Genre: Nonfiction Novel; Historical Fiction
Author: Florence Byham Weinberg
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
About the Book:
Dolet depicts the life and times of Etienne Dolet. Etienne, who told the bald truth to friend and foe alike, angered the city authorities in sixteenth-century Toulouse, fled to Lyon, and became a publisher of innovative works on language, history, and theology. His foes framed him; he was persecuted, imprisoned, and ultimately executed by the Inquisition for daring to publish the Bible in French translation.
The procession appeared from the opposite side of the Place de Salins, carrying banners emblazoned with holy images, a golden crucifix held high. The escort followed with the prisoner, Jean de Caturce, an iron collar around his neck attached to chains held by the men walking beside him. Hands tied behind his back, he wore a short, white chemise that exposed his calves and bare feet. His feet left bloody tracks on the cobblestones, but he was not limping. Perhaps the pain seemed trivial after worse torture.
The prisoner paused for a second as they crossed the square, staring at the place where he would be sacrificed, the heaped-up bundles of kindling and logs, a stake surrounded by a little wooden platform that poked through like a fist with accusing finger upraised. They gave him no time, jerking him forward, goading him up the rough steps onto the platform that stood almost directly below Etienne Dolet’s window.
Jean climbed doggedly, without hesitation, straining sidewise against the collar to see his way. He held his chin at a defiant angle as if he would have gone up to his death with no urging. The executioner followed him and lashed him to the stake, winding the rope around his body. Now Jean stood, looking around at the noisy crowd that swelled quickly as more witnesses trooped into the square. He was not allowed a chance to say a final word before the executioner stepped forward with the torch and touched it in several places to the fuel below. A wave of sound almost like a groan arose from the crowd as the first flames licked upward through the piled kindling. Silence as the flames spread eagerly, roaring when they caught the fat-soaked logs.
Etienne Dolet stood at his open window, unable to turn his eyes away. He knew Jean’s voice when it came, a strong tenor singing: “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, as it…” The singing broke off, and then, in a loud speaking voice, “Oh, God, my God, give me the strength to bear this… My God, help me!” The voice broke, the last syllables rising in volume and tone as if questioning the reality of God’s Providence before ending in a distorted cry.
Flames mounted to the base of the platform, leaping beyond it to touch the hem of the white chemise, which began to blacken as it caught. The crown of Jean’s tonsured head pressed back hard against the stake, his throat exposed to the heat. His face, clearly visible from the window, twisted beyond recognition, eyes staring and mouth wide open. His entire body writhed and convulsed, straining against the burning ropes that even now held him fast. Abruptly, he stopped moving and slumped against the pole. From then on, Etienne could no longer see him clearly, and for that, the young man gave silent thanks. Only an indistinct bundle remained among shimmering heat waves and the licking flames, a bulk that seemed ever blacker, appearing to shrink in upon itself, becoming more compact.
When the flames at last died away, workers, seeming indifferent to what had just happened, raked out the ashes and unburnt ends of logs, then loaded the debris onto carts and hauled it away. The ordeal had lasted over two hours, but Etienne still kept his vigil. He knew that Jean believed with great fervor in God, but had he believed in the end? What did he know when only the agony of the licking flames, not God, answered his cry for help? Or had He answered? Was Jean’s soul abruptly transported to heaven so he would not suffer so cruelly?
But the present moment forced itself upon his consciousness. Below, a friar in a white and black habit strolled across the Place de Salins, giving instructions to the crews who were sweeping up the remains of the execution. He stood below Etienne’s window. As he scanned the windows on that side of the square, his gaze paused, eyes riveted directly on Etienne. The young man instantly drew back into the shadows, his breathing quick and shallow, hoping that the waving ivy branch that grew halfway across the window had attracted the friar’s eye, not his own pale face.
In Toulouse, you were in danger at any moment for the slightest imaginary fault. He had been seen yesterday, passing by the statue of the Blessed Virgin without genuflecting. He slumped into a chair and buried his face in his hands, fighting nausea. Jean de Caturce’s execution would be forever imprinted upon his mind’s eye, the sequence of images that had unrolled down there in the Place de Salins, Jean’s final agony and the relief Etienne had felt despite himself when the writhing had ceased. He knew the man. Not well, but enough to respect him. Jean had been a popular young lecturer at the University of Toulouse where Etienne, a student of law, had heard him speak after that dinner on Twelfth Night.
He hadn’t been one of the invited guests, and had come in only at the end of the meal to deliver a message to another professor, Jean de Boyssoné. But of course, theyhad seen Etienne and noticed he hadn’t left before Caturce’s after-dinner remarks, as so many others had done. If only Jean had confined his speech to his own field of jurisprudence. But having read Martin Luther’s tracts-as who hadn’t by now?-Caturce was captivated; he’d also dared to study the Scriptures and insisted on speaking about both those writings, telling his guests about Luther and his reading of the Bible.
