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ESSAY XXVII.: AN EPISODE OF THE HISTORY OF BRITTANY - Augustin Thierry, The Historical Essays and Narratives of the Merovingian Era 
The Historical Essays, published under the Title of “Dix Ans d’Études historiques,” and Narratives of the Merovingian Era; or, Scenes of the Sixth Century, with an Autobiographical Preface (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1845).
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AN EPISODE OF THE HISTORY OF BRITTANY
At every fresh appearance of an historical novel by Walter Scott, I hear it regretted that the customs of ancient France are not represented by some one in as picturesque a light; I even hear our history blamed on this account as being too dull, it is supposed, and for its monotonous uniformity, which does not present sufficiently various situations and original characters. This accusation is an unjust one. The history of France is not deficient in subjects for the talent of poets and novelists; but it wants a man of genius like Walter Scott to understand and describe it. Amongst the novels of this celebrated man, there are few, the scenes of which could not have been placed in France. The rooted distinction of hostile populations on the same territory, the hatred of the Norman and Saxon in England, of the Highlander and Saxon in Scotland, are also to be met with in our history. It was not without long convulsions that the ten nations, of which we are the sons, could be reduced into one; and many centuries passed before the national names, the remembrance of races, even the diversity of language, had disappeared; before the Gaul allowed himself to be called a Frank, and the Frank spoke the Roman idiom of Gaul without contempt.
The civil wars of the middle ages are the signs of the co-existence of several irreconciled races of men: there are nations concealed in the quarrels of the kings and nobles; for neither party was alone when they fought, and their power did not extend far enough to inspire men with a contempt of their own life for the interest or the passions of others.
These wars were essentially national, but modern historians, not understanding them, always disguise them under a colouring of feudality. When they meet with the Latin word dux, which often means national chief, they render it by the word duc, which, in the actual language, necessarily implies the idea of voluntary subordination. The free chiefs of the Basque nation become dukes of Gascony, the chief of the Bretons is made Duke of Brittany; a little more, and the great Witikind.† the author of ten national revolts against the power of the Franks, would have been called Duke of Saxony.
The truth is, that in the ninth and tenth centuries, in the wars of the Bretons and Franks, neither kings nor dukes were in question, but the Breton and Frankish races, implacable neighbours and enemies. I have before me the narrative in verse of an expedition undertaken by Lodewig, or Louis-le-débonnaire,‡ against Morman, chief of the Bretons; it is the work of a cotemporary monk, who dedicates his poem to the king of the Franks. I shall translate it almost literally, and you will see that our ancient annals might produce inspirations similar to those which gave birth to the Lady of the Lake or the Lord of the Isles.
The poet begins by informing the reader that the name of Lodewig or Hluto-wigh is a fine name, formed of two words which when placed together, signified a famous warrior like the god Mars:—
Nempè sonat Hluto præclarum, Wich quoque Mars est.*
He then relates how old Karl, Lodewig’s father, has obtained the consent of the Franks to his son’s succeeding him; how the pope came to Reims to bring the Roman diadem to this son and salute him with the title of Cæsar; how Lodewig, made Cæsar,† gave the pope two golden vases, horses, and rich clothes. After this detailed narrative, the author continues in these words:—
“The arms of Cæsar were fortunate, and the renown of the Franks extended beyond the seas. Yet according to the ancient custom, Cæsar summons to him the chiefs and guardians of our frontiers; amongst them comes Lande-Bert, whose mission was to observe the country inhabited by the Bretons. This nation, hostile to ours, was formerly driven from its home and thrown upon the coast of Gaul by the sea and winds. As it had been baptized, the Gallic nation received it. In their conquests, the Franks neglected them for more terrible enemies. It gradually extended itself, removed its frontiers, and flattered itself with the vain hope of conquering us.‡
“ ‘Well! Frank,’ said Cæsar to Lande-Bert, ‘tell me what is the nation near thee doing? Does it honour God and the holy Church? has it a chief and laws? does it leave my frontiers in peace?’ Lande-Bert bowed and replied; ‘It is a haughty and perfidious race, full of malice and falsehood; it is Christian, but only in name, for it has neither faith nor works; it inhabits forests like the wild beasts, and like them lives by rapine. Its chief is called Morman, if he deserves the name of chief who governs his people so ill. They have often threatened our frontiers, but never with impunity.’§
“ ‘Lande-Bert,’ rejoined Cæsar, ‘the things thon hast just said sound strangely in mine ear; I perceive that these strangers inhabit my territory and do not pay me its tribute. I perceive that they venture to make war with us; war must punish them for it. Yet before marching against them, I must send them a message: as their chief has received the holy sacrament of baptism, it is fitting he should be warned. Wither shall go to him from me.’
