Print and polemic in sixteenth-century France: the Histoires prodigieuses, confessional identity, and the Wars of Religion


  • For help and advice, I thank Stephen Bamforth, Kathryn Banks, Pollie Bromilow, Susan Broomhall, Edward Colless, Charles Zika, and the anonymous readers for Renaissance Studies. Translations are my own unless otherwise noted. The early stages of this research were undertaken while on a fellowship at the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, and more recent work has been supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project jointly held with Charles Zika and Susan Broomhall, as well as a Wellcome Trust Travel Grant in Medical History and Humanities.


The second half of the sixteenth century saw the rise of the wonder book as a distinct genre shaped by religious conflict. These often richly illustrated compendia presented extraordinary events intended to inspire both fear and wonder. In France, wonder books appeared primarily during the Wars of Religion (1562–98). The most important was Pierre Boaistuau's 1560 Histoires prodigieuses, which appeared in revised editions incorporating new texts by Claude Tesserant, François de Belleforest, Arnauld Sorbin, Rod. Hoyer, and the unidentified ‘I. D. M.’ through until 1598. This article surveys the complex publication history of the Histoires prodigieuses and its changing presentation of prodigious disasters and wonders like famines, floods, plagues, monstrous births and earthquakes, and examines some of the textual and visual means by which the Histoires prodigieuses reflected the violent disorder of the Wars of Religion. It focuses particularly on the shift from a publication first written by Protestant Pierre Boaistuau, and then updated and revised by Catholic authors including François de Belleforest and Arnauld Sorbin, in order to examine new aspects of polemical print culture in sixteenth-century France.