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Étienne Dolet

Author of De re navali (1537)

Selections from Richard Copley Christie’s Etienne Dolet: The Martyr of the Renaissance 1508-1546, a Biography.

Étienne Dolet biography from Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition (1910).

Étienne Dolet (1509-1546), French scholar and printer, was born at Orleans on the 3rd of August 1509. A doubtful tradition makes him the illegitimate son of Francis I; but it is evident that he was at least connected with some family of rank and wealth.

From Orléans he was taken to Paris about 1521; and after studying under Nicolas Bórauld, the teacher of Coligny, he proceeded in 1526 to Padua. The death of his friend and master, Simon de Villanova, led him, in 1530, to accept the post of secretary to Jean de Langeac, bishop of Limoges and French ambassador to the republic of Venice; he contrived, however, to attend the lectures of the Venetian scholar Battista Egnazio, and found time to write Latin love poems to some Venetian Elena. Returning to France soon afterwards he proceeded to Toulouse to study law; but there he soon became involved in the violent disputes between the different "nations" of the university, was thrown into prison, and finally banished by a decree of the parlement. In 1535 he entered the lists against Erasmus in the famous Ciceronian controversy, by publishing through Sebastien Gryphe (Gryphius) at Lyons a Dialogus de imitatione Ciceroniana; and the following year saw the appearance of his two folio volumes Commentariorum linguae Latinae. This work was dedicated to Francis I, who gave him the privilege of printing during ten years any works in Latin, Greek, Italian or French, which were the product of his own pen or had received his supervision; and accordingly, on his release from an imprisonment occasioned by his justifiable homicide of a painter named Compaing, he began at Lyons his typographical and editorial labours. That he was not altogether unaware of the dangers to which he was exposed from the bigotry of the time is shown not only by the tone of his mottoes - Preserve moi, Seigneur, des calamities des hommes, and Durior est spectatae virtutis quam incognitae conditio - but also by the fact that he endeavoured first of all to conciliate his opponents by publishing a Cato christianus, in which he made profession of his creed. The catholicity of his literary appreciation, in spite of his ultra-Ciceronianism, was soon displayed by the works which proceeded from his press - ancient and modern, sacred and secular, from the New Testament in Latin to Rabelais in French. But before the term of his privilege expired his labours were interrupted by his enemies, who succeeded in imprisoning him (1542) on the charge of atheism. From a first imprisonment of fifteen months Dolet was released by the advocacy of Pierre Duchatel, bishop of Tulle; from a second (1544) he escaped by his own ingenuity; but, venturing back from Piedmont, whither he had fled in order that he might print at Lyons the letters by which he appealed for justice to the king of France, the queen of Navarre and the parlement of Paris, he was again arrested, branded as a relapsed atheist by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne, and on the 3rd of August 1546 put to the torture, strangled and burned in the Place Maubert. On his way thither he is said to have composed the punning pentameter - Non dolet ipse Dolet, sed pia turba dolet.

Whether Dolet is to be classed with the representatives of Protestantism or with the advocates of anti-Christian rationalism has been frequently disputed; by the principal Protestants of his own time he was not recognized, and by Calvin he is formally condemned, along with Agrippa and his master Villanova, as having uttered execrable blasphemies against the Son of God; but, to judge by the religious character of a large number of the books which he translated or published, such a condemnation is altogether misplaced. His repeated advocacy of the reading of the Scriptures in the vulgar tongue is especially noticeable. A statue of Dolet was erected on the Place Maubert in 1889.

See J.F. Nee de la Rochelle, Vie d'Éienne Dolet (1779); Joseph Boulmier, E. Dolet, sa vie, ses oeuvres, son martyre (1857); A.F. Didot, Essai sur la typographie (1852) and article in the Nouvelle Biographie generale; L. Michel, Dolet: sa statue, place Maubert: ses amis, ses ennemis (1889); R.C. Christie, Étienne Dolet, the Martyr of the Renaissance (2nd ed., 1889), containing a full bibliography of works published by him as author or printer; O. Galtier, Étienne Dolet (Paris, 1908). The proces, or trial, of Dolet was published (1836) by A.H. Taillandier from the registers of the parlement of Paris.

Source: The Encyclopaedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information. 11th ed., vol. 8 (New York: the Encyclopaedia Britannica Company, 1910): 387-388.

