Elegy XVI (Ronsard’s autobiography) – epic 200th post :-)

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This is my 200th post (though not yet the 200th poem), so I wanted to do something special. In the end it has snowballed a bit and this post is going to be monstrously long…!!  Hope you enjoy it anyway.

In his Elegies, Ronsard included a poem – addressed to his old friend Remy Belleau – which provides his family background and details of his early life – sometimes uncorroborated details we only learn here but often events we can triangulate against other records. So, here is his Elegy XVI (or in Blanchemain’s numbering Elegy XX), with translations, annotations and added biographical detail…   🙂

It is worth noting before we start, though, that this poem was published in the Bocage in 1554 addressed to his friend Pierre de Pascal [Paschal] “du bas païs de Languedoc” (‘from the low country of Languedoc’), not to Remy Belleau!  In that version Durbam/Durban [Michel-Pierre de Mauléon, protonotary of Durban], not Baïf, is the 3rd in their group in the final line…

1 – the poem

As usual, in Marty-Laveaux’s edition (Ronsard’s latest thoughts) first:

Je veux, mon cher Belleau, que tu n’ignores point
D’où, ne qui est celuy, que les Muses ont joint
D’un nœud si ferme à toy, afin que des années,
A nos neveux futurs, les courses retournées
Ne celent que Belleau et Ronsard n’estoient qu’un,
Et que tous deux avoient un mesme cœur commun.
 
 
 
Or quant à mon ancestre, il a tiré sa race
D’où le glacé Danube est voisin de la Thrace :
Plus bas que la Hongrie, en une froide part,
Est un Seigneur nommé le Marquis de Ronsart,
Riche d’or et de gens, de villes et de terre.
Un de ses fils puisnez ardant de voir la guerre,
Un camp d’autres puisnez assembla hazardeux,
Et quittant son pays, faict Capitaine d’eux
Traversa la Hongroie et la basse Allemaigne.
Traversa la Bourgongne et la grasse Champaigne,
Et hardy vint servir Philippes de Valois,
Qui pour lors avoit guerre encontre les Anglois.
 
Il s’employa si bien au service de France,
Que le Roy luy donna des biens à suffisance
Sur les rives du Loir : puis du tout oubliant
Freres, pere et pays, François se mariant
Engendra les ayeux dont est sorty le pere
Par qui premier je vy ceste belle lumiere.
 
 
Mon pere fut tousjours en son vivant icy
Maistre-d’hostel du Roy, et le suivit aussi
Tant qu’il fut prisonnier pour son pere en Espaigne :
Faut-il pas qu’un servant son Seigneur accompaigne
Fidele à sa fortune, et qu’en adversité
Luy soit autant loyal qu’en la felicité ?

Du costé maternel j’ay tiré mon lignage
De ceux de la Trimouille, et de ceux du Bouchage,
Et de ceux des Roüaux, et de ceux des Chaudriers
Qui furent en leurs temps si vertueux guerriers,
Que leur noble vertu que Mars rend eternelle
Reprint sur les Anglois les murs de la Rochelle,
Où l’un fut si vaillant qu’encores aujourd’huy
Une rue à son los porte le nom de luy.
 
Mais s’il te plaist avoir autant de cognoissance
(Comme de mes ayeux) du jour de ma naissance,
Mon Belleau, sans mentir je diray verité
Et de l’an et du jour de ma nativité.
 
 
L’an que le Roy François fut pris devant Pavie,
Le jour d’un Samedy, Dieu me presta la vie
L’onzieme de Septembre, et presque je me vy
Tout aussi tost que né, de la Parque ravy.
 
 
Je ne fus le premier des enfants de mon pere,
Cinq davant ma naissance en enfanta ma mere :
Deux sont morts au berceau, aux trois vivans en rien
Semblable je ne suis ny de mœurs ny de bien.
 
Si tost que j’eu neuf ans, au college on me meine :
Je mis tant seulement un demy an de peine
D’apprendre les leçons du regent de Vailly,
Puis sans rien profiter du college sailly.
Je vins en Avignon, où la puissante armée
Du Roy François estoit fierement animée
Contre Charles d’Autriche, et là je fus donné
Page au Duc d’Orleans : apres je fus mené
Suivant le Roi d’Escosse en l’Escossoise terre,
Où trente mois je fus, et six en Angleterre.
 
 
A mon retour ce Duc pour page me reprint :
Long temps à l’Escurie en repos ne me tint
Qu’il me renvoyast en Flandres et Zelande,
Et depuis en Escosse, où la tempeste grande
Avecques Lassigni, cuida faire toucher
Poussée aux bords Anglois la nef contre un rocher.
 
Plus de trois jours entiers dura ceste tempeste,
D’eau, de gresle et d’esclairs nous menassant la teste :
A la fin arrivez sans nul danger au port,
La nef en cent morceaux se rompt contre le bord,
Nous laissant sur la rade, et point n’y eut de perte
Sinon elle qui fut des flots salez couverte,
Et le bagage espars que le vent secoüoit,
Et qui servoit flottant aux ondes de jouet.
 
