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Word versus Honor: The Case of Françoise de Rohan vs. Jacques de Savoie

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Abstract This paper examines one of the most notorious scandals of sixteenth-century France. In 1557, Françoise de Rohan, a lady-in-waiting to Catherine de Medici, launched a legal battle to get the duke of Nemours, Jacques de Savoie, to recognize their orally-agreed marriage contract and formally recognize the child whom he had fathered with her. Central to Rohan’s case were not only the love-letters Nemours had written to her but also the eye-witness testimonies of her servants, who had overheard their marriage vows and had witnessed their love-making. Nemours’s only defense was his word of honor as a gentleman that no marriage had taken place. This paper situates the case of Rohan vs. Nemours within a transitory period in French society as oral and literate cultures competed for precedence, and asks what happens to the concept of honor when the spoken word is no longer to be trusted.

1. I would like to thank Elizabeth Horodowich and Filippo de Vivo for inviting me to present this paper at the Renaissance Society of America conference in Venice, April 2010, and the members of the round table for their subsequent comments. Many thanks also go to Rebecca McNamara, Noeleen McIlvenna, Evelyn Welch, and the anonymous readers of the journal for their suggestions and contributions to the final draft.
2. FN11 National Archives UK (NA) SP 70/84, f. 356, “In nuptias Ducis de Nemours”:Sub nonas Maias meretrix obscaena, vietaPutida, trita viris lectũ repetit genialem.Ducit eã uxorě sceleratus, perfidus, exlex,Decoctor, moechus, sacer, impius et cruce dignus.[. . .]The verse, along with a French verse discussed further in this essay (“Sonet sur la devise du Roy”), formed the contents of an ambassadorial dispatch from France to England; see Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth (CSPF), ed. Joseph Stevenson (London, 1870), vol. 8, May 1566, no. 440.
3. FN22 The case is thoroughly studied in Matthew A. Vester, Jacques de Savoie-Nemours: L’apanage du Genevois au coeur de la puissance dynastique savoyarde au XVIe siècle (Geneva, 2008), 67-109. It was also studied in the nineteenth century by Alphonse, Baron de Ruble, Le duc de Nemours et Mademoiselle de Rohan (1531-1592) (Paris, 1883) and Comte Hector de La Ferrière, Trois amoureuses au XVIè siècle: Françoise de Rohan, Isabelle de Limeuil, La reine Margot (Paris, 1885). Given that his work is a biography of Nemours, Vester points out the positive biases of both earlier accounts towards Rohan.
4. FN33 The Gallican Church refers to the Catholic Church in France and its assertion that the pope should have authority only over ecclesiastical matters, leaving temporal matters in the hands of the French monarch and bishops. This argument, eventually set out in the Declaration of the Clergy of France in 1682, was never accepted by the Holy See. The Rota is the highest appellate tribunal of the Roman Catholic Church.
5. FN44 For studies of the relationship between orality and literacy, see Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, 1982); Jack Goody, The Interface Between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge, 1987); Literacy and Orality, ed. David R. Olson and Nancy Torrance (Cambridge, 1991).
6. FN55 Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) MS Fr 3169, f. 47: deposition of Fleury Barge; f. 54: deposition of Pasquier Boucher; f. 59: deposition of Gabrielle Binel; f. 73: deposition of Antoine de Coué.
7. FN66 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 53, deposition of Fleury Barge.
8. FN77 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 37, deposition of Antoine de Coué: “ouit ladite dame s’escrier a raison de quoy tourna la teste du coste du lict et veit iceulx seigneur de nemours et dame de rohan faire acte de mary et femme.”
9. FN88 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 32r, 32v, deposition of Gabrielle de Binel: “ou elle veit et trouva ledit seigneur duc debout contre le lict de ladite dame . . . ant et faisant les oeuvres de mary et femme | Et soudain que ladite dame de rohan appercent ladite depposant entrer se retira | Et lors ledit seigneur duc voiant que ladite dame de rohan se retiroit de honte luy deist d’un voix aspre et basse ressentant sa colere ces motz en jurant mort dieu que craignez vous ne suis je pas vostre mary n’estes vous pas ma femme. Aquoy respondit ladite dame ouy Monsr Ainsi que ladite depposan ouit et entendit clairement et asseurement et estoient en ladite chambre les filles et damoiselles de ladite dame de rohan.”
10. FN99 For a detailed description of the logistics of life at court, including architectural plans of various royal châteaux, see Monique Chatenet, La cour de France au XVIe siècle: Vie sociale et architecture (Paris, 2002); also, “Les logis des femmes à la cour des derniers Valois” in Das Frauenzimmer: Die Frau bei Hofe in Spätmittelalter und früher Neuzeit. 6. Symposium der Residenzen-Kommission der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, ed. Jan Hirschbiegel and Werner Paravicini (Stuttgart, 2000), 175-192.
11. FN1010 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 41v, deposition of Perrine Legrand: “Je scay bien quant vous serez en bretagne que madame vre mere vous vouldre marier. Je vous prie ne vous mariez point car vous scavez bien les propos quil y a entre nous deux | Et sur ces propos entendit ladite depposant que ledit signeur deist a ladite dame ces motz. Je vous prendz pour ma femme. Et ladite dame deist audit seigneur duc Je vous prendz pour mon mary. Et en ce faisan se baiserent lun lautre.”
