Chapter V: Fiction or historical fact? A serious problem for the critics
A long‑standing controversy
We could continue happily with our story if we didn’t have to contend with the serious historical problem that we referred to before our study of the letters. For three centuries Vincent’s account of his captivity was accepted without question, and then contemporary researchers cast doubts on it just as they had questioned the accepted date of Vincent’s birth. They didn’t doubt that Vincent had written the two letters but they considered the contents to be a complete fabrication. A possible explanation might be that Vincent had embarked on some adventure or other, and for two years had completely lost touch with his acquaintances and familiar surroundings. When he surfaced again, and the episode of his voluntary or enforced disappearance was closed, he might have invented the story of his captivity to explain away that long absence to his family and friends.
It seems that the first person to suggest that Vincent’s story might be untrue was Father Pierre Coste[note]A. RODIER, “La vraie vie de Saint Vincent de Paul” (Paris 1947), Preface, p. X‑XII. Coste’s opinion on this point is ambiguous. In public he agreed that the captivity was historically authentic (M.V. Vol.1 p.58‑59). When speaking in private (cf. A. REDIER, op. cit., p.XII and XV), or writing off the record, as in the unsigned letter included in Fr. GRANDCHAMP’s (“La prétendue captivité… II. Observations nouvelles”) or in some of his unpublished writings (cf. J. GUICHARD, “Saint Vincent de Paul esclave à Tunis” p.187), he is among these who most strongly refute the theory. Being a priest he may have had good reasons for acting like this, and for prudently avoiding scandal, it might be, too, that he didn’t want to compromise the views expressed in his books. He may have had other good reasons. R. Laurentin refers to these when he describes Coste’s attitude to St. Catherine Labouré’ sanctity. “Father Coste” wrote Laurentin, “has a cleric’s mistrust of anything extraordinary, either in the religious or the scientific meaning of that term because extraordinary happenings are not in accordance with either scientific or religious strictures” (R. LAURENTIN, “Catherine Labouré et la Médaille miraculeuse” Vol.1 p.35). In a Church and a society that had a very strict code of conduct, and narrow conventions and where everyone had to be extremely careful about what he said and did, Fr. Coste, like many others of his time, had a great sense of duty and he respected the rules and conventions of his position. But he cultivated, in a secret garden, liberal views that went to extremes at times because they were a way of compensating for official policy and they acted as a sort of safety valve…” (ibid. p.36).[/note], though he only spoke about it in private and did not put his opinions in writing. The first public allegation that appeared in print was made by Antoine Rédier, in 1927. Rédier’s initial stance was relatively moderate but in later editions of his work it became more radical. He states here, “It is impossible to say for certain whether the events related in those two letters did actually happen.” “The most we can say is that they are obviously a mixture of truth and invention.”[note]A. REDIER, op. cit., p.34 and 24.[/note]
In the following year, 1928, a scholarly French official at the General Residency in Tunis, Pierre Grandchamp, author of a monumental work on the French presence in Tunisia, was stimulated by Rédier’s claims to make a detailed study of the letters that Vincent wrote in captivity. These were published as a preface to volume VI of his work. In this book he came to the conclusion that it is “almost certain that the journey to Barbary and the captivity did not take place.”[note]P. GRANDCHAMP, “La prétendue captivité de Saint Vincent de Paul à Tunis (1605‑1607)”. Extract from “La France en Tunisie au XVII siècle” vol.6 (1928) 20 pages.[/note] In the volume that followed he returned to this theme with “Nouvelles Observations”. These were meant to reinforce his argument and answer some critics. Grandchamp’s thesis was countered by other works, notably the writings of the French Vincentian, J. Guichard, whose style was most erudite and fairly bristled with the techniques of literary criticism. But it also received enthusiastic support, even if this had little critical value, from such writers as the Church historian, Father Debongnie. Ever since then there has been no end to the controversy. The most recent findings of any weight are those of André Dodin, who takes a negative view of the letters’ authenticity, and the work of Guy Turbet‑Delof who strongly supports the account given by Vincent.[note]P. GRANDCHAMP, “La prétendue captivité… II “Observations nouvelles”, in “La France en Tunisie…” vol.7 p.XXII‑XXXIII; ID., “De nouveau sur la captivité de Saint Vincent de Paul à Tunis:” Revue Tunisienne (1931) p.155‑157. Grandchamp’s three articles have been reproduced in “Les cahiers de Tunisie” (1965) p.51‑84; J. GUICHARD, “Saint Vincent de Paul esclave à Tunis. Étude historique et critique” (Paris 1937); P. DEBONGNIE, “La conversion de Saint Vincent de Paul:” RHE (1936) p.313‑339; A. DODIN, “Saint Vincent de Paul et la Charité” (Paris 1960) p.144‑168; G. TURBET‑DELOF, “Saint Vincent de Paul et la Barbarie en 1657‑1658:” Revue de l’Occident mususlman et de la Méditerranée 3(1967) p.153‑165; ID., “Saint Vincent de Paul a‑t‑il été esclave à Tunis?:” RHEF 58 (1972) p.331‑340. Gives a very exhaustive list of writings on this subject, S. POOLE, “Saint Vincent’s captivity in Tunis. A survey of the controversy”. Caramillo (polic.). And other titles in our bibliography: A. BELLESORT, J. CALVET (p.23‑40), P. COSTE, P. DEBONGNIE, J. DEFOS DU RAU, R. GLEIZES (p.1‑67), P. GRANDCHAMP, H. LAVEDAN (p.56‑66), J. MAUDUTI (p.67‑96), A. PRAVIEL, A. REDIER, P. RENAUDIN, J.M. ROMAN, G. F. ROSSI.[/note]
