Accustomed to calUmny
What fascinates with Courtilz is the bad habit, or the genius, he had of mixing truth and fiction. Worse, he was pretty good at it. He wrote a lot of memoirs in the I-form, playing on the different levels of narration. The biography of Mr D’Artagnan, for instance, was written 27 years after the Musketeer’s death : “ I put these memoirs together, wrote the author in the preface, from several pieces found in the documents [d’Artagnan] left after his death.” They are packed with accounts of historical battles and, more interesting, with quite convincing portraits of historical characters such as Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin and even Louis XIV. Far from the official chronicles, Courtilz describes Cardinal Mazarin, for instance, in a very straightforward and intimate way : “ he was a wicked master (....) as he had proved himself to be covetous and deceitful (...), people of quality would not seek his company so that we can say he was surrounded by more riffraff than honest people (...). Who offered the most was the most welcome.” Talking about the Cardinal’s creatures, he specifies : “ they used to get fat off the people’s blood.”
Was Courtilz that far from reality ? When he died, Mazarin was alledgedly richer than... the state of France. We believe, quite willingly too, in the corrupt society Courtilz depicts : a hierarchy based upon birth rather than merit and some valuable people like Colonel Fabert neglected because Louis XIV “ deeply disliked his look ”. In the first pages of the biography of the once most powerful Ministre of Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert (La Vie de Jean-Baptiste Colbert, À Cologne, ***, 1695), he enumerates the qualities of the politician before stating : “ He was ready to sacrifice everything to his glory, including integrity, honour and gratitude. He was tough to the extreme and did not care to ruin a multitude of families as long as he could collect some money for the State. He never did any good to anyone but, at least, he never shed the blood of his enemies. ” Such a tone was probably not appreciated in Versailles – at least openly, as we often come across some copies of Courtilz’ works featuring dignified coats of arms.
Truth can be felt in Courtilz’ portraits; he knew what he was talking about. A former Musketeer himself, he had fought different battles and met a lot of “ people of quality ” from the French Court. He had served under the commandment of D’Artagnan at one point, and spent some time in La Bastille when Besmeaux, a former friend of the Musketeer, was the Governor of the prison. Did he gave him some details about D’Artagnan ? If he did, he surely regreted it as Courtilz depicts Besmeaux as a man rich in pride and poor in dignity, “ ready to sacrifice his best friends ” for advancement sake.
A lapidary style, some private adventures worthy of the best novels and the feeling to be thrown right into the middle of the greatest events of the Grand Siècle make Courtilz’ books captivating. His personal way of interpreting history is what makes them satirical – not to say seditious. As a wise man, Courtilz never signed his books. And he had them printed at Pierre Marteau’s. But not even the protection of a Commissioneer of police nor the mysteries around his wanderings could shelter him from the wrath of the Sun King. In 1702, he was arrested and “ embastillé ” (put to prison at La Bastille) for eleven years! He remained active behind bars. “Accustomed to calomny, reads Chaudon’s Dictionnaire, and writing – unfortunately - with ease, Sandras published book after book without running out of fancy stories.” The irrelevant facts noted by his detractors are rarely detailed – a duel between the Palatin and Turenne, incorrect chronology at times... but mostly made-up romances and adventures involving real personalities - calumny. In Le Siècle de Louis XIV, Voltaire wrote a short paragraph about Sandras de Courtilz : “ We do place here his name only to inform foreigners about his false Memoirs printed in Holland. Courtilz was one of the most wicked writers of his kind : he drowned Europe under a flood of novels he called histories.” Such a mixture of truth and fiction could not be forgiven in those times, not even by Voltaire. In La Bastille, Courtilz wrote restlessly, including the biography of one of his inmates, M. de Tyrconnel. He left 40 manuscripts behind him when he died, one year after his release, in 1712, aged 68. “ These are a series of historical novels that should have been buried with their author, wrote Chaudon. It might have been wise to add his printed books to the casket as well.” No mercy for the villains in historical dictionnaries.