27 January 2011

King Henri IV's early childhood

I'm just starting to read French centrist politician François Bayrou's book about the French king Henri IV, who reigned from 1589 until 1610. In that year, he was assassinated in Paris by an apparently unbalanced religious fanatic. Bayrou's book is called Henri IV, le roi libre and was published in 1994.

François Bayrou was a presidential candidate in France in 2007. He has an advanced degree, the agrégation, in classical literature from the Université de Bordeaux and was a teacher until he was named Ministre de l'Education Nationale in 1993 and went into politics.

King Henri IV de France was the Protestant figure who was famous, according to legend, for saying « Paris vaut bien une messe » — Paris is well worth a mass — when he decided, for political reasons, to embrace Catholicism as king. Henri was by heredity the king of Navarre, a small, contested territory straddling the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.

Henri de Navarre was formally recognized as the legitimate king of France in 1589 by heirless French King Henri III, his brother-in-law and cousin, who was on his deathbed after suffering wounds inflicted upon him by a fanatical assassin. The new king had to convince the majority Catholics to give him their allegiance, so he renounced Protestantism.

He came to the throne at the end of the religious wars between French Catholics and Protestants. In 1598 Henri signed the Edict of Nantes, giving Protestants the legal right to practice their religion in France. He was also the king who said, again according to legend, that his goal was to make sure that every French family had « une poule au pot » — a “chicken in the pot,” or a stewed chicken — for dinner every Sunday.

Henri IV was born in the city of Pau in the Pyrenees on December 13, 1553. According to Bayrou, little Henri had a typical early childhood for the times. That involved being tied up and strapped into his cradle for the first year or more of his life.

Here's what François Bayrou writes, in my translation:
In the late 1500s, newborn babies were wrapped, strapped, and bound, almost like mummies, because parents thought that was good for the baby. Immobilizing babies in that way was common practice for at least two centuries, and in the Pyrenees countryside it was the accepted practice as late as the 19th century. It was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his book Emile, ou de l'Education [1762] that first got people to theorizing about the benefits of allowing their newborn babies' limbs to move around freely.

Until then, people thought that for a baby to grow up straight, tall, and well-proportioned, it was best to “shape” its body by binding its legs together and strapping its arms to the sides of its torso with cloth bandages. No limb movement was permitted during the child's first year, and for added security the baby was strapped into its cradle.

Wrapping the baby up like a little mummy in this way took considerable time and effort, so babies were not frequently changed — usually just once a day. People believed that the body's natural filth was protective, and that urine had its beneficial effects. It was also not recommended to clean the scabs that formed on the baby's skull, because the soft spot (the fontanel) might be damaged.

And to make sure the baby's nails grew strong, it was recommended that they not be cut before the age of 18 months or even two years. If the baby got lice, people were careful to make sure a few stayed on the baby's body after delousing, because lice were believed to "eat bad blood."
I had no idea that those were the prevailing child-rearing practices at the end of the French Renaissance. Did you? Here's the passage in French:

By the way, the pronunciation of François Bayrou's family name is the subject of controversy in France. Many journalists and politicians pronounce it as [bay-ROO], more or less the way it is spelled. Bayrou himself doesn't appear to like that pronunciation. I've seen him correct people during interviews on television, instructing them to pronounce his name this way: [by-ROO].

And again by the way, the name of the southwestern French port city of Bayonne is pronounced as [by-YUN] in France, not [bay-own] as in New Jersey.


  1. its amazing any baby could walk after being immobile for a yr....jeez....I had no idea.....very interesting

  2. Bizarre! I wonder if the babies crawled later? The house was probably a dangerous place for a baby with that big open fireplace. I heard that folks spent a lot of time in bed in the winters long ago because they had little food.

    Being swaddled might make the baby need less of its mother's milk...

    Thanks for translating this for us.

  3. A chicken in every pot? How interesting that that 16th century phrase was still used by politicians in the 20th.

    I'm sure my sister would love to avail herself of the child mummification technique you describe. She is stuck at home today with her 3 kids for a snow day (yet again) in CT.

    thanks for translating this - it is a fascinating glimpse into an era of superstition(?).

  4. I guess that's why he liked crawling on all fours with his children during their play time :-)


  5. Wow! The baby must have had no muscle strength when he was eventually unbound. I wonder how long it took for a child to learn to walk after that treatment.

    I saw an excellent exhibition on Henri IV at the chateau/museum in St Germaine en Laye last Oct.

    And thanks to your language lesson the other day, I knew how to pronounce Bayonne. :)


  6. Fortunately, by the time I visited the Château de Pau in 2000(specifically to see little Henri's tortoise shell cradle), it had been well scrubbed of any remaining "crasse protégeante".

  7. Has there ever been a time since man first appeared on the earth, when religion was not causing more problems than it ever solved?

  8. LOL, Starman! I'm right behind you.

  9. If one can be said to have a favorite king Henri IV is mine. Le Vert Galant!

    I love the equestrian statute on the Pont Neuf.

  10. Voici un épisode intéressant de "Secrets d'Histoire" au sujet d'Henri IV:

    Première partie:

    Deuxième partie:


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