 
D’Escosse retourné, je fus mis hors de page,
Et à peine seize ans avoient borné mon âge,
Que l’an cinq cens quarante avec Baïf je vins
En la haute Allemaigne, où la langue j’apprins.
 
Mais làs ! à mon retour une aspre maladie
Par ne sçay quel destin me vint boucher l’ouie,
Et dure m’accabla d’assommement si lourd,
Qu’encores aujourd’huy j’en reste demy-sourd.
L’an d’apres en Avril, Amour me fist surprendre,
Suivant la Cour à Blois, des beaux yeux de Cassandre
Soit le nom faux ou vray, jamais le temps veinqueur
N’effacera ce nom du marbre de mon cœur.
 
 
 
 
Convoiteux de sçavoir, disciple je vins estre
De d’Aurat à Paris, qui cinq ans fut mon maistre
En Grec et en Latin : chez luy premierement
Nostre ferme amitié print son commencement,
Laquelle dans mon ame à tout jamais, et celle
De nostre amy Baïf sera perpetuelle.
 
I’d like, my dear Belleau, for you not to be in any way uninformed
About where he’s from, and who he is, this man whom the Muses have bound
With so firm a knot to you, such that the years’
Course turning will not hide from our future descendants
That Belleau and Ronsard were but one person,
The two joined by one shared heart.
 
So, as for my first ancestor, he came from roots
Where the freezing Danube runs beside Thrace;
Lower down than Hungary, in a cold region,
There was a Lord named Marquis of Ronsart,
Rich in gold and retainers, in towns and lands.
One of his younger sons, eager to see war,
Assembled a band of other daring younger sons
And, leaving his country, as their Captain
Crossed Hungary and lower Germany,
Crossed Burgundy and rich Champagne,
And boldly came to serve Philip of Valois
Who for some time had been at war with the English.
 
He acted so well in the service of France
That the King gave him plentiful holdings
On the banks of the Loir; then forgetting all about
Brothers, father and homeland, as a Frenchman he married
And bore the ancestors from whom descended the father
Through whom I first saw this fair light.
 
My father was always while living here
In charge of the King’s household, and he followed him
Even when he was a prisoner in Spain for his father;
Shouldn’t a servant accompany his Lord,
Loyal to his fate, and in bad times
Be as loyal to him as in good?
 
On my mother’s side, I take my lineage
From the people of Trimouille, of Bouchage,
Of Rouaux, and of Chaudriers;
They were in their time such brave warriors
That their noble bravery (may Mars make it everlasting)
Re-took from the English the walls of La Rochelle,
Where one of them was so valiant that even today
In his honour a street bears his name.
 
But if it would please you to have as much information
About the date of my birth, as about my ancestors,
Dear Belleau, then without falsifying anything I shall tell you the true
Date, both the year and the day, of my birth.
 
The year in which King Francis was taken before Pavia,
On a Saturday, God granted me life –
The 11th September it was – and I very nearly found myself
As soon as born, torn away by Fate.
 
I was not the first of my father’s children,
My mother had produced five children before my birth:
Two died in the cradle, and to the three living am I
In no way similar in either way of life or wealth.
 
As soon as I was nine, they sent me to college,
But I spent only half a year troubling
To learn the lessons of the master, de Vailly.
Then I left having gained nothing from college.
I came to Avignon, where the powerful army
Of King Francis was proudly in action
Against Charles of Austria; and there I was granted
The role of page to the Duke of Orleans; afterwards I was sent
In the King of Scotland’s entourage to Scotland
Where I spent 30 months, and six in England.
 
On my return the Duke took me back as page,
But I did not stay quietly in the Royal Mews for long
Before he sent me to Flanders and Zeeland
And then to Scotland, where a great storm
Tried to drive the ship, along with Lassigni,
Onto the rocks, after blowing it to the coast of England.
 
More than three whole days the storm lasted,
Menacing our lives with water, hail and lightning;
In the end, as we arrived with no danger at port,
The ship broke into a hundred pieces on the coast
Leaving us in the harbour with no losses
Except the ship herself, sunk in the salty waves,
And our widely-scattered baggage blown about by the wind
Which used it as a plaything as it floated on the waves.
 
Returned from Scotland I lost my job as page
And had barely reached the age of sixteen
When in 1540 I went with Baïf
To Upper Germany, where I learned the language.
 
But alas, on my return a terrible illness
For some end unknown came and stopped up my hearing,
And hit me hard with a blow so heavy
That still today I remain half-deaf as a result.
The year after, in April, love took me unawares
As I followed the Court to Blois, through the fair eyes of Cassandre.
Whether that name is her true one or not, never will conquering time
Wipe that name from the marble [memorial] in my heart.
 
Eager to learn, I came to be the disciple
Of d’Aurat in Paris, and he was for five years my teacher
In Greek and Latin; it was at his home that first
Our firm friendship began
And it shall for all time in my soul, along with that
For our friend Baïf, be everlasting.
 
