wrath-fire.77
The interaction of sacred violence thus inspired Germanic sectarian interest in medicinal plants, alchemy, and homeopathic medicine—all held in common with Paracelsus.78 In his Anabaptist manifesto, Brandhuber, like Böhme, further claimed that the triumph of love, good works, and products of pious labor would unify the gathered Church into a mutually interdependent body; hence, Anabaptists were also known as the “Family of Love” (pejoratively, the “Familists”):
If God permits and enables, all things should be held in common, . . . for since we have become partakers of Christ in the greatest things (that is in the power of God), why not then much more in the smallest, in temporal things. Not that man should therefore carry all his possessions to a common collection, for this is not appropriate everywhere. . . . [But] even though each laborer should receive his daily wages in accordance with the words of Christ that the laborer is worthy of his wages, love should compel him to contribute faithfully to the common treasury. This should be done because of love. . . . Blessed is the hand which nourishes itself with its work and produces something honest, so that it may be able to give to the needy and thus preserve the whole body. For you know how Paul, in using the natural body as an example, says that no member is concerned only with itself, but all members with the whole body, and none can dispense with the other.79
The Anabaptist movement naturally gained avid support within the artisanal fraternities and guilds in urban areas ranging from Strasbourg to Venice. Like Palissy, perhaps, Clement Ziegler of the gardeners’ guild of Strasbourg was considered “an indigenous prophet of something between traditional fraternity and Reformation sectarianism.”80 Until the “Tragedy of Münster” humbled them after 1535, Strasbourg was a haven for “all the misfits, intellectual and other, of the German-speaking Reformation.”81 So too was heterodox Venice, its southern counterpart.82 Yet after Münster, persecution increased dramatically, sending survivors underground, tramping the rural countryside, or into isolated utopian communities. It is not unreasonable to speculate that in this context, some Anabaptist influence—perhaps refugees—reached the western islands of coastal Saintonge. Notions of absolute brotherhood, a leveler ideology in which love shattered social and religious barriers, respect for the pious products of rustic labor, pacifism, the revival of primitive, apostolic Christianity, and the millennialist belief in “end times” by persecuted refugees, inspired by their reading of Revelation, which promised divine vengeance on those who martyred God’s saints, found a sympathetic audience among Palissy’s Saintongeais Huguenot followers during the wars. To be sure, the language Palissy used to illuminate the religious and social world-views of his heretical monks suggested their exposure to many elements of the Anabaptist program in “the east.” There, to the questing Böhme in 1612, the “Aurora, Day-spring or Morning Rednesse; the lovely Bright Day” appeared, “which,” he said, “is truly a great WONDER.”83
This is not to say Saintongeais Huguenots in general, or even Palissy in particular, subscribed fully to Anabaptist notions of Christ as a man like all others—albeit suffused with the Holy Spirit—or that they denied Calvin’s predestinarian discipline in favor of a utopian religion based on meritorious works. Still, we have seen that Palissy was not shy about contradicting Calvin’s most canonical doctrines when they challenged his notions of moral social order. While he did not openly contest predestination as he did Nicodemism, Palissy focused much of his discourse on the good works of God in Nature, as well as of man in his agricultural and artisanal innovations, as ways to eliminate poverty; geological arguments that the earth was not ossified but constantly engaged in a process of inner and outer change; and that this state of change was conditional, the result of adepts “building with the destroyer.”
The alchemic enterprise was, after all, about redemption of that which had remained pure from corrupted matter, using fire and “the work.” First-generation rural reformers fell back on traditional Catholic notions of merit more than the Calvinist ministers were willing to admit. Just as the potter filtered Genevan theology through his own personal experience, so too he took what was needed from German spiritualism. Palissy’s artisan natural philosophy was, like that of those called Anabaptists, founded on the alchemical emulation of Jesus’ redemptive pain and meritorious acts. Above all else, Palissy and his Huguenot followers applied manual labor and skills to reconstruct primitive spiritual security for ordinary Christians who “wrestled” with both corruption and “wrath” in their everyday lives. Here many Protestant groups—especially lay spiritualists—found common cause in some moral tenets of the Anabaptist sects, while at the same time, they prudently maintained a safe distance from the very real danger of open sympathy.
Consider the widely read sentiments of Simplicius Simplicissimus, the poor rustic and refugee in Hans Jakob Christoph von Grimmelshausen’s (1625–76) German novel of 1669, set amid the chaotic violence of the Thirty Years’ War. Although not openly an Anabaptist himself, the uncharacteristically sober-minded Simplicius treats “their manner of life” with seriousness and respect in Grimmelshausen’s “short chapter on the Hungarian Anabaptists,” after the bulk of his “adventures” have satirized the cultures of seventeenth-century German wartime experience. First, in a conventional act of distancing for those who may have been sympathizers after Münster, Simplicius says that he “would have joined them” if only “these good people had not become mixed up in, and dedicated to, a false and heretical doctrine contrary to the general Christian church.” Still, he compares the Hutterites (one of several Germanic sects pejoratively called Anabaptists) to the Essenes of Galilee, one of the three reformed Jewish sects from which historians surmise that Jesus probably emerged and an appropriate model for primitive Christianity among early modern sectarian reformers.84 Regarding the Hutterites, he says:
I considered their life the most blessed on earth, for they appeared to me in their activities very much like the Essenes described by Josephus [ Jewish War 2.119–61] and others . . . they had treasures laid up and more than enough to eat; yet they wasted nothing. One heard no grumbling or cursing among them, not even unnecessary words. I saw craftsmen working in their shops as if they were paid for piecework. Their schoolmaster taught the children as if they were all his own. ... If a person got sick, he or she had a special nurse; and there was a doctor and pharmacist for the group, though because of good food and healthy living hardly anyone became ill. I saw many an old person living quietly to extreme old age among them, and that is seldom found elsewhere. They had their appointed hours for eating, for sleeping, for working, but not a single minute for play or for promenading, except for the youngsters. After each meal, for the sake of health, the youngsters went walking for an hour with their teacher. During this time they also had to pray and sing hymns. There is no anger, no zealotry, no vengefulness, no envy, no enmity, no worry about worldly goods, no pride, no regret. In short, there prevailed such lovely harmony as seemed to purport nothing but the honorable increase of the human race and of God’s kingdom. ... I thought that if I could initiate such a commendable Christian way of life, under the protection of my sovereign, I’d be a second St. Dominic or St. Francis. Oh, if only I could convert the Anabaptists so that they might in turn teach our fellow Christians their way of living, how blessed I would be! Or if only I could persuade my fellow Christians to lead such a (seemingly) Christian and commendable life as do the Anabaptists, what an achievement I would have to my credit!85
Although he says that “for a long time I went around with such thoughts; I would have been glad to dedicate my farm and my entire fortune to such a Christian association,” Simplicius decides in the end that the safest (and cheapest) course of action is to emulate those aspects of their utopian social contract that do not dangerously offend the state Church. He suppresses all talk of infant baptism and direct communication of the spirit and, like Menocchio, Palissy, Böhme, and many other Paracelsians, embraces a personal religion. “[A]mong all the arts and sciences none is better than theology, so long as it teaches a person to love God and serve him,” he concludes. Based on this:
I devised for people a kind of life that could be more angelic than human. A group of married as well as unmarried men and women would have to join together and, under a wise leader, earn their living by manual labor like the Anabaptists; the rest of the time they would exert themselves in the praise of God and the salvation of their souls.86
This “kind of life” was both agricultural and artisanal, after the primitive example of the Essenes. In such new worlds, manual labor was privileged and all of its profits were to be shared communally. Craftsmanship, medicine, and education were prized and available to all; language was pure, or silent; there was equality of the sexes; violence and illness were rare, and as a result, so were premature deaths (commonplace in the Thirty Years’ War). Members lived by a synthesis of the Ten Commandments, the Gospels, and the golden rule. Consequently, the seven deadly sins were unknown. The real way of Simplicissimus’s life, however, was mostly individual, private and noncommunal. His quest for a personal religion to be shared with others remained self-contained and atomized.
Yet Anabaptists, in their militant Christianity and above all the quest for purity, tended toward separation. This practice was manifested later in establishment of the Mennonite and Amish sects in Europe and America. Most other sympathizers, whether sectarians or lay Calvinists like Palissy, tended to adopt discourses of unity rather than separation, despite boundaries or differences.87 That was why Palissy labored to syncretize his rustic cosmology with the magisterial Reformation and in turn with anti-Huguenot patrons. In artisanal security, Palissy offered an alternative to both militant Christianity and overt separatism, in which Huguenots could work in communities and as individuals independent of others.
So too Böhme, who labored to unify the opposition of love and wrath based on the Trinitarian model, as an inseparable plurality in one. Simplicius journeys from place to place to uncover prelapsarian unity beneath the fragmentation of war, from which he has been dispersed as a homeless particle. Although he learns much about “a kind of life that could be more angelic than human,” he chooses not to live apart among the Hutterites but to search alone for an independent, individualistic “German hero who will overcome the whole world and make peace among all nations.” a hero who can transform Germany into “the land of Cockaigne”—the earthly paradise for laborers—because he “will unite the religions and mold them into one.”88 The quest for unity could therefore be undertaken by heroic individuals in secret and set apart from other like-minded seekers, who were linked by a universal soul. Protestant artisans and natural philosophers in the early modern transatlantic world regarded Paracelsus as their unifying hero and used his legend and writings as models to order their own experience.
“By what means these doctrines were transmitted to the England of the Interregnum, more than a century later, and whether indeed an actual transmission was called for, are difficult questions,” John Bossy says of the Anabaptist movement and its diffusion to Britain and the American colonies in the seventeenth century: “Perhaps we should think of them as spores secreted in a Christian culture, guaranteed to produce mushrooms at a certain temperature. In any case, no one who turns from the history of radical Christianity in the Germany of the 1520s and 1530s to the English of the 1640s and 1650s can fail to get the feeling that he has been there before.”89
Primitivist convergence was key; yet the diffusion of Saintongeais Huguenot refugees to northern Europe, England, and America provides a compelling clue to one specific source for transmission of secret “spores.” Perhaps hidden structures took shape in family networks of skilled artisans, refugee cells developed “under a wise leader” such as Palissy. He would claim that these “doctrines,” based on manual philosophy, were secreted in material culture. The human geography of this inquiry is more direct for New Amsterdam / New York. The States-General of the Netherlands awarded descendants of refugees from Münster official toleration in 1578. Many of their followers eventually settled in New Amsterdam alongside the refugee Huguenots and Walloons who comprised New York’s old French culture. With the Dutch capitulation of 1664, and even before—most famously during Peter Stuyvesant’s time—English Quakers and other sectarian groups with Germanic antecedents and traditions of pious artisanry followed them to western Long Island, where they awaited the Huguenot refugee migration from Saintonge following 1685. This process of atomization, migration, and convergence is the subject of Part III of this book. Palissy’s history thus introduced the daunting problem of the identification and definition of southwestern French artisans and enthusiasts as they moved through the Atlantic world in search of refuge. That the word “enthusiast” (or fanatique) has been used in conjunction with southwestern Huguenot religious practice at all may seem relatively unorthodox to students of early modern France, inasmuch as such language is traditionally used in reference to the far more expressive and theatrically prophetic behavior documented for southeastern Huguenot inspirés.
