Today is the birthday (1619) of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, French novelist, playwright and epistolarian with a penchant for fighting duels. The facts of his life and ancestry are shrouded in mystery and obfuscation such that he is known nowadays more from Edmond Rostand’s, drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, which is more invention than confirmed biography. I’ll leave you to sort through the conflicting information if you are interested, and simply hit some points that amuse me.
Cyrano’s baptismal record (which was not discovered until relatively recently, since it for a long time it was not clear where he was born), reads (in translation):
The sixth of March one thousand six hundred and nineteen, Savinien, son of Abel de Cyrano, squire, Lord of Mauvières, and of the lady Espérance Bellenger, the godfather, nobleman Antoine Fanny, King’s Counsellor and Auditor in his Court of Finances, of this parish, the godmother the lady Marie Fédeau, wife of nobleman Master Louis Perrot, Counsellor and Secretary to the King, Household and Crown of France, of the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.
In 1622, Abel de Cyrano left Paris with his family and went to settle on his lands at Mauvières and Bergerac in the Vallée de Chevreuse, which had come to him in part after the death of his mother in 1616.
His possessions, situated on the banks of the Yvette River in the parish of Saint-Forget, had been purchased by Savinien I de Cyrano forty years earlier from Thomas de Fortboys, who had bought them himself in 1576 from Lord Dauphin de Bergerac (or Bergerat), whose ancestors had possessed them for more than a century. Cyrano began his basic education in rural schools, but because he paid so little attention to his studies in this setting, his father sent him to school in Paris. Where he went to school is unknown. In 1636, his father sold his estate and returned to Paris. It is not at all certain that Cyrano moved back in with them. At the age of 19, he entered a corps of the guards, serving in the campaigns of 1639 and 1640. As an officer he was notorious for his dueling and boasting. He is said to have left the military and returned to Paris to pursue literature, producing tragedies cast in the orthodox classical mode.
The model for the Roxane character of the Rostand play was Bergerac’s cousin, who lived with his sister, Catherine de Bergerac, at the Convent of the Daughter of the Cross. As in the play, Bergerac did fight at the Siege of Arras (1640) a battle of the Thirty Years’ War between French and Spanish forces in France (though this was not the more famous final Battle of Arras, fought 14 years later). One of his confrères in the battle was the baron Christian of Neuvillette, who married Cyrano’s cousin. However, the plotline of Rostand’s play, involving Roxane and Christian, is entirely fictional.
Cyrano de Bergerac’s works L’Autre Monde: ou les États et Empires de la Lune (Another World, or the States and Empires of the Moon), published posthumously, (1657) and Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662) are classics of early modern science fiction. In the former, Cyrano travels to the moon using rockets powered by firecrackers (it may be the earliest description of a space flight by use of a vessel that has rockets attached) and meets the inhabitants. The moon-men have four legs, firearms that shoot game and cook it, and talking earrings used to educate children. His mixture of science and romance in these two works furnished a model for many subsequent writers, among them Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allan Poe and probably Voltaire. Corneille and Molière freely borrowed ideas from Le Pédant joué.
Rostand’s play suggests that Cyrano was injured by a falling wooden beam in 1654 while entering the house of his patron, the Duc D’Arpajon. However, the editor of Cyrano’s works, Madeleine Alcover, uncovered a contemporary text which suggests an attack on the duke’s carriage in which a member of his household was injured. It is as yet inconclusive as to whether or not his death was a result of the injury, or an unspecified disease. He died over a year later on July 28th, 1655, aged 36, at the house of his cousin, Pierre De Cyrano, in Sannois. He was buried in a church in Sannois. However, there is strong evidence to support the theory that his death was a result of a botched assassination attempt as well as further damage to his health caused by a period of confinement in a private asylum, orchestrated by his enemies, who succeeded in enlisting the help of his own brother Abel de Cyrano.
Food features as a motif in Rostand’s play, but not in Cyrano’s actual works, so here is a 17th century recipe from Le cuisinier royal et bourgeois (1691). It’s a relatively simply fish salad dressed with what was called “ramolade” but this dressing is much simpler than the later remoulade of haute cuisine.
Salades de poissons
À plusieurs filets de poisson on fait une sausse qu’on appelle ramolade, composée de persil haché de ciboule hachée, des anchois hachés, des câpres hachées, le tout mis dans un plat, avec un peu de sel, de poivre, de muscade, d’huile & de vinaigre bien délayez ensemble : & après avoir dressé vos filets dans son plat, on les arrose de cette ramolade ; & à quelques plats on y ajoute du jus de citron, pour les servir froids.
For all kinds of fish fillets you prepare a sauce that is called ‘ramolade’, consisting of chopped parsley, chopped chives, chopped anchovy, chopped capers. Put all this on a plate with a little salt, pepper, nutmeg, oil and vinegar, well mixed together. And after having arranged the fillets on their plates, sprinkle this ramolade over them. To some plates you can add lemon juice to serve them cold.