Putting the problem into focus
Before going on to a detailed analysis of the question, we need to make an observation about methodology. It is this: the debate over whether Vincent gave a true account of his captivity in the letters, or not, was originally based on a false premise. Everything was made to depend on a total, overall view of Vincent’s sanctity. If Vincent had lied in those letters it would have meant that his progress towards sanctity was uneven. Vincent would have been a sinful young man who only became the saint we now venerate, after a process of conversion. If, on the other hand, the contents of the letters were authentic, then his development would have shown continuity. From adolescence, and early manhood, Vincent would have moved impassively through trials and sufferings, in a gradual progression towards sanctity. As late as 1960 A. Dodin inclines to this view. But it is a false dilemma. The hypothetical arguments for and against the letters’ integrity, should not substantially alter our judgment of Vincent at the time he wrote them. Quite apart from whether he was lying or not, Vincent had not become a saint by 1605 and hadn’t begun to be one by 1607. In any case, Vincent could never penetrate, the mysterious world of holiness without undergoing a conversion experience. At a time when hagiographers were making extraordinary claims about Vincent’s childhood and adolescence, it may have been thought necessary to depict him as a fraud in order to put an end to all those myths about him. In our day such an argument would not hold water. The riddle of Vincent’s captivity, whatever the answer to it might be, should be approached from a perfectly neutral standpoint.
The arguments against his captivity
We will now summarise the arguments against Vincent’s captivity. The first bombshell was the argument that throughout his long life, Vincent de Paul maintained complete silence about his captivity in Barbary. Until the fortuitous discovery of the letters in 1658, nobody had ever heard him say that he had been a prisoner in Tunis. Confrères who had been living with him for nearly fifty years knew nothing about it. He had never referred to his extraordinary adventure, either when sending his missionaries to North Africa, when he welcomed captives back to freedom, or when he reflected in his conferences, on the sad plight of prisoners[note]COSTE. M.V. Vol.1 p.58[/note]. On the contrary; we have seen how much effort he put into recovering the letters from Monsieur de Saint Martin as soon as he learnt they were still in existence and that he pleaded for their return “by all the graces God has been pleased to bestow on you” and “through the tender mercy of Jesus Christ”; describing what he had written in his youth as that “wretched letter.”[note]S.V.P. VIII p.271: ES p.260.[/note] “His silence is truly amazing and has no plausible explanation. Therein lies a mystery”, wrote Coste[note]GRANDCHAMP, “Observations nouvelles:” Les cahiers de Tunisie (1965) p.71.[/note] for whom the traditional explanation, based on the Saint’s humility had no validity whatsoever. Wouldn’t he be more likely to remain silent if the letters were a fabrication and this fact had been kept hidden for years?
Critical analysis of all the data contained in the letter has only served to confirm Grandchamp’s original suspicions. Step by step he gathered together all the inaccuracies and improbable facts in the letter, and then set these against other sources of information, including historical and geographical data, that tell us about the customs of those times, and the events and people alluded to by Vincent.
Here is a summary of his arguments[note]A summary of the arguments against the captivity is readily available in the works we have mentioned by P. GRANDCHAMP and P. DEBONGNIE.[/note]:
- The archives of the Languedoc coastal region contain no reference to the battle in which Vincent was taken prisoner.
- Vincent says nothing about what happened to his fellow passangers or to the captured ship. Such silence is unusual in accounts of this kind.
- It wasn’t the custom for pirates to set free people who had surrendered peacefully. These could have alerted the coastal authorities and the pirates would have run the risk of being pursued by French galleys.
- The brigantines could not have managed the seven or eight days crossing plus the time needed to come from Tunis, because they wouldn’t have had enough victuals and fresh water on board.
- It is surprising that after his arrival in Tunis Vincent didn’t try to approach the French consul in a bid to regain his freedom.
- Vincent doesn’t seem to know the exact location of Tunis, which is not a seaport but a lakeside city. In fact he says that after he and his companions had been paraded through the streets of Tunis, they were brought back to the ship. Well, it was impossible for ships to navigate the lake. Only very small craft called “sandals” could do this.