 

Inevitably, there are varants in Blanchemain’s edition (Ronsard’s first version):  for simplicity here is the whole poem with changes marked in red:

ELEGIE XX
A REMY BELLEAU
Excellent Poëte françois
 
Je veux, mon cher Belleau, que tu n’ignores point
D’où, ne qui est celuy, que les Muses ont joint
D’un nœud si ferme à toy, afin que des années,
A nos neveux futurs, les courses retournées
Ne celent que Belleau et Ronsard n’estoient qu’un,
Et que tous deux avoient un mesme cœur commun.
 
 
 
Or quant à mon ancestre, il a tiré sa race
D’où le glacé Danube est voisin de la Thrace :
Plus bas que la Hongrie, en une froide part,
Est un Seigneur nommé le Marquis de Ronsart,
Riche d’or et de gens, de villes et de terre.
Un de ses fils puisnez ardant de voir la guerre,
Un camp d’autres puisnez assembla hazardeux,
Et quittant son pays, faict Capitaine d’eux
Traversa la Hongrie et la basse Allemaigne.
Traversa la Bourgongne et toute la Champaigne,
Et soudard vint servir Philippes de Valois,
Qui pour lors avoit guerre encontre les Anglois.
 
Il s’employa si bien au service de France,
Que le Roy luy donna des biens à suffisance
Sur les rives du Loir : puis du tout oubliant
Freres, pere et pays, François se mariant
Engendra les ayeux dont est sorty le pere
Par qui premier je vy ceste belle lumiere.
 
 
Mon pere de Henry gouverna la maison,
Fils du grand Roy François, quand il fut en prison
Servant de seur hostage à son pere en Espagne:
Faut-il pas qu’un servant son Seigneur accompaigne
Fidele à sa fortune, et qu’en adversité
Luy soit autant loyal qu’en la felicité ?
 
 
Du costé maternel j’ay tiré mon lignage
De ceux de la Trimouille, et de ceux du Bouchage,
Et de ceux des Roüaux, et de ceux des Chaudriers
Qui furent en leurs temps si vertueux guerriers,
Que leur noble prouesse, au fait des armes belle
Reprint sur les Anglois les murs de la Rochelle,
Où l’un fut si vaillant qu’encores aujourd’huy
Une rue à son los porte le nom de luy.
 
Mais s’il te plaist avoir autant de cognoissance
(Comme de mes ayeux) du jour de ma naissance,
Mon Belleau, sans mentir je diray verité
Et de l’an et du jour de ma nativité.
 
 
L’an que le Roy François fut pris devant Pavie,
Le jour d’un Samedy, Dieu me presta la vie
L’onziesme de Septembre, et presque je me vy
Tout aussi tost que né, de la Parque ravy.
 
 
Je ne fus le premier des enfants de mon père,
Cinq avant moy longtemps en enfanta ma mere :
Deux sont morts au berceau, aux trois vivans en rien
Semblable je ne suis ny de mœurs ny de bien.
 
Si tost que j’eu neuf ans, au college on me meine :
Je mis tant seulement un demy an de peine
D’apprendre les leçons du regent de Vailly,
Puis sans rien profiter du college sailly,
Je vins en Avignon, où la puissante armée
Du Roy François estoit fierement animée
Contre Charles d’Austriche, et là je fus donné
Page au Duc d’Orleans : apres je fus mené
Suivant le Roy d’Escosse en l’Escossoise terre,
Où trente mois je fus, et six en Angleterre.
 
 
A mon retour ce Duc pour Pape me reprint :
Et guere à l’Escurie en repos ne me tint
Qu’il me renvoyast en Flandres et Zelande,
Et encore en Escosse, où la tempeste grande
Avecques Lassigni, cuida faire toucher
Poussée aux bords Anglois ma nef contre un rocher.
 
 
 
Plus de trois jours entiers dura ceste tempeste,
D’eau, de gresle et d’esclairs nous menassant la teste :
A la fin arrivez sans nul danger au port,
La nef en cent morceaux se rompt contre le bord,
Nous laissant sur la rade, et point n’y eut de perte
Sinon elle qui fut des flots salez couverte,
Et le bagage espars que le vent secoüoit,
Et qui servoit flottant aux ondes de jouet.
 
 
D’Escosse retourné, je fus mis hors de page,
Et à peine seize ans avoient borné mon âge,
Que l’an cinq cens quarante avec Baïf je vins
En la haute Allemaigne, où la langue j’apprins.
 
Mais làs ! à mon retour une aspre maladie
Par ne sçay quel destin me vint boucher l’ouie,
Et dure m’accabla d’assommement si lourd,
Qu’encores aujourd’huy j’en reste demy-sourd.
L’an d’apres en Avril, Amour me fist surprendre,
Suivant la Cour à Blois, des beaux yeux de Cassandre
Soit le nom faux ou vray, jamais le temps veinqueur
N’ostera ce beau nom du marbre de mon cœur.
 
 
 
 
 
Incontinent apres disciple je vins estre
A Paris, de Daurat qui cinq ans fut mon maistre
En Grec et en Latin : chez luy premierement
Nostre ferme amitié print son commencement,
Laquelle dans mon ame à tout jamais, et celle
De nostre amy Baïf sera perpetuelle.
 
