Rethinking the Renegade in Early Modern France: Moliere's Bourgeois Gentleman and the Trial of Soliman Rais, 167072

Friday, January 4, 2019: 4:10 PM
Grant Park Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Toby Wikstrom, University of Iceland
In a 1667 letter to minister of the Marine Colbert Trubert, the French royal envoy to Algiers, complains of “la facilité que les Provençaux ont à quitter le chapeau pour le turban” and adds that “il y […] à Tripoly, à Thunis et à Alger plus de 2000” renegades. By vituperating Christian converts to Islam and characterizing apostasy as a Provençal phenomenon, Trubert rehearses a set of overlapping binaries common to elite discourse under the monarchy of Louis XIV: Christian/Muslim, Paris/Provence, center/periphery, purity/impurity. In line with recent scholarship demonstrating the profoundly ambivalent Christian perception of the renegade as both a damnable heretic and an enticing figure enjoying forbidden material or sensual pleasures, I will challenge these oppositions and begin to rethink the place of the renegade in the early modern French cultural imaginary. Drawing upon both royal archives and imaginative performance, I will argue that early modern French society tolerated real-life practice and the imaginative performance of apostasy to a greater degree than the hostile discourse of Trubert and other state elites suggests. First, via an examination of archival traces of the 1672 trial of the French renegade Soliman Reis in Aix, I will show that authorities were to a certain extent permissive of apostasy in Provence. Then, moving from the polluted margin to the supposedly pure center, I will excavate the presence of the renegade in the very epicenter of French society, the royal court. I will do so by showing how the burlesque ceremony of Turkish ennoblement in Molière’s famous 1670 comedy-ballet Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (performed before the court and in Paris) in fact constitutes an artfully concealed ritual of conversion to Islam. In conclusion, I will consider the potential role of my argument for the writing of a Mediterranean history of early modern France.