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achiavellian. Today, this derogatory epithet is flung at politicians acting to maintain their own power through deceit. In contrast to slurs such as tyrant or fascist, this term stems not from a formal title or an ideology; rather, it derives from the Renaissance author Niccolò Machiavelli, whose long list of oeuvres contains the treatise The Prince. It is this work that has earned Machiavelli lasting renown, rendering his name a byword for despotism.

Penned in 1513, Machiavelli hoped The Prince would please the Medici, the ruling family of Florence, which had commanded his arrest, incarceration, and torture on suspicion of treason. For nearly two decades, the Italian peninsula had been a theater of conflict as the Italian states, France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire vied for supremacy. Power secured one day could be lost the next, and Machiavelli promised the Medici that they would retain power over Florence if they followed his guidance.

According to Machiavelli, rulers needed to rely on their cultivated talents, skills, and prowess to secure and maintain power. A prince needed to be adroit, with the ability to take advantage of opportunities (the death of an enemy) and to survive a reversal of fortune (an invasion by an enemy). At times, a ruler might have to engage in acts considered unethical. Contrary to popular belief, Machiavelli did not advise a prince to engage in wanton behavior, but rather he granted it permissible to do so if needed. No matter what action rulers took, they needed to maintain an excellent public profile. As subjects only support a leader who is virtuous, religious, and capable, a prince must project these qualities. This endorsement of dissimulation would become the focal point of criticism during the sixteenth century.

Published in 1533, years after Machiavelli’s death, The Prince initially did not make much of a splash. Machiavelli achieved fame with his literary and historical works, but many of his political writings received only cursory glances. For those that studied The Prince, quite a few took the work to be a guide on how to identify tyranny so as to stop it: to readers then, this treatise hardly endorsed despotism.

But events in France during the 1570s brought The Prince to the forefront of the Western mind where it has since remained. This work owes is renown to the vitriol heaped upon one female ruler: Catherine de Medici.

Queen of Peace

Catherine de Medici secured the reigns of the French government in 1560 as regent for her son, King Charles IX, still a minor. A member of the illustrious Medici family, she had been born in Florence, Italy. In fact, Machiavelli dedicated The Prince to her father, Lorenzo de Medici. She had been living in France for nearly thirty years by the time of Charles’s ascension, having married into the royal family at the age of fourteen.

The France that Catherine and her children inherited was far from a stable kingdom. Religious divisions had reached crisis proportions. Since the start of the Reformation in 1517, Protestant teachings had slowly penetrated Catholic France. As other governments did, the French attempted to persecute this movement into oblivion. But as other matters — mainly foreign wars — attracted more attention, the fight against heresy came in waves, allowing the nascent religion to weather the storm and prosper in times of respite.


Catherine and four of her children. Catherine has her arm around King Charles IX (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

During the sixteenth century, people abhorred the idea of religious pluralism. All members of a community needed to belong to the same religion; those of the other religion posed a threat to social order. The government had to act, but Catherine faced a difficult decision on how to proceed: Catholics would not countenance Protestants living in their midst, but one out of ten (or some two million) French subjects had joined the new religion. Catherine knew persecution would not work against such a substantial population.

Instead, Catherine devised policies of religious tolerance to preserve peace within the kingdom. This was a gutsy move. Catholics and Protestants could not stomach tolerating those of the religion.

After progressively loosening restrictions against Protestants, the royal council, under the auspices of Catherine, promulgated an edict in January 1562, which permitted French Protestants to worship anywhere in the kingdom outside of town walls. This was a compromise: Protestants would be able to worship, albeit in the countryside, and Catholics would not have to countenance divergent worship within their community. This edict arrived a little too late: warfare broke out in March between the two religions.

By the spring of 1563, peace had again returned to France, and Catherine was adamant that policies of religious tolerance would preserve peace within the realm. A new peace edict was issued, which allowed Protestants to worship in specific locations throughout the kingdom, including within a few towns. This edict did not remain a dead letter: Catherine worked tirelessly to ensure its enforcement. She selected and appointed “peace commissioners” to fan out across the provinces to implement the edict. The royal family itself went on a tour of the realm from 1564 to 1566 to make sure communities followed the edict’s provisions, redressing any complaints or contraventions. For example, in Aix-en-Provence, she suspended the municipal council for having refused to enforce the edict and appointed new councilors more amenable to the royal peace.