ELEGY 20
TO REMY BELLEAU
Excellent poet of France
 
I’d like, my dear Belleau, for you not to be in any way uninformed
About where he’s from, and who he is, this man whom the Muses have bound
With so firm a knot to you, such that the years’
Course turning will not hide from our future descendants
That Belleau and Ronsard were but one person,
The two joined by one shared heart.
 
So, as for my first ancestor, he came from roots
Where the freezing Danube runs beside Thrace;
Lower down than Hungary, in a cold region,
There was a Lord named Marquis of Ronsart,
Rich in gold and retainers, in towns and lands.
One of his younger sons, eager to see war,
Assembled a band of other daring younger sons
And, leaving his country, as their Captain
Crossed Hungary and lower Germany,
Crossed Burgundy and all of Champagne,
And came as a mercenary to serve Philip of Valois
Who for some time had been at war with the English.
 
He acted so well in the service of France
That the King gave him plentiful holdings
On the banks of the Loir; then forgetting all about
Brothers, father and homeland, as a Frenchman he married
And bore the ancestors from whom descended the father
Through whom I first saw this fair light.
 
My father managed the household of Henry,
Son of the great King Francis, serving his lord
When he was in prison as a hostage for his father in Spain;
Shouldn’t a servant accompany his Lord,
Loyal to his fate, and in bad times
Be as loyal to him as in good?
 
On my mother’s side, I take my lineage
From the people of Trimouille, of Bouchage,
Of Rouaux, and of Chaudriers;
They were in their time such brave warriors
That their noble prowess, fair in deeds of arms,
Re-took from the English the walls of La Rochelle,
Where one of them was so valiant that even today
In his honour a street bears his name.
 
But if it would please you to have as much information
About the date of my birth, as about my ancestors,
Dear Belleau, then without falsifying anything I shall tell you the true
Date, both the year and the day, of my birth.
 
The year in which King Francis was taken before Pavia,
On a Saturday, God granted me life –
The 11th September it was – and I very nearly found myself
As soon as born, torn away by Fate.
 
I was not the first of my father’s children,
My mother had produced five long before me;
Two died in the cradle, and to the three living am I
In no way similar in either way of life or wealth.
 
As soon as I was nine, they sent me to college,
But I spent only half a year troubling
To learn the lessons of the master, de Vailly.
Then I left having gained nothing from college.
I came to Avignon, where the powerful army
Of King Francis was proudly in action
Against Charles of Austria; and there I was granted
The role of page to the Duke of Orleans; afterwards I was sent
In the King of Scotland’s entourage to Scotland
Where I spent 30 months, and six in England.
 
On my return the Duke took me back [on the Pope’s behalf??]
   [surely a misprint for ‘page’?!]
But barely had I stopped quietly in the Royal Mews
Before he sent me to Flanders and Zeeland
And again to Scotland, where a great storm
Tried to drive my ship, along with Lassigni,
Onto the rocks, after blowing it to the coast of England.
 
More than three whole days the storm lasted,
Menacing our lives with water, hail and lightning;
In the end, as we arrived with no danger at port,
The ship broke into a hundred pieces on the coast
Leaving us in the harbour with no losses
Except the ship herself, sunk in the salty waves,
And our widely-scattered baggage blown about by the wind
Which used it as a plaything as it floated on the waves.
 
Returned from Scotland I lost my job as page
And had barely reached the age of sixteen
When in 1540 I went with Baïf
To Upper Germany, where I learned the language.
 
But alas, on my return a terrible illness
For some end unknown came and stopped up my hearing,
And hit me hard with a blow so heavy
That still today I remain half-deaf as a result.
The year after, in April, love took me unawares
As I followed the Court to Blois, through the fair eyes of Cassandre.
Whether that name is her true one or not, never will conquering time
Remove that fair name from the marble [memorial] in my heart.
 
Immediately afterwards, I came to be the disciple
Of Daurat in Paris, and he was for five years my teacher
In Greek and Latin; it was at his home that first
Our firm friendship began
And it shall for all time in my soul, along with that
For our friend Baïf, be everlasting.

(As noted in the text, I assume the printing of “Pape” instead of “page” is a typo. My approximation of what the Pope might be doing in there is really not a translation of what the French says in any case!)

2 – biographical notes

(i) Blanchemain

Blanchemain litters his text with footnotes: as he puts it “we have retained (‘conservé’) all the notes on this piece…” – though I am not sure which early edition he’s “conserved” them from. So here are the relevant lines from the translation of his edition (above), paired with his notes. My own additions or clarifications are in [brackets]:
So, as for my first ancestor, he came from roots
Where the freezing Danube runs beside Thrace;
Lower down than Hungary, in a cold region,
There was a Lord named Marquis of Ronsart,
Rich in gold and retainers, in towns and lands.
One of his younger sons, eager to see war,
Assembled a band of other daring younger sons
And, leaving his country, as their Captain
Crossed Hungary and lower Germany,
Crossed Burgundy and all of Champagne,
And came as a mercenary to serve Philip of Valois
Who for some time had been at war with the English.
He acted so well in the service of France
That the King gave him plentiful holdings
On the banks of the Loir;
This ancestor of our poet, who came from the lower Danube to offer his services to Philip of Valois, was called Marucini or Mârâcinâ like his father, who added to his name the title of Bano (Ban). Once settled in France he translated his paternal name and title literally, changing ‘bano’ into Marquis and Marucini (=Ronces – bramble; or Roncière – bramble-bush) into Ronsard. Source: Ubicini 1855, Romanian Popular Songs collected by Alecsandri [see further the notes below about Alecsandri’s contribution on this origins story].
My father managed the household of Henry,
Son of the great King Francis, serving his lord
When he was in prison as a hostage for his father in Spain;

Henry = Henry II, then Duke of Orleans. It was a great thing at that time to be in charge of the king’s household; for his responsibilities were given only to noble folk and there were no valets [grooms] who were not gentlemen.

