Governing Passions: Peace and Reform in the French Kingdom, 1576-1585.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Sandberg, Brian
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Governing Passions: Peace and Reform in the French Kingdom, 1576-1585 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Greengrass, Mark
Accession Number: 209577976
Full Text: Governing Passions: Peace and Reform in the French Kingdom, 1576-1585. By Mark Greengrass (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xiv plus 423 pp. $150.00).

Governing Passions immerses readers in the political discourse of French elites during the French Wars of Religion. The texts of speeches that French notables presented during Estates General meetings, peace conferences, official ceremonies, and other assemblies circulated in manuscript and printed copies, provoking political debates and promoting reform agendas. Mark Greengrass weaves together an immense body of speeches, reform proposals, lectures, proces verbaux, and pamphlets conserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and various municipal and departmental archives, producing an impressive history of French political culture during Henri III's reign.

The book examines political speech and rhetoric in the major policy debates held between the meeting of the Estates General of Blois in 1576 and the Assembly of Notables in 1583-1584. Greengrass argues that "the art and practice of rhetoric involved the appeal to both reason and emotion, the use of historical exempla in political argument, an appreciation of performative skills, and an understanding of empathy. This culture of 'persuasion' both empowered literary culture and 'literarized' political culture" (368). Greengrass's interpretation of rhetoric relies on contemporary treatises to establish that "eloquence laid out a governing matrix for the passions, as powerful in their own way in civil society as the spread of a contagious disease in a city or the spread of fire" (39). The use of extensive quotations from printed and manuscript sources in their original sixteenth-century French throughout the book provides specialized readers with a powerful sense of the language of Henri III's court, but limits the book's accessibility to early modern scholars who have already mastered sixteenth-century French.

The 1576 assembly of the Estates General at Blois offered a perfect opportunity for French elites to advocate moral reform. Greengrass sets the meeting into its historical context, emphasizing contemporaries' beliefs in the restorative potential of the assembly for the health of the kingdom. Yet, "the estates general became a vehicle for hopes and desires that no such institution ... could realize" (70). The inability of delegates to agree on a reform agenda prevented the Estates General from working effectively to promote virtue and the common good.

Greengrass explores in great detail Henri Ill's Palace Academy, a series of lecture cycles held at the Louvre palace and other locations in 1576-1579 that Greengrass describes as "undergraduate lectures for a king" (47). At academy meetings, Henri III and his elites promoted Neo-Platonism and classical virtues in an attempt to govern potentially destructive passions within French society. Recent research on Renaissance concepts of decorum, princely rule, legal culture, medicine, and emotions could have enhanced the analysis of virtue and the body politic.

The book describes the formation of an "ideology of reform" that inspired attempts at sweeping governmental and social reforms by Henri III and his governing elites, leaving a lasting impact on the early modern French state (370). French Protestants and Catholics all seem to have believed in the urgent need for political and moral reform of government and society to produce a truly virtuous kingdom, yet Calvinists and militant Catholics often held diametrically opposed visions of reform. Moderate Catholics believed in religious reformation but resisted the bellicose Catholic League agenda, observing that, "the attempts to exterminate protestantism in France had gone on for over a generation and, since they had not achieved their objective, they did not carry God's approval" (86).

Greengrass recognizes that Henri III and his contemporaries believed that "Reformation was only possible with the return of peace to the kingdom. Peace came about by the grace of God" (369). This understanding of a "good peace" reveals precisely why fundamental debates over the nature of God's grace, the working of divine inspiration, and the status of a Godly community beset by heresy were such central concerns during the wars of religion. Greengrass joins a growing debate over peacemaking and religions coexistence during the French Wars of Religion by examining closely the difficulties of forging and implementing the 1577 peace of Bergerac amid tax rebellions and continuing civil violence. Catherine de' Medici's pacification tour in Guyenne in 1579-1580 demonstrates continuing efforts to promote interconfessional compromise and concord (185-192).

This book unfortunately downplays the role that theological debates, religious tensions, and confessional politics played in the political reformist discourse of the 1570s and 1580s. Greengrass's approach largely ignores religious aspects of oratory and rhetoric during the French Wars of Religion, differing sharply from Sylvie Daubresse's interpretation of reformist parlementaires who viewed their court as "a sword against heresy." Greengrass thus implicitly argues against the current consensus position--asserted by Denis Crouzet, Natalie Zemon Davis, Barbara Diefendorf, Mack Holt, Penny Roberts, and others--that religion lay at the heart of the French Wars of Religion.

Governing Passions instead presents the period between 1576 and 1584 as a unique period of political reform in early modern French history. "In retrospect," Greengrass argues, "it is possible to see that the French kingdom might have emerged very differently in the early seventeenth century" (365). The ideology of reform that emerged during Henri Ill's apogee presented a rare "possibility for change [that] is also difficult to compare with any period in France's political history before the years of the regency of Louis XV, and perhaps before the French Revolution itself" (365).

The Assembly of Notables held at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1583-1584 provides Greengrass's strongest evidence of the potential for major governmental reform, especially in the areas of financial and legal reform. Although the measures were ultimately disrupted by the wars of the Catholic League, Green-grass concludes that the ideology of reform successfully forged the concept of 'reason of state': "Henri Ill's attempted reformation had a longer afterlife than its eventual inconsequentiality would suppose" (341). Governing Passions arguably overemphasizes its innovative character by stressing Henri Ill's "reformist dream" over the religious dimensions of moral and practical reforms during the religious wars (380-381), but succeeds in demonstrating the passionate language of reform during the 1570s and 1580s.

Brian Sandberg

Northern Illinois University


(1.) Sylvic Daubresse, Le parlement de Paris ou La voix de la raison (1559-1589) (Geneva, 2005).
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