Selections from Richard Copley Christie’s Etienne Dolet: The Martyr of the Renaissance 1508-1546, a Biography.

Arrest of Dolet (pages 458-60)

The petition of Jacques Devaulx to the Parliament of Paris asking for the payment of his expenses tells us that after the escape of his prisoner at Lyons, on 8th January 1544, he diligently searched for Dolet in Germany, Switzerland, Geneva, Burgundy, Franche Comte, Dauphine, Languedoc, and elsewhere, and ultimately arrested him at Troyes and lodged him in the prison there about the end of August or the beginning of September in the same year. Devaulx then proceeded at once to Paris, which he reached in three days, to obtain the directions of the Parliament. A commission from that body was forthwith issued authorising him to engage twenty men and horses, and to return them to Troyes, and bring Dolet to Paris and lodge him in the conciergerie. Pierre Segnault, Sergent Royal ou Baillye du Palais, was included in the commission and ordered by the Procureur Royal, to accompany Devaulx. On the day following their arrival at Troyes, where as it is stated Dolet had been ten days in prison, they left that city with their prisoner, taking besides the twenty men on horseback, six additional men on foot for the distance between Troyes and Sens. After three days' journey they reached Paris as it would seem on the 12th of September. Dolet was forthwith delivered over to the custody of the officers of the Parliament, and thrown into the conciergerie from which he had been discharged less than a year before, and where he was to pass the remainder of his life.

The First President determined that the trial should take place before himself; yet even on a trial before Pierre Lizet, it would, one imagines, have been difficult, upon the trumped-up charge of sending the books to Paris and the subsequent escape from the hands of justice, to condemn the prisoner to death, since the ample letters of remission of the King duly registered by the Parliament freed Dolet from the consequence of the acts which had formed the pretext for his former conviction and sentence. Even in the Chambre Ardente, and when the First President presided, a prisoner must be charged with some offense of a capital nature to allow of his being sentenced to death, whatever might be the character of the evidence, perjured or otherwise, to be adduced on the part of the prosecution.

Trial of Dolet (pages 461-464)

On the 14th of November 1544, the Faculty of Theology assembled in the hall of the Sorbonne. 'A sentence from a certain book of Plato translated into French by a certain Dolet was read, which is as follows, apres la mort tu ne sera plus rien du tout. It was judged to be heretical, agreeing in the opinion of the Sadducees and the Epicureans, wherefore it was committed to the deputies in matters of faith to pronounce a censure upon the same book.' The censure declares 'that in the dialog called Acochius (sic) the passage attendu que tu ne seras plus du tout is wrongly translated and is contrary to the intention of Plato. In whose work neither in the Greek nor in the Latin are there these words rien du tout.

The crime of Dolet was thus having added to the text of Plato the words 'rien du tout, ' words which if they are not to be found in the original, or in the Latin translation, in no way alter the sense of the text, but only express more clearly the author's meaning, and the censure was made by theologians ignorant even how to spell correctly the title of the book they condemned. Yet these three words, added merely for the purpose of more completely expressing the sense of the author, contributed in no small degree to Dolet's death, and seem to have formed the sole ground of the charge of blasphemy, one of the three counts of the indictment upon which the capital and final sentence was based.

The First President had not often such a criminal as Dolet before him, one who combined in his own person nearly every character that was hateful to Pierre Lizet; he was a printer, a scholar, and a heretic, or something worse. Of heretics and journeymen printers Lizet had condemned abundance, but never since the condemnation of Berquin in 1529 had a scholar and a poet (the author of more than fifteen works) been brought before the Parliament on the charge of heresy. The process was long, but we have scarcely any details of it. From the sentence it appears that the charges were principally three, blasphemy , sedition, and exposing for sale prohibited and condemned books. The blasphemy, which seems to have been the principal charge, was, as we have seen, that contained in the translation of the Axiochus; the charge of exposing prohibited and condemned books for sale would be based partly upon the false allegation of sending the two packets of books into Paris, partly upon the fact, which he admitted, that he had sold portions of the Holy Scriptures in French and Latin; the nature and ground of the charge of sedition we can only conjecture. The escape from prison could hardly be intended by the word sedition, but bearing in mind the part that Dolet had taken in the disputes between the master printers and the journeymen, and also the fact which he tells us that his former arrest was the work of the master printers, I incline to think that it would be in reference to the matter that he was accused of sedition.

