Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Brantôme's mémoirs, 16th century literature, 17th century literature

Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur (and abbé) de Brantôme (c. 1540July 15 1614) was a French chronicler, soldier, courtier and man of letters best known for Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, biographical sketches of the ladies of the French court.

A fall from his horse compelled him to retire into private life about 1589, and he spent his last years in writing his Memoirs of the illustrious men and women whom he had known.

He was a contemporary of Montaigne. Brantôme can hardly be regarded as a historian proper, and his Memoirs cannot be accepted as a very trustworthy source of information. But he writes in a quaint conversational way, pouring forth his thoughts, observations or facts without order or system, and with the greatest frankness and naiveté. His works certainly gave an admirable picture of the general court-life of the time, with its unblushing and undisguised profligacy.



Brantôme's mémoirs

Profile from the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)

The works of Brantôme include: "Vies des capitaines étrangers et francais"; "Vies des dames illustres"; "Vies des dames galantes". His manner of writing is between the style of a biography and that of a personal memoir. At times he himself appears in his recital and most often he relates what he has personally seen. He has the most important qualification for a writer of memoirs: curiosity. Wherever he went, and he traveled in countries of all kinds, he observed, he listened, he asked questions, he informed himself. But he has no power of criticism; he is a doubtful witness. He has moreover, no sense of morality, in the modern meaning of the word. He admires but one thing in men and that is bravery; that this courage may be of a criminal character is of little consequence to him. He is not the man to bear malice towards others under pretext that they have "some little trifle of murder" on their conscience. In like manner he has few scruples either as to a choice of means or as to the sources of profit and ways of making gain. He writes in one place: "Nothing is so delightful, so sweet and attractive as spoils of any kind, whether gained by land or by sea." And he is strongly suspected of having plundered his benefice. In truth, when he talks of "honesty" and "virtue" he means what the Italians of that age called virtu, that is, personal courage, force, and elegance. Above all other spots Brantôme enjoyed the chamber and antechamber of the queen. He was never perfectly happy except when surrounded by the ladies who formed the real ornament of the court.

This court of Catherine de Medici and its "flying squadron" of three hundred ladies made his paradise on earth. "Never since the world was made has its equal been seen." He made himself the historiographer of these dames of the Renaissance, both of the famous and of the notorious. Among his numerous portraits mention should be made of those of his favorites, Marguerite of Navarre and Mary Stuart. Light and frivolous, Brantôme passes over without mention some of the occurrences of his time of the greatest importance and most fraught with consequences. But we owe to him all sorts of small details, fingerposts to uses of the times. This brilliant and corrupt society, stamped with the characteristics of the sixteenth century, lives again in his "Mémoirs".

Brantôme is an uneven, incorrect, and rambling writer, but his works contain clever witticisms, imagination, and unexpected turns. He took more pains with his style than one would be apt to think, and sought renown as a man of letters. He directed his heirs to have the writings printed which he had made and composed "by his understanding and imagination, all very carefully corrected with much pains and time . . . I wish that the said impression be in beautiful and large type and in a stately volume in order to appear better. Otherwise I should lose my trouble and the glory that is due me." His desires, however, were not granted at once. His works did not appear for the first time until 1655, and then in a very imperfect and incorrect edition. It was not until the eighteenth century that his reputation, one of not very high order, was established. His writings are regarded, above all, as a collection of dubious anecdotes. From him the chroniclers of scandalous stories, the Tallemants des Réaux and the Bussy-Rabutins, are descended.


Brantôme was born in Périgord, Aquitaine, the third son of the baron de Bourdeille. His mother and maternal grandmother were both attached to the court of Marguerite de Valois, on whose death in 1549 he went to Paris, and later (1555) to Poitiers, to finish his education. He was given several benefices, the most important of which was the abbey of Brantôme, but had no inclination for an ecclesiastical career. He became a soldier and came into contact with many of the great leaders of the continental wars. He travelled in Italy; in Scotland, where he accompanied Mary Stuart (then the widow of Francis II of France); in England, where he saw Elizabeth I (1561, 1579); in Morocco (1564); and in Spain and Portugal. He fought on the galleys of the Order of Malta, and accompanied his great friend, the French commander Filippo di Piero Strozzi (grandson of Filippo Strozzi the Younger), in his expedition against Terceira, in which Strozzi was killed (1582).

During the French Wars of Religion under Charles IX of France, he fought for the Catholics (including at the Siege of La Rochelle (1572-1573)), but he allowed himself to be won over temporarily by the ideas of the reformers, and though he publicly separated himself from Protestantism, it had a marked effect on his mind. A fall from his horse compelled him to retire into private life about 1589, and he spent his last years in writing his Memoirs of the illustrious men and women whom he had known.


When an accident - a fall from his horse - put an end to his active life, he retired to his chateau Richemond and resolved, in order to pass the time, to take up his pen and recount his past life. This was the occasion and the beginning of his career as a writer. But for this fortunate accident posterity would not have had the precious "Mémoirs" of Brantôme and would have lost in them an unequaled source of instruction concerning the men and affairs of the sixteenth century.


In his testament he wrote the express wish to publish his writings: Je veux aussy, et en charge expressément mes héritiers, héritières, de faire imprimer mes livres, que j'ay faictz et composez de mon esprit et invention ...

Principle works of Pierre de Bourdeille

  • Vie des hommes illustres et grands capitaines français
  • Vie des grands capitaines étrangers
  • Vie des dames illustres
  • Vie des dames galantes
  • Anecdotes touchant les duels
  • Rodomontades et jurements des Espagnols.

Vie des dames galantes

Vie des dames galantes

Les Vies des Dames Galantes is a collection of stories by French soldier and chronicler Brantôme (c. 1540–1614). These are part of posthumously published mémoirs and consist of biographical sketches of the "gallant" women of the European court life. Les Vies des Dames Galantes was quoted by Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life with regards to the lapsus. They have been illustrated by Paul-Emile Bécat in France, by the Austrian artist C. O. Czeschka and by the Irish artist Robert Gibbings.

See also

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