Etienne had left the dinner that night feeling he had heard something powerful, doubly so because of the danger. As was to be expected, one of the guests denounced Caturce, along with everyone who had stayed in the room, to the Inquisition. Of that, Etienne had no doubt. Why else would that Dominican brother single out his window among all the windows on this side of the square?
The inquisitors gave Jean the chance to save himself if he would recant. But he had told them he couldn’t deny the clear sense of the Word of God, a Word telling him that following the letter of their law would avail them nothing, would not prevent their damnation. Etienne had watched as they tore off Jean’s ecclesiastical robe of office, degrading him from the tonsure and stripping him of his rank as professor at the university. Then they turned him over to the secular arm, the authority in charge of public executions, where the judge pronounced the death sentence.
The solemn procession had wound through Toulouse on its way here, to the Place de Salins, where public executions had been carried out since 1235 or so, when the Albigensians were burned in that same blackened circle. They were the first to be ferreted out by the newly created Inquisition, an office entrusted to the Dominican Order by Pope Gregory IX, created to stamp out that dangerous heresy. By now, the Inquisition’s burnings in Toulouse had become a tradition “hallowed” by long and frequent exercise. And a new heresy had arisen, proclaiming that every baptized Christian was a priest before God and, as such, had a right to read the Scriptures for himself. But anyone who expressed such thoughts was in mortal danger.
Etienne had been warned to stay off the streets or risk immediate arrest. Some of his acquaintances were already taken. He’d made his way through winding back streets to his rooms overlooking the square, but he’d have been better off had he been arrested and imprisoned with his friends. At least, he’d not have to carry these images with him from now until his own death, for his imagination could never have substituted for the shock of experience. He stood again and approached the window, cautiously from the side so as not to be seen. But the square was swept clean and as empty as if nothing unusual had ever happened there.
* * *
Students spilled out of the room and into the hall outside. They clumped together in groups, arms across shoulders, some discussing a point of law or the latest books printed in Lyon or Geneva while others gossiped and laughed. The predominant colors were brown or gray-students could not afford colorful robes-and for Etienne the most interesting aspect of the scene was its constant movement. Students migrated from one group to another, shook hands or embraced, arms waved in the air as someone emphasized a weighty point of law or theology. Index fingers were raised on high or shaken under a neighbor’s nose.
He paused briefly in the doorway, scanning the group for his closest friends, Jacques Bording, Arnoul le Ferron, Claude Cotereau, Simon Finet, and Jean Voulté. They were the cream of the “French Nation,” a fraternity where elections would be held in a few minutes for the orator of the year. The chosen student would debate similarly elected orators of the other fraternities-the Gascon Nation, the Spanish, and the German-and the winner would gain great prestige among his fellows and perhaps win the patronage of some important jurist in the city. Etienne knew he was among the finalists and had dressed in his best: a white shirt, black doublet, and brown chausses with white silk stockings above his still-respectable black shoes. He’d added his brown student’s robe not as an afterthought but to indicate that he was humble, on a par with the others, but he left it unbuttoned so that his finery could be seen and appreciated.
This was a night when all the societies met in comitiis centuriatis, representative groups of one hundred that would make the final choice of the man who would speak for the Nation. Jacques, Claude, and Jean were Etienne’s rivals for the honored position. Etienne knew he was by far the best, but his sharp tongue might have lost him enough support to deny him the election. He knew his reputation as a razor-sharp wit, usually at the expense of the person standing nearest, and was both proud and constrained by it. He was proud because such wit implies superior intelligence, and he was pleased to have that reputation, but constrained because he must always be alert and ready-tongued, or that reputation would be called in question. A still more dominant constraint was his strict code of Christian moral standards. These often conflicted enough with his impulses to keep his witty remarks from actually wounding the target of his wit. Unless he considered that person an enemy.
“Sprezzatura” was a favorite word of his, an ideal touted by Baldassare Castiglione in his still-popular book The Courtier. Sprezzatura meant the mental agility and flexibility to turn any circumstance to one’s own advantage, to make a witty remark, to reveal a new aspect, unveil an unknown fact that would transform what had gone before, to entertain, amaze, and keep everyone else off balance. In short, to be master and director of any situation-all with apparent ease and spontaneity. He succeeded only in part, for he was too abrasive. When reactions were negative, he would mutter to himself or say aloud to his close friends,“Cretini!” for he believed at least half of humanity too slow-witted to appreciate him properly.
He approached his close friend, Claude Cotereau. “Claude, bonsoir. I see you’re here without your Lutheran mistress this evening. Perhaps I can introduce you to Madeleine Dupré; I hear she’s the Inquisitor’s niece. That would neutralize things for you, my friend, Luther on one arm, the Inquisition on the other.”
Claude’s face, marked by smallpox but still handsome, reflected exasperation, but then relaxed into a smile. “Always trying to shock and annoy, aren’t you, Etienne? Well, you won’t succeed in shocking me. Besides, you’d better keep a civil tongue if you intend to beat me and become our Nation’s orator. You’re late. We’re almost ready to vote.”