12. FN1111 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 33r, deposition of Gabrielle de Binel: “le commun bruict de toute la maison de ladite dame et autres non domesticques hantans en ladite maison estoit que ledit seigneur duc estoit le vray mary deladite dame et estoit tenu et reputé pour tel.”
13. FN1212 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 53, deposition of Fleury Barge: “la court estant à Fontainebleau, environ la saint Jehan, au temps que la royne estoit accouchée de deux enfans.”
14. FN1313 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 37, deposition of Antoine de Coué: “agé de vingtrois a vingtquatre ans ou environ.”
15. FN1414 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 29r, 29v, deposition of Gabrielle de Binel: “A laquelle ledit Srduc feist response qu’il estoit homme de bien jurant le nom de dieu comme la mort dieu et autres sermens qu’il avoit promis mariage a ladite dame de rohan et lespouser. Qu’elle estoit asseuree de luy et qu’elle le scavoit bien. Et quant ladite depposant remonstroit audit seigneur Ouy Monseigneur mais si vous ne lespousiez regardez le danger auquel vous nous mectoiez | Lors se meist a juer ledit Sr comme devant luy disant Je croy madamoiselle de coué que vous ne me pensez poinct homme de bien. Je ne suis poinct si meschant ne si mallheureux que je la voulusse tromper.”
16. FN1515 Lettres d’Antoine de Bourbon et de Jehanne d’Albret (Paris, 1877), 224, Antoine de Bourbon to Jeanne d’Albret, 1560: “me semble que il ne sen peult dédire sans à son honneur fère tort.”
17. FN1616 For the laws concerning clandestine marriage and public opinion surrounding it in early modern Europe, see Marian Rothstein, “Clandestine Marriage and Amadis de Gaule: The Text, the World, and the Reader,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 25, no. 4 (1994): 873-886; Cathleen M. Bauschatz, “Rabelais and Marguerite de Navarre on Sixteenth-Century Views of Clandestine Marriage,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 34, no. 2 (2003): 395-408; R. B. Outhwaite, Clandestine Marriage in England, 1500-1850 (London, 1995).
18. FN1717 Rothstein, “Clandestine Marriage and Amadis de Gaule,” 879.
19. FN1818 Alphonse, Baron de Ruble, François de Montmorency: Gouverneur de Paris et lieutenant du roi dans l’Isle de France (1530-1579) (Paris, 1880).
20. FN1919 In her seminal essay on royal legislation around marriage in early modern France, Sarah Hanley expresses doubt that the Montmorency affair could have played a part in the edict. Sarah Hanley, “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France,” French Historical Studies 16, no. 1. (Spring, 1989): 4-27. However, I disagree, arguing that François’s age, then twenty-six, was the reason for the extremely high age of consent for males (thirty).
21. FN2020 Walter S. Johnson, Chapters in the History of French Law (Montreal, 1957), 250.
22. FN2121 Johnson, French Law, 250.
23. FN2222 Jean Brissaud, A History of French Private Law, trans. Rapelje Howell (London, 1912), 116.
24. FN2323 Frederic J. Baumgartner, France in the Sixteenth Century (New York, 1995), 285.
25. FN2424 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 1: deposition of Catherine de Medici; f. 5: deposition of Cardinal de Lorraine; f. 9: deposition of Constable Montmorency; f. 11: deposition of Marguerite de France; f. 14: deposition of Madeleine de Savoie; f. 16: deposition of Diane de Poitiers; f. 20: deposition of Ambroise Paré.
26. FN2525 For early modern beliefs around menstruation and pregnancy, see Cathy McClive, “The Hidden Truths of the Belly: the Uncertainties of Pregnancy in Early Modern Europe,” Social History of Medicine 15, no. 2 (2002): 209-227; idem, “Menstrual knowledge and Medical Practice in France, c. 1555-1761,” in Menstruation: A Cultural History, ed. Gillian Howie and Andrew Shail (Basingstoke, 2005), 76-89.
27. FN2626 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 31r, deposition of Gabrielle de Binel: “qu’elle avoit esté advertie par une des filles de la Royne qui avoit ouy dire a la seignora olivia qui disoit lavoir ouy dire a Madame de Guise que ledit Sr. de Nemours avoit promis a Madame de Guise deppouser une [illegible] seur.”
28. FN2727 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 16, deposition of Diane de Poitiers: “que le bruict couroit que ledict duc de Nemours alloit en Italie pour veoir madame Lucresse, que peult estre il l’espouseroit. Ne sait toutefois si ladicte damoiselle demanderesse sçavoit rien dudict bruict de mariage.”
29. FN2828 BnF MS Fr 3397, f. 70, Françoise de Rohan to Jacques de Savoie: “quant au mariage de la dame que vous saves ie se tant ce que vous man aves dict que ie ne point de peur quelle me fase ce tort. . .”