King Francis I, who was captured before Pavia covered in dust and blood, returned to France [in exchange for] leaving his two sons, Francis the dauphin & Henry Duke of Orleans (later king) as hostages in Spain.

On my mother’s side, I take my lineage
From the people of Trimouille, of Bouchage,
Of Rouaux, and of Chaudriers;

Trimouille: the princess, mother of the Prince of Condé, bore this name.  Bouchage: of the house of Joyeuse, father of madame de Guise, mother of mlle. De Montpensier.  Rouaux: from which came that great warrior Joachim Roüaut [Rouault], marshal of France under Charles VII [actually, under Louis XI in 1461 rather than under Charles; Jeanne Chaudrier, Ronsard’s mother, was a descendant].  Chaudriers: an ancient house [going back to the Mayor of la Rochelle c1300;  Ronsard’s mother was also Dame du Bouchaige].

 … and I very nearly found myself
As soon as born, torn away by Fate.

The maid carrying him when they were taking him to baptism dropped him on a meadow, specified as the pré Bouju by Cohen(!).

Two died in the cradle, and to the three living am I
In no way similar in either way of life or wealth.

Descended from the eldest brother and still alive in 1623, his grandsons, were de la Poissonière & the knight Ronsard, and several girls descended from one or the other of the children.

 As soon as I was nine, they sent me to college,

He studied at the college in Navarre under a man called de Vailly, beneath whom also studied the Cardinal of Lorraine [a member of the influential Guise family].

 I came to Avignon, where the powerful army
Of King Francis was proudly in action
Against Charles of Austria; and there I was granted
The role of page to the Duke of Orleans; afterwards I was sent
In the King of Scotland’s entourage to Scotland
Where I spent 30 months, and six in England.

Charles = Charles V, [Holy Roman] Emperor and King of Spain, who attacked Provence and who boasted he’d hold Paris like Madrid.

Orleans = Henry II, being Dauphin on the death of his brother, poisoned at Tournon by the Count of Montecuculo [Count Sebastiano de Montecuccoli, secretary to the Dauphin, was executed for his murder though it is likely the Dauphin died of tuberculosis].

Ronsard made the journey to Scotland in 1536, in the entourage of James V who had just married Madeleine, daughter of Francis I, in Paris. That king married secondly [Mary of Guise] the sister of M de Guise, Francis of Lorraine; from whence comes the blood-relationship between the Guise family & the king of England.

Before he sent me to Flanders and Zeeland
And again to Scotland, where a great storm
Tried to drive my ship, along with Lassigni,
Onto the rocks,

Flanders: the Duke of Orleans sent Ronsard, who was his page, to Flanders and Zeeland, with several letters of credit that he sent to his mistress, niece of the Emperor.

Lassigni: a French lord.

When in 1540 I went with Baïf
To Upper Germany,

This was Lazare Baïf, a gentleman of Anjou, related to those [gentlemen] de Laval [an important family, producing several marshals of France in mid-1400s] and de Guimené; the king’s ambassador in Germany as he had been in Venice; a very learned man, witness the books he wrote De re navali [About naval matters] and De re vestiaria [Concerning clothes]. He was father of Jean Antoine Baïf, excellent poet.

(ii) additional notes

“My father was always while living here
In charge of the King’s household “
“My father managed the household of Henry,
Son of the great King Francis, serving his lord
When he was in prison as a hostage for his father in Spain;”

Loys de Ronsard served Louis XII with distinction in the Italian wars between 1495 and 1515 – being present at the taking of Milan in 1499 and Genoa in 1507, the capture of Ludovico Sforza in 1500, and the battles of Agnadello (1509) and Marignano (1515). After the King’s death Loys became maître-d’hotel and then premier maître-d’hotel to King Francis I and remained in France, but following the disastrous battle of Pavia when the King was captured he spent the years 1526-30 in Spain with the hostages who had been swapped for the King’s freedom after Pavia: the dauphin Francis and his younger brother Henry, later Henry II. He brought back a fair bit of Renaissance sculpture from Italy to adorn his home (the Château de la Poissonière, near Vendôme, where his son Pierre was later born), among the earlier Frenchmen to appreciate the new art burgeoning in Italy.

