The Protestant Israelites of Sancerre: Jean de Léry and the Confessional Demarcation of Cannibalism

In: Journal of Early Modern History


This article explores how Jean de Léry understood Protestant, Catholic, and Brazilian acts of cannibalism. It argues that Léry constructed a new Huguenot confessional identity in the wake of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by equating his own besieged community in Sancerre with the anthropophagous Israelites of the Hebrew Bible. He counts his own people as the worst of all cannibals, for like the ancient Israelites, the Huguenots of Sancerre possessed a superior understanding of God’s will but ate each other nonetheless. Léry makes these judgments by invoking examples of man-eating from the Bible and Josephus, as well as contemporary acts of cannibalism. His identification of the Huguenots with unfaithful Israel represents a break from the more optimistic conceptions of Israelite identity held by Jean Crespin and others prior to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. By equating the inhabitants of Sancerre with the cannibals of ancient Israel, Léry extends John Calvin’s sacramental reasoning concerning the linguistic relationship between the sign and the thing signified far beyond its original scope. He does this in order to come to grips with the new reality that the Huguenots, whose fortunes were ascending prior to the Massacre, were now witnessing a decidedly dark turn in what they perceived to be God’s providence.

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    Natalie Zemon Davis“The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France,” Past and Present 59 (1973): 51-91also published in Alfred Soman ed. The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew: Reappraisals and Documents (The Hague 1974) and in Davis Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (Stanford 1975); Denis Crouzet Les Guerriers de Dieu: La violence au temps des troubles de religion vers 1525-vers 1610 (Seyssel 1990); Mack P. Holt “Putting Religion Back into the Wars of Religion” French Historical Studies 18 no. 2 (1993): 524-551; Henry Heller “Putting History Back into the Religious Wars: A Reply to Mack P. Holt” French Historical Studies 19 no. 3 (1996): 853-861; Holt “Religion Historical Method and Historical Forces: A Rejoinder” French Historical Studies 19 no. 3 (1996): 863-873. See also Susan Rosa and Dale Van Kley “Religion and the Historical Discipline: A Reply to Mack Holt and Henry Heller” French Historical Studies 21 no. 4 (1998): 611-629.

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    Philip Benedict“Prophets in Arms? Ministers in War, Ministers on War: France 1562-74,” in Ritual and Violence: Natalie Zemon Davis and Early Modern Franceed. Graeme Murdock Penny Roberts and Andrew Spicer (Oxford 2012) 164-165. An earlier version was published as “Prophetische Politik? Geistliche Krieg und Exempel der Alten Testaments in den französischen Religionskriegen” in Krieg und Christentum. Religiöse Gewalttheorien in der Kriegserfahrung des Westens ed. Andreas Holzem (Paderborn 2009) 505-526.

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    Graeme Murdock“The Importance of Being Josiah: An Image of Calvinist Identity,” Sixteenth Century Journal 29 no. 4 (1998): 1043-1059.

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    Benedict“Prophets in Arms?” 163-196.

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    Charles H. Parker“French Calvinists as the Children of Israel: An Old Testament Self-Consciousness in Jean Crespin’s ‘Histoire des martyrs’ before the Wars of Religion,” Sixteenth Century Journal 24 no. 2 (1993): 227-248.

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage40-41.

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage56-68.

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage126.

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    Ibid.29. Léry never claimed to have actually met an Ouetaca. He merely sailed along the coast of the lands that they were said to have occupied. He had heard accounts of their alleged behavior from both his Norman interpreters and the Tupi. His descriptions of the Ouetaca eating raw flesh are thus based on hearsay. Léry’s description of the Ouetaca remains useful however as it reveals that he did not understand all acts of man-eating to be equally heinous.

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage132.

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage132. Léry’s source for these atrocities is most likely Theodore Beza’s Histoire Ecclésiastique. See Théodore de Bèze Histoire Ecclésiastique des Eglises Reformées au Royaume de France (Antwerp 1580).

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage133.

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    Ibid.86. This claim overlooks the fact that Roman Catholics Lutherans and virtually every other Christian sect in history also allowed culturally relative elements to be used in their celebrations of the Eucharist. Catholics in Italy did not use wine made from the same grapes as their co-religionists in Ireland. There is no evidence to suggest that Lutherans in Prussia used the exact same recipe for bread as their brethren in Scandinavia. Furthermore we can safely assume that early modern vintners produced different wine than the first-century Judean variety imbibed by Christ at the Last Supper. Likewise European bakers did not produce bread identical to the unleavened Passover matzo consumed by the twelve apostles. Paul Collins has noted that Catholic priests in early modern India allowed for several cultural accommodations. For example Duarte Barbosa observed in 1519 that salt bread had replaced its wheaten counterpart in the Mass and juice made by soaking raisins in water overnight substituted for the typical grape wine. Antonio Monserrate recorded in 1579 that rice flour was used to bake the Eucharistic wafer. Franciscan friars in the eighteenth century allowed local elements such as coconut sap and palm wine to substitute for grape wine and small rice cakes to be used for the Host. See Paul M. Collins Context Culture and Worship: The Quest for ‘Indian-ness’ (Delhi 2006) 219. Johann Schilling—who preached a Zwinglian/sacramentarian understanding of the Supper in Augsburg in the 1520s—replaced the customary bread used in the Lord’s Supper with a radish. See Joel Van Amberg A Real Presence: Religious and Social Dynamics of the Eucharist Conflicts in Early Modern Augsburg 1520-1530 (Leiden 2012) 62-70. It is therefore a universal Christian practice and not a Reformed idiosyncrasy to occasionally allow for culturally relevant elements to substitute for the original archetype in the celebration of the Eucharist.

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    LestringantJean de Léry ou l’invention du sauvage34-35.

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage214.

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    Larcade“Jean de Léry et le Siège de Sancerre” 71.

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    Arlette Jouanna“Léry, Jean de,” Histoire et dictionnaire des guerres de religioned. Arlette Jouanna et al. (Paris 1998) 1031-1032.

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    Jouanna“Léry Jean de” 1032.

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    See Nicolas Le Roux“L’exercice de la fidélité entre loyauté et rébellion: le parcours politique du maréchal de la Ligue Claude de La Châtre,” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 43 no. 2 (1996): 195-213.

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    Larcade“Jean de Léry et le Siège de Sancerre” 56. I disagree with Bruna Conconi’s presupposition that the fall of Sancerre was inevitable from the perspective of ordinary human agency as Sancerre had already successfully withstood a Catholic siege. See Conconi “Verità storica e strategia poetica: l’uso del tragico nell’ ‘Histoire mémorable’ di Jean de Léry” in Studi di Letteratura Francese XVIII. Tragedia e sentimento del tragico nella letteratura francese del Cinquecento (Florence 1990) 311-312.

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    Larcade“Jean de Léry et le Siège de Sancerre” 57.

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage212-213.

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    LéryHistoire mémorable291.

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    LéryHistoire mémorable279-280.

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    LéryHistory of a Voyage212.

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    LéryHistoire mémorable289-290.

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    Conconi“Verità storica e strategia poetica” 312 316.

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    Larcade“Jean de Léry et le Siège de Sancerre” 63; Nakam Au lendemain de la Saint-Barthélemy 169.

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    Davis“The Rites of Violence” 59-64.

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    LéryHistoire mémorable343.

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