From A Gallery of Eccentrics, by Morris Bishop, New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1928; pp. 29-42.
THE jests of other days are calculated to provoke in us rather gaping amazement than sympathetic mirth. The critical study of dead jokes is a solemn business, out of which our only profit is a knowledge of the ancestry of ideas. Those volumes of facetiae over which our dim fathers bellowed their amusement are now become materials for classification, examples for the history of strange humanity’s behavior. One hears no laughter now in that dusty corner of the library stacks where are stored the little Renaissance jest-books, still grimy from the thumbs of the sixteenth century.
Only when the character of the special human individual is evident beneath the prescribed uniform of the Joker do we somnolent patrons of the past stir in our stalls of time’s theater. Harlequin has been thwacking Pantaloon through many centuries, and little do we care, save when we perceive a face behind the mask, a man within the Pagliaccio, a Chaplin scampering through the deserts of Hollywood farce. Therefore we may rouse again in our chairs for some few moments while Brusquet puts on his act: Brusquet, court fool to three kings, and Postmaster of the City of Paris.
He first appeared among the troops of Francis I, quartered in Avignon, evidently in 1536. He presented himself as a doctor to the Swiss mercenaries and the 30 lansquenets, and his sense of humor getting the better of his discretion, his comic remedies sent them to their fathers thick as flies, while some few were cured by chance, says Brantôme.1 This havoc among the soldiery being construed as a military menace, he was called before the commander, and sentenced to be hung. And this would have been the end of Brusquet, had it not come to the ears of the Dauphin, later Henry II, that this gallows-ripe quack was an infinitely diverting fellow. The jolly Dauphin esteemed a joke to highly to send jokers thus lightly to oblivion; he rescued Brusquet from the clutches of the Camp Provost, and appointed him his valet of the wardrobe. Brusquet’s pleasantries were rewarded with the charge of valet de chambre to the prince; and Henry’s favor made him finally Master of the Post of Paris.
The title was no empty one. It will be remembered that Louis XI had established the first organized system of posts, by his edict of 1464. Relay stations were instituted at four-league intervals on the great highways of France; hundreds of couriers and post-horse were enrolled in the service; the grand master of the post was one of the high counselors of the king. Louis’ postal system was, to be sure, for the exclusive use of His Majesty and the princes his friends. By the mid-sixteenth century it had been extended to the service of private individuals, while it retained the monopoly of official transport. It will be plain that Brusquet’s position was responsible, serious, and gainful, no task for a fool. He had commonly in his stables at least a hundred horses, wherefore he dubbed himself Captain 31 of a Hundred Light Horse, and light horse they were indeed, says Brantôme, for lack of flesh and fatness. The rental charge of his horses being twenty sols a day for Frenchmen and twenty-five for Spaniards or other foreigners, and his poor jades doing often two stages a day, you may imagine if Brusquet came to be a rich man.
His avarice added to the gains of industry the product of a thousand laughable devices. In some prince’s house where he had come by condescension, he would espy a fine silver basin or ewer, agreeable to his covetous eye. Then he would whip out his blade, and crying that the basin had insulted and defied him, he would engage it in a furious duel, and finally fall upon it and dispatch it in a very burlesque manner. Few were the lordlings whose dignity would permit them to halt him as he hustled out his victim wrapped in his cloak.
Wit and effrontery gained what would have been denied to laborious merit. The Cardinal du Perron, asserting that Brusquet had begun by the law, continues that he came to court for a lawsuit, in which he gained nothing by legal address, but resorting to buffoonery won his case. “Seeing that he had done more in a day by clowning than in all his life of pleading, he quitted his profession and became a clown to his profit.”2 He accompanied King Henry to Brussels when, in 1559, the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis was signed with Philip II of Spain. Philip, somber though he was, took a liking to the merry rascal, and is said by some to have made him his own official jester.3 32 At the great banquet given by the King to celebrate the conclusion of peace, at which festival the greatest of the lords were present, Brusquet provided a comic and profitable interlude. When the fruit had been served and ere the dishes had been cleared, Brusquet suddenly leaped upon the table of His Majesty, and seizing one end of the cloth, rolled rapidly the length of the board, regardless of the danger of cutting himself with the knives. Thus he rolled himself into a great bundle of the regal plate, and coming to the table’s end, contrived somehow to stand upright and to make for the door in a manner that was the height of comicality. Philip, laughing extremely, and finding the performance witty, commanded that he should not be hindered in his escape. It was a matter of wonder that he was not at all wounded by the knives with which his clothes were larded. “Aussy Dieu aide aux fols et aux enfans.”
