Traveling through Amboise on their way to Paris in 1560, Jean d'Aubigné and his 8-year-old son, Agrippa, came upon a horrible spectacle: the hanging bodies of decapitated Protestant conspirators who had attempted to steal the young King Francis II away from the Catholic dukes of Guise. The father made his son swear to defend the faith for which the men had died, and Agrippa d'Aubigné did indeed spend his life fighting for what become known as La Cause.

D'Aubigné waged his battle for the Huguenot faith on two fronts: the battlefield and paper. He first took up arms at age 12, when he climbed out of his bedroom window and ran off to join the Protestant troops defending the beseiged city of Orléans. He eventually became a key player in the Wars of Religion that devastated France in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Starting in 1573, he served as equerry, adviser, and friend to Henri of Navarre (the future Henri IV) until the latter finally rejected the Reformed faith in 1593. Eventually exiled from France, d'Aubigné spent the last decade of his life in Geneva, where he served on the city's war council.

While brave and forceful as a military man, d'Aubigné is mainly known because of his second weapon, his pen. With the exception of his first collection of poems, Printemps (Springtime), which he later rejected because it deals with worldly rather than divine love, d'Aubigné's works all revolve around his faith and the parti protestant.

Although d'Aubigné has never ranked as highly as the sixteenth-century literary giants François Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard, and Michel de Montaigne, he is nonetheless considered one of France's greatest authors, due almost solely to his work Les Tragiques. He began the work in the trenches of Casteljaloux in 1577 and, although he had probably finished most of it by 1583, he continued to rework it until he finally decided to publish it—anonymously, clandestinely, and at his own expense—in 1616.

Composed of approximately 10,000 verses, the poem received a cold reception when it appeared because of both its content and style. It was not until two centuries later that the famous literary critic Sainte-Beuve called attention to the greatness of Les Tragiques, and twentieth-century literary critics, for whom the work is "the epic of Huguenot faith," have compared it to the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost.

Poetic polemic

Les Tragiques (the title refers to the extraordinarily tragic events of the times) is a poetic, and highly polemic, account of the Wars of Religion. It depicts the horrors of the conflicts that ravaged France—with biting satire reserved for those considered responsible, mainly the king, princes, and the Roman Catholic Church—in a way that highlights God's control over history and emphasizes the eventual, sure triumph of the true (Protestant) church.

The epic is divided into seven books. The first, Misères, recounts, as the title suggests, the pain resulting from the civil strife, with chilling details of cruel deaths. The second book, Les Princes, lays the blame for France's problems squarely on the shoulders of those in charge and the Catholic church they upheld. Henri III appears as the "woman King or Queen man," and Catherine de Médicis is none other than Jezebel.

Book three, La Chambre Dorée (Parlement of Paris), indicts the courts for their mishandling of justice. Les Feux (Fires) comes next, largely influenced by Jean Crespin's L'Acte des Martyrs, with vivid portrayals of those burned at the stake for their faith.

The fifth book, Les Fers (Arms), recounts the Huguenots' armed struggle for recognition, and the sixth, Vengeances, focuses on God's past and present punishments for those opposed to the "true church." Jugement, the last book, moves the reader into the end times, when all wrongs will be righted in God's newly established kingdom.

As the titles indicate, the poem progresses from a horizontal level (Misères, Princes, Chambre Dorée, Feux, Fers) to a vertical level (Vengeances, Jugement). This observation is only partly valid, however, for although the format gives a certain chronological structure to the work—moving from the present to the future, and from a human perspective to a divine perspective—the presence of God throughout the work makes the realities of Jugement already active in the present.

D'Aubigné articulates this viewpoint in the preface, where he claims that "Dieu-même en a donné l'argument" ("God himself has told the story"). In other words, the author is merely a scribe, a prophet explaining how God sees things from his eternal perspective. Thus, for example, in the passage in Fers where Admiral Coligny dies, the reader sees Coligny himself in heaven watching over the whole scene. God's control of history and his work on behalf of the Huguenots despite apparent failure are never questioned by d'Aubigné.

The most often cited passage from Les Tragiques comes from the first book, in which d'Aubigné gives a haunting depiction of war-torn France (only the first four lines are given in French; the translation goes on to complete the passage):

Je veux peindre la France une mère affligée,
Qui est, entre ses bras, de deux enfants chargée.
Le plus fort, orgueilleux, empoigne les deux bouts
Des tetins nourriciers; puis à force de coups …

I see France as a wounded mother
Holding in her lap her two children.
The strongest one, proud, grabs both ends
Of her nourishing breasts; then, with blows of
Nails, fists, and feet, he takes the share
That nature gave to his twin.
This stubborn thief, this damned Esau
Ruins the sweet milk meant to nourish the two,
So much so that, in order to take his brother's life,
He ends up despising his own, no longer desiring it.
But his Jacob, hungry from having fasted,
Having long held his pain in his heart,
In the end defends himself, and his righteous anger
Renders to the other a battle whose field is the mother.

The personification of France as a mother reveals the deep tenderness that Frenchmen, both Protestant and Catholic, felt for their country. The outbreak of hostilities was certainly not a surprise—tensions between the parti catholique and parti protestant had grown steadily since early in the sixteenth century—but no one was prepared for the devastation of civil war. (Before d'Aubigné wrote his piece, Catholic poet Ronsard had written Discours Sur Les Misères de ce temps, in which he also laments what was happening to the country, blaming, of course, the Protestants.)

In this passage d'Aubigné uses violent vocabulary and shocking images to accomplish his unabashedly partisan goal of stirring up the emotions of his coreligionists in order to incite them to keep fighting for La Cause.

The violence he portrays illustrates what one well-known sixteenth-century scholar, Jean Céard, calls "le monde à l'envers" ("the world upside down"). The violence and pain of the religious struggles left most everyone feeling that the world had gone topsy-turvy, that the natural had given way to the unnatural. The feuding twins and the mother ravaged by her own children exemplify this phenomenon: war between different countries could be understood, but not matricide, not fratricide.

Nonetheless, this passage is not devoid of God's presence and the conviction of eventual triumph for the Huguenots, for here d'Aubigné depicts the Catholics as Esau and his own parti as Jacob. Although the French Protestants, in their typological reading of the Old Testament, most often compared themselves to the Israelites coming out of Egypt, their reading of the story of Esau and Jacob was also highly important, because Jacob represented God's mysterious election—of them, the Huguenots.

Speaking of Jacob's "righteous anger," d'Aubigné does not miss the chance to justify the rebellion of the Huguenots. The Protestants heeded Calvin's call to endure persecution patiently until the tenets of the first edict of religious freedom, the édit de janvier, were violated by the Catholics at the massacre of Vassy, which led to the first religious war.

More important, when d'Aubigné depicts the Huguenots as Jacob, he immediately changes the story from one seen on a purely human level to one being told within the overall narrative of God's kingdom and his work on behalf of the elect.

No matter how horrid and difficult their sufferings, the Huguenots were sure of one thing: as Jacob, they were God's chosen, while the Catholics were rejected. They firmly believed that, although God might be chastening them, he loved them and was already establishing his kingdom in the manner described in Les Tragiques.

Alan D. Savage is associate professor of French at Wheaton College.