Enthusiastic behavior was manifested by different millennial styles. The southwestern Huguenot millennialist style—animate materialist, self-absorbed, disguised, interior, Neoplatonic, quietist (that is to say, closely related to forms of early Quakerism with which many successful southwestern Huguenot artisans would eventually ally themselves in colonial New York)—was a more socially adaptable and enduring alternative for Huguenot refugees in pluralistic colonial settings than the southeastern style, which was defined by open and confrontational theatricality.90
If there was general agreement that the defining character of spirit was oneness, “the fruits of the spirit appeared to be babel and confusion.”91 Mistrust of “the Enthusiast” was widespread, even among sympathetic Calvinist Neoplatonists. John Smith (16161652), representing the influential Cambridge Platonists, said that enthusiastic philosophers made impressive progress toward perfection with an “inward sense of virtue and moral goodness far transcendent to all mere speculative opinions of it.” Nevertheless, they also had souls that “heave and swell with a sense of [their] own virtue and knowledge.” No doubt this characterized Palissy and Böhme alike, as did “an ill-ferment of self-love, lying at the bottom . . . with pride, arrogance and self-conceit.”92 Willfulness was a powerful signifier of carnality, and critics claimed that this suppressed spiritual communication, making human speech obscure, incomprehensible, or mute. Spiritualists countered, however, that the very insufficiency of human speech signified the active presence of soulish communication.93
Paracelsian discourse, steeped in lay rather than clerical rhetoric, was thus deeply—and problematically—pietistic. That is to say, it signified a convergence of natural-philosophical theory and practice that precisely paralleled a shift of focus in the lay religious experience from collective to individual spirituality, as a result of religious warfare and the insecurity of open, communal spirituality. Paracelsism was epitomized by soulish interiority, the secret lives of adepts, and the quest to separate purity from impurity, all—unlike Anabaptism—while remaining engaged therapeutically and commercially with the corrupt outside world. Its common languages were, therefore, multiple: the discourses of heterodoxy, primitive enthusiasm, pious artisanry, leveler politics, economics, rustic naturalism, and experience in civil war. La Rochelle’s powerful fortress of Genevan orthodoxy presented one set of problems, eventually overcome by Richelieu’s methodical frontal assault. However, this pietist shift toward rustic privatization presented an arguably greater problem of inaccessibility to the state’s apparatus of repression.
Mystical writings by Valentin Weigel (1533–88), an influential pietist from Zschopau, Saxony (near Bohemia), were based on his closeted reading of Paracelsus’s animate materialism. Böhme studied both Weigel and Paracelsus in nearby Lusatia during his early years. Paracelsus steadfastly refused sectarian alignment, and he was certainly latitudinarian in his beliefs. He had been born Catholic, however, and although his natural philosophy was predicated on the return of Christianity to spiritual unity, represented as being found in the primitive Church, which transcended confessional boundaries, he did accept last rites at his death in 1541. Even if Paracelsus had refused confessional alignment until that time, and although he has usually been associated with the Protestant natural-philosophical tradition, it should not be forgotten that his Catholic experience was present in alchemical reformulations of Trinitarianism and transubstantiation. Yet Paracelsus’s books were on the Vatican’s Index and his mystical Neoplatonic spiritualism was clearly at the core of the attraction for pietists. The universal soul’s power to bind the fragmented confessions together was also fundamental for Protestant scientists in search of harmonization. Writers such as Palissy and Grimmelshausen thus applied Paracelsian discourse with growing frequency during the apocalyptic war years.94
Like Palissy, the inwardly mystical and heterodox Weigel was a first-generation Paracelsian. At the same time, Weigel was an outwardly orthodox Lutheran minister, which is why he remained unpublished until after his death in 1588. This strong pietist presence within orthodox Lutheranism parallels Böhme and elements of the tensions in Palissy’s relationship to orthodox Calvinism. A shared history of Germanic and Saintongeais Huguenot Paracelsianism, pietism, and outward disguise of an inwardly subversive spirit will help us to understand the significance Palissy accorded the influence of the sectarian “Lutheran monks” who “returned” from Germany to Saintonge to evangelize Saintes and the coastal islands. When Palissy wrote that these monks had returned from “the east,” was this simply a generic reference to the Germanic principalities or eastern France? Or was it an allusion to eastern Germany, and to the regions bordering Bohemia, then a hotbed of Paracelsianism among enthusiastic Protestant natural philosophers, such as the hidden Weigel, and ultimately his follower Böhme? Such regional religious foundations might account for the influence of Palissy as a preacher and natural philosopher in Saintonge.
This might also help us to explain why Palissy’s religious and craft influences remained strong among Saintongeais artisans after Hamelin’s death, Palissy’s removal to Paris post-1565, and the latter’s own death at the turn of the seventeenth century. Given the isolation of the region and the disruptive influence the wars had on diffusion of formal Genevan Calvinism to the Rochelais hinterland (a situation made permanent by the events of 1628), the naturalistic, pietistic, intensely ascetic artisanal and monastic Lutheranism that traveled west with the monks in the 1540s was probably the single most coherent Reformed religious doctrine and worldview to endure into the periods of the désert and dispersion. This was the Germanic sectarian tradition reactivated by Palissy when, in the absence of the fugitive (and doomed) Hamelin, he stepped in (in the role of his anonymous “artisan sans lettres”) to preach from the heart and soul and lead other artisans to do the same.
This is not by any means to suggest that Saintongeais artisans rejected formal Calvinism, but simply to say that Germanic pietism may have had a more profound and lasting effect, if only because the Germanic tradition had more of an opportunity to take root in the primitive Church. Its prudent lessons of silence and interiority were more applicable for artisans during wartime than Calvin’s denunciations of Nicodemism. Palissy’s history indicates that Saintongeais Huguenots took much from Genevan Calvinism and appreciated the presence of Genevan ministry when available, witness his martyrology of Hamelin. But at the same time, the endurance of an early Germanic Protestant and monastic tradition among Saintongeais artisans in part explains Palissy’s leveler rhetoric well before such rhetoric appeared in England during the civil wars, as well as his pointed reference to local Huguenot rejection of one Calvinist minister who preferred the nobility in favor of another who lived among the poor, led the ascetic life, and “ate potatoes and drank water for dinner.” This regional Germanic tradition makes it much easier, finally, to explain the susceptibility of Palissy and his followers among the artisanat to the rapid assimilation of Germanic Paracelsian discourse and alchemic theories of artisanal practice in such a rural and isolated part of the world. It also suggests the syncretism contained in the moment when Hamelin returned to the region for a second time after rehabilitation in Geneva and Palissy engaged in a strategy to assure both the Calvinist minister’s local status among the flock and his personal sûreté. Palissy helped disguise his mentor in Hamelin’s secondary persona as a working artisan—he was, after all, a printer as well as a minister—thus following the Germanic tradition alive in Saintonge from the earliest days of the primitive Church.
This was also the historical context for closer readings of Palissy’s narrative of the monks’ capture and the state’s symbolic response to their acts of heresy with its very specific program of degradation, torture, and execution. With a careful description of the notably well-considered punishments, Palissy reserved pride of place in his Saintongeais “book of Martyrs”—before Hamelin joined them there—for the monks who had founded the artisans’ primitive Church in Saintonge on Germanic spiritual principles of interiority and naturalistic dissimulation. These principles were equally well known to enemies. Unfortunately, knowledge alone guaranteed neither access nor control over heterodoxy. Thus, “the cursed Familists do hold,” wrote the Englishman John Canne in 1634 (after sectarians emerged as a potent force to challenge his state Church), “that religion standeth not in outward things.”95 “The corrupted earth does not stand in the totall wrath-fire of God,” Böhme wrote, “but only in its outward comprehensibility . . . hard, dry and bitter.” By nature already a lie, the surface of things was the natural place for artisanal dissimulation of earth matter.
Just as Palissy and his followers constructed artisanal sûreté in plain sight of the traditional Huguenot place de sûreté, so too he narrated his history so that Saintongeais Huguenot craftsmen initially adapted a local version of Germanic sectarianism. This was characterized by the convergence of heresy with dissimulation and craftsmanship with millennial expectation, and it was embodied by new Huguenot leaders who were both lay ministers and pious artisans.96 This was fertile territory for synthetic visions of the cosmos, a historical foundation combining analogous doctrines uncovered in Paracelsus and in Ficino’s Italianate Neoplatonism. That is why Palissy’s reading in his little history of end times in Saintonge’s primitive Church in 1546 can also be seen as beginning a new transatlantic history of Huguenot spiritual disguise, constructed by pious artisans in material forms. In these contexts, construction spiraled outward from the heretics’ Reformed inner bodies, while their corrupted outer bodies—already impure—were dissimulated in response to challenges from external “perils, dangers and great tribulations”:
You must understand that the early Church was built on a very small beginning, through perils, dangers and great tribulations, and that on the last days, the difficulty and dangers, pains, labors and afflictions, were great in that country of Xaintonge. . . .
... It happened in the year 1546 that some monks, having gone to Germany and then returned, or that some having read books of their doctrine finding that they were misled, dared to secretly uncover some of the abuses, but suddenly the priests and beneficiers found out that they were distancing themselves from their deceptions [coqueilles] and incited the judges to prosecute them: this the judges did willingly, because none of them owned part of the benefice, from which to make a living, and so they were susceptible to bribery. Because of this, these monks were forced to flee [Saintes] into exile, removing their habits, because they worried they would be burned alive. Some became artisans, others became teachers in some of the villages, and because the islands of Oléron, Marennes, and Alvert were far from public roads, a certain number withdrew onto these islands, finding various means of making a living without being recognized: and as they got to know the inhabitants, they risked speaking covertly, [because] they were assured that nobody would say anything.
All this having happened, [the monks’] numbers were greatly reduced, [and yet] they found a way to obtain a pulpit because in those days there was a vicar who favored them tacitly: it therefore ensued that little by little in these regions and islands of Xaintonge, many had their eyes opened, and recognized many of the abuses which they had previously ignored, [and] as a result, many held these preachers in great esteem, so much so that from then on, the abuses were quite thinly veiled.
In those days, the fiscal procureur [or collector of tithes, Savary] Collardeau, a perverted man, of bad character, found a means to warn the bishop of Xaintes [Tristan de Bizet], who was then at the court, [and] got him to understand that Xaintes was full of Lutherans, and he asked the bishop to put him in charge of rooting out the Lutherans; not only did Collardeau write to him many times, but he also went to see him. Collardeau tried so hard that he obtained a commission from the bishop and from the parlement of Bordeaux, with a hefty sum of money that was given him by the court. This was done for gain and not for religious zeal. This accomplished, he used some judges, on the island of Oléron as well as that of Arvert, and similarly at Gémozac, and had them arrest the preacher of Saint-Denis, which is at the tip of the island of Oléron, by the name of Brother Robin, and took him to the island of Arvert, where they also caught another called Nicole; some days later, they also caught the one in Gémozac, who taught school, and preached on Sundays, and who was well loved by the inhabitants: because of that I think they should be inscribed in the book of martyrs. . . .
