Who knows what was in the Franciscan friar’s mind while strolling along the streets of Angoulême, or in the surrounding countryside. André Thevet was born of humble origins in 1504, whose father is said to have worked for the Rochefoucauld family, and whose sumptuous castle was situated six leagues from the city. Thanks to the family’s support, Andrè had had some basic education, displaying intelligence and great curiosity. However, he found it difficult to imagine how his future would unfold: he was certainly unattracted to a military career, and any kind of work made him anxious. Then, as a pragmatic good Christian, he understood that for those who were of small means, especially in these difficult times for France and for his city, undertaking a religious life was the most suitable alternative. Thus, a few years earlier, whether by vocation or a wish for stability, he had entered the convent of the Cordeliers in Angoulême. He rather liked this life: respecting the Franciscan rule, he was free to travel outside and immerse himself in every kind of book in various living and dead languages. Indeed, it was these books that drew him to the echoes and call of the wide world. Friar Andrè Thevet may have been dwelling on this while wandering along the streets. He was not to know and could not know that in another city in France that day in 1530 someone was born, a “quidam”, who would be a source of great irritation many years later.
This newborn baby was the son of a notary from Nîmes, a serious, highly esteemed professional of noble principles. However, he was not financially secure, having made some rather bad investments in the past. The family welcomed the third child with joy, but it was another mouth to feed, and there would follow others. Nevertheless, Jean Nicot was sent to study at the prestigious Collège des Arts de Nîmes, and there achieved distinction in literary, scientific and historical studies, earning respect and support from his teachers and heads of the institute. His family’s precarious financial situation meant that he had to be thrifty and think carefully about his future.
André Thevet was no longer at the convent. In 1533 he was sent to study Theology at the University of Poitiers. With the permission of his superiors, six years later he was in Paris, moving in intellectual circles. The following year he was sailing somewhere in the ocean, on Guillaume Le Testu’s vessel, who was a navigator and privateer. In 1541 he should have set sail from Lisbon heading for the Maluku Islands, but was taken ill, so he went to Italy instead. On his return to France he was nominated Secretary to Georges II d'Amboise, who was the archbishop of Rouen: there Thevet had the opportunity to browse the extensive library and meet important cultural figures. Subsequently, he alternated journeys to Italy, especially in the north, with returns back to a France that was buffeted by religious strife. He even reached the African coast of Bizerte. Between 1548 and 1549 he stayed a while in Rome, fascinated by the various archaeological excavations, and sometimes witnessed important discoveries in the gardens of the magnificent palaces.
How could a poor Franciscan afford all this? On the one hand, his unbridled, disarming curiosity, wide-ranging interests, his friendliness, as well as the fact that he was a friar all contributed to being acquainted with numerous people, some of whom helped him. On the other hand, the French Government was actively involved in Italy in an endemic war with the Spanish, and so could be interested in facilitating the movement of a hyperactive, sociable, curious Franciscan who was ready to report what was happening. At that time, whoever wore a cassock or tunic was free to move anywhere. As a result, there were many religious members of the Church that were used as informers.
In the spring of 1549, Thevet said farewell to his illustrious companions of cultural adventures and left for France full of memories, notes, sketches, and small, ancient souvenirs. However, on his journey back he met a powerful and extravagant figure: the Archbishop Jean de Lorraine, renowned patron of artists. Thevet told him about his journeys and interests, also showing him his souvenirs. The Archbishop was so enthusiastic that he proposed a fully funded study voyage to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, Jean Nicot was in Toulouse, studying law. However, he had not abandoned his interests and good relations that had been cultivated when at the Collège des arts. Indeed, in addition to law, he also loved history, and also had a predilection for Latin, Greek and French. He made some excellent acquaintances and earned Jean de Bertrand’s respect, who was a Jurist from Toulouse. Although he graduated in Law and became a lawyer, he was also passionate about the arts and letters, which provided him with the opportunity to work in these fields. He contributed to the editing of books together with important cultural figures with whom he had reciprocal respect and maintained correspondence. As soon as he could, he sent a part of his income to his penniless family. By now his character was formed: he was serious, experienced, reliable, scrupulous, restrained but sensitive to others, meek but firm, tenacious and was highly skilled in mediation.
