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Sickness, Religion and Kingdom: a Canticle composed for the King of Navarre

Canticle, title page, Marsh's Library

By Marc Jaffré |

Disease, sickness and death were major preoccupations of early modern people, but because the destinies of whole kingdoms depended on the health of monarchs, their diseases became the subjects of correspondence, ambassadorial dispatches, and a flurry of pamphlets. One such pamphlet, Cantique simplement composé et de la maladie, & de la convalescence du Roy de Navarre [Canticle on the sickness and convalescence of the King of Navarre] (USTC 61123), printed in 1589, is held in the collection of the Marsh’s Library in Dublin (S 3 5 21 (3)), one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Book partners. The king of Navarre in question, the future Henri IV of France, was heir to the French throne and represented Huguenot hopes for establishing Calvinism in France. His status as heir was the focus of the last chapter of the French Wars of Religion and the illness mentioned in the pamphlet thus threatened not only the French succession but — in the eyes of French Calvinists — the establishment of true religion. These fears are central to the pamphlet’s discussion of Henri’s illness: in it Henri promises, should he be delivered from his sickness, to sing of God’s goodness and power and protect true believers as long as he lived.

“The illness mentioned in the pamphlet threatened not only the French succession but — in the eyes of French Calvinists — the establishment of true religion.”

The pamphlet was published in 16mo, an easily transportable format. Considering the state of France and the nature of the subject, the lack of printer and place of publication is unsurprising. Complicated imagery within the text is explained in printed marginalia throughout in order to make the meaning clear to a wider audience.

The pamphlet specifies that the canticle should to be sung to the tune of the Sixth Psalm, an interesting choice considering the parallel structures of the two texts. They begin by addressing God, asking for clemency, and then move to discuss the distress of the hero. Finally, in the third part, God responds to their prayers promising destruction on their enemies. The singing of the canticle was thus meant to recall the text of the Psalm.

Canticle, translation
Marsh’s Library, Dublin. S 3 5 21 (3).

In this edition, the canticle is followed by a series of verses presented to Henri upon his recovery, written in Hebrew, ‘Babylo-Chaldean’, Syrian, Greek, Latin and English, each accompanied with a French translation. The printer, lacking Hebraic, ‘Babylo-Chaldean’ and Syrian type rendered them in roman characters. This international celebration of Henri’s return to health was intended to evoke the hopes of a wider Christianity for Henri’s success.

The book ends by attributing to God the glory of the convalescence of his loyal servant the King of Navarre and all of his actions towards his church. A few months later Henri would ascend to the throne of France, but the pamphlet’s hopes for the establishment of the French Reformed church would be thwarted by Henri’s conversion.

This blogpost celebrates the upcoming exhibition of rare books from the Marsh Collection. ‘Sole Survivors. The Rarest Books in the World’, will open at Marsh’s library on Wednesday 16 May.


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Dr. Marc W. S. Jaffré is a subhonours tutor at the University of St Andrews and assistant editor for the Universal Short Title Catalogue. His doctoral work on the court of Louis XIII of France challenged traditional top-down approaches towards court studies by emphasising how courtiers constructed the world of the court, and their role within its institutional and cultural development. Since obtaining his PhD, his research interests have turned to foreigners, the Parisian merchant world, and most of all hospitality. He has been the recipient of highly competitive research fellowships, including the Bourse d’aide à la recherche du Centre de recherche du Château de Versailles in 2016-17.