The tale of his stratagems and devices is infinite. Those trickeries which the anecdotists of his time recount with greatest pleasure seem today not worth the repetition, being such sorry jests as the substitution of false gold chains for true ones. By promptly revealing his cheat he would save his spoils for himself, and would receive from the court the palm of wit in place of a summons to the gallows. Brantöme tells of the long strife between Brusquet and the Marshal Strozzi, a summary of which will reveal more of the lighter side of court life than do many of the genteel examinations of the learned.33
Pierre Strozzi, son of Philippe Strozzi and Clarice de Medicis, is one of the great names of French military annals. In his private life, says his biographer Torsay,4 he was easy, agreeable, and facetious, “without however offending any person in deed or world. Thus was he generally loved by all those who had known and frequented him, and hated by none.” He loved to laugh, to clown, and to frisk forth a quip, says Brantôme, and in Brusquet he found the worthiest of adversaries.
One day when the Lord Marshal in a fine mantle of black velvet with silver-worked sleeves, was bowing and bending before his sovereign, Brusquet stole up behind him, with a larding-pin and a provision of bacon-strips. Therewith he promptly larded the skirt of that noble cloak, and when the Marshal turned from his interview, Brusquet cried to His Majesty: “Sire, are not these fine golden aglets that my Lord Marshal wears in his cloak?” Loud laughed the King, the Marshal, and the standers-by, and Strozzi exclaimed: “Come, good Brusquet, an thou didst wish the mantle, take it, and tell my men to bring me another; but I vow to ’ee that thou shalt pay me for this!”
A few days later, the Marshal came to Brusquet’s house with a band of gentlemen, and among them a skillful locksmith. With a very honest and open visage he invited Brusquet to a stroll in the garden, but meanwhile he slyly pointed to the locksmith the chest where Brusquet kept the fruits of his rapine. While the Marshal and Brusquet conversed in the garden, the artisan had the chest open in a jiffy, passed the treasures to the gentlemen, who escaped with bundles of plate 34 under their cloaks, and clapped the strong-box shut again. Soon Brusquet came to the King with a very long face to tell of his misfortune. Thereupon the Marshal returned all but five hundred crowns’ worth of his spoils, and this he gave to the locksmith, and all averred the prank a merry one.
Soon after, the Marshal was waiting again upon the King, and had left his fine blooded horse, worth five hundred crowns, with a rich silver-broidered housing, in charge of a lackey at the Louvre gate. Brusquet forthwith appearing sent the simple lackey on a wild-goose chase, took the charger to his posting-stable, cut off his mane and half of one ear, and sent him, in the wretched harness of his hirelings, on the post to Longjumeau. On his return the postillion, at Brusquet’s bidding, rode him to the Marshal’s palace, and addressed Strozzi in this tenor: “My lord, my master sends you his obeisance, and this your horse. He is very fit for the posting service, according to the trial I have made. My master bids me say that he will be pleased to buy your horse for fifty crowns.” The Marshal made no answer but the lordly one: “Go, take him to your master, and bid him keep the nag until he founders.”
It was not long before the Marshal sent a command to Brusquet for twenty post-horses; and some he rode until they dropped, and some he gave to certain poor foot-soldiers, and two he sold to a miller to carry flour. Brusquet’s men, recognizing their steeds under the shameful burden of flour sacks, had them seized by justice; but the lawsuit cost their master more than the price of the horses. “So,” concludes Brantôme, “Brusquet finally bought dear the horse of M. le 35 Mareschal; but ’twas all done with such laughter that one was like to die.”