Back to 1549: after some hesitation André Thevet accepted the Archbishop’s proposal and in June, after attending Mass in St. Mark’s Square, set sail from Venice. During the voyage the vessel was attacked by pirates, but managed escape. The next stop was Istanbul, at the time still Constantinople. Following that was Greece, where the Parthenon had been transformed into a church, Rhodes with memories of its vanished Colossus, Crete, Alexandria, Cairo and the pyramids. He joined a caravan of camels to cross the desert and arrived in the Holy Land. Still crossing over land he reached Antioch, where he embarked on a vessel in 1551, sailing to Malta, Corsica, Marseilles and finally Paris. There he met Guillaume Le Testu, navigator and privateer, who convinced him to accompany him to Argentina. In 1552, he returned, first to Spain and then back to Paris. Laden with memories, notes and souvenirs, he decided that he would stop travelling. He bought books and manuscripts, providing the basis for an extensive library. Helped by the La Rochefoucauld family, he was introduced to Henry II Valois, who was fascinated by his stories and gifts, and named him almoner to the court.
Towards the end of 1553, or the beginning of 1554, Jean Nicot also arrived in Paris. He was introduced to the French Court by Jean de Bertrand, whom he had met in Toulouse, and who was now Keeper of the Seals of France, a sort of Ministry of Justice. Nicot started to work for him as an archivist. He became familiar with the environment, assimilating and discussing laws and decrees, following the process of their wording, liaising with diplomats, lawyers, consultants and administrators. He had plenty of work, but was always prudent, discreet and competent. Thus, he gradually became involved in the King’s affairs, who finally appointed him as his own private secretary. In this position he entered the King’s circle, the people who mattered most. Informed of the more sensitive affairs of the State, he expressed his opinion, which was usually appropriate and much appreciated. In 1557 the King appointed him Maitre des Requetes, which was a prestigious position that consolidated his meteoric career advancement, not based on court intrigues (frequent at court), but exclusively based on merit.
Not only was Paris the centre of the State, but it was also a cultural paradise that Nicot had always sought. He could now meet the many intellectuals with whom he had only corresponded previously, coming into contact with the humanist poets of the great Pléiade, and was welcomed to the most important literary salons. In his spare time he also wrote poetry, but his most rewarding task was his philological editorial work that he cherished above all else.
Meanwhile, at court Thevet was making progress. Not as almoner, but as a writer. It was inevitable that a passionate traveller would recount his various experiences, and in fact this is what he did. However, all these memories, souvenirs, notes, and sketches should have produced something more, especially if the itinerary was consistent, identified and confirmed as the one that he followed in the Eastern Mediterranean. He had long been contemplating publishing a volume of his travels, and as he met many people and made agreements, he prepared an outline for a book. Printed in 1554, the Cosmographie de Levant was neither exactly a travel book, nor was it a simple account of personal experiences. It was rather a kind of compilation. Thevet flanked his adventures in person with the works published by others, both contemporary and older works, together with other events described through vicarious experiences. He combined all sources with no kind of criteria, often including what was imaginary, unusual or astonishing, without distinguishing fact from fiction, occasionally adding his own commentary. However, this was unsurprising in the sixteenth century. The mixture of fact and fiction, often modelled on ancient texts, reflected Renaissance admiration for antiquity, curiosity regarding distant lands and customs provoked by major geographical discoveries, and the desire to amass complete, copious, incontrovertible, conclusive information. The texts were illustrated with woodcuts from drawings by Thevet or depicting his collection of souvenirs. The Cosmographie did not address scholars but aimed for a more general public of sensation-seeking readers (for that time), enraptured by the prints that were still rare in books that were published in that period. Indeed, the book was highly successful. However, as it was being published, André Thevet already had another project in mind: the era of his travels was not completely over. Saint Francis had stated that “the journey is essential to the dream”. However, in Thevet’s case his journey had completely different aims.