... These poor people were condemned to be unfrocked and dressed up in accoutrements made of greenery, so that the people would think they were fools or mad: and on top of that, because they were upholding God’s quarrel in a manly way [virilement], they were bridled like horses by Collardeau, before being taken to the scaffold; these bridles each had an iron apple which filled up the whole of their mouths, a hideous thing to behold: and having been thus degraded, they were returned to prison before being sent to Bordeaux, where they would be condemned to death.97
Palissy charted trajectories for the pious lives and martyred deaths of these Lutheran heretics who were catalysts and founders of the primitive Church of Saintonge by using the allegorical and historical language of concealment and revelation. He “inscribed,” for posterity, the stories of the three martyrs he knew personally: one monk was from the Dominican order and named Hubert Robert (“the preacher of Saint-Denis [-d’Oléron] . . . Brother Robin”); another was a Celestine academic named Nicolle Maurel (“another called Nicole”), who had access to a scientific library at the Collège de Guyenne in Bordeaux; and finally, the Franciscan named René Mace (“the one in Gémozac”). Of the three heretics, only Hubert Robert escaped being burned alive by the authorities. Palissy’s mystical tale of this Brother Robin’s flight from his captors in effect recycled the story of Peter’s miraculous deliverance from Herod An-tipas’s prison in Jerusalem at the beginning of the early Christian era (Acts 12: 6–10), likewise one of blindness (concealment) and insight (revelation).98
Herod had Peter arrested in a roundup of Jews and imprisoned him along with the others. This story drew parallels between Old and New Testament histories of the early Jewish and Christian dispersions, inasmuch as it separated Christ’s early disciples from their corrupt Jewish genealogy. An angel visited Peter in prison that night, caused the chains to fall miraculously from his hands and then led the way out of bondage to freedom. As if in a dream, Peter’s physical body and angelic protective spirit walked past guards who were either asleep or overlooked them. Peter had been hidden in plain sight under the prophet’s own simple “mantle” of faith, which the angel ordered Peter to “wrap . . . around you and follow me.” Many paintings confirm the miraculousness of this manipulation of perception, as the eyes of Peter’s guards appear wide open yet also covered by an obscuring dross. Brother Robin was likewise saved by an angelic intervention that veiled the corrupt vision of his enemies in order to preserve his tiny fragment of the living word for dispersion into the désert.99
Such was Palissy’s basis for the “very small beginning” of the primitive Church. This was literally true in numerical terms, yet smallness was understood as the container of great spiritual power in the Recepte. Here the power was still in a state of potential, however. Paracelsus’s generative metaphor of the microcosmic seed that lived in every natural thing and grew after animation by the metaphysical light of nature comes quickly to mind. Consider both the obstetric and the eschatological terms at play in the image of “perils, dangers, and great tribulations” and the potter’s choice of words in describing “the last days.” During these violent end times, “the difficulty and dangers, pains, labors, and afflictions, were great in that country of Xaintonge.” This language provided the natural-philosophical and alchemical context for the birth, decay, death, and rebirth of the primitive Church, constructed by Palissy in subsequent passages. After the seed was planted in the earth of “that country of Xaintonge,” it was inseminated by the intervention of God, “through perils, dangers, and great tribulations.” Once the seed had germinated, it matured slowly, hidden in this apocalyptic womb during its inside-out travail of birth, beset by “pains, labors, and afflictions,” until the time for potential to assume prophetic form ripened and it grew visibly into its plenitude, up through crevices and holes in the protective shell that mediated the subterranean world that Palissy also constructed in his rustic basins and grottos.
Like Palissy before him, Böhme—claiming that the Holy Spirit would germinate and emerge from the war in matter between wrath and love—internalized this natural philosophy of “perils, dangers, and great tribulations.” These dangers were historical and most apparent as social and political chaos, yet they were experienced inwardly, as Böhme “must every day and hour grapple struggle and fight with the Devill who afflicteth me in my corrupted lost Nature, in the fierce or wrathful quality, which is in my flesh . . . for our life is as aperpetuall warfare with the Devill.” The desired result of warfare, however, was momentary prelapsarian return and spiritual revelation when the light of Nature, in the Holy Ghost, “riseth up” out of the dead stone of fallen earth like a spark of fire, after being struck by a violent hand:
This Strife and Battle is about that most High Noble Victorious Garland, till the corrupted perished Adamical Man is killed and dead, in which the Devill hath accesse to Man. . . . For, the Holy Ghost will not be caught held or retained in the sinful flesh; but riseth up like a flash of lightning; even as fire flashes and sparckles [sic] out of a stone, when a man strikes fire upon it.100
Böhme thus understood convergence of Revelation and alchemy to occur as the hidden inner “Life presseth through Death: the outermost Birth is the Death . . . when thou lookest on Earth and Stones . . . Death is therein. . . . [and so] The outward Earth is a bitter stinck, and is dead, and that every man understandeth to be so.”101 This cycle of impermanent, fragmented natural history ended with the millennium, and with it permanence and wholeness (synthesis) was acquired. In the microcosm, a tiny “new Body might continually and constantly be generated out of Death, till time should be accomplished, and the whole [becomes a] new borne Body.”102 Like Palissy’s spirit after the first civil war of religion in Saintonge, when he undertook to write his history of the primitive Church of Saintes, Böhme’s:
spirit at this Time of my description and setting it down did unite and qualifie or mix with the deepest Birth or Geniture of God; in that, I have received my knowledge and from thence it is sucked, not in great Earthly Joy, but in the anxious Birth or Geniture, perplexity and Trouble. For what I did hereupon undergo suffer and endure from the Devill and the Hellish quality which as well doth rule in my outward Man . . . this thou canst not apprehend, unless thou also Dancest in this Round.103
“Thou must know,” Böhme concluded in this gesture of commonality between Paracelsians and pietists, “that I write not here as a Story or History, as if it were related to me from another,” but from personal experience of prophesy and revelation in the sacred violence of love and wrath, spirit and matter, hand and tool, word and mouth, pen and paper:
I must continually stand in that Combat or Battle, and I find it to be full of heavy strivings, wherein I am often struck down to the ground, as well as all other Men. But for the sake of the violent fight, and for the sake of the earnestnesse, which we have together, this Revelation hath been given me, and the vehement driving or impulse, to bring it so to passe as to set all this down in Paper.104
Following these synthetic impulses, Palissy’s construction of a Germanic origin for the primitive Church of Saintonge served as the Old Testament antitype of Hamelin’s New Testament experience. The common denominator linking the two books—specifically Genesis and Revelation—was the involvement of Palissy himself as an actor, historian, and personal intermediary between beginning and end. He represented himself as the local bridge between Luther and Calvin, Paracelsus and Hamelin, international style and folkloric traditions. The dangers that afflicted the seed in 1546 would grow into the civil wars and ultimately the destruction of Hamelin’s Huguenot Church in Saintes, which led to the foundation of his own artisans’ Church. Palissy experienced that apocalypse himself, in his secret matrix between the stone-throwing children, who embodied the chaos and corruption of unpurified and unripened matter. At the same time, the potter labored heroically to push other local materials—the earths in his glaze experiments—through death to perfection in his laboratory-workshop.
If Hamelin’s mission in Saintonge signaled a Calvinist rebirth of the primitive Germanic Church, then the monks’ torture (with mouths gagged with an iron apple to stop heretical speech) was the precursor to Hamelin’s death by strangulation. This caused a rebirth of the primitive Church for a third time, led by Palissy, who validated his inheritance as lay leader of the artisans’ Church through a genealogy of experience and personal connections with the martyred founders that was reconstructed in his history of Saintes. If the monks and Hamelin both experienced martyrdom, cleansing, and the separation of inner and outer bodies in the executioners’ fire, then Palissy survived death as a martyr to the fire in his kiln and alchemic crucible. There he secretly redeemed both him self and the fallen matter of Saintonge through his art of the earth.
For Böhme as well, such inner, secret places of craftsmanship were secure, sacred places for alchemical recreation. “God is in the Center, in the innermost . . . hiddenly, [in all the] natural Births,” Böhme wrote, “and is not known, but only in the Spirit of Man; ... the outermost Birth in the fruit doth not comprehend . . . him, but he con-taineth the outermost Birth of the fruit, and formeth it.” Thus in his heroic artisanry, Palissy was protected from enemies and the esmotions of blind hatred, seeing all, but able to remain unseen, as the “wrath . . . in this world cannot comprehend the Light of God, and therefore the Heart of God is hidden and concealed, which however dwelleth in all places, and comprehendeth All.”105
Hence, key roles in Palissy’s biblical history were played by heroic artisans. Just as the moment of Revelation was unveiled by Palissy, the last unfallen Adamic artisan in Saintes who was still producing artifacts of purity while hidden inside its ruins, so too his monastic Adams in a Saintongeais Genesis, midwifed the Reform’s local beginnings. These monastics were not quite the prototypical, guileless childmen of Genesis, however. Two of the three mentioned were postlapsarian artisans “sans lettres,” who were masters of the “art and mystery” of their crafts, as well as dissimulation. Their wisdom was not obtained from scholasticism—though we know that the third was in fact a schoolman—but through experience guided by the light of Nature, which had also taught Palissy the mysteries of artisanal security, revealed by the limace’s inner operations.
Palissy’s history recorded the monks’ appearances in four sets of disguises; three were of their own devising and one was created by the authorities. Yet these disguises were not superficial in the way the potter described the priests’ corrupt deceptions. Rather, they signified the continuous stages of a spiritual metamorphosis toward the goal of a material-holiness synthesis in pious rustic artisans. The first disguise reflected the inner transformations that occurred after the monks’ conversion experience in Germany. In Calvin, this was the disguise of the Nicodemite; thus, the heretics continued to wear monastic robes and outwardly played the false role of Catholic brothers in Saintes.
At the same time however, the monks “dared to secretly uncover [couvertement, de descouvrir] . . . the priests[’] and beneficiers deceptions [coqueilles].” Palissy engaged in delicate wordplay here that recalled his discourse on the limaces inner and outer bodies. He used three words that referred to hidden identity on both sides whose root meanings also connoted covers or shells on top of a secret body. The monks labored couvertment (under cover) to descouvrir (uncover and lay bare) coqueilles (snail or scallop shells, as well as the “cheating devises,” or deceptions, of Catholicism). When these two hidden bodies came into contact, the purest had the power to uncover, perceive, and hence “expose to the world’s view” deceptions that obscured abuses of the corrupt one, even if it had assumed the impenetrable spiral shape.106 At the same time, however, it was the nature of pure, inner bodies, despite the effectiveness of their outer disguises, to “distance themselves” from all sources of corruption (“books of their doctrine”; “judges . . . susceptible to bribery”). Distancing thereby exposed the monks’ outer bodies to persecution by the corrupt and demonic.
These enemies burned the outer bodies of the pure, thus releasing their inner bodies into spiritual rebirth. To maintain invisibility and stay in disguise, the monks had to learn to live and work among the corrupt, and not just in “exile,” in island sanctuaries of the Huguenots, “far from public roads.” The monks failed in this, but their fatal inability to find refuge near their enemies was a key innovation of artisanal security. Negotiating access to the heart of corruption as a client of Montmorency, and only because of that association, he was rescued from the authorities in Saintes in 1563. Palissy and his family survived the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre for much the same reason, because he had become a valued creature near to the household of Catherine de Médicis.
The distinction between the noun abus (an abuse, grievance, or misuse) and its verb abuser (to deceive, to delude) was significant because Palissy used both forms here and, as was so often the case, worked to project multiple meanings. He implied a world of ethical difference between these Huguenot deceptions as artisanal sûreté—as moral instruments of both autonomy and survival in défense of an embryonic truth so youthful and vulnerable that, to use a metaphor common to both the désert and Paracelsianism, it had to be protected, like the seed of a newly planted fruit tree still nurtured in its arbor—and the deceptions of the Antichrist (by definition, obfuscation of truth). Strategies of artisanal sûreté drawn from Nature had to be devised if divine truth was to mature sufficiently to grow through violence and pierce the veils of corruption.
Did Palissy seize upon his tiny shelled creature once again as his basic metaphor for this sequence? The dangerous and finally self-exposing process employed to “uncover some of the abuses” was undertaken “secretly” by the monks. “Obscurely” and perhaps also “ambiguously” fit well here, but couvert can also be translated materially as ceramic glaze or glazing; this word almost always locates action on the surface (or covers) of things. The process by which the monks (and artisans) undertook to blend superficially with the dominant culture for access to uncover (descouvrir) hidden abuses (or deceptions) necessarily began with their personal surfaces (representations of public or social self-identity), which were protectively cloaked, and especially those surfaces specific to language (intentionally ambiguous speech) and the body (dress as disguise).