30. FN2929 BnF MS Fr 3169, f. 1, deposition of Catherine de Medici: “qu’elle ne pouvoit honnestement refuser l’entrée à ung si honneste prince.”
31. FN3030 Négociations diplomatiques de la France avec la Toscane, 6 vols., ed. Giuseppe Canestrini, Abel Desjardins, (Paris, 1859-1886), 3:444, Niccolo Tornabuoni to Cosimo I, trans. Rosa Salzberg: “pare che M. de Nemours sia insospettito, e così aiutato da M. de Guise, si sia armato in casa, e fuora ancora vadi bene accompagnato . . . Non è fornita questa lite, ma tuttavia va pullulando, nè manca chi accenda, come il Conestabile che non si sta. E Guisi n’hanno peggio, perchè hanno tutto l’odio dell’ universale, e ciascuno vorria che se n’andassino, e gli gridono dietro; e tutto questo è fatto acciò diloggino.”
32. FN3131 CSPF, vol. 7, 27 Jan 1564, no. 109 (8) “Occurrences in France.” It appears that “Fontenay” (Françoise’s brother, Jean de Rohan, Baron de Frontenay) was simultaneously experiencing marital difficulties of his own; see David Potter, “Marriage and Cruelty among the Protestant Nobility in Sixteenth-Century France: Diane de Barbançon and Jean de Rohan, 1561-7,” European History Quarterly 20, no. 1 (1990): 5-38.
33. FN3232 Jacques-Auguste de Thou, Histoire universelle de Jacques-Auguste de Thou: depuis 1543. jusqu’en 1607, 16 vols., (Londres [i.e. Paris], 1734), 5:185: “Comme le duc de Nemours avoit alors plus de crédit, & qu’on avoit beaucoup d’éloignement & de haine pour la Religion Protestante, à laquelle Françoise de Rohan étoit attachée; ce procès fut vuidé par l’entremise du Pape, & le mariage du duc de Nemours avec Françoise de Rohan fut declaré nul.” Jacques-Auguste’s father, Christophe de Thou, was premier président of the Parlement of Paris while the case was under debate.
34. FN3333 NA SP 70/84, f. 356, “Sonet sur la devise du Roy.” See note 1.
35. FN3434 Lettres d’Antoine de Bourbon et de Jehanne d’Albret, 222, Antoine de Bourbon to Jeanne d’Albret, 1560: “car j’ay espérance que le tout bien considéré de luy, qu’il ne peult moins que de passer par là, j’entens de mariage ou de mort.”
36. FN3535 BnF MS Fr 3215, f. 71.
37. FN3636 For the details of this marriage arrangement from Este’s perspective, see Christiane Coester, Schön wie Venus, mutig wie Mars: Anna d’Este, Herzogin von Guise und von Nemours, 1531-1607 (München, 2007).
38. FN3737 CSPF, vol. 8, 21 May 1566, Hoby to Cecil.
39. FN3838 Nancy Lyman Roelker, Queen of Navarre: Jeanne d’Albret 1528-1572 (Cambridge MA, 1968), 247.
40. FN3939 Pierre Champion, Catherine de Médicis présente à Charles IX son royaume 1564-1566 (Paris, 1937), 431-2: “Enfin, Mme de Vendôme et Mme de Guise s’étaient déshonorées en se chamaillant comme des blanchisseuses (lavacerias) au sujet du mariage de cette dernière, ne craignant pas d’échanger des paroles malsonnantes en présence de toute la cour, et de la reine.”
41. FN4040 CSPF, vol. 8, 16 May 1566, Hoby to Cecil.
42. FN4141 Champion, Catherine de Médicis, 429: “Mais le procureur avait continué son instance devant le conseil privé, affirmant que M. De Nemours, suivant les lois de France, méritait d’avoir la tête tranchée, car il avait pris de force Mme de Rohan dans la chambre de la reine et l’avait rendue enceinte. Un grand rire s’empara de Catherine de Médicis, de Charles IX et de tout le conseil! On fit sortir le procureur.”
43. FN4242 CSPF, vol. 8, 4 May 1566, Hoby to Cecil.
44. FN4343 Kristen Neuschel, Word of Honor: Interpreting Noble Culture in Sixteenth-Century France (Ithaca, 1989), 114.
45. FN4444 BnF MS Fr 3397, f. 70, Françoise de Rohan to Jacques de Savoie: “ie receu la laitre que vour maves escrite qui ma este ung bien fort grant plesir de savoir la verite ancore que ie ne fust point an doute que vous ne fusies homme de bien car si ie i euse este ie ne me fuse tant fiee an vous comme ie suis. . .”
46. FN4545 Pierre de Bourdeille, abbé de Brantôme, Recueil des dames, poésies et tombeaux, ed. Etienne Vaucheret (Paris, 1991), 642: “le parangon de toute chevallerie.”
47. FN4646 Johnson, French Law, 250.
48. FN4747 Ruble, Le duc de Nemours, 132: “dame de Nemours, a peine d’estre declairee réfractaire et désobéissante aux arrêts.”
49. FN4848 BnF MS Fr 3215, f. 13.

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Affiliations: 1: University of Sydney


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