“Wither, an abbot wise and prudent in business, was immediately called. ‘Wither,’* said Cæsar, ‘take my commands to the king of the Bretons; tell him no longer to endeavour to fight us, and to implore peace from the Franks.’†
“The Abbot Wither mounts on horseback and travels without stopping; he goes by the shortest roads, for he knew the country. Near the frontier of the Bretons he possessed a fine domain, which he owed to Cæsar’s kindness. Morman dwelt in a lonely spot between a thick forest and a river; his house, externally defended by hedges and ditches, was filled with weapons and soldiers. Wither presents himself and demands to see the king. When the Breton recognized the Frankish messenger, fear appeared on his countenance; but he soon composed himself. ‘I salute thee, Morman,’ said Wither, ‘and bring thee greeting from Cæsar the pacific, the pious, the invincible.’ ‘I salute thee,’ replied Morman, ‘and I wish Cæsar a long life.’ Both sat down at a distance from one another, and Wither exposed his message.‡
“ ‘Lodowig Cæsar, the glory of the Frankish nation, the glory of the children of Christ, the first of men in war and the first in peace, declares to thee that thou dost inhabit his land, and owest him tribute for it. This is what he says, and on my side, I will add something for thy interest. If thou wilt live with the Franks in peace, and obey Cæsar, he will give thee the land which thy nation cultivates; reflect for thy sake and that of thy family; the Franks are strong, and God fights for them. Hasten, then, to take a serious resolution.’§
“The Breton kept his eyes fixed on the ground, which he struck with his foot; the adroit messenger was prevailing on his mind partly by gentle words, partly by threats, when suddenly the Breton’s wife, a haughty and insidious woman, entered. She had just left her bed, and according to custom brought the first kiss to her husband. Having embraced him, she spoke to him for a long while in a whisper; then glancing with contempt on the messenger, and addressing herself aloud to Morman, she said: ‘King of the Bretons, honour of our nation, who is this stranger? Whence comes he? What does he bring us? is it war? is it peace?’ ‘It is the messenger of the Franks,’ answered Morman, smilingly. ‘Whether he brings peace or war, these things concern men; woman, go in quiet to thy business.’ When the messenger heard these undecided words, contrary to those he had received, he pressed the chief to reply without delay: ‘Cæsar awaits me,’ said he. ‘Give me,’ answered Morman, ‘the period of the night for reflection.’*
“At the break of day, the Abbot Wither presents himself at the chief’s door; it is opened, and Morman appears, stupified with sleep and wine. ‘Go,’ said the Breton, in a broken voice, ‘go, tell thy Cæsar that Morman does not inhabit his lands, and that Morman does not want his laws. I refuse the tribute, and defy the Franks.’ ‘Listen, Morman,’ replied the sage Wither, ‘our ancestors have always thought thy race was fickle and inconstant; I think it is with reason, for the prattle of a woman has unsettled thy mind. Listen to what Wither predicts: thou wilt hear the war cry of the Franks; thou wilt see thousands of lances and bucklers advance against thee. Neither thy marshes, thy thick forests, nor the ditches which surround thy dwelling will preserve thee from our blows.’ ‘Well then! I also,’ answered the chief, rising from his seat, ‘I also have chariots full of javelins; if you have white bucklers, I have coloured ones.’†
“Wither brings back in haste his answer to the king of the Franks. The king instantly commands arms and ammunition to be prepared; he summons near the town of Vannes the assembly of the Franks and the nations which obey them. The Franks, the Suabians, the Saxons, the Thuringians, the Burgundians, all come thither equipped for war. Cæsar himself goes there, visiting holy places on his road, and everywhere receiving presents which enrich his treasury.‡
“Meanwhile the king of the Bretons prepares for the combat; and Cæsar, pious and merciful, sends him a last message. ‘Let him be reminded,’ said he, ‘of the peace that he formerly swore, the hand that he gave to the Franks, and the obedience he showed Karle my father.’ The envoy departs; he swiftly returns, for Morman, incited by his wife, has insulted him. Then Cæsar publishes before the Franks the Breton’s last replies. The trumpet gives the signal, and the soldiers pass the frontier. They carry off the flocks, hunt the men through their forests and marshes, burn the houses, and spare nothing but the churches, according to Cæsar’s commands. No troop confronts them or engages the combat on a plain. The Bretons are seen, dispersed and in disorder, showing themselves in the distance among the rocks and shrubs: they wage a perfidious war in the passage of defiles, or conceal themselves behind the fences and walls of their habitations.*