Unfortunately, Palissy’s demonic adversaries (clergy fearful for their bénéfices and corrupt judges who solicited bribes) penetrated the protective shield of ambiguity out of venality, not faith, to denounce the monks as impostors and heretics. Palissy asserted a dangerous relationship between illicit money (bribery) and the unmasked disguise. He thereby inferred a process of enemies coming to “understand” the nature of the “shell,” causing the forces of authority (clergymen, judges) forcibly to remove it (thus exposing its wearer as vulnerable), as at least superficially a function of money. The most carefully constructed sûreté could be penetrated “with a hefty sum of money,” perhaps a reference to Christ’s betrayal by Judas.
Palissy described an economics of penetration and persecution in Saintonge among the local rural bureaucrats of repression, who in many cases were eager—indeed tacitly expected—to supplement their relatively modest incomes with bribes. Hence, the most baneful disguise in Palissy’s narrative belonged to the prosecutors, who arrested heretics “for gain and not for religious zeal,” as they pretended. On the other hand, he drew a precise symmetry between couvertement and coqueille and confirmed the relationship proposed in his essay “De la ville de forteresse” between pious dissimulation of purity, and, in both historical and material terms, the potter’s notion of artisanal sûreté. The monks’ disguises were becoming signifiers of limace shells; not simply of natural and hence invisible protection of an embryonic or vulnerable personal faith, but of the glaze or container itself. In Palissy’s rustic forms, a pious vessel displayed the potential material of faith revealed, artfully and exclusively, to a community of secret believers in the désert.
When the monks “were forced to flee into exile,” they assumed their second disguise after “removing their habits.” They did this “because they worried they would be burned alive,” and surely they were. However, double reference to the distilling fire of gehenna in the alchemical crucible, which burned away surface materials (the monks’ old Catholic habits), seems equally plausible in this context. On the three coastal islands of Saintonge, most put on an artisan’s apron and “became artisans”; some “others became teachers.” They “risked speaking covertly” but with the consent of the people (unlike orthodox ministers who did not seek their consent), inasmuch as “they were assured that nobody would say anything.” This religion was one of exterior silence; its inner voices expressed in hand craftsmanship.
Yet, theirs were not false disguises. In Palissy’s telling, such outward shells were all part of a Paracelsian process of being and becoming. The inwardly pious artisans had followed their trades as faithfully as they did religion (perhaps under the direction of the same Huguenot masters they had themselves converted earlier), as a “means of making a living without being recognized.” They blended with the workaday world of their flock—as Hamelin did later—and were further reformed by the humility, piety, and craft practices learned from the same poor, rustic people to whom they had taught Protestant theology. Having become practicing artisans where before they had been men of the spirit alone, these heretical monks reinvented themselves as the embodiment of the material-holiness synthesis and created a Reformed religion founded on manual philosophy. Palissy makes the internal rationale of Saintonge’s artisan-led Reformed culture accessible to historians. Despite having discarded their first “shell” to assume a more appropriate alternative disguise in the interest of sûreté, these now apparently metamorphosed artisans appeared to act simultaneously, almost interchangeably, as skilled artisans and subversive churchmen.
Isolation and a reputation as strongholds for heresy were not the only factors leading to the monks’ choice of the islands of the coast of Saintonge. The region’s large artisanal population, which arguably drew Palissy there as well, was also a pull factor. This vital sector had greatly expanded since the late Middle Ages to supply both containers and transport for traditional local fishing, salt making, and, further inland, wine and eau-de-vie production. Such seasonal enterprises required a steady pool of woodworkers who specialized in blockmaking, shipbuilding, wagon and wheel manufacture (wagons transported sea salt from marais to wharf for shipment up the coast to La Rochelle’s enormous warehouses and, eventually, transshipment to southern Europe and South America), and cooperage (for salt, fish preserved in salt, oysters, mussels, and wine).
Potters from towns clustered along the Charente River in and around Saintes fired ceramic vessels as containers for wine and Cognac both consumed locally and exported. Much wine produced in the region was exported through the port of La Rochelle, primarily for sale to the upper classes in the British Isles and the Netherlands (where poorer people generally drank beer, at least until the introduction of rum distilled from West Indian sugar in the seventeenth century).107 Although wine was shipped in barrels, there is good archaeological evidence suggesting that Saintongeais pottery was transported in quantity alongside wine barrels to La Rochelle’s many agents in Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands. Produced almost exclusively in a cluster of kilns in or around the tiny town of La Chapelle-des-Pots near Saintes, these ceramics were shipped northwest along the Charente River from Port-Berteau to the Atlantic coast in three-man canoes (or pirogues), dug out from single logs measuring over forty feet in length, and thence transferred to oceangoing ships, either for the short journey due north to La Rochelle or directly out to sea. Such earthen tableware enabled wine merchants to offer luxury consumers a variety of stylish and (relative to metalware) fairly inexpensive ceramic vessels with which to have servants perform the necessary tasks of carrying the master’s wine directly from barrel to table.108
Given the economic and occupational milieu of Saintonge, the fugitive Lutherans wisely chose tradesmen’s “shells” in which to operate and remain invisible. Yet was their mastery of a trade merely a convenient disguise? Consider that many refugees were skilled craftsmen from the start. Some early modern monasteries were largely self-sufficient communities, supporting a substantial number of highly skilled artisans—from joiners to distillers—in the various orders. During this period, given adherence to master-apprenticeship and guild traditions even in many in rural areas, it is probably unlikely that strangers found a “means of making a living, without being recognized” as skilled artisans if they had not already achieved at least the status of journeyman before their arrival. This was certainly the case among early reformers in south-central and southeastern France, where, as Hillel Schwartz asserts, by 1560, “rural artisans had brought Protestant ideas to the most inaccessible parishes of Languedoc.”109 Both Schwartz and Philippe Joutard have shown that the southeastern Huguenot regions—like Palissy’s Saintonge—were best able to endure désert experiences if initially seeded by an artisan’s Reformation. Artisan leaders emerge from the documents as neither simple, instrumental replacements for a decimated but still influential Genevan ministry nor hollow, powerless victims of absolutism. Rather, many were formed by a continuous, oblique dialogue with both of the competing dominant cultures. Meanwhile, they also formed an authentic, self-sufficient—if not autonomous—mobile, parallel, subterranean, and lay religious culture with a coherent leadership (indeed, an artisan elite) and very deep roots in local oral and material folk traditions.110
That pious artisans were the earliest leaders of the Reformed movement in coastal Saintonge is also indicative of one specific and local manifestation of a very long-term transformation in Western attitudes regarding the status of artisans and manual labor in general, culminating in the early modern period, which was reflected—if both pinpointed and extolled as virtuous—in Calvin’s Treatises, but certainly not invented by him and his followers. On the contrary, the historian of technology Lynn White Jr. has used a progression of texts and images to argue convincingly that “the spiritual value of hard work was not, as Weber implied, a Calvinist discovery.” In White’s reconstruction, the Judeo-Christian tradition of virtuous labor and industriousness predated the Reformation and, like much early modern primitivism in general, “was integral to the Christian ascetic tradition going back through the monks to Jewish roots.”111
White’s method is largely philological; he traces the word labor from Plato, who “had no respect for labor and no sense of its possible place in the life of the soul,” to the later Romans, for whom labor connoted “suffering.” Yet, for Neoplatonists and Paracelsians such as Palissy and Böhme in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this was precisely the sort of labor that was redeemed by alchemical intervention. In most classical texts, “labor meant Drudgery”; indeed, “in their minds, there was a grave moral defect, comparable to Timidity, Violence, or Fraudulence, in any man who toiled physically.” However, the classical stigmatization of labor began to ameliorate during the later Middle Ages, initially guided by Benedictine monks who proclaimed widely that laborare est orare (“work is worship”); and then by the Franciscans, who perceived in Joseph’s vocation as an artisan a commonality with their own monastic interests in Christ’s asceticism and humble origins.
The crucial moment of transformation in the meaning of labor—and the one that appeared to find great strength in popular, not simply scholastic, attitudes—emerged at the beginning of the fifteenth century, with the prominence of the cult of St. Joseph the carpenter. “By the early fifteenth century St. Joseph,” White writes, “until recently the complaining, hoodwinked husband, the butt of popular mockery—had been transformed into St. Joseph the strong and kindly pater familias, the guardian of the Christ Child and of Our Lady, the hard-working artisan . . . patron of carpenters and cabinetmakers.”112 Joseph was commemorated in the late medieval liturgy and recorded in the popular and humanizing Golden Legend, a folkloric handbook of Christ’s family and friends that formed the “model and nucleus of the universal community of the redeemed.” The Golden Legend was particularly important for artisans as a source of themes for “the image-maker, in paint, wood, stone and glass.”113
Another basic link between Palissy, his artisan followers, and their disciples among the southwestern Huguenots can be located in this popular Judeo-Christian familial and artisanal tradition that anticipated the Reformation. The Lutheran monastic origins of Saintongeais Protestantism supplied a homely language and model of practice—which was reinforced, supplemented, and systematized by Philibert Hamelin and Palissy—to voice and to embody convictions long held among some rural folk and variously practiced in local, especially artisanal, idioms. These cobbled Catholic and pagan notions together with the new Protestant theology to suit local needs. The rehabilitation of Joseph the industrious woodworker in the popular consciousness also paralleled the corresponding rise in the status of the manual laborer, and, moreover, of the potential for virtue in things made by hand. St. Joseph, paterfamilias, and his role as provider for the Holy Family of a “human Christ,” were, John Bossy has argued, “invented from scratch in the fifteenth century, and promoted by the post-Reformation church.”114 Both the immediate effect and long-term influence of these Protestant monastic artisan-evangelists among the coastal Huguenots and the authority Palissy and his followers inherited from their infiltration of Saintonge suggest an effect of this earlier shift, which was merely amplified by Luther and Calvin.
The third disguise was subsumed inside another transition from the crucible of sacred violence, inasmuch as “all this having happened, [the monks’] numbers were greatly reduced.” Hence, a further process of distillation had produced only a very few pious artisans from among the first group of monks who survived the alchemic fire “to obtain a pulpit,” with the help of another priestly Nicodemite, a “certain vicar who favored them tacitly.” Now “covert” monks who “became” pious artisans were transmuted by fire into Lutheran lay preachers and disguised as what they now were: authentic working artisans, whose mobile pulpits followed the mobility of their trades, ranging from workshops in the désert to family conventicles to Huguenot temples. The monks had become—like Palissy—secretive artisan-preachers who found silent followers and knowledge in manual experience with the light of Nature, enthusiastic exegesis of Scripture, and Paracelsian theory and practice. Theirs was a natural Church, founded on the borderlands of the Anglo-French Atlantic, one that sometimes worshipped and practiced heresy in plain sight, protected by dissimulation and privatism and yet integrated by the correspondences between their inner bodies and a universal spirit and the macrocosmic fragments of elemental matter hidden in the bowels of the rustic earth, and dispersed in the ocean and sky.
The Germanic pattern of diffusion of heresy was reenacted in Saintonge. Savary Collardeau, the fiscal procureur of Saintes (“a perverted man, of bad character”), had penetrated the protective shell of dissimulation constructed by Huguenot artisan-preachers and warned the bishop that Xaintes was “full of Lutherans,” who needed “rooting out.” Palissy’s use of “Lutherans” specifically is itself significant and indicates the pervasiveness of the Protestant message carried west by the monks from Germany. This one of the few cases in which the early records of the southwestern Reformation are so specific. Almost from the beginning of the wars of religion, most legal documents show that royal inquisitors tended to address Huguenot defendants generically as either members of the R.P.R. (“religion prétendue réformée”), or, beginning in the 1550s, “adherents” of the “doctrine” of both “Luther and Calvin.”