For several decades French vessels had been sailing along the Brazilian coast, as traders from Dieppe, Rouen, and Le Havre had established a solid network of natives from whom they bought fine timber, precious metals and spices. However, the Spanish and Portuguese considered the French trespassers and reacted accordingly. This is the reason why it was decided that an expedition under Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, Knight of Malta, would sail there and establish an overseas French colony, where it was hoped that Catholics and Protestants could live together peacefully (unlike in France at that time). André Thevet was on board as almoner. After lengthy preparations the fleet set sail in May 1555, but was forced to turn back due to violent storms. More time was needed for repairs, and then the fleet set sail again on a rather arduous voyage that lasted four months. Finally, the fleet reached Guanabara Bay on a small island named Serigipe by its natives, nearby what is today Rio de Janeiro, and the soldiers and colonists built a fort and small settlement. Thevet explored the area, also trying to convert the natives, but above all observing, making notes and drawing. However, after ten weeks he left for France, perhaps due to ill health or Villegagnon’s rather strict character, or else to religious disputes. All of this compromised the expedition’s successful outcome.
Once back in Paris, Thevet returned to work. His new book would also be a collection of “wonderful and strange things” that he had seen and experienced over ten weeks in Brazil, as well as reports from reliable witnesses, which was combined with accounts from various sources and numerous citations of ancient authors (the latter thanks to a scholarly ghost writer). If the Latin and Greek texts in the Cosmographie de Levant aimed to bring authority to other parts of the account, in the case of the new volume the feat was rather bolder and consisted in seeking endless parallels between the ancient world of Herodotus, Pliny, Vitruvius and the rather disquieting customs of the Tupinamba Indios, but above all of those of other American populations. Various parts of the continent were included with descriptions of their curiosities: Thevet’s method was to describe places to which he had never been.
Odes composed by two of the most eminent poets of the Pléiade introduced the work, together with numerous extraordinary illustrations that enhanced it. Eagerly awaited by a public hungry for novelty and oddities, Les Singularitez de France Antarctique was published in 1557.
In early April 1559, by signing the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, King Henri II of Valois renounced his claims to all the French conquests in Italy, in return gaining Calais, Toul, Verdun and Metz. To seal the treaty it was decided that Henry’s daughter, Elisabeth, would marry Philip II, the King of Spain, while Marguerite, Henry’s sister, would marry Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy. Moreover, marriage diplomacy continued with the decision by Henry to arrange the marriage between his daughter Marguerite and the King of Portugal, Sebastian I. Thus, France would create close ties with this country of navigators made prosperous by a vast colonial empire, removing Spain’s influence on it. However, this was a delicate issue: Marguerite was almost six and Sebastian was just over five years old. The French ambassador in Portugal of that time was not so suitable to arrange the alliance, and there were various factions at court that were vying for this post. Henry decided to disrupt this situation by nominating ambassador to the Court of Portugal someone who in fact had never been an ambassador, but whose competences and composure were held in high regard by everyone. This man was Jean Nicot.
There followed intense days of continuous meetings with Henry, who wanted his envoy to be thoroughly prepared in every aspect of the mission, especially the confidential aspect, as did Nicot himself. It was in May when Nicot and his entourage reached La Rochelle to embark on the voyage, but there was a problem: the English pirate, Henry Strangways, controlled the harbour’s entrance. All negotiations were in vain: Strangways was determined to intercept the ship as it left the harbour and capture the ship’s bounty. As the French had no means to defend themselves, they resorted to travelling over land. Nicot was a jurist and humanist, and he and his entourage were certainly not used to suffering hardship. Yet, they found themselves in almost extreme situations, similar to the ones Thevet had frequently experienced, such as having to deal with almost inaccessible roads, paths, the arid Spanish highlands in the summer, while having to haul heavily laden carts.
Once they reached Valladolid, the capital, they stopped there for several days, also to pay a visit to the Court of Castile. During their difficult journey, rumours had been spread about a disaster occurring in France, and now the news was confirmed. Henri II, a passionate jouster, had organised a jousting tournament in Paris on June 30th, and took part in person. He had already had several jousts, and once again mounted his horse, riding at high speed towards his opponent wielding his lance made of ash. On impact, the opponent’s lance shattered after entering the King’s helmet, penetrating his face. Although the doctors desperately tried to save him, ten days later Henry II died at the age of forty. Thus, there was nothing left for Nicot and his entourage but to accept the condolences expressed by the Court of Castile and head for Lisbon, where they arrived by mid-August. It was only in early September that Nicot actively worked as ambassador.