“Meanwhile, in the depths of those valleys covered with tall healths, the Breton chief arms and makes his friends arm. ‘Children, companions,’ said he to his party, ‘defend my house; I confide it to your courage; and I, with a small number of brave men, am going to lay a snare for the enemy; I shall bring you the spoil.’ He takes his javelin to arm his two hands, springs upon his horse, and about to leave the door, demands, according to the custom of the country, a large goblet, which he empties.† He embraces joyfully his wife, his children and all his servants. ‘Wife,’ said he, ‘listen to what I tell thee: thou wilt see these javelins made red by the blood of the Franks; the arm of him thou lovest has never wielded them in vain.’ Morman disappeared in the forest, burning to meet king Lodewig. ‘If I saw him,’ he said, ‘if I met that Cæsar, he should obtain what he demands of me; I would pay him the tribute in iron.’‡
“Morman and his troop soon meet with a party of Franks who conduct the baggage; he falls upon them, attacks them in front, in flank, in the rear, disappears, and returns to the charge according to the tactics of his nation. At the head of the troop was a man named Kosel,§ of low birth, and as yet undistinguished by any great action. Morman drives his horse against him; the Frank awaits him without fear, trusting to the goodness of his armour. ‘Frank,’ said the Breton chief, ‘shall I make thee a present? There is one I have kept for thee; here it is, and remember me.’ Saying these words he hurled the javelin against the Frank, who warded off the blow with his buckler, and addressing himself to Morman, said, ‘Breton, I have received thy present, receive in return that of the Frank.’* He spurs his horse, and instead of throwing a light dart, strikes the temple of the Breton chief with a blow of that heavy lance with which the Franks are armed. The lance pierces the chief’s iron helmet, and with a single blow fells him to the earth. The Frank then springs from his horse and cuts off the head of the conquered; but a companion of Morman’s strikes him in the back, and Kosel perishes at the moment of his victory.†
“The report soon spreads that the king of the Bretons is dead, and his head in Cæsar’s camp. The Franks flock in crowds to see it: it is brought stained with blood, and they call Wither to recognize it. Wither throws water on the head, and having washed it, he combs the hair, and declares it to be that of the Breton chief. The Bretons submitted to Cæsar; they promised to attend to his commands; and Cæsar left them in peace.”*
The facts of this narrative belong to the year 818, and in 824, the Bretons having chosen a new chief recommenced war against the Franks. In 851, they made a great invasion on the territory of their enemies, conquered all the country near the mouth of the Loire, and advanced as far as Poitiers. The emperor Karle, surnamed the Bald, marched against them with all his forces; but his army having been put to flight, he was compelled to abandon to the Bretons all that they chose to preserve of their conquests. The towns of Rennes and Nantes have since then formed part of Brittany.†
PREFACE TO THE NARRATIVES.
It is an assertion almost proverbial, that no period of our history is so arid and confused as the Merovingian period. This epoch is the one most willingly abridged, most slurred over, most unscrupulously passed by. There is more indolence than reflection in this contempt. If the history of the Merovingians is difficult to disentangle, it is by no means uninteresting. On the contrary, it abounds in singular events, in original characters, in dramatic incidents so varied, that the only difficulty is that of placing such numerous details in order. The latter half of the sixth century especially, presents to both writers and readers the greatest wealth and interest; either because this epoch, being the first of that mixture of the aborigines and conquerors of Gaul, was on that account more poetical, or else because it owes interest to the naïf talent of its historian Georgius Florentinus Gregorius, known by the name of Gregory of Tours.
