Jesuits vs Libertines, or a Clash of Cultures in 17th Century France

By Christopher Davis |

J’estimerois ma langue et ma plume criminelles de lèze-Majesté si je ne les armais contre ce monstre de libertinage.[1]

This ill-written doorstop of a quarto, masquerading as a work of erudition, was penned between December 1622 and March 1623 by the Jesuit François Garasse and published in August 1623 in Paris by Sebastien Chappelet.[2] La Doctrine Curieuse des Beaux Esprits de ce temps, ou prétendus tel was provoked by Garasse’s vehement opposition to the libertinage of the period — fashionable among some of the educated young men of Paris — and in particular, the success of a popular collection of lewd poems called the Parnasse des Poètes Satyriques. [3]

Title page of USTC 6002454. Image courtesy of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

La Doctrine Curieuse cannot be understood without reference to the Parnasse des Poètes Satyriques (1622) — the last in a series of collections of risqué literature, which began to appear around 1600. Those behind the Parnasse were generally assumed to be the young men who belonged to the noblesse de robe — for example Guillaume Colletet (a name often cited as the potential editor of the Parnasse).[4] Originally, the contents of the Parnasse were attributed solely to the poet Théophile de Viau due to his name appearing on the title page. However, it was actually a collection of various authors and the anonymous publishers were easy enough to discover for contemporary Parisians ‘in the know’. The fact that these irreligious, immoral tracts were published and available for anyone who was literate to read made the spectre of libertinage even more disturbing for Garasse.

Title page of USTC 6012493, with the Théophile de Viau attribution. Image courtesy of Gallica.

Garasse saw the in the young Parisian libertins érudits a juvenile intellectual arrogance rooted in vulgarity and atheism, which was offensive to les bonnes moeurs, and more broadly a danger to the French state. [5] In his book, Garasse is quick to point the finger at those he views as responsible for the emergence of libertinage, namely the philosophers Vanini and Montaigne, but most of his ire is reserved for Pierre Charron, the theologian and philosopher (and interestingly also a Catholic priest) who was responsible for De la Sagesse [Of Wisdom] (1601). Works such as the Parnasse — and its supposed philosophical antecedents — can be seen as the manifestations of a sub-culture that deeply concerned Garasse and other conservative figures in France at this time.

Leaf C3r of USTC 6002454, with the quote used above. Image courtesy of Bayerische Staatsbibliothek

As a result of La Doctrine Curieuse strong action was taken against those seen to be attached to the Parnasse. Colletet was arrested, tried and exiled for nine years. Théophile de Viau was tried in absentia and his effigy burned before he was captured trying to flee to England and imprisoned — leading to a swift deterioration of his health and early death. But longer-term Colletet rehabilitated himself, becoming a founding member of the Academie Française, and Théophile’s work is much more fondly remembered than that of Garasse.

If this article has piqued your curiosity to find a copy of this work to read, I would recommend against it. While this book allows us to better understand the intellectual and cultural conflicts of this period it is not the most engrossing or well-written work. As Antoine Adam states, ‘a good part of the work is unreadable and useless’ owing to ‘the most vain erudition’ and Garasse’s copious references to authorities ‘from any century whatever without any conceivable connection to the subject on which he should be focusing’.[6] As such, the work can be seen as a historical document demonstrating the growing power and intolerance of the Catholic Church — spearheaded by the Jesuits — under a maturing Louis XIII. This can be contrasted with the previous and comparatively more liberal reign of Henri IV, during which many of these libertines matured.

Today, Garasse’s work survives in only six known copies, primarily held in French libraries including PWRB partner, Bibliothèque Méjanes. Speculating on reasons for the rarity of this edition leads one to consider the size and probable high cost of this tome upon publication, the later problems the Jesuits faced in France, or maybe the grand hiver of 1709 saw owners reaching for something to burn for warmth!

Christopher Davis is a PhD candidate at St Andrews University researching Huguenot exiles in the Netherlands during the early part of the 18th century.

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[1] Garasse, F. La Doctrine Curieuse des Beaux Esprits de ce temps, ou prétendus tel (Paris: Chappelet, 1623), sig.C3r.  ‘I would feel my tongue and my pen were guilty of lese-majesty if I didn’t arm them against this monster: Libertinage.’

[2] More than 1,000 pages in quarto.

[3] In English, the title reads: The curious doctrine of the fine minds of these times, or the pretenders as such.

[4] Adam, A. (ed.) Les Libertins au XVIIe Siècle (Paris: 1964) p. 34.

[5] The term libertins érudits (learned libertines) is not a phrase that the subjects under discussion would have used for themselves as libertin, but was seen as a derogatory term. They would have probably referred to themselves as esprits forts, literally ‘strong minds’.

[6]  Adam, Les Libertins au XVIIe Siècle, p. 34.

Selected further reading:

Adam, A. (ed.) Les Libertins au XVIIe Siècle (Paris: 1964).

Charles-Daubert, F. Les Libertins Érudits en France au XVIIe Siècle (Paris: 1998).

Pintard, R. Le Libertinage Érudit dans le première moitié du XVIIe siècle (Genève: 2000).

Roberts, H. “Obscenity and the Politics of Authorship in Early Seventeenth Century France: Guillaume Colletet and the Parnasse des Poètes Satyriques.” French Studies (68: 1, 2014).

Spink, J. S. French Free Thought From Gassendi to Voltaire (London: 1959).