Brusquet soon found such game too costly for his purse. He invited the Marshal to a treaty of peace, and celebrated the signing by a banquet, to which a dozen gallants of the court were bidden. He promised them that he would find the matter for a feast in his own house. For the first service some thirty pasties were brought in, hot and savory, and well sauced with spice and cinnamon and even must. Brusquet then excused himself a moment, while his guest, opening their pasties, found therein old bit of bridles, girths, cinch-straps, cruppers, breast-pieces, headstalls, studs, pommels and cantles. ’Tis said that some of those eager trenchermen had the tit-bits in their mouths before they found out the cheat; and then the spitting and cursing would have made you sick with laughter.
Next the Marshal apparently without rancor, in his turn summoned Brusquet to dine. But first he had his men steal a pretty little donkey that was the pet of Brusquet’s stable, and this ass he had skinned and prepared in cold pies and with hot sauces and in the manner of venison. Brusquet ate of all three, and heartily, for they were indeed delicate, and when he could swallow no more avowed that he had never better dined. “Wouldst see what thou hast eaten?” inquired the Marshal, and behold the head of the Brusquet’s ass, garnished like a boar’s head. Brusquet, so Brantôme avers, disgorged till he was near to expiring, through the revulsion of his stomach and especially for distress at the thought of having thus devoured “son pauvre petit mullet qu’il aimoit tant, et qui le menoit si doucement aux champs et à la ville et partout.”36
M. de Strozzi, we are told, amused the Queen by his droll description of the ugliness of Brusquet’s wife. The Queen, curious to see such a wonder, bade Brusquet bring her to court. Brusquet, who had no liking for the game, assured Her Majesty that his wife was stone deaf, and the Queen would find no pleasure in her conversation. Her Majesty and the Marshal insisting, Brusquet, resentful, informed his wife that the Queen was deaf as a pot, and that she should shout and scream in the Queen’s ear, or he would beat her well. Thus the courtiers were treated to a conversation in which Royalty and the goodwife bellowed to be heard in the lower court of the Louvre. M. de Strozzi attempted to check the beldame’s yelling; but as Brusquet had warned her that the Marshal was even more deaf than the Queen, she put her mouth to his ear and outdid her efforts. The Marshal escaped and summoned a valet of the hunt who had his horn at belt, and him he commanded to trumpet in the good woman’s ear until he should cry “holla!” He then addressed the Queen: “Madame, this woman is deaf, but I shall cure her.” At his order the valet sounded lustily the stag-hunt calls in the dame’s two ears, while the Marshal held her fast. And these blasts continued until she was deafened in ears and brain, so that for a month thereafter she could not hear the littlest word, until the physicians brought her relief, which cost Brusquet a pretty penny. Brusquet’s troubles during these days, concludes Brantôme, were indeed a good lesson to him.5
Strozzi found Dame Brusquet a good stick with 37 which to belabor his witty enemy. Brusquet went to Italy in 1555 in the train of the Cardinal de Lorraine, who was on a mission to the Pope.6 During his absence Strozzi so managed matters that a post-rider came to Paris with news of the death of Brusquet, bringing besides his master’s testament, duly signed and witnessed. This document prayed the King to endow his widow with the continuance of his charge, but only on condition that she would straightway espouse the courier who brought the news. The King was pleased to find good this continuance and condition, supported as it was by the honorable Marshal. Madame Brusquet was apprised of the King’s pleasure, and duly performed the obsequies of her spouse, published her grief for a fitting period, and wedded the courier, who had a good sum of crowns awarded him in the wedding contract. The happy marriage had lasted a month when Brusquet returned, and whether his wife was more surprised at his resurrection or he at the horns planted on his brow is a nice question. All the town buzzed with the tale of his neat cuckolding, but he, recognizing the humors of Strozzi, laughed out of the wrong side of his mouth as you may well imagine.
Brusquet got some vengeance by means of a confidential letter which he wrote to the Cardinal Caraffe, to warn him that Strozzi, out of humor with King Henry, had seized two galleys in Marseilles harbor, and had set sail for Algiers, there to deny his faith and take the turban of Mahomet. The fiery Marshal, so the letter set out, had vowed to seize and burn Civita Vecchia and 38 Ancona, and to pillage the shrine of Our Lady of Loretto and raze it to the earth. The Cardinal took fright at this news, and conferred with the Pope, who sent soldiery post-haste to save his children from the demoniac warrior. This shaft of Brusquet’s, however mortifying to another, wounded Strozzi not at all, for the Marshal was a godless man who recked nothing of the Pope’s favor on earth or in limbo.7
I shall tell no more of Brusquet and Strozzi, as these robustious Renaissance humors are quickly exhausting to an age that laughs by preference at fine-spun cobweb witticism. The curious may read of more such gayeties in Brantôme, or they may turn to the Œuvres facétieuses of Noël du Fail8 for the good tale of Brusquet sending a funeral procession for the body of a Bishop, only to find him still fresh and hearty, or to Henri Estienne’s Apologie pour Hérodote9 for another good quip.