To borrow an ominous word from absolutist rhetoric, the German “infection” set into the region’s body. Despite a long tradition of abuse of such language by early historians, it is difficult to ignore the significance of the biological metaphor in this context. A virus, understood in the modern sense of the word, is an organism that survives in the body of its host, then spreads and grows stronger by disguising its true nature to escape detection by the system’s defenses. Palissy’s artisans “mingle with the common folk”; they “dare to speak,” but again, couvertement—only until certain their auditors “would say nothing” that threatened the integrity of the “shell.” The fruits of this silent “mingling” began to appear. Conversions grew among the whispers, pulpits were established in the islands because a “grand Vicaire,” himself also “infected,” favored the Reformation “tacitly.” “Eyes [were] opened” by the labors of the artisans—now finally called “these said preachers” as well—and they were “held ... in great esteem” by the poor as their elite leadership, because they alone had the special sight required to discover “abuses” for all the other faithful who could only perceive deceptions “rather poorly.”
Artisan-preachers functioned as magi or adepts able to alter appearances and perceive divine truth in its most mundane forms, and thus to animate an entire community of seekers mostly rendered inert and effectively blinded by earlier deceptions. Herein lies a clue to the mysteries and attractions of Huguenot artisan leadership during the early Reformation, followed by dispersion into the great internal désert of Counter-Reformation France and, finally, external exile to the new worlds of international Protestantism. Palissy’s history identified a Saintongeais artisanal tradition of evangelical diffusion that did not originate with superficial religious leaders who merely assumed the outer body disguise of a lay preacher or artisan solely for convenience or sûreté alone, but as an authentic representation of a dualistic, inextricably intertwined social self-identity. The “Lutheran” founders of Saintongeais Huguenot traditions seem to have been just as independent and self-sufficient and at home in either the material or spiritual world as Palissy and his artisan-preacher followers. It was this dualistic yet inseparable armature that provided the historical foundation for a regional oral, material, and written culture, as well as a way of perceiving reality that laid the basis for the Paracelsian natural-philosophical synthesis on its own terms.
If diffusion of knowledge and culture has been described in terms of circularity, then for Saintonge, the artisan-preacher was at the center of a golden circle. Leadership authority came when the artisan acquired liminal status as an intermediary in a context where the go-between or cultural translator was privileged to serve as a divinely gifted preceptor for others in his network. For adepts, clients dimly perceived and required new understanding to mine the common ground that presumably only they could see, to unmask the myriad disguises that separated supernatural and natural, high and low, oral and written, man-made things and their material properties; indeed, those animate forces of divine being connecting matter and spirit and, ultimately, man and God.
Palissy located himself in that leadership position, in the middle of All, as the local, Saintongeais inheritor of this cosmopolitan historical tradition. Reflecting Menocchio’s economic centrality as town miller and leading artisan, Ginzburg’s prideful Friulian was motivated by similar artisanal desires to occupy such a position. This was never more apparent than when he continued to jeopardize his life, compulsively interpreting the world for anyone who would listen—including his inquisitors—though he understood and was plainly frightened by the consequences of his actions. These stories should complicate nostalgic interpretations of the role of reforming artisans and the romance of bottom-up formation of leaderless proletarian cultures. On the messy level of social action in Saintonge, all experience of top or bottom, or of spiritual or economic motivation, was too ambiguous to classify in easy categories. Still, we can say that by virtue of their spiritual status, literacy, learning, and innovative use of skills, artisan elites began to acquire greater power as intermediaries, and they found their proper level among poor, often less literate, fellow artisans and other common folk. Palissy’s history also showed the qualifications he required of artisan leaders in the Saintongeais désert and the Huguenots’ new world. Not surprisingly, those qualifications were based on the potter’s own personal history as both a craftsman and a lay preacher under purifying, creative pressure from internal and external enemies.
Palissy’s alchemical theater of the torture and execution of the first leaders of the primitive Church of Saintonge, indicates how would-be local representatives of the state (particularly Collardeau), who imprisoned Palissy pending Montmorency’s intercession, responded to the Paracelsian discourses of reformed naturalism, and how Palissy replied in his history to challenge that response for posterity. Therefore, the state’s main role in the Palissian narrative, was to overlay its version of their disguises as Saintongeais rustics on the three monks’ exposed bodies—and so the force of official interpretation—with a mode of public ridicule, suppression, and ultimately death. A battle was joined to fix this fourth and final disguise as a permanent signifier of the heretics’ social identities in official histories, which were countered, in turn, by local histories and legend.
Much was at stake in permanence: Palissy and the authorities vied for control over interpretation and diffusion of symbolic meanings associated with the event, and above all, over the emerging ideology of the Huguenot rustic aesthetic that Palissy had harnessed to the lives of his new Adamic artisan-preachers. This contest over the semiotics of torture and execution was not obscure to early modern audiences—literate or not—inasmuch as it involved the oldest and best-known rustic figure in folklore, mythology, and literature: the “wild man.” The key iconographic assertion of the monks’ executioners was that Saintonge’s Huguenots were in fact wild men. Hence, they were not pure or natural but corrupt or mad. Palissy rightly saw this as a violent attack on the symbolic origins of his system of artisanal security, and so he responded retrospectively to solidify his leadership position and the rational foundation he had constructed for the rustic Reformed movement.
Yet, the ubiquitous image of the wild man had already been the focus of competing aesthetic, religious, and political programs for centuries by 1563. So the story of the monks’ martyrdom illustrates the way the very definition of wild man had now entered the vicious transatlantic polemics of the French civil wars of religion. The primary problem at stake in this particular Saintongeais debate over the meaning of an old and culturally ambiguous figure was the conflation of the wild man—with all its corrupt and degenerate associations—and, for want of an appropriate period term, the “green man.” This was a generic name for a benign, equally venerable rustic figure (or group of figures) who was always camouflaged by greenery and is usually thought to have pagan roots in Germanic folkloric traditions.115
In the British-American variants of this tradition, the green man was most commonly identified with May Day celebrations. These feature the Jack in the Green and his several green man attendants—all covered in foliage to varying degrees—as the central figures in this ritual of Spring. The English legend of Robin Hood, avatar of levelers’ narratives, was associated with this tradition as well. Robin and his men dressed in green, lived in the woods and had the ability to watch enemies through the leaves while remaining unseen.116 In early modern France, analogous figures were known as la tête de feuilles (head of leaves), le masque feuillu (the leafy mask), or simply le feuillu (the leafman). Arnold van Gennep found these three figures formed a dominant motif in rituals located in those parts of France that bordered Germanic regions. This makes its function in an execution of “Lutherans” in Saintonge most provocative. Van Gennep maintained that the leafman was a foreign, specifically German, ritual that was imported into France early in the Middle Ages.117
Connections to foreign influences in the French Reformation ran deeper still. One wild man, covered in hair, with leaves to hide his face and groin, and carrying an uprooted tree, was known as the Wilde Mann of Basel. This threatening figure was identified strongly with Swiss independence, Protestantism, power, virility, and the drive for freedom from Hapsburg dominance. The Wilde Mann exported this ideology, sailing on a raft down the Rhine or crossing the Alps. A drawing for a painting on glass by the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497?—1543), who worked chiefly in England, attests to his importance in the Protestant north, in token of which the Alps loom behind him (fig. 5.1).118 There were wild or green women as well, and Flora or Demeter, each a female exemplar, presents similar iconography.
FIGURE 5.1. Hans Holbein the Younger, A Wild Man Brandishing an Uprooted Tree Trunk, or The Wilde Mann of Basel (ca. 1528). Pen and black ink with gray, brown, and blue washes, on cream laid paper. © Copyright The British Museum. The younger Holbein’s design for stained glass was copied throughout the sixteenth century.
Flora or some related figure looms large in an Italianate ceramic plaque, in the Louvre, Eau (fig. 5.2), derived from a print by Raphael Sadeler (1560/61–1628/32). There is some debate as to whether this object is from Palissy’s own hand, but it is generally agreed that it emerged from his large and productive artisanal community in Saintonge or Paris. Here the nymph sits naked by the sea in a blind of greenery, which conceals her fecundity from sight of the town and fortress, small in the distance behind her back. Perhaps referring to La Rochelle itself, a fortress is sited facing out to sea, with dominant towers overlooking the walls. The young woman wears a crown of leaves and releases a flood of what could be called embryonic water; this both frees and sustains denizens of Palissy’s rustic basins and grottoes. This female figure is likely an alchemical allegory as well, elemental water, which is akin to the earth mother who gives birth to Nature (mater has the same root as matter, meter, and matrix). Four men with similarly verdant headpieces face her, one occupying each of the plaque’s corners, positioned like Renaissance allegories of air in the form of the four animating winds. Fire is implied in the production of the glazed ceramic itself. Men in identical headpieces support a large candlestick attributed to Palissy; and a plate revealing distinctive faces of six men with leafy headpieces who peer out of the shadows—each of which expresses different aspects of what could be read as mockery (this was common practice among les feuillus)—was also made by a follower early in the generation after Palissy’s death.119
FIGURE 5.2. Bernard Palissy or a contemporary follower, Allegory of Water, 1575–1600; lead-glazed earthenware. Louvre. © Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, New York.
Typological analysis of several variants of these verdant figures reveals the crosscultural presence of an archetype harnessed to a coherent rhetoric of materio-spiritual synthesis. “The Green Man,” William Anderson writes, “as a composite of leaves and a man’s head, symbolises the union of humanity and the vegetable world. He knows and utters the secret laws of Nature.” Like the adept, “[he] is the guardian and revealer of mysteries.120 The synthetic action of the composite and its spiritual reconciliation in the matrix is at the core of the alchemic process, so it is unsurprising that the feuillu was harnessed to the same spiritual and material relations exploited by such Paracel-sian artisans as Palissy and his Saintongeais Huguenot followers. In this context, perhaps, the equally seductive Minerva, Roman goddess of Wisdom and the mechanical arts (Sophia, in Greek mythology), merged seamlessly with Flora. The Huguenot construction of portable, artisanal Wisdom thus provided security against cruelty, randomness, and war wrought by the chaotic Fortuna.121
Composites were thus central to the art of the grotto and the “grotesque” aesthetic, as they are to the carved choir screen in the church of Saint-Étienne on the Île de Ré (figs. 15.38, 15.39), a primary source for the carved work on the “European chair” depicted in figure 15.35, and hence for that on the New York leather chair. Although the subject of the alchemic hybrid or composite will be revisited later, it should be noted that the frontispiece of Simplicissimus (fig. 5.3)—related to the Saint-Étienne carvings—is among the most explicitly sociological examples of this genre.122 The Simpli-cissimus image, unlike most composites, holds a book in its hand. This is held open to two facing pages, picturing weapons and fortifications, to which the grotesque figure—ugly but powerful—slyly points with horned fingers. (Is this a cuckold’s sign?) Given this rustic character’s preoccupations with security from violence through disguises made by cobbling new identities together out of old forms found by chance among primitives isolated in the forest, it is consistent that a juxtaposition be made between the construction of multiple forms and traditional modes of military security. This message is reinforced by the Palissian smile of Democritus and Heraclitus—a smile and frown at the horrors of the world—and the theatrical masks (not unlike the six mocking faces of feuillus on the Saintongeais platter) discarded at the monstrous creature’s webbed and hoofed feet, revealing—through events and contingencies in the novel that force on Simplicissimus a survivor’s mutability—the painful artisanry behind its composite nature.