 “The year in which King Francis was taken before Pavia,
On a Saturday, God granted me life –
The 11th September it was”

Ronsard’s birthdate is a cause of endless confusion, argument and uncertainty. It amuses me that the biography on Wikipedia.fr states three different dates in three different places… We know where he was born (the Château de la Poissonière, near Vendôme), but not quite when. Ronsard says here he was born on Saturday 11th September 1524.  However, the 11th September was in fact a Sunday in 1524.  (And, because 1524 was a leap year, it was a Friday the year before; and thus 11th September was never a Saturday in the 1520s!)  Other dates suggested therefore include Saturday 10th; as well as Friday 2nd or even late at night on Saturday 10th as it was just turning into Sunday(!). Perhaps  from a mis-reading of the poem, a tradition grew up that he was born on the date of the Battle of Pavia, 25th February 1525, as well. [Note: this is still ‘in the same year’ as his birth because new year was at the beginning of March at this time.] The 2nd September 1525, and even 6th September 1522 – both of which are Saturdays – have also been suggested. The fact is, we will never know: but a date in early September 1524 seems likeliest.

 “I was not the first of my father’s children,
My mother had produced five long before me;
Two died in the cradle”

We know that Ronsard had a sister and two brothers: Louise (b. 1514), Claude (b. 1515) and Charles (b. 1519) who entered the church. He was the last born – and (as he says here) a ‘long time’, five years, after the other children. However, Chalandon writing in 1875 mentions also a fifth surviving child, another Loys, who became abbé at Tyron; I haven’t been able to track down anything more about this claim, which seems an extraordinary one – would Ronsard have forgotten or attempted to erase the existence of one of his brothers?

 “As soon as I was nine, they sent me to college,
But I spent only half a year troubling
To learn the lessons of the master, de Vailly”

Ronsard went to the Collège de Navarre (part of the university of Paris) in the autumn of 1533, perhaps in preparation for a career in the Catholic church to which, as a younger son, his father may have destined him.  He left quickly, though it is not clear why: perhaps because the teaching was bad, more probably because he didn’t like the idea of a church career and wanted to see some excitement with the Court and the army. Simonin’s 1990 biography also suggests he left college (or perhaps was removed by his family?) because of agitation there by the Protestant reformer Gérard Roussel. This was of course a period of immense tensions in France, as in the rest of Europe, between the established church and protestant reformers. While he was there, though, Ronsard apparently made the acquaintance of Charles de Guise, later Cardinal of Lorraine, and as a Guise a member of a powerful and influential family. Another, Mary of Guise, later married James V of Scotland and precipitated Ronsard’s return to France.

It is interesting to note that one of the great theologians of the time, Mathurin Cordier, had been master at the college a few years earlier, though he had moved on to another college by this time.

 “there I was granted
The role of page to the Duke of Orleans; afterwards I was sent
In the King of Scotland’s entourage to Scotland
Where I spent 30 months, and six in England”

Ronsard was appointed a page at Court in 1536, initially to the Dauphin but when he died soon afterwards he joined (as he says) the suite of Charles, Duke of Orleans.  When the King’s daughter, Madeleine (sister of Charles) was married to King James V of Scotland in January 1537, Ronsard was given to Madeleine by Charles and went to Scotland in her service. She died in June the same year, and was thus known as the ‘Summer Queen’ by the Scots. The boy Ronsard was then attached to the Court of King James. There is little corroborating detail for Ronsard’s claim to have spent 3 years abroad; some doubt the whole story. But it seems probable that he stayed in Scotland until 1538, when the king re-married; and thus it seems likely (to me at least) that his 3 years in England and Scotland includes time later when he travelled in the suite of Lassigny (below). It’s not clear why he spent 6 months in England; but there are later links with the Renaissance court there and it is possible the precocious teenage Ronsard was extending his knowledge of humanist poetry and poetic forms at Henry VIII’s court?

 “But barely had I stopped quietly in the Royal Mews
Before he sent me to Flanders and Zeeland
And again to Scotland where a great storm
Tried to drive my ship, along with Lassigni,
Onto the rocks, after blowing it to the coast of England”

Returning to France, Ronsard joined the other pages in the Écurie or Stable (we might perhaps say the Royal Mews), where all the pages were housed. Scholars tend to say he then joined the suite of Claude d’Humières, Seigneur de Lassigny, who was an equerry in charge of the pages (at an annual remuneration of 400 livres) and with him travelled in Flanders. Cohen states that they left on 24th December 1538. Then in 1539-40 Ronsard was again in England and Scotland. Notably, though, Ronsard only links Lassigny with the shipwreck in England. So perhaps (with Blanchemain, and following Ronsard’s lead) we might conclude that the missions to Flanders and Zeeland were in the service of the Duke of Orleans instead?  (Nothing beyond Ronsard’s own account seems to exist to add detail about the place of the shipwreck, nor his missions in Flanders and Scotland.)

“And had barely reached the age of sixteen
When in 1540 I went with Baïf
To Upper Germany, where I learned the language”

Again a page to the Duke of Orleans in 1539, Ronsard joined the embassy sent to Germany in 1540. This was led by Lazare de Baïf, whose son Jean-Antoine also accompanied him. It is possible that Ronsard was sent by the Duke to keep an eye on things; the embassy was designed to try to detach some of the German princes from Charles V’s side and perhaps bring them into alliance with France, and no doubt the Duke would have liked to have his own sources of information as well as the ‘official’ sources. (The embassy is sometimes referred to as going to the Diet of Speyer; the Diet was though convened by Charles V, so this mission might have been rather delicate – if the Diet had been in session in 1540, which it wasn’t. Cohen however says the embassy stayed in Haguenau, in the Alsace – nearby, and perhaps a more obvious target for French alliances.)