Sentence was not pronounced until the 2nd of August 1546, the process having thus lasted nearly two years, during the whole of which Dolet was kept in prison in the conciergerie, except on the occasions when he was taken before his judges.

Dolet convicted of heresy (pages 470-471)

On the 2d of August 1546, the First President Lizet, sitting in the Grand Chambre, pronounced sentence on Dolet as guilty of blasphemy, sedition, and exposing for sale prohibited and condemned books, ‘charges which are set forth more at length in his process,’ and condemned him to be taken by the executioner in a cart from the prison of the Conciergerie to the Place Maubert, where a gallows was to be erected in the most convenient and suitable place, around which was to be made a great fire, into which, after having been hung on the said gallows, his body was to be thrown, with his books, and burnt to ashes, his property to be confiscated to the King. ‘Nevertheless the Court orders that before the execution and death of the said Dolet, he is to be put to torture and to the extraordinary question in order that he may inform his companions; and it is the will of the Court (retentum in mente curiae) that if the said Dolet shall cause any scandal or utter any blasphemy, his tongue shall be cut out, and he shall be burnt alive.’ To this sentence the signature of the First President is appended.

Dolet executed (pages 472-474)

The sentence was carried out on the day following, the 3rd of August, the day of the Invention of St. Stephen, and the day on which Dolet entered his thirty-ninth year. We are fortunate in possessing an almost conemporary narrative of the event, though unfortunately not by an eye-witness. Three weeks afterwards, a certain Florent Junius wrote to Herman Laethmatius, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Utrecht, an account which had been given to him by one of his officials who assisted in the execution. It was of course not to be expected that an atheist should be simply executed in pursuance of the sentence. Physically weakened by the torture which had been applied to him the previous night or the same morning, or possibly both, he had now to be morally tortured by the confessor with a view to induce him to repent and publicly abjure his errors. Whatever the result, the Church would be the gainer. If he repented and abjured his errors, it was a triumph, far greater in the case of a scholar and a reputed atheist such as Dolet, than in the case of a poor wool-carder of Meaux, who as the Church herself declared, scarcely understood the doctrines on which he presumed to form an opinion. If, on the other hand, he persisted in his impiety to the point of death, the brutalities of the retentum would be carried out, the physical tortures of the condemned would be increased, and an enjoyment would be afforded to the pious crowd of which they would have been deprived by the repentance of the sinner. On his arrival at the place of execution, Dolet was exhorted to think of his salvation, and to recommend himself to God and the saints. He did not show himself too eager to follow the advice, but muttered something or other, when the executioner declared to him that he had orders to speak to him of his salvation before the people. ‘you must,’ said he, ‘invoke the Blessed virgin and your patron saint, whose fete is to be celebrated to-day, and if you do not do this, you know quite well what I am to do.’ The unhappy prisoner knew it too well. If the executioner’s commands were not obeyed, if Dolet did not invoke the Blessed virgin and St. Stephen, his tongue would be cut out and he would be burnt alive.

Dolet, who had always professed himself a good Catholic, would have no difficulty in repeating what was to him an unmeaning formula, and so avoid the terrible sufferings which a refusal would have entailed upon him. He obeyed the directions of the executioner, and repeated in Latin the form of invocation which was suggested to him, ‘Mi Deus, quem toties offendi, propitious esto; teque Virginem Matrem precor, divumque Stephanum, ut PUD Dominum pro me peccatore intercedatis.’

He then, so Florent Junius was informed by the official, warned the assistants to read his books with much circumspection, and declared several times that they contained many things which he had not properly understood or meant. A moment afterwards the sentence was carried out. He was suspended at the gallows, and then, when he was possibly dead, but more probably still breathing, the faggots were lighted, and the author and his books were consumed in the flames.

Source: Christie, Richard Copley. Etienne Dolet: The Martyr of the Renaissance 1508-1546, a Biography. 2d ed. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1899): 458-60, 461, 463-464, 470-474.

Note: The opinions expressed in the extracts from publications above are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Naval Historical Center. The information presented above is intended to supplement the online exhibit of Pre-1700 publications in the Navy Department Library.

27 June 2006