This edict did not permanently end hostilities: two more civil wars broke out in the later 1560s. But after each war, the crown, guided by Catherine, issued a new edict of toleration to prevent further religious warfare.

Catherine did more than cultivate an image as a queen of peace: she actively tried to create a workable peace in a religiously divided France. While laudable today, this policy was certainly controversial at the time. But what does religious tolerance have to do with Machiavelli?

Poisoner, Atheist, Student of Machiavelli?

One of history’s worst instances of mass violence occurred in August 1572. French Nobles congregated in Paris for the wedding between a Protestant prince and Catherine’s Catholic daughter, Marguerite. Catherine had arranged this religiously mixed marriage to bolster the peace that France had enjoyed since 1570.

Wedding celebrations were marred when a Protestant noble was nearly assassinated on 22 August. Panic swept Paris. Would this assassination attempt lead to another war? Might the Protestants seek vengeance upon the royal family?

In the early hours of 24 August, many Protestant nobles were slaughtered in their beds; by that evening the butchery widened as Protestants, no matter their social status, perished in a frenzy of violence. The fervor then spread to other towns. By the end of 1572, anywhere from seven to ten thousand Protestants had lost their lives in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

What explains this violent fury? After the botched assassination, it seems that those at the royal court feared a Protestant attack and decided to strike first. Although we do not know who formulated the plan, it is undeniable that members of the royal family were involved; their contribution was crucial for such a bold plan. But this conspiracy was only directed toward Protestant nobles. Once the mayhem began, the Catholic populace of Paris (and other towns) decided to get involved. What was to be a preemptive strike descended into an orgy of bloodshed.

After calm returned, the French began to reflect on what had just happened. When asked who spurred these massacres, many blamed Catherine. Although Charles IX was of age, he was ill and weak willed, and she closely guarded her influence within the government. If the massacre originated from within the royal council, naturally she would have been the architect.

A sixteenth-century depiction of Catherine admiring cadavers during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. She most certainly did not do this, but rumors spread alleging such conduct (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Accusations spread that she had harbored vengeance against the Huguenots as a destabilizing force that threatened her son’s ability to rule. Furthermore, the peace edicts, with their provisions of religious tolerance, had all been a ploy to lull the Protestants into a false sense of security. Convinced of her good intentions, she then invited the Protestant nobles to Paris for the wedding. But this marriage, ostensibly for peace, was a mere ruse to exterminate Protestant leadership.

To us, such an interpretation is quite farfetched. But when trying to make sense of carnage, events spiraling out of control is rarely a satisfying answer. Additionally, both Protestants and Catholics across France were quite traumatized as stories of the violence circulated. Many Protestants converted to Catholicism en masse or fled the kingdom; although many Catholics abhorred the presence of Protestantism, that so many could be killed during peace time was a frightening specter. Placing blame on the royal family, above all Catherine, provided a tidy story with clear villains and victims.

Catherine’s Italian heritage also lent credence to this narrative.

The French had long begrudged the influence of Italians. Stereotypes of Italians abounded: they were deceitful, violent, sexually promiscuous — especially with a penchant for homosexuality — and, worst of all, irreligious. Italian banking dynasties such as the Strozzi and Gondi had long settled in France, and their ability to provide the French government generous credit catapulted these families to prominence. Scions of these families soon gained prominent roles in the royal court, especially once Catherine seized power and favored her compatriots.

The French resented Italian economic and political prominence. Criticism had long blighted the French court for the warfare, high taxes, and even policies of religious tolerance. But the reproach intensified now that Italian foreigners were seen as puppet masters who manipulated the French government for their personal gain.

The Italian born queen mother became a central target for presumably enabling this corruption. Writers searching to better articulate the Italian menace soon identified the encapsulation of all the debauchery of the Italians: Machiavelli’s The Prince. This book cast light on how Italians gained and maintained power through treachery, deceit, unfaithfulness. In essence, the treatise opened a window into Catherine’s soul — it had been dedicated to her father after all.

The French gobbled up a flurry of pamphlets elucidating these tendencies à la Machiavel of Catherine and how they spelt the ruin of France.