The manners of the destroyers of the Roman empire, their savage and singular aspect, have been frequently described in our day, and they have been twice described by a great master.* These pictures are sufficient to imbue forever, with its local and poetical colouring, the historical period extending from the great invasion of the Gauls in 406, to the establishment of the Frankish domination; but the succeeding period has not been the subject of any artistic study. Its original character consists in an antagonism of races no longer complete and striking, but softened by a number of reciprocal imitations, caused by the mutual habitation of the same territory. These moral modifications, which present themselves on all sides, under different aspects, and in different degrees, multiply general types and individual physiognomies in the history of the period. There are Franks who remained pure Germans in Gaul, Gallo-Romans irritated and disgusted by the barbarian rule, Franks more or less influenced by the manners and customs of civilized life, and Romans become more or less barbarian in mind and manners. The contrast may be followed in all its shades through the sixth century, and into the middle of the seventh; later, the Germanic and Gallo-Roman stamp seem effaced and lost in a semi-barbarism clothed in theocratic forms.
By a fortuitous, but singularly fortunate coincidence, this complex and varied period is the very one of which the original documents offer the most characteristic details. It met with an historian marvellously suited to its nature in an intelligent and saddened witness of that confusion of men and things, of those crimes and catastrophes, in the midst of which the irresistible destruction of ancient civilization was accomplished. We must come down to the time of Froissart to find a narrator equal to Gregory of Tours in the art of bringing the personages on the scene, and animating them by dialogue. Every thing which the conquest of Gaul had placed together, or in opposition, on the same territory, races, classes, divers conditions, are imaged in his sometimes humorous, sometimes tragical, but always truthful and animated narratives. They are like an ill-arranged gallery of pictures and sculpture; they are like ancient national songs, curtailed, thrown together without connection, but capable of classification and of forming a poem, if this word, so indiscriminately used in the present day, can be applied to history.
The idea of undertaking a work of art as well as of historical science on the century of Gregory of Tours, was the result of these reflections; I conceived it in 1833. My plan decided on, two methods presented themselves: a continued narrative of a series of political events, or detached narratives, each containing the life or adventures of some persons of the period. I did not hesitate between these two methods; I chose the second; firstly, on account of the nature of the subject, which presented materials for a varied and complete picture of social transactions, and of the destination of humanity in political, civil, and domestic life; secondly, on account of the peculiar nature of my principal source of information, The Ecclesiastical History of the Franks, by Gregory of Tours.
In order that this curious book should have its full weight as a document, it must become the ground-work of our narrative history, not for what he says of the principal events, for those are to be found elsewhere, but for the episodes, the local events, the sketches of manners, which can be met with nowhere else. If these details are combined with a series of great political events, and inserted in their respective places in a complete narrative, they will make little figure, but rather encumber its progress at every step; moreover, it would be necessary to give colossal dimensions to history written in this way. This is what Adrian of Valois did in his three folio volumes of the Gestes des Franks, from the first appearance of the Franks to the fall of the Merovingian dynasty; but a book like that is purely one of science, useful to students, but repulsive to the mass of readers. It would be impossible to imitate or translate into French the work of Adrian of Valois; and were it attempted, the object, in my opinion, would not be attained. Although allowing himself a wide field in his voluminous chronicle, the learned man of the seventeenth century often prunes and abridges; he omits facts and details, softens all roughnesses, renders vaguely what Gregory of Tours distinctly expresses, suppresses or perverts the dialogue, and looks only to the meaning, the form to him being of no consequence. Now, the form is the principal thing; its smallest lineaments must be observed, must be rendered by study clearer and more spirited, and in it must be contained all that historical science furnishes us respecting the laws, manners, and social state of the sixth century.
The following is the plan which I laid down for myself as the subject demanded: to choose the culminating point of the first period after the mixture of the two races; there, in a given space, to collect and unite in groups the most characteristic events, to form a suite of pictures succeeding one another progressively, varying their size while giving breadth and gravity to the different masses of the narrative; widening and strengthening the tissue of the original narrative, by the help of inductions suggested by legends, poems of the period, the diplomatic documents, inscriptions and figures. Between 1833 and 1837, I published the Revue des deux Mondes, under a provisory title,* six of these episodes or fragments of a history impracticable in its entire state. They here appear with their definite title: Récits des temps Mérovingiens, and form the first section of the entire work, the second of which will likewise have two volumes.