A young boy reigned in Portugal, so his grandmother, Catherine Habsburg acted as regent. However, her brother-in-law and great-uncle of King John, Cardinal Henry, wished to have more authority in decision-making. Catherine wanted independence for Portugal and was in favour of Sebastian’s marriage to Marguerite. On the other hand, Henry looked to Philip II and an alliance between Portugal and Spain.
Nicot’s seriousness and good manners, and the cultural affinity between him and the regent immediately promoted an excellent relationship at Court. Several times it appeared that negotiations for the royal marriage were well on their way. However, each time Philip II, through his intermediaries, did his utmost to disrupt them, occasionally helped by Catherine de’ Medici’s inability to decide. Furthermore, the situation in France made matters more difficult: Francis II, who had succeeded his father King Henry to the throne at the age of fourteen, died of an illness seventeen months later. Charles IX was only ten when he succeeded his brother to the throne on December 5th, 1560. Fortunately, the young kings had their mother, Catherine de’ Medici, to support and advise them in a political and religious crisis. She was indomitable but worn out by the never-ending conflict between the various factions that surrounded her. The ambassador found himself in this hornet’s nest with the parties concerned and besides arranging the marriage had to deal with pressing issues on behalf of his country. It could be that the other pressing issues were the real concern, and the marriage was a useful excuse.
Another problem emerged from the French colony in Brazil, the one founded by Villegagnon that Thevet had described in his Singularitez. Following the departure of the Franciscan, the situation had worsened, although the settlement resisted until the Portuguese decided to attack and destroy the fort in March 1560. As soon as news of the attack reached the French monarch, he ordered Nicot to protest vehemently in Lisbon, but without success, as the Portuguese claimed their action was legitimate. In the end, the French decided not to insist on an issue that could jeopardise a peace treaty that had so recently been signed, preferring to focus on the other negotiations in progress.
Another ongoing, more general problem concerned trade-based maritime traffic. In the Mediterranean and the Atlantic piracy and smuggling was endemic, although each country did little to tackle this when the offenders came from their ports. Indeed, it was a kind of indirect, undeclared war. In the spirit of the Chateau Chambrésis Treaty, norms could have been established that were common to all parties and respected by them, and this is what the jurist Nicot urged the Portuguese and French to achieve. However, those who were willing (or perhaps double-dealing) were opposed by those who stubbornly refused, interested in leaving the situation as it was. Thus, Nicot acted almost as an impartial third party in the frequent, often heated discussions, seeking to consider the reasons of the parties involved and encouraging dialogue, albeit keeping in mind his country’s interests. Indeed, he spared no effort if a fellow countryman needed to be defended. In particular, he was ordered by the King to negotiate agreements concerning certain types of products.
Precise and thorough, a good, keen observer, the ambassador also acted as a spy by keeping the King, Catherine and other important figures informed on all the events in Portugal, from Court affairs to the organisation of the State, trade and colonies, technical and lexical aspects of shipbuilding and navigation. While he was in office, he acquired and sent books and manuscripts dealing with these subjects to France.
Nicot was still a humanist, even in Lisbon and moved in intellectual circles whenever his onerous obligations permitted him to do so, thereby making some friends, including Lopo Homem, the great cartographer, Jacques de Sigy, a French scholar who had settled in Portugal, and the Portuguese diplomat, Damião de Góis, as well as other local scholars and artists.
In May 1561 the captain of a Portuguese vessel was guilty of a serious violent episode against Norman and Breton merchants that had moored their ship laden with wares in the port of Tasquais, at the mouth of the River Tagus. A sudden assault in a port was likely to cause more uproar than the usual attacks out at sea. However, this was just one of a series of incidents, as well as other kinds, in which some Frenchmen were treated badly, at least from the French point of view. Nicot firmly confronted Catherine, the regent, and she acted accordingly. The incident ended in the best way possible with Catherine’s apology and the promise to provide recompense for the family of the French captain who died during the incident. It was business as usual. However, on July 5th a letter from the King arrived, summoning the ambassador back to France.
