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To what extent was Catherine de Medici obsessed with keeping power at court?

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To what extent was Catherine de Medici obsessed with keeping power at court? "An execrable woman whose memory will remain in bloody crepe until the end of time1". For nearly 400 years this assessment of Catherine de Medici held true. In the popular imagination she is a Machiavellian schemer using poison on those who hindered her in her quest to gain and maintain power at court, a view of Catherine reinforced in recent years by the film La Reine Margot, based on the book by Dumas. Most traditionalist historians take their information on Catherine from pamphlets such as Discours Merveilleuse de la Vie, Actions et Deportment de Catherine de Medicis, Royne Mere2. Claiming to be a strictly factual account of Catherine de Medici, the author accuses Catherine of 'rising from the dregs of society' (she came from a powerful Florentine family on her father's side and her mother was daughter of Jeanne de Bourbon-Vend�me, consequently a princess of royal blood). It accuses her of poisoning Francis I's eldest son (to make Henry, her husband, Dauphin and therefore herself Dauphine). The pamphlet also circulates the story most associated with Catherine, that she was the sole initiator of the infamous St Bartholomew Day's Massacre. The pamphlet is probably the most vitriolic of its kind, but its claims have been repeated by other, more reputable, historians such as JE Neale who accuses Catherine of having an 'unprincipled mind'3. ...read more.


Sutherland writes that Catherine was not responsible for some of the more reprehensible actions of the state during her tenure as regent because she was 'virtually powerless'9. In this view, therefore, Catherine is a pacifist, an appeaser influenced by her wish to preserve the kingdom for her children, not by personal ambition. The post revisionist view is primarily concerned with questioning the extent to which Catherine was as 'saintly' as made out by the revisionist historians. Its prime proponent is RJ Knecht who poses the question, "Catherine may not have been as black as her enemies made out, but was she as stainless as her defenders maintain?"10. He argues that while much of the traditional view is unjustified, relying on sources which are so exaggerated as to make them into works of fiction, the revisionist view also suffers from errors in the conclusions it reaches. For example, Catherine's letters fail to show the decision making process in the heart of the government at the time11, but it is on sources such as these letters which revisionist historians have based their opinions. As with the revisionist view, post-revisionist historians emphasise maternalism as a motive for Catherine's actions with Marc Venard12 reintroducing the 'maternal jealousy theory'13, rejected by Sutherland, to explain Catherine's influence in the murder of Coligny. When assessing the extent to which Catherine's principle aim was to keep power at court, no accusation springs to mind so easily as her alleged involvement in the St Bartholomew's Day massacre. ...read more.


The question of who was ultimately responsible for the massacre gives the same answer as the question of who was behind the attempted assassination of the Admiral Coligny a few days before. Those who stand accused of masterminding the massacre by Catherine's defenders include the duke of Guise, the Papacy and Spain. 1 Charles d'Outrepont 2 First published in 1575 by an anonymous author who wished for an anti-Valois alliance between Huguenots and Catholics. 3 Essays on the life of Catherine de Medici (1943) JE Neale pg:62 4 Sur Catherine de Medicis, Honore de Balzac 5 Lettres de Catherine de Medicis, ed. H. de La Ferri�re and G. Baguenault de Puchesse (1890-1909) 6 Catherine de Medici and the Ancien Regime, NM Sutherland (1966) pg.8 7 Catherine de Medicis Jean Heritier (1963) pp83-84 8 Catherine de' Medici, HR Williamson (1973) 9 Ancien Regime, Sutherland pg.16 10 Catherine de'medici and the Black Legend (article), RJ Knecht (1999) published in historical magazine 'The Historian'. 11 Ibid 12 Arr�tez le massacre! Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, Marc Venard (1992), pp. 645-61 13 According to Knecht pp.156 this theory is derived from Discours du roy Henri III, a work unknown before 1623 14 Seven ages of Paris, Alistair Horne (2002) pg. 76 15 The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli (edition translated and published 1999) pg. 9. The exact quote reads, "so any injury a prince does a man should be of such a kind that there is no fear of revenge" 16 Catherine de'Medici, RJ Knecht, pp 164 ...read more.

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