Prosper Mérimée, Chronique du règne de Charles IX


Publiziert by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1954


Few people have shaped our perception of French history more than Prosper Mérimée. No, not through his writing. There were others, like Victor Hugo with his Hunchback of Notre Dame, who were far more successful. But Prosper Mérimée served as the president of the French historic monuments protection authority for decades. The restoration of iconic buildings complexes goes back to him. Just think of the picturesque old town of Carcassonne or the abbey of Fontevrault, where Richard the Lionheart is buried. When Prosper Mérimée was doing a trip of inspection through France, he merely found the ruins of all of these buildings, mostly without roofs. He had his friend Eugène Viollet-le-Duc convert them into the attractions we can nowadays marvel at as World Cultural Heritage. 


It was a modern innovation that something like a historic monuments protection authority was even established and Mérimée and his writing were an integral part of it. Incidentally, since the beginning of the 19th century, medieval France had been disappearing more and more. In Paris especially, during their everyday strolls, people could observe modern functional buildings replace the old ruins. No one except for a few intellectuals seemed to be interested in these venerable remnants of French history anymore.


What could be a more obvious option to these intellectuals than to support this cause with their quill? They had to make the past come to life in their novels in order to form precious relics from its useless remains. Victor Hugo published his Hunchback in 1829. And Mérimée published Chronique du règne de Charles IX the same year.


The novel deals with the most horrid events of French history, of the great fratricidal war, brought about by the Reformation. The brothers Bernard and George de Mergy are in the centre of the story – one is a Huguenot, the other has converted to Catholicism to build his career. Standing on different sides, they experience the climaxes of the murderous battle, the brutal Massacre of St. Bartholomew and the Siege of La Rochelle. It is mere narrative consistency that the Catholic George dies in the end because his Huguenot brother has to have him shot.


It is not consistent however and implausible within the historic context, that there is a flaming plea for atheism at the end of the novel. The dying George refuses to go to confession, which would have been common at the time. For Prosper Mérimée this was the only possible conclusion a rational person could draw from these historic events. How can anyone trust in a god who allows such horrible things to happen in his name, the book concludes. This mirrors the author's opinion and not the historic mindset. Prosper Mérimée was an avowed atheist who – as the son of a father who adored Voltaire – did not bear a common saint's name but was instead named after the sorcerer in Shakespeare's Tempest. 


Although most reader might know Prosper Mérimée at best as the author of the story behind Bizet's Carmen, his Chronique du règne de Charles IX features the archetype of the sword-fighting film hero, which Dumas would render immortal a decade later with his Musketeers.


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Christina Schlögl


Signet Sunflower Foundation