Cohen doubts that Ronsard bothered to learn German; it wasn’t a very useful language at the time!

“on my return a terrible illness
For some end unknown came and stopped up my hearing,
And hit me hard with a blow so heavy
That still today I remain half-deaf as a result”

Struck by illness (Cohen postulates a possible venereal origin!), Ronsard retired to Poissonière for a lengthy recovery. Half-deaf he decided to abandon a politico-military career and turned again to study, perhaps with a view to some sort of church career. He in fact took the tonsure in 1543; this did not make him a priest but it did make him eligible for a number of church posts from which he could have drawn (and later did draw) income. In the event, though, he remained in the service of Charles of Orleans and attached to the Court.

“The year after, in April, love took me unawares
As I followed the Court to Blois, through the fair eyes of Cassandre”

“The year after” – after what?  If it was the year after visiting Germany as Ronsard’s text implies that would be 1541 – which is too early.  So it’s likely to be a year after his illness and convalescence – implying a 2-3 period for these (see above). While Ronsard is certain he met Cassandre at Blois in April 1546, court records apparently show that the court did not go to Blois in 1546! There was however a ball held there in 1545, so it seems likely the two met in that year – and Ronsard’s memory was at fault…

 “Immediately afterwards, I came to be the disciple
Of d’Aurat in Paris”

So when did Ronsard move to Paris? Immediately after what?  (Or perhaps the later change to the text means it wasn’t ‘immediately after’?) Ronsard’s parents both died in 1544, and Lazare de Baïf apparently stepped in to offer the young man the chance to study in Paris, with the younger Baïf under Jean Dorat (D’Aurat). Initially the pair lived at the Baïf residence, as did Dorat who had been engaged to tutor Jean-Antoine; but Lazare died in 1547, and it is likely that at this point Dorat installed himself at the Collège de Coqueret where he became principal around this time. The ‘five years’ spent under Dorat would therefore include those initial years when they studied privately with him.

“… it was at his home that first
Our firm friendship began”

Although after Lazare de Baïf’s death Ronsard and the younger Baïf moved out and apparently joined Dorat, it is not clear that they attended his Collège. That is hardly “chez luy”.  Indeed Ronsard entered into a contract to rent no.2, rue de la Poterie, at Easter 1548 jointly with a minor cleric – interesting evidence also of a continued involvement in ecclesiastical circles.  Baïf and Ronsard were joined under Dorat’s tutelage by Belleau, and then by du Bellay, at this time – the core of the Pléiade. At least one source refers to the Pléiade arising from ‘teaching/learning [enseignement] at Chef Saint-Jean’ – Dorat’s own home. Perhaps then the group met informally at Dorat’s house rather than formally at the Collège. And it was from this context that du Bellay launched the Pléiade’s “manifesto” Défense et illustration de la langue française in 1549 and Ronsard exploded the bombshell of his first major collection, the Odes I-IV, in 1550.

3 – a Romanian (or Bulgarian) ancestor?

“So, as for my first ancestor, he came from roots
Where the freezing Danube runs beside Thrace;
Lower down than Hungary, in a cold region,
There was a Lord named Marquis of Ronsart,”

Did Mârâcinâ Ban exist, and was he Ronsard’s ancestor? The probable answer is no: this was quite possibly a family tradition which Ronsard reports – though it has also been suggested it might be pure imagination on his part!

The romantic tradition of Ronsard’s Romanian origins was not just popular in France. A French teacher and activist working in Romania during the 1830s -40s, Jean Vaillant, adopted Ronsard’s story in his 1844 book La Roumanie, using him as a symbol of the links between France and Romania.  Then the Romanian poet Vasile Alecsandri, writing in Paris after the failure of the 1848 Wallachian revolution, produced Banul Mărăcină in 1855 (though it was not published till 1861). This developed the bare bones of Ronsard’s story with circumstantial detail: Alecsandri made Mărăcină a boyar, lord of Ronsart, governor of Craiova (70 miles west of Bucharest, now Romania’s 6th largest city); and specified a troop of 50 younger sons coming to liberate France. It interests me that Blanchemain used Alecsandri’s “research” (indirectly) as a source for his footnote providing the story.

But romantic legends are not facts.

Further scholarly activity in France established that Ronsard’s grandfather was Olivier Ronsart or Roussart, who was an enfeoffed sergeant (sergent fieffé) in Gastine forest. Though some have said this title is, in modern terms, a gamekeeper it is worth noting that Loys de Ronsard carried the same title; I think it would therefore be better to see him as ‘warden of the forest’ or equivalent, a minor noble rather than a mere gamekeeper. He was a vassal of the Du Bellay family, ancestors of Joachim du Bellay.