If unity of composition is wanting in these detached histories, there will at any rate be unity of impression left on the mind of the reader. These narratives, occupying little more than the space of half a century, will be in some measure connected by the reappearance of the same persons, and they will often serve to develop one another. There will be as many of these masses of separate narrative as I shall find facts comprehensive enough to serve as centres, as rallying points to many secondary facts to give them a general meaning, and by them produce a complete dramatic action. Sometimes it will be the narration of some individual, to which will be joined a picture of the social events which influenced it; sometimes a series of public events, to which, as it proceeds, will be added personal adventures and domestic catastrophes.
The mode of life of the Frankish kings, the interior of the royal abode, the stormy lives of the nobles and bishops; usurpation, the civil and private wars; the intriguing turbulence of the Gallo-Romans, and the undisciplined brutality of the barbarians; the absence of all administrative order, and of all moral ties between the inhabitants of the Gallic provinces, in the heart of the same kingdom; the renewal of old rivalries and hereditary hatreds of one canton towards another, one city towards another; everywhere a sort of return to a state of nature; and the insurrection of individual will against law and order under whatever form presented, whether political, civil or religious, the spirit of revolt and violence penetrating even into the female monasteries;—such are the various pictures I have endeavoured to sketch from cotemporary remains, and the assemblage of which presents a view of the sixth century in Gaul.
I have made a minute study of the characters and fates of historical personages, and have endeavoured to give reality and life to those whom history has most neglected. Amongst these persons, four figures, types of their epoch, will be found pre-eminent: Fredegonda, Hilperik, Eonius Mummolus, and Gregory of Tours himself; Fredegonda, the ideal of elementary barbarism, without consciousness of right and wrong; Hilperik, the man of barbaric race, who acquires the tastes of civilization, and becomes polished outwardly without any deeper reformation; Mummolus, the civilized man who becomes a barbarian, and corrupts himself in order to belong to his age; Gregory of Tours, the man of a former epoch, but one better than the present, which oppresses him, the faithful echo of the regrets which expiring civilization calls up in some elevated minds.*
The narratives of the Merovingian times will, I think, close the circle of my works of historical narrative; it would be rash to extend my views and hopes beyond. Whilst I endeavoured in this work to paint Frankish barbarism, mitigated in the sixth century by the contact of a civilization it destroyed, a reminiscence of my early youth crossed my mind. In 1810, I was finishing my studies at the college of Blois, when a copy of “Les Martyrs,” brought from without, circulated through the college. It was a great event for those amongst us who already felt a love of the beautiful and of glory. We quarrelled for the book; it was arranged that each one should have it by turns, and mine fell on a holyday at the hour of going out walking. That day I pretended to have hurt my foot, and remained alone at home. I read, or rather devoured the pages, seated before my desk in a vaulted room, which was our schoolroom, and the aspect of which appeared to me grand and imposing. I at first felt a vague delight, my imagination was dazzled; but when I came to the recital of Eudore, that living history of the declining empire, a more active and reflecting interest attached me to the picture of the eternal city, of the court of a Roman emperor, the march of a Roman army in the marshes of Batavia, and its encounter with an army of Franks.
I had read in the history of France, used by the scholars of the military college, and our classical book, “The Franks, or French, already masters of Tournay, and the banks of the Escaut, had extended their conquests as far as Somme. . . . Clovis, son of King Childéric, ascended the throne 481, and by his victories strengthened the foundations of the French monarchy.”* All my archæology of the middle ages consisted in these sentences, and some others of the same kind, which I had learned by heart. French, throne, monarchy, were to me the beginning and end, the groundwork and the form of our national history. Nothing had given me any notion of M. de Chateaubriand’s terrible Franks clothed in the skins of bears, seals, and wild boars, and of the camp guarded by leathern boats, and chariots drawn by huge oxen, of the army placed in the form of a triangle, in which could be distinguished nothing but a forest of javelins, of wild beasts’ skins, and half-naked bodies.† As the dramatic contrast between the savage warrior and the civilized soldier gradually developed itself, I was more and more deeply struck; the impression made on me by the war-song of the Franks was something electrical. I left the place where I was seated, and marching from one end of the room to the other, repeated aloud, and making my steps ring on the pavement:—
“Pharamond! Pharamond! we have fought with the sword.