Le feuillu was thus traditionally associated with the deepest mysteries of Nature and agriculture, to which natural philosophers and alchemists also aspired in their role as adepts. Indeed, the ourobouros—the serpent devouring its own tail (arguably a source for Palissy’s serpent representing the animate spirit in elemental earth)—and the tree of knowledge, both central to the alchemist’s symbolic lexicon, were also synonymous with the green man. He was thought to tap into the primordial knowledge of Nature through wood—the Wilde Manns weapon is a tree—and is commonly represented as disgorging (or devouring) vegetation, or natural knowledge, just as the alchemical snake devoured its tail. That was why the rhetoric of the feuillu was inextricably entwined with rustic cosmologies of death, rebirth, and natural regeneration. This was the basic point of intersection that enabled a pagan icon to syncretize with—or perhaps be appropriated by—Christian iconography, beginning around A.D. 400. The earliest representation of this figure as a disgorger of vegetation known to survive in a Christian context is dated from this period. The ecclesiastical setting is not Germany, as might be expected, but rather the southwest of France. The image is carved on the tomb of Saint-Abre, located in the Church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, at Poitiers (fig. 5.4), no more than a short journey inland from La Rochelle. It appears that the leafy head, mask, or man was used by Christians in this region for more than a thousand years in advance of the monks’ execution. In both instances, it signified death and rebirth, though very differently.
FIGURE 5.3. The “Phoenix Copperplate,” frontispiece of H. J. C. von Grimmelshausen’s Der abentheuerliche Simplicissimus (literally, “The Adventurous Simplicissimus”) (Nuremberg, 1668). Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. To paraphrase the poem, like the phoenix, this cruelly deformed and composite creature was born from fire (warfare), yet these very deformities are a source of great power, because they allow him to adapt “safely” to any environment or element in his travels through air and water and over land in search of peace and refuge. As a young man, Grimmelshausen was a refugee from the Thirty Years’ War in Germany; he was at the sieges of the fortresses at Magdeburg (1636) and Breisach (1638).
FIGURE 5.4. Tête de feuilles. Tomb of Saint-Abre, Church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, Poitiers, A.D. 400. One of the earliest representations. Drawing by John Cotter.
The Poitiers tête de feuilles is much abraded, but the halo of leaves is clearly visible, as is the emanating vegetation. In this instance, in one of the possible variants, vegetation extrudes from the nose rather than the mouth, culminating in floral rosettes, not the more common leaves. The eyes have disappeared on the Poitiers carving, a significant loss, as is evident from a variant carved and then polychromed for the pulpit of the Elizabethskirche in Marburg around 1340 (fig. 5.5). Here, as in every other surviving example of the image, the eyes are open wide, in reference to the prophetic functions associated with these figures and the sort of inner sight that signified a sacred intelligence that underlay the hidden world of vegetation.
The green man saw the foundations of Nature without being seen, as only an adept, prophet, or perhaps a refuge artisan could. As with the “death’s heads” with open eyes on some New England gravestones, the congregation understood this to mean apocalypse and the hope of future salvation. However, the Marburg carving is particularly useful for our purposes, since the mouth is carved in the act of uttering the Word. Sacred speech was disgorged simultaneously with natural vegetation. That the carving—one of many similar leafy heads carved on this German pulpit—was made to hold the speaker of the Word underscored the importance of the venerable relationship joining the secrets of God and those of Nature, and of the European synthesis of pagan-Christian naturalism in the Middle Ages. The same may be said for the Reformation. The elder Lucas Cranach (1472–1553) depicted Luther himself preaching from a similarly carved pulpit (fig. 5.6). The leafy head (again the cornucopia of vegetation is breathed from the nostrils like the breath of the spirit), also appears on the title page of Luther’s famous Appellatio in 1520 (fig. 5.7). As in much of Luther’s work from this period, the Appellatio merges the natural piety of the impoverished rustic with that of the early Christians of the primitive Church as a key element in the rhetoric of Germanic Protestantism.123
FIGURE 5.5. Tête de feuilles as ut-terer of the word. Pulpit, Elisabethskirche, Marburg, ca. 1340. Drawing by John Cotter.
Palissy made the earth’s fecundity in supporting its tiny inhabitants central to dialogues between his natural-philosophical writings and artisanry, and Böhme, too, followed explicitly along the same path of terrestrial growth. However, the German mined the more overtly Trinitarian and spiritualist vein and embraced Paracelsian occultism. “The Fathers power is all,” Böhme wrote in Aurora, creating by analogy to the sun and stars a word picture of his cosmology of the vegetable world:
in and above all Heavens, and the same power every where generateth the Light. Now this ALL-POWER, is, and is called, the all-power of the Father; and the Light which is generated out of that all-power, is, and is called the Sonne. But it is therefore called the Sonne, in that it is generated out of the Father, so that it is the Heart of the Father in his powers. And being generated, so it is another Person, than the Father is: for, the Father is the power and the Kingdom, and the Sonne is the Light and Splendor in the Father, and the Holy Ghost is the moving or exit out of the powers of the Father and of the Sonne, and formeth figureth frameth and Imageth all. As the Ayr goeth forth from the power of the Sun and Stars, and moveth in this world, and causeth that all creatures are generated, and that the Grasse Herbs and Trees spring and grow; and causeth all whatsoever in this world to be: So the Holy Ghost goeth forth from the Father and the Sonne, and moveth or acteth, formeth or frameth and Imageth all that is in the whole God. All growing or vegetation and forms in the father arise and spring up moving in the Holy Ghost; therefore there is but ONE only GOD, and three distinct Persons in one divine Being, Essense or substance.124
In Böhme’s Neoplatonic monism of connectedness between vegetation and the highest “all-power” in the macrocosm, hybrid figures like the feuillu, having natural knowledge of the underlying secrets of vegetation—that is to say, how “the Grasse Herbs and Trees spring and grow”—knew, simultaneously, how “all creatures are generated.” This was the secret of the creation of life, hidden in the heart of the Trinity, and the key to the philosopher’s stone.
FIGURE 5.6. Lucas Cranach the Elder, Martin Luther Preaching at Wittenberg, 1520; large detail of the predella of the altarpiece in the Stadtkirche, Wittenberg. Oil on panel. Photo courtesy the Evangelische Stadtkirchengemeinde, Lutherstadt Wittenberg. The ferocious boar’s tail carved on Cranach’s representation of Luther’s pulpit in his home church spirals into a nearly imperceptible representation of the wild man. Another tiny face appears at its base among eyelike foliate scrollwork that resembles the engraving found on the title page of Luther’s Appellatio (1520), illustrated in figure 5.7.
FIGURE 5.7. Martin Luther, Appellatio (1520), title page. Courtesy Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. The bottom border nearest the earth is filled completely by a wary, wide-eyed tête de feuilles that recalls figure 5.4.
If Neoplatonism linked all natural-philosophical practitioners through mutual interest in Paracelsus, crossing boundaries that separated Christian confessions in Italy, Germany, France, and the British archipelago in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, earlier Neoplatonic theory had a profound effect on church building in western Europe from the twelfth century on. Chartres was a center of the movement in France, evident among both its schoolmen and stonemasons. Influential Christian Neoplatonists, including Bernard Sylvester and Alan of Lille, likely studied there in the twelfth century. Both elucidated the natural world as the animate and conscious force of the soul, or heavenly wisdom. Meanwhile, although the tête de feuilles made an early, isolated appearance in Poitiers, the great north and south transept portals of Chartres display a full program of the iconography of Christian Neoplatonism in the Gothic period. This is magnified powerfully on the royal portal, designed and built by Thierry of Chartres in collaboration with an artisan known only as the “master sculptor.” Here, the feuillu receives the knowledge of Nature, which radiates directly from the figure of Christ, to which it is clearly linked. This link was reactivated by Ficino and Paracelsus, and subsequently by Palissy and Böhme and their artisan followers, all working out of the same tradition.125
Key relationships between the writings of Bernard or Alan and Thierry, or Thierry and the master sculptor, are as hard to measure as any relation of the production of words and things discussed in this book. What is self-evident, however, is the extent to which stone carvers and, especially, woodworking artisans made the feuillu their own between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. Beginning with the appearance of variants of this leafy figure on the portals and pulpits of medieval churches, almost all that we know outside of illuminated manuscripts and title-page borders about the varieties and pervasiveness of the vegetal style in sacred contexts comes from the tools of carvers in wood. That this is so has a lot to do with chance and survival in the vast amount of woodwork that was made for church interiors. Yet the ideology of the feuillu did revolve around the hidden knowledge of trees and leaves, as well as the fearsome power of wood, witness the Swiss Wilde Manns arboreal weapon. Wherever the mighty Wilde Mann traveled, he carried the power of the forest with him, as an artisan might carry his tools.
That the feuillu was associated with death and rebirth and that the point of syncretism with the Christian tradition was the death and rebirth of Christ—the son of a poor carpenter—would not have been lost on carvers of misericords. Architectural historians have long understood that misericords, along with other seemingly trivial, often overlooked or carefully hidden carved wooden elements in churches, constituted a kind of parallel sacred language—often sexual or fecund, violent, or disfigured in the manner of the Simplicissimus frontispiece—communicated by the carvers themselves. Such artisanal discourse, like the feuillu, was drawn from local folk or pagan traditions.126 Were vegetal and animal carvings understood by late-sixteenth-century woodworkers as analogies in wood to Palissy’s tiny, overlooked rustic creatures? Carvers are present in these works, appearing to scuttle about in the shadows in dark churches, eyes everywhere, like the green man, the wise unseen watcher in the wood. Indeed, the arboreal milieu in which these man-made creatures frolicked subversively was amplified by the construction of church interiors. In forest areas, joists and beams in church interiors were joined like trees interlocked in the ancient woods that surrounded them.
This sacred language emerged from oral traditions, exemplified by the emergence of leaves, instead of words, from the mouth of the feuillu, who was known as the silent utterer of the natural world. Convergence of natural and textual languages in sacred space by the mid twelfth century was one of the aesthetic, theological, and scientific accomplishments of Christian Neoplatonism. Certainly, there were many interpretations of the carvings understood by both woodworkers and their audiences. Some were probably experienced as ribald entertainments, found by surprise while taking one’s seat in a pew; others as private virtuoso performances by a master. There is also the sense of carvers’ tiny, idiosyncratic signature pieces, recognizable to others in the guild. Perhaps they were there as Boschian allegories, or to send up the power, wealth, and pomposity of the Church itself. Most may have been ignored or taken for granted as natural elements in churches. Yet this cannot simply be assumed retrospectively by historians. Accomplished carving in this intensive style was time-consuming, particularly when it might have been “commissioned” by the carver himself, to create his own private sacred space.
What is clear, however, is that the production offeuillu and related carvings of the hybrid of vegetation and rustic man became an increasingly clandestine operation in churches by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when such creatures rarely appear on portals or pulpits. By then they were not officially associated with the Word or the relationship between travail, death, and rebirth in Nature and Christ’s passion. The word “misericord,” defined literally as “pity, mercy, and compassion,” initially meant a private place in monastic settings where official rules of decorum were relaxed and monks had license to eat and drink as they pleased. By the sixteenth century, the word was used to describe carved wooden supports, usually found hidden under pews or choir stalls.127 Feuillu were found there and in many other furtive and out-of-the-way places in churches.
Then carving was dispersed outside, onto secular artifacts of commerce, such as Palissy’s ceramics, but also including metalwork, armor, gunstock carvings, textiles, and furniture in what is commonly called the mannerist style.128 The wild man’s “place in medieval daily life was assured,” Richard Bernheimer says, “by the appearance of his image on stove tiles, candlesticks, and drinking cups, and, on a larger scale, on house signs, chimneys, and the projecting beams of frame houses . . . great . . . was the ubiquity of the wild man.”129 These crafts were dominated often by Huguenot craftsmanship both in France and in refuge in the transatlantic world.