She was accused of being a poisoner. Murder through poison was considered especially dishonorable, as the killer did not need to confront the victim. Poisoning was seen as the purview of women, regarded as weak and duplicitous enough to resort to this method. But it was not farfetched that a Machiavellian ruler adept in dissimulation would craftily kill by poison. With such attitudes, it is not difficult to see why Catherine faced this calumny. She allegedly directed her ladies-in-waiting to seduce powerful nobles to bend them to her will, and if necessary to poison them. Regarding the Protestant nobility, she allegedly hired Italians to secretly poison them. According to the anonymous author of “The Discourse on the Marvelous Life, Actions, and Behavior of Catherine de Medici,” honors due to the best and bravest now decorated “villains and assassins” due to her meddling.

Machiavelli’s endorsement of dissimulation in religious affairs met charges of atheism, a common slur against Italians in the sixteenth century. “Atheism” at the time denoted not so much an absence of a belief in God but the willful ignorance of religion for one’s own personal advancement. Catherine was archetypical atheist according to many. “The Discourse” asserted that Catherine’s “void of any religion or conscience” explained why she employed poisonings and assassinations. Her espousal of religious tolerance exemplified this irreligiosity. She merely promulgated these edicts to pacify both sides to restore her and her sons’ authority instead of fighting for the true religion.

Frontispiece of “The Discourse on Catherine de Medici,” a slanderous pamphlet that decried her Machiavellian style of governance.
The 1576 Frontispiece of “The Anti-Machiavelli,” a pamphlet that decried the Machiavellian influence within the French government (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

But her supposed involvement plotting the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre constituted the clearest evidence of her Machiavellian tendencies. A 1574 pamphlet, “The Wake-Up Call, ”declared the massacre a result of Catherine having Charles IX “practice one of the lessons of Machiavelli, which is to keep not faith but to turn it to his own advantage.” Another narrative, by the Protestant Théodore-Agrippa d’Aubigné, details how when Charles began to waiver, Catherine advised him that “the ends justify the means,” a common maxim that, although it never appears it the work, many have used to summarize the political philosophy of The Prince.

Catherine did little to counter these accusations. Still committed to peace, she worked for her son, King Henri III, who assumed the throne in 1574 after Charles’s death, to reconcile the varying factions. Most notable was her 1578–9 journey throughout the south of France to rectify any problems with the enforcement of a peace edict, promulgated in 1577. Catherine certainly was aware of these calumnies. She apparently found “The Discourse” hilarious: she joked that if the author had consulted her before publication, she would have divulged more tidbits hidden from the public.

Despite her dismissal, these works made their mark; her unpopularity increased. In 1575, a cross in the church of Paris’s Sainte-Chappelle went missing; popular rumor attributed this to the unholy Catherine “whom the people hold in such horror and low esteem that all that happens badly is imputed to her,” according to the Parisian diarist Pierre L’Estoile.

Furthermore, the royal family lost much of its credibility due to her alleged influence over her sons. In addition to prompting Charles to sanction the massacre, she apparently supplied him with prostitutes. Henri III was accused of always having a copy of The Prince on him, consulting when making any political decision. Additionally, Henri III — cerebral, effeminate, and unable to sire an heir — was accused of homosexuality, an attack all the more believable due to his mother’s Italian influence.

Catherine died in 1589, amidst the last war of religion. Her death elicited little notice. One commentator stated it was as if a goat had died — no one made a fuss. Her body was not immediately transported to the royal necropolis of Saint-Denis to the north of Paris; the Parisian city council warned that a crowd would likely toss her body into the Seine River. It appears that some verse contained in “The Wake-Up Call,” published in the aftermath of the massacre, had come true:

Dogs ate Jezebel

By a divine vengeance;

The cadaver of Catherine

Will be different in this point:

Even dogs will not want it.

Political discontent and xenophobia against Italians fused to prompt these attacks on Catherine. Machiavelli’s The Prince added fodder to the public discourse about Catherine and her governing style; this treatise explained all that one needed to know about the despotic tendencies of Italians who spread like gangrene, corrupting the French government. Later, commentators continued this trend by looking to Machiavelli for insight about the unjust actions of rulers — whether Italian or not. This vitriolic interpretation of Catherine left its mark as many subsequent historians have cast similar aspersions against her. But it cannot be understated that this slander has overshadowed her commitment to peace and pioneering work with religious tolerance for this end.

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