Etienne clutched the lapels of his doublet, his tone anxious. “Have you heard what’s become of Jean de Boyssoné?”
Boyssoné had been arrested along with Jean de Caturce, and was tried soon after Caturce’s condemnation. He was one of the most learned and popular of the professors of law, and one of the freest thinkers, a man who kept himself informed about all the literary and religious movements in Europe. Boyssoné had been convicted on ten counts of heresy: among others, the heretical notion that nothing should be held as a matter of faith but what was contained in or clearly implied by the Holy Scriptures, and that we are not justified by good works alone but mostly by faith in Jesus Christ. Both these opinions were declared to be irredeemably Lutheran. Unlike his unfortunate colleague Jean de Caturce, Boyssoné had chosen to abjure in a humiliating ceremony that was turned into a public circus.
“All his worldly goods were confiscated, weren’t they, Claude?”
“Yes. If you can imagine the injustice: his house, his books, everything. I suppose they were all sold and the wealth absorbed by the local church. I hear he fled to Italy, first to your former university in Padua, and he’s now in Venice. At least he’s safe there. Even though he paid a heavy price, he did the right thing and came out alive. I only wish Caturce had been that flexible.”
“He should have listened to his friend, François Rabelais, who said he’d hold to his opinions up to but excluding the stake.” Etienne grinned briefly, but shook his head at the enormity of it all.
At that moment, Georges Langlois, the president of the French Nation, called them to order. They were to vote by voice, and if there were any doubt as to outcome, there would be a count of hands.
“Our first candidate is Jacques Bording. All those in favor say aye.” Jacques shifted from foot to foot, giving Etienne and Claude a quick, apprehensive flash of brilliant green eyes that reminded Etienne of a cat.
There was a strong “aye” vote, but the “nays” audibly outweighed them. No need to count hands. Jean Voulté, short and slight, clutched the backrest of a chair with white-knuckled hands, his black eyes downcast. His vote garnered a large number of supporters, again outshouted by “nays.” Claude Cotereau’s “ayes” and “nays” were so close that a hand count was necessary. Standing next to Etienne, he,too, shifted from foot to foot as the votes were counted. Forty-eight votes in favor, fifty-two against.
“Good show, Claude!” Etienne squeezed his arm.
Then it was Etienne’s turn. He waited, sweating a little, trying to appear unconcerned. But the result came at once with an overwhelming voice vote that left no doubt in anyone’s mind. Claude, at his elbow, shook his hand with enthusiasm and a remarkable lack of envy.
“Congratulations, Etienne! I always knew you should represent us. Your Latin is impeccable, and you’ve practically memorized Cicero. You could give a ciceronian speech off the cuff that would take me a week to prepare.”
Etienne’s answering smile and handclasp expressed spontaneous gratitude for his friend’s generosity better than the most eloquent words. Jean Voulté made his way with sinuous ease through the crowd now gathering around Etienne. His black eyes sparkled as he gripped Etienne’s hand, clapping the winner on the back.
“Thank God I won’t have to sweat over Latin speeches in front of the other Nations, especially the Gascons. I’ll leave that ‘pleasure’ up to you. Truly, Etienne, I know you’ll make us proud; you’re a natural orator.”
He draped his arm over Etienne’s shoulders, and together they led Claude and Jacques, followed by Arnoul le Ferron and Simon Finet, through narrow, cobbled streets to the nearest tavern, the Chat Fourré. Soon joined by many other members of the French Nation, his comrades toasted Etienne. They were sure he, with his sharp tongue, would overwhelm any orator the Gascon Nation could produce.
Their two fraternities were the largest at the university and had been bitter rivals for some time, a rivalry that could break out in fights and the occasional riot. The Gascons now represented southwestern France, in earlier centuries a province called Gascony. They resented and scorned their northern rivals as “foreigners” and derided their inability to speak “la langue d’Oc.” In their southern language, “oc” meant “yes.” They were proud of their independent romance language, which, like northern French, descended from Latin. The Gascons also differed in their customs, cuisine, and view of the world. Their language and culture were under stress, however. They were no longer in favor ever since the royal house and retinue had decided to adopt Paris as the capital city. The northerners spoke “la langue d’Oui,” which, in itself, set them apart.
Etienne leaped on a heavy oaken table and raised his beaker of wine, careful not to collide with the iron chandelier and its eight lighted candles. An imposing figure over six feet tall, his presence and voice dominated the room.
He began in Latin to demonstrate they’d made the right choice. “I’ll do my best, my friends, to uphold the honor of our Nation, first of all to eulogize those of us who died during the past year, and then to review the most important events of the year just behind us. You may be certain that no person or organization that has slighted us, nay, not even the parliament and magistrates of this fair city who have recently questioned our right of assembly, will escape my notice. To the French Nation!”
He extended his arm and the beaker, threw back his head and drank his wine to thunderous applause and answering cries of “Hear! Hear! To the French Nation!”
Dolet Copyright © 2015. Florence Byham Weinberg. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.