Minor gentility does not of course invalidate a romantic Romanian origin, several generations further back. And scholars have identified a tradition which might be relevant: “a certain Baudoin Rossart came to France with John of Bohemia to fight the English at Crécy in 1346. King Philip of Valois apparently gave him as a sign of his recognition a domain in the Vendômois, where the brave gallant established himself.”  (Alliot & Baillou 1926, in a quatercentenary volume on Ronsard)  The same scholars also turned up an 11th century cartulary mentioning a ‘moulin Ronzart’ (Ronzart mill), however; which might suggest that the family had French origins several centuries older than the ‘Romanian link’.

And perhaps Romania is the wrong place to look anyway? At the end of the 19th century a Hungarian suggested that the lower Danubian area in question is Bulgaria – and even pointed to a town called Tarnovo which could (just) be translated as ‘Ronces’ (brambles). Today, there is a Musée Ronsard in Tarnovo…

Where does this leave us? For some scholars Olivier Ronsart’s ‘humble’ title of sergent fieffé means the Romanian/Bulgarian story cannot be true; others find no reason to argue against a possible East European root for the family. For myself, I rather like the Baudoin Rossart story but am not convinced.

In the end, does it matter? Ronsard came from minor noble stock; whether those minor nobles were home-grown, or came from dashing romantic Balkan stock racing across Europe in a crusade to ‘liberate France’, is really only a question of how colourful the story of his ancestry is!

My source for much of the detail in this section is:  N Popa  La Légende des Origines Roumaines de Ronsard in Lumières de la Pléiade (9ème Stage International d’Etudes Huamnistes, Tours 1965. Special thanks to nikolchina for providing a link to http://www.patev.net/origironsard.htm which – for French readers – provides substantially more detail on the controversy over Ronsard’s Bulgarian roots, and takes a slightly less ambivalent attitude to the possibility. It also has some helpful maps!

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9 responses »

    • Wow! As promised! Great work! Here goes a detailed account of the twists and turns in the discussion of Ronsard’s ancestry http://www.patev.net/origironsard.htm
      What’s fascinating is what motivates the debates. In any case since Pascal was not so much a friend of Ronsard but rather a prospective royal historiographer, it is clear Ronsard wanted to enter history with this ancestry. In the long run Pascal did not get this position, so Ronsard changed the dedication… .

      • Thanks for the commentary – the motivation for a changed dedication is compelling, though I wonder how Belleau & co felt being promised his everlasting friendship – 2nd time around 🙂

        And what a great link to the Bulgarian controversy! I shall read that more carefully later.

        My own brother did one of those DNA tests which showed that one side of our family came from roughly the same area – well, Croatia perhaps – a few 100,000 years ago. I don’t think that makes me feel closer to Ronsard though 🙂

  1. Whether fictional or not, the description Ronsard gave seems to me pretty straightforward: “plus bas que la Hongrie” where “le glace Danube est voisin de la Thrace” is Bulgaria today as it was in the time he describes. The questions is: why so much heated controversy? I think the answer is something like this: in the times when Ronsard’s ancestor supposedly made his way across all these countries (quite faithfully followed) Bulgaria was a kingdom like any other in Europe, existing through constant wars, the persecution of heresies, and the exchange of royal daughters in marriage. 200 years later, with all the confusion of his biographers between Bulgarie,and Hongrie they still have no problem with such ancestry. The problem arises a century later when 10 centuries of Byzantine history (not to speak of the smaller countries in its cultural sphere) began to look like a distant legend, if at all remembered.

    On a different note: I have to buy most of the books I use (unless I find digital versions – so thank you so much again – Ronsard’s digitalized archives are as yet very sloppy, or I have not found the proper ones..). I just got from the US a collection of the “Lumieres de la Pleiade” – the book was withdrawn from Queen Mary’s College library at the University of London and then somehow made its way to a US vendor (just happy about it) –

    • Sounds good 🙂

      Sloppy or not, the Gallica site & Google Books between them have a good number of early editions – but only as scanned pictures not as machine-readable text. With a bit of intervention (cutting & pasting!) I have made a few handy printed extracts which are useful for regular consultation…

    • The PDFs on archive.org are another good source; but sadly the machine-readable OCR versions are only readable by machines, humans can’t make sense of them! And I don’t have the patience to go through & correct the texts!

      Gallica.bnf.fr has lots of lovely books but finding the right one can be frustrating, and the PDFs it generates aren’t as good as the archive.org ones. Google Books is hit-and-miss but again has some nice early editions imaged.

      For instance, without too much trouble I found 1550 odes, 1553 amours, 1553 odes V, 1555 continuation des amours, 1557 (nouvelle?) continuation, 1571 complete odes; as well as more-or-less complete sets of Buon’s 1604 complete edition and Muret & Belleau’s 1572/3 edition (and Blanchemain and Marty-Laveaux providing a 19thC version of the 1560 & 1584 editions). Binet’s biography is also available in several editions; Gerard’s 1830 selection from the Pleiade; and quite substantial amounts of early editions of Belleau, Baif and du Bellay to name a few. Which is quite a good haul! Truly the internet is transforming access to old books. Now I just need time to read them!!

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