“We have hurled the battle-axe with two blades; sweat ran from the brow of the warriors, and trickled down their arms. The eagles and birds with yellow feet uttered screams of joy; the crows swam in the blood of the dead; all ocean was but a wound. The virgins have long wept.
“Pharamond! Pharamond! we have fought with the sword.
“Our fathers fell in battle, all the vultures moaned at it: our fathers satiated them with carnage. Let us choose wives whose milk shall be blood, and shall fill with valour the hearts of our sons. Pharamond, the song of the bard is ended, the hours of life are passing away; we will smile when we must die.
“Thus sang forty thousand barbarians. The riders raised and lowered their white shields in cadence; and at each burden, they struck their iron-clad chests with the iron of their javelins.”‡
This moment of enthusiasm was perhaps decisive of my future vocation. I had then no consciousness of what had passed within me; my attention did not dwell on it; I even forgot it for many years; but when after inevitable stumblings in the choice of a profession, I gave myself up wholly to history, I remembered that incident of my life and its minutest circumstances with singular preciseness. Even now, if the page which struck me so forcibly is read aloud to me, I feel the same emotion I did thirty years ago. Such is my debt to the writer of genius who began and still reigns over the new literary epoch. All those who in various ways follow the paths of this epoch, have likewise found him at the source of their studies and their first inspirations; there is not one who ought not to say to him, as Dante did to Virgil:—
NARRATIVES OF THE MEROVINGIAN TIMES.
[† ] This name signifies “wise child.”
[‡ ] Lodewig and Chlodowig are two perfectly identical names; only the second form is more ancient than the first. In the ninth century, the strong aspirate at the beginning was rarely pronounced. By following the orthography which I have adopted, the passing from one form to the other permits the preservation of the distinction established by our modern historians between the series of Frankish kings to whom they give the name of Clovis, and the series of those to whom they give that of Louis.
[* ] Ermoldi Nigelli carmen de rebus gestis Ludovici Pii; apud Script Rerum Francic. tom. vi. p. 13.
In several Germanic dialects, and especially in that of the Alemanni, who were early incorporated with the Frankish nation, the t always takes the place of the d. This is why the poet writes “Hulto” instead of “Hludo.” The final o, as I have already mentioned, was pronounced mutely.
[† ] The Franks wrote and pronounced Keisar. In modern German, Keisar signifies Emperor.
[‡ ] Ermoldi Nigelli carmen, apud Script Rerum Francic. t. vi. p. 38.
[* ] The author writes Vitchar and Victharius. The open e of the Germanic language is almost always replaced by an a in the Latin orthography. Wither signifies sage and eminent, or what comes to the same thing, eminently sage, for it appears that one of the two composing adjectives, either the first or the last, were taken in an adverbial sense.
[† ] Ermoldi Nigelli carmen, lib. iii. p. 39.
[§ ] Ibid. p. 41.
[‡ ] Ibid. p. 44.
[§ ] The author writes Colsus in Latin, in order to preserve the tonic accent on the first syllable. This name, of which nothing indicates the signification, is of the class of those which appear to have been contracted by familiar use. The termination in el is one of the signs of the diminutive.
[† ] Ibid. p. 47.
[† ] V. Script. Rer. Francic. t. vii. pp. 68, 250, 290.
[* ] M. de Chateaubriand; Les Martyrs, livres vi. et vii.; Etudes, ou Discours Historiques, étude sixième, Mœurs des Barbares.
[* ] Nouvelles Lettres sur l’Histoire de France.
[* ] Decedente, atque imo potius pereunte ab urbibus Gallicanis liberalium cultura litterarum . . . cum gentium feritas desæviret, regum furor acueretur . . . ingemiscebant sæpius plerique dicentes: Væ diebus nostris, quia periit studium litterarum a nobis. (Greg. Turon., Hist. Franc. Eccles., apud Script. Rer. Gallic. et Francic., t. ii. p. 137.)
[* ] Abrégé de l’Histoire de France à l’usage des Elèves de l’Ecole royal militaire, faisant partie du cours d’études redigé et imprimé par ordre du roi, 1789, t. i. p. 5 et 6.
[† ] Les Martyrs, livre vi.
[‡ ] Les Martyrs, livre vi.