Brusquet’s prosperity came to a sad end. Under Francis I, Henry II, and Francis II he had prospered, and he came complacently enough to the accession of Charles IX in 1560. His son-in-law turned Huguenot, and in that day of suspicion and denunciation the malevolent required no further proof of apostasy. He 39 was accused of subtracting edicts against the Huguenots from the postal bags; his house was pillaged, and he was forced to flee. He took refuge with madame de Bouillon in Noyant, and later with madame de Valentinois, notorious to history as Diane de Poitiers, in the castle of Anet, near Dreux. Those gallant ladies received him gladly, in memory of good King Henry. But Henry was dead, and the Marshal Strozzi as well, and in those stern and bloody days his jests could not lighten the rim visages at court. He wrote a pitiful letter to the son of Strozzi, begging for his intercession at court, on account of the great friendship which had united the writer with the Marshal Strozzi. Soon after, however, he died at Anet, in 1562 or 1563,
We may draw various lessons from the life of jolly Brusquet. We may take him as an example of that inequity of human life which rewards the buffoon with the prizes refused to honest worth. We may regard him as an illustration of the insecurity of that prosperity that depends upon the favor of kings. We might, again, in the modern manner, probe, analyze and windily speculate upon his character, imagining his trials of spirit since he, a clever fellow and a doctor (or else a lawyer), must clown it before the court to hold his employment. We might draw no moral at all, and that I take to be the wisest procedure.
1 Vie des grands capitaines, I, cap. 32. Brantôme tells how he cured the Venetian ambassador of a windy colic, in a manner not fitting for chaste ears to hear.
2 Perroniana, 118.
3 Cabanès: Mœurs intimes de passé, III, 347. I find no record of this appointment in the list of Philip’s household. I think it unproven that any such post was awarded him. Cabanès reproduces the portraits of Philip’s dwarf by Antonio Moro (in the Louvre) as the semblance of Brusquet. This attribution seems unwarrantable. I have found no statement that Brusquet was a dwarf, or that he was ever in Spain. The stupid megalocephalic subject of Moro’s canvas can hardly be fitted with the sly, sharp-witted Brusquet. The catalogues of the Louvre have been content to term the work “Dwarf of Philip II.”
4 Archives curieuses de France, IX, 411.
5 This trick of the two pretending deafness is ascribed to Bautru by Ménage (Ménagiana, II, 27), to Gonella, in the Court of Ferrara, and to Niethart the Minnesinger. (Flögel: Geschichte der Hofnarren, 306.)
6 This fact is corroborated by that sweetest of poets, Joachim du Bellay. The 111th sonnet of his Regrets, written from Rome, begins:
Brusquet, à son retour, vous racontera, Sire,
De ces rouges prélats la trompeuse apparence.
7 Read of his dying blasphemies in Vieilleville’s Memoirs. (Petitot coll. XXVII, 356.)
8 Ed. 1874, II, 309.
9 II, 18. I think this may be here appended for the pleasure of those on whom proficiency in foreign tongues has destroyed the susceptibility to corruption of the vulgar. The king was hard pressed for funds, and therefore Brusquet came to him with the proposal that all the beds of all the monks in the realm be sold to the profit of the royal treasury. “Le Roy luy ayant demandé où coucheroyent les moines quand ils n’auroyent plus de licts, il respondit: — ‘Avec les nonnains. — Mais il s’en faut beaucoup qui’il y ait tant de nonnains que de moines,’ répliqua le Roy. A quoy il eut aussi sa responce toute preste: — ‘Il est vray, sire: mais chacune nonnain en logera bien pour le moines demie douzaine.’ ”
JAN BAPTISTA VAN HELMONT