Keeping the contents of the letter to himself, Nicot began to prepare for his return journey. In order to address his obligations as ambassador, without sufficient support from Paris he had to pay out of his own pocket and so fell into debt. However, the honour of France required that he only leave when all affairs were concluded, so he continued to work at the Court of Portugal and right up to the end sought to negotiate the marriage arrangements. Finally, he broke the news, which caused intense expressions of regret.
On October 10th 1561, he was on board a ship that would take him back to France, and meditated while the ship glided through the waves. The marriage problem had not been solved, but on the whole the final outcome was not wholly negative in his opinion. He certainly had given his best, perhaps even more, smiling to himself and thinking about that plant: “une erbe d’Inde, de merveilleuse et expérimentée propriété” - an “Indian herb of marvellous and experimented properties”.
He could have been more cynical and less idealistic, but no one had criticised his work in Lisbon, confirmed by what is left of Nicot’s correspondence with Paris. His diplomatic interlude had ended, but not owing to demerit, but rather because of a precise and informed decision. Although he continued with his commitments at Court, he dedicated his time and energy to his one true passion in life, which was meticulous historical and philological research. Thus, he began working with other scholars, but above all he wished to finish a work that he had started before being sent to Portugal: in the early 11th century, Aimoin de Fleury, a French monk, had completed the first serious compilation of the history of the Franks. It had been reprinted in 1514, marred by numerous errors and inaccuracies. Only an observant scholar like Nicot was able to provide a thorough critical review of the work, which was published in 1567 with the title Aimoin de Fleury - Jean Nicot - Aimoini Monachi, Qui antea Annonii Nomine editus est, Historiae Francorum Lib. V.
Who knows what the busy Franciscan was thinking, while the ship that carried the ambassador back to France glided through the waves. Following his publication of Les Singularitez de France Antarctique, events had gained momentum. The book was highly successful, but it had also given him cause for concern. A number of intellectuals had launched attacks on Thevet: the work was a badly assembled muddle, culturally inferior, fully of fantasy and lies. In particular, the Catholic Thevet was accused by Protestants of supplying a version of a part of the religious dispute that had exploded in the Brazilian colonies. However, his popularity prevailed over criticism, also at Court where the Franciscan had been well introduced. Here a problem arose: Friar André Thevet was at the same time an author, or rather an assembler of success, an organiser and entrepreneur, who patronised elegant salons together with prominent French citizens instead of the cloister. This was not unusual for a religious person, but his vow of poverty had long been neglected, and this had become a burden. In 1578 he left the Order. In the same year the King appointed him Cosmographe du Roy, Court geographer, and gave him the task of looking after his new passion: le Cabinet de curiosités royal. Thevet’s new life was not limited to these commitments, as his dynamic resourcefulness was already working on a new editorial initiative. On the whole, everything was going smoothly, despite the critics. Yet, while the ship that set sail from Lisbon glided through the waves, something disturbed his serenity: a still faint discordant note, a recent rumour that left him uneasy.
During the following years the rumour was confirmed, increasingly unpleasant and loud. The former friar struggled to remain calm, the spirit of fraternity of the Franciscan: he was the object of mistreatment, oppression, plagiarism and unacceptable humiliation, and it was all down to that Nicot. He undoubtedly tried to protest against this, but to no avail. One of these protests, which was unmistakeable, was inserted into one of the many chapters of the second volume of his monumental work that was published in 1575: la Cosmographie Universelle. The most explicit and most cited sentence, followed by lines of poisonous controversy, went thus :
Je me puis vanter avoir esté le premier en France, qui a apporté la graine de cette plante, & pareillement semee & nomé la dite plante, l'herbe Angoumoisine. Depuis un quidam, qui ne feit jamais le voyage, quelque dix ans apres que je fus de retour de ce pais, luy donna son nom. (I can boast to be the first in France, who brought the seed of this plant, & cropped it, & named the plant Angoumoisine herb. Since a certain person, who never made the voyage, some ten years after I was back from this country, gave it his name).