The tête de feuilles as disgorger of vegetation crossed the Atlantic intact with one group of Huguenots in the late seventeenth century, when it appeared as an unusual motif on two painted chests-of-drawers, attributed to an influential network of French refugee artisans in southern coastal Connecticut, on Long Island Sound, perhaps with connections to the Channel Islands (fig. 5.8). Most of the furniture in this group also displays the rose and thistle, symbolizing the unification of England and Scotland in 1603 under James I. In this insignia, the motif connecting the rose and thistle is the fleur-de-lis, here representing England’s medieval claim to rule of France. This played an enormous role in the history of La Rochelle, as we have already seen; however, the hoped-for “reconquest” of France by England in the wake of the Glorious Revolution was also the rallying cry of many Huguenot refugees in England and America, encouraged by the Act of Union of 1707, an appropriate date for the construction of this group of artifacts. Unification and its symbolism clearly projected to multiple audiences in expanding Britain. It follows that the social contexts for the displacement of the feuillu, its return to Luther’s pulpit in Cranach’s painting and the Protestant book trades in the sixteenth century, and finally the pivotal role it plays in Palissy’s historical narrative of the primitive Church of Saintonge suggest some ways in which symbolic convergence led to the politicization of this figure over time.130
Whereas this ubiquitous and beneficent rhetoric of the feuillu was largely derived from oral and artisanal traditions supported by the adaptation of Neoplatonic theory by builders and master craftsmen, the demonization of the “wild man,” and ultimately the domestication of his image, was the province of literature and its learned patrons. In some respects, the chronology of this long process indicates that the demonization of wild men—which may have become a pejorative conflated with all feuillus—paralleled the complex social and religious dynamics that laid the groundwork for the demonization of witchcraft. Bernheimer charts the perhaps similar downward trajectory of the wild man in literature, who declined from a formidable challenger of kings to the pathetic, degraded, and grotesque figure he had become by the late Middle Ages.131 Wild men, like feuillus, were signified by their appearance. If wild men also always wore vegetation about their heads, more was made of hairiness by commentators. Hence, if the feuillu hybridized Nature and man, the wild man was degraded by his status between man and animal, such that it was no longer possible to tell the difference between the wild man and the beast. While the feuillu was valorized for deep understanding of hidden secrets of growth in Nature, the wild man was stigmatized as deeply stupid. In both literature and the visual arts in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, the wild man’s animal status was depicted in terms of inability to walk upright; instead, he is often shown down on all fours. Great stupidity was manifested physically by the loss of the faculties of communication. Most of all, however, wild men were afflicted with aphasia, and their loss of speech was accompanied by incomprehensible sounds or utterances. Was this master narrative a response from the culture of words to the silent utterer of the spirit of Nature and its artisanal representation in sacred space that was increasingly defined by written texts?132
FIGURE 5.8. Chest of drawers, Long Island Sound region of southern coastal Connecticut, 1707–20. H: 44″, W: 42⅞″, D: 20¼″. Oak, pine, and yellow poplar. Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. Wallace Nutting Collection Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan. The top two paint-decorated drawer panels of this chest of drawers contain back-to-back images of têtes de feuilles, each uttering a walled garden of flowers from their open mouths. This distinctive painting style has been associated with the Gillam (or Guillaume) family of coastal Connecticut, Westchester, New York City, and western Long Island; this family, as well as this particular type of painting and the construction of certain casepieces in the American group, have been traced to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off Normandy, a French linguistic domain, where the early furniture is remarkably similar.
Scholastic and theological commentators arrived at a consensus that speechlessness was a sign of insanity among wild men, and as a result, wildness and insanity became interchangeable in the literature. Because of insanity—usually caused by devastating reverses in war or love—wild men shunned all human contact and retreated to the most remote areas of the forest. With their removal to the primordial world of beasts, where mere survival was paramount, wild men were obsessed with personal security. Most lived in grottoes, hiding in holes just under the earth, or crags in rocks, along with serpents, and other amphibious, hybridized, or subterranean creatures. Their natural furtiveness combined with their peltlike hair and masks of vegetation to camouflage wild men in the forests, allowing them to prowl the underbrush in search of raw meat like wolves, to which they were also compared. Similar to that of wolves as well, the wild man’s power and aggression toward prey or enemies were as legendary as he was stealthy. Simultaneously hidden and vicious, he struck at victims from under cover of natural materials that made him invisible in the rustic environment, with which he combined without trace or artifice.133
Yet for all his naturalness, the wild man was unnatural. Wild men were not made that way by God, in whose image of perfection man is created in Genesis. The wild man had instead degenerated from humanity into madness—descended in corruption manifested by wildness—through historical exigency, misguided causes, willfulness, or personal failure. As a result of his fall from grace, the carnal wild man, unlike the feuillu, found himself utterly incapable of spirituality or inner knowledge of God. In the ultimate reversal, the wild man was afflicted with spiritual blindness—a visual corollary to aphasia—that countered the inner sight represented by the feuillu’s eyes wide open in eschatological ecstasy. The wild man could neither speak nor see prophetic things and communicated in a babble of confusion. Arguably in reference to the Wilde Mann of Basel or earlier Germanic influences, the sources of wildness were often imported from abroad; numerous wild men were tempted to their fate by the lure of the unknown and by foreigners. The wild man was conventionalized as an alien in our midst; as raw, rustic, uncultured, stupid, and foreign. He was the threatening outsider; the invader who corrupted the natural purity of the homeland.134
Because the wild man was not by nature degenerate, or insane, or a speechless babbler, but had been made wild by outside forces, it was still possible to reverse the process through violent intervention. Violence was necessary because wild men, reduced to bestiality and conquered by nature and fearfulness, were too irrational to remake themselves in their former image. To exit the woods and return to the core culture was never the choice of wild men, who only returned to civilization when taken captive, and placed in chains. Safely repatriated from desolate isolation, the wild man regained the power of speech and often gained a new sense of grace and even heroic superiority from the experience of a kind of cultural death and rebirth. Many became knights after having received the gift of true cultural memory from the powerful. In gratitude, some used their experience in the woods to serve their newfound patrons as warriors or magicians. Lancelot and Merlin return to Camelot to complete the trajectory of this persona in the Arthurian legends.135 Did Palissy and his patrons comprehend one another, on some level, as enacting this trope, when, in 1565, the potter was “taken” from Saintes and “brought” to Paris by the Medician court?
Simplicissimus, having emerged from hiding in rustic isolation after his family was slaughtered by marauding soldiers—“to stay in the woods was impossible ... I could no longer subsist there”—is immediately recognized as a wild man by his captors, two musketeers of the imperial guards, which had just taken Hanau from troops commanded by the Protestant Duke Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar (1604–39). “I must tell the reader about my droll appearance at that time,” said Simplicissimus, recalling how he looked when dragged through town:
for my clothing was very strange and wondrously odd . . . my hair had not been cut in two and a half years ... it reposed on my head in its natural dishevelment . . . my waxen, pallid face peered out from under it like a hoot owl about to light out at a mouse . . . I wore the hair shirt instead of a cape. . . . My body was girded with iron chains. . . . My shoes were carved from a piece of wood and tied on with ribbons of basswood bark; my feet looked as red as if I was wearing a pair of Spanish red stockings or had colored my skin with brazilwood dye. . . . Well, they led me through town and everybody came out to stare at me like a sea monster and made a big fuss over me. Some thought I was a spy; others, an idiot; still others, a bogey, a ghost, a spook, or an apparition of some kind of evil omen. A few thought I was a fool, and they might have been nearest the mark—if I hadn’t had knowledge of God.136
When finally led before the governor, Simplicissimus imagines that he could well have been “exhibited” in a cabinet of curiosities as either an Asian or a New World wild man—“a flat-faced Samoyede or a Greenlander”—or like a “red” American Indian.137 Questioned by an astonished governor, he is, of course, robbed of his speech: “I kept answering I didn’t know.” After he recovers verbal language, the governor determines that the captive is no longer as dangerous or as stupid as he had thought; he orders that a portrait of Simplicissimus be painted in exotic, imported colors, before allowing him to bathe and dress in clothing appropriate for a court page:
I was to put my old weeds right back on, for a portrait artist was on his way with the tools of his profession—to wit, minium and cinnabar for my eyelids; lacquer, indigo, and azure for my coral-colored lips, orpiment and yellow lead for my white teeth (which I bared from hunger); and carbon black and umber for my yellow hair, white lead for my ghastly eyes, and lots of other colors for my weather-beaten coat. . . . Now he changed my eyes, now my hair, now hurriedly my nostrils and everything he had not done right the first time, until in the end he had produced the spitting image of Simplicius, and I was quite shocked at my own horrid appearance. Only then was the barber allowed to give me the once-over.138
This story about the construction of the wild man aesthetic from the “spitting image of Simplicius”—or “simple rustic”—is complete when the subject fails to recognize his own grotesque and monstrous reinvention by the court artist. After “my rustic dress with its chain and other accessories was put in the museum among other rarities and antiques; my life-size portrait was hung right next to them.”139 Collected and domesticated by aristocrats for voyeuristic entertainment and observation of rustic appearances and cultures, the wild man is thus historicized, reduced to a set of iconographic principles. Fear was transmuted into pleasure by craft. Yet, as Grimmelshausen’s seventeenth-century satire shows, this process of transmutation was open to subversive interpretation from the very beginning. Indeed, from the level of his tiny creatures, Palissy’s artisan’s-eye view called this process into question by suggesting ways in which lay Huguenot craftsmen and historians might make rustic aesthetics the vehicle for extension and revitalization of rural piety from the woods (or désert) and churches out into the everyday world of commerce or court politics.
Not coincidentally, of course, the degeneracies attributed to wild men pending the figures’ domestication by early modern written culture were simultaneously associated with Huguenot history in the Saintonge region in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus, in making his rustic figurines, Palissy constructed his history and martyrology of the beginning of the primitive Church of Saintonge to exploit millennial violence and advance his program for Huguenot artisanal security. While the state made his martyred monks into wild men degraded by foreign influence, Palissy reversed this process alchemically and remade them in his history and ceramics as pious rustic figures from the faraway coastal islands of Saintonge. That is why Palissy refused to acquiesce to the state’s assignation of wild man iconography as the fourth or final disguise of “these poor people [who] were condemned to be unfrocked, and dressed up in accoutrements made of greenery, so that the people would think they were fools or mad.” Camouflage must come from within for the pious artisan; it cannot be applied from extraneous matter that has failed to emerge from the inner body. As Simplicissimus explains to his readers, he would certainly have agreed with the citizens of Hanau, who mocked his appearance as befitting a fool, “if I hadn’t had knowledge of God.”
In this cruel moment of violent unmasking, Palissy’s artisan-preachers were publicly stripped of their disguises and simultaneously remasked by their torturers for posterity before being paraded before “the people” as insane wild men from the woods, not legendary feuillu with their hidden knowledge of Nature. Only then were they remanded to the regional parlement at Bordeaux for execution. This theatrical instrument of the state’s revenge was thus an early document of conflicting interpretations for “common folk” of the meaning of the southwestern Huguenot rustic style, as the figures depicted were derived mostly from folkloric idioms in the process of domestication by centralizing authorities.
For the crime of heresy, the condemned “martyrs” were “degraded” into wild men to confirm what the insane monks had actually done to themselves. The authorities were not the true cause of their deaths; their executions were social suicides, for which the benighted victims had only themselves and barbarous foreign influences to blame. Instruments of state power projected an ideal (if seldom achieved) form of the deferential “society of orders”—essential to any formation of absolutism—where sense of place in the hierarchy was ordered, determining individual and collective social self-identity.140 In such a hierarchical context, degradation by a state that determined every citizen’s place, emanating out from the deified monarch at center, meant being reduced to some level below society, stripped of social identity, the sign of godly civility. To degrade meant, ideally, bodily and historical reversal; to devolve from a defined, theoretically unalterable position within an exorbitantly artificial culture characterizing the society of orders to entropy, debasement, or the transgressively natural. That was how the local authorities defined the “primitive beginnings” of Huguenots in Saintonge: not as a genuine reformation or recovery of the lost knowledge and purity of the earliest Church, but as a corruption of and decline from the venerable Roman Church. Neither edenic Adams nor apostolic era prophets, these were postlapsarian wild men, like American savages, who had devolved back into an undeveloped era of benighted primitivism. The builders of an artisan’s babel were “fools.” Their language was merely material, folkloric, and rustic; degradation stifled their ability to speak, making their every utterance incomprehensible, or simply silent to orthodox ears, while carrying their heretical theology far from the safety of the Word.
Once “condemned to be unfrocked,” the prisoners were “dressed up in greenery as objects of ridicule” (“vestus d’accoustremens verds”),141 to signify—in the eyes of the state—this return to raw, undissembled, authentic appearance. Original Huguenot leaders were represented to “the people,” not as legendaryfeuillus, natural philosophers or adepts, but as dumb forest creatures without power, personal security, or spiritual protection. Now wild or uncultured beings in the basest sense, their pretension of being leaders and men of knowledge was a visual joke. Adumbrating Hamelin’s courageous but deadly reversal of his initial Nicodemism, the condemned embraced the traditional construction of martyrdom by refusing to submit silently to the ordeal. Unmasked, they articulated resistance to corruption with defiance: “upholding God’s quarrel in a manly way.” The mouth of heresy again became a primary target of attack, as bodily source of the offending utterances.
Heresy’s mouth was a fountain of conflicting prophesy, as well as interpretation—and for the feuillu, of spiritual vegetation—in which the Word and the secrets of Nature were syncretized. A confluence of all these patterns was textualized by Ficino and Paracelsus internationally, and by Palissy and his artisan followers locally. By the early seventeenth century, Böhme was explicit on the physiological relation between orality and spirituality. The mouth (including the tongue, gums, teeth, lips), was a primary site of the battle between love and wrath (spirituality and corruption) in an aspiring body. Circulating between the heart, brain, and mouth, every bit of sacred sound was subject to violent conflict with carnal corruption in “this world.” The “Voyce of God” was gasped in half-articulated “thrusts” that echoed from the heart yet were returned by blockages in the mouth’s fleshy outer body and, by extension, in the microcosm as well:
the word conceiveth itself in the Heart, and goeth forth to the Lips, but there is captivated and goeth back again sounding, till it come to the place where it went forth. And this signifieth now, that the Sound [Voyce of God] went forth from the Heart of God, and encompassed the whole place or Extent of this world, but when [the place of this world] was found to be Evil, then the Sound returned again to its own place. The word or syllable thrusteth it self out from the Heart andpresseth forth at the Mouth, and it hath a long following pressure [or murmuring sound]; but when it is spoken forth, then it closeth it self up in the midst or Center of its Seat with the upper Gums, and is half without, and half within. And this signifieth, that the heart of God had a loathing against the corruption, and so thrust away the corrupted Being from himself, but laid hold on it again in the midst or Center at the Heart.142
So the heart was the holding place for sacred language thwarted by “loathing against the corruption” in its desire to “presseth forth at the Mouth” to “encompass the whole. ... Extent of this world” with the “Voyce of God.”
Still, echoes of sacred speech continued to thrust against the corruption of the world at the mouth’s gateway. Sound was only half-occluded with wrath, and it was the nature of love and wrath to assail each other through the senses in quest of the sacred marriage of intercourse, unity, and synthesis. “The Tongue breaketh off or divideth the word or syllable,” Böhme reasoned, “and keeps it half without, and half within,” until the apocalypse acts as the alchemic furnace that distills all speech, purging the corrupt utterances of Palissy’s rock-throwing boys and creating a universal language:
so the Heart of God would not wholly reject . . . [only] the malignity malice and malady of the Devill, and the other part should be re-edified or built again after this Time ... [as] the innermost spirits in the corruption are not altogether pure, and therefore they need a sweeping away, purging, or consuming of the wrath, in the fire, which will be done at the End of this Time.143
Yet there were moments of lucidity in historical time when the essence of the Word was freed from the prison of the mouth (where the teeth functioned like bars). Böhme’s elucidation of the process by which sacred language manifested itself is remarkably similar to popular depictions of the tête de feuilles. Such moments were infinitely small, light, and permeable as “the word conceiveth it self above and under the Tongue”:
and shutteth the Teeth in the upper and lower gummes, and so presseth it self close together, and being held together, and spoken forth again, then it openeth the Mouth again swiftly, like a Flash. ... For the Teeth retain the word, letting the spirit go forth leisurely between the Teeth: And this signifieth, that the astringent quality [i.e., the wrath] holdeth the Earth and Stones firmly and fast together; and yet for all that, letteth the spirits of the Earth spring up, grow and bear Blossoms out of the astringent spirit: which signifieth the REGENERATION OR RESTITUTION OF THE SPIRITS OF THE EARTH.144
Small flashes of the spirit in matter assumed forms other than words, as inside sacred space, in its “innermost Birth or Geniture, [the] word alone by it self is Dumb, and hath no signification or understanding in it alone, but is used only for distinction sake, with some other word.” Words were used to make false distinctions, parse differences, build boundaries, and camouflage intentions, as the one unifying foundation of the Word, its animating spirit, lay silent and hidden on the speaker’s tongue like the inner body of a Saintonge snail: “it recoils inward at the neather gummes,” Böhme imagined, “and croucheth as it were before an enemy trembling.”145
In Palissy’s Saintonge, the enemy was distilled by the wars of religion from Böhme’s abstracted, natural-philosophical corruption throughout “this world,” and personified specifically by Collardeau, the bishop of Saintes, toadies “at the court,” and the corrupt judges, all of whom were implicated in condemning the Huguenot martyrs. Collardeau, now the embodiment of corruption, played his natural role in blocking the emanation of sacred utterances by ordering the four pious preacher-artisans to be “bridled like horses,” such that “each had an iron apple which filled up the whole of their mouths.” In this way, the “wild men” were mastered and domesticated, like dumb beasts, farm animals led to slaughter. The iron apple, a gag as well as an instrument of torture and reference to original sin, served to underscore the insane silence that attended the wild man’s iconography, even as it put an end to “manly” defiance.
Yet from the perspective of the spiritualist or natural philosopher, the animated source of motion was reversed. The sacred sound worked from the inside, in order to “thrust away the corrupted Being from himself.” Thereupon, the sound returned to its origins in the heart, which “laid hold on it again in the midst or center,” where it waited in secret to emerge in material forms other than words that would facilitate spiritual unity not linguistic distinction. The artisan-preachers were able to “speak” mutely before dying. Vines of the feuillu would not be allowed to emanate from their suppressed mouths, yet the discourse of nature—red flesh under cloaks of “greenery”—was still evident, even in degradation. This was also the material language of rustic pottery made famous by Palissy and his Saintongeais followers: the “vert et rouge”—green glaze over a red clay body—ceramics, readily identifiable throughout the Western world with the ancient kilns of La Chapelle-des-Pots. These ubiquitous artifacts remained a staple of Atlantic commerce until the nineteenth century.146
Palissy perceived a scene transformed into “a hideous thing to behold”—an appropriate reading from the perspective of a Huguenot historian and matryrologist, yet surely also a scene of high comedy for his enemies. To behold the hideous, or comedic, was, of course, a dialogue in the politics of aesthetics, whether articulated by a Protestant maker of grotesque figures or his royal Catholic patron at court. Both sides in this dialogue had defined grotesque as the good, true, and beautiful, though in this context from perspectives that were inversions of a shared reality. Saintongeais authorities delighted in the spectacle of Huguenot wild men, and their heresy of religious difference, as monstrous. The aesthetics of that moment of capture and domestication was a commonplace both ofreligious warfare and the everyday object of desire and consumption. The molded surface of the grotesque was pleasurable as playful exoticism, but also suggestive of the power and naturalness of the normative forms that held them in check. The appearance of wild and grotesque forms, or composite and fragmented bodies, was thus the embodiment of a failure of the spirit and the potential of the dominant to redeem that failure.
To be sure, Paracelsus often understood disease in these terms, but Palissy and contemporary Huguenot natural philosophers such as Ambroise Paré modified this judgment. The monstrous disfigurement and martyrdom of the artisan-preachers by the authorities was Palissy’s metaphor for the experience of inner spiritual beauty and metaphysical unity that operated beneath written official histories. The tiny cell of monastic heretics that carried the Reformation back from Germany to Saintonge were disguised four times during the course of Palissy’s narrative, three times voluntarily for sûreté and finally by the authorities to expose the monks’ “wild” interior to the derision of the people. The first time they were simultaneously Catholic monks and Protestant Nicodemites; the second, working rustic artisans and teachers hiding “in exile” among their fellow Huguenots artisans in the isolated Atlantic islands of Saintonge; the third, artisans and Protestant lay preachers working underground, exactly like their self-appointed historian Bernard Palissy; and fourth, either feuillus or “wild men”—depending on the beholder—rustic forest creatures of great age, inextricably entwined with the inner workings and hidden languages of the natural world.
These four disguises represented four composite layers—among many others that were made necessary by the violence and suffering of the religious wars—of the same complex artisanal identity, held together by the shadow history of the soul. In 1705, a scientist in England named John Toland invented the word “pantheist” to describe the inspired naturalism that saw human beings as integral, material parts of Nature that was represented by (and for) the Saintongeais Huguenot artisan-preachers remembered in Palissy’s history of the primitive Church.147 Whether Palissy would have used this word is dubious, although it emerged from a later strain of the Paracelsian tradition owing large very debts to the work of Jacob Böhme. Toland, whose work provided the inspiration for many secret societies fomenting radical republicanism in early eighteenth-century London, would have appreciated and understood the furtiveness of Palissy’s program of artisanal security, however.148
Thus, these passages taken from the history return us again to Palissy’s theory of sûreté for the “industrious artisan,” and hence to another enduring moment taken from the history of La Rochelle’s fall in 1628. The fortress had capitulated, and Louis XIII—at the behest of Cardinal Richelieu—presented one article of victory that permanently altered the landscape of southwestern France. The cannon of La Rochelle were turned upon its own walls from inside. The fortress’s enceinte and fortifications (except the three great towers) were razed (“rez-pied-rez-terre”) so that: “from all sides, access and entrance to said city can follow freely and easily just as the plow passes through fields of tillage.”149 Louis XIII had thereby “degraded” the signifier par excellence of the southwestern Huguenot martial establishment to the level of an inverted order—noble swords into plowshares; closed fortress into open, husbanded land—by reducing its outer walls to reveal a wholly vulnerable, decaying interior, containing thousands of unburied corpses. An autonomous, defiant, and sacred military place de sûreté was plowed under and planted with the seeds of absolutism, sown subsequently over the rest of France.
Eighty years before, Collardeau searched harder to locate the shell of deception constructed between himself and the bodies of an isolated rural community of heretical artisans in La Rochelle’s hinterland, far from the protective shadow of the fortress. Once discovered, Collardeau’s response was much the same as Louis’s and Richelieu’s would be. Yet what was exposed inside was as different as La Rochelle from Saintonge (or Geneva from the Germanic regional culture that “returned” the monks to their rustic artisan community). In their “degradation,” the artisan-preachers’ bodily sûreté was removed by violence and replaced with garments from “Nature” that were thought to be a mockery of their ethos. Out of these visual dialogues between ambitious executioners and silenced heretics, a new set of clothes was fashioned and worn to punctuate the shared reality of what had been uncovered.