- Vincent was sold to a fisherman who got rid of the new slave because he was seasick. Well, in the first place, no fisherman would have been rich enough to buy a Christian slave. Secondly, Tunisians didn’t go fishing in the sea but only on the lake so there could be no question of seasickness.
- In the space of a year Vincent couldn’t have learned enough Arabic to converse with his second master about medicine, religion and alchemy.
- It is incredible, that in 1607, an anonymous Turkish alchemist should have discovered the transmutation of metals and invented the phonograph three centuries before Eddison.
- The doctor who had been summoned to Constantinople “died on the road”. One would not use this expression to describe a sea voyage. In his later writings Vincent always used the expression to signify journeys by land.
- The doctor’s nephew, and Vincent himself, would not have had enough time to hear that the doctor had died “on the road” before the third sale went ahead.
- Vincent says that the doctor’s nephew who had left for Constantinople in August, came back immediately, because “he had heard that the French ambassador was coming.” Savery de Brèves had arrived in Tunis on 17th June and he left on 24th August. So how could he “have been coming”? The difficulty is compounded when one thinks of the time it would take for news of the doctor’s death to reach Tunis. The nephew couldn’t possibly have sold Vincent before September.
- According to Vincent, the apostate owned a “temat”. This was a farm that belonged to the state but was leased out. Neither the word “temat” nor the system existed in Tunis.
- The “temat” was in mountainous desert country. There aren’t any mountains near Tunis and of course you can’t farm desert land.
- It is strange that the Turkish, rather than the Greek woman, should have befriended Vincent.
- It is contrary to Islamic custom for women to be able to speak so freely to a Christian slave.
- Nothing further is said about the women’s attitude during the ten months that elapsed before the escape.
- The whole account is riddled with improbabilities:
- a) To choose the route Tunis ‑ Aigues Mortes would be sheer fantasy.
- b) To sail a thousand miles in a small skiff is quite a feat.
- c) How they managed to escape the vigilance of the Turkish authorities along the coast, and collect enough provisions for the journey without rousing suspicion, doesn’t bear scrutiny at all.
- An escape would have provoked serious reprisals from the Turkish authorities. There is no record of Vincent’s escape with his master in the archives of Tunis.
- If Vincent really had been in Tunis, and if he had been familiar with the Moslem mentality, it would never have occurred to him to send his missionaries there or to buy the consulates of Algiers and Tunis.
- Monsieur de Comet attached not the slightest importance to Vincent’s letter and didn’t bother to answer it. He accepted it for what it was, a cock and bull story invented by some over‑imaginative southerner.
- If Vincent disembarked at Aigues Mortes on 28th June, he couldn’t have arrived in Avignon the next day, which was when the apostate, whose name appears in the archives as Guillaume Gautier, was reconciled.
- Vincent’s companions in captivity didn’t try to get in touch with him when he became well‑known.
- In his letter to Saint Martin on 18th March, 1660, Vincent wrongly calls Tunisia, Turkey. This is sure proof that he didn’t know for certain where either place was.
The vast amount of evidence accumulated by Grandchamp, and those who came after him, contradicting the humble writings of young Vincent de Paul is impressive. So it is not surprising that most experts were convinced by it. This long list of allegations reduces the letter to a web of statements that are untrue, inaccurate or improbable. We must patiently reconstruct the work, step by step, in order to restore its credibility.
From the outset, two general criticisms were levelled against those who opposed the slavery theory.
First ‑ the frequent and repeated use of arguments that are purely negative. These point to the absence of supporting proof from other sources and to Vincent’s own silence on some points ‑ a silence which may be deliberate or it may show ignorance of the facts. Turbet‑Delof has described this methodology very precisely in the phrase, “It is a form of professional distortion to reduce historical reality to the written word alone.”[note]Arguments in favour of the captivity theory are quoted in the writings of J. GUICHARD, G. TURBET‑DELOF, R. GLEIZES, J. M. ROMAN, J. MAUDUIT. I will only give detailed references when quoting the actual text. The corresponding passage for note 9 is to be found on p.333 of the second article by G. TURBET‑DELOF.[/note] This objection can be applied to arguments 1, 2, 17, 19 and 23.
Secondly: ‑ The gratuitouness and lack of proof for many of the assertions that challenge the letter, “It is not the custom among pirates”, “This is not the case in other similar accounts” etc.
Anyhow, the accusations called for a detailed study, both of Vincent’s letters and of contemporary parallel sources that have some connection with points in the story which are being called into question. This was the principal merit of Guichard’s work even though his critical methods had their faults. Perhaps the work was too much for one man and later researchers have uncovered an ever‑increasing amount of documentation. I now present a synthesis of this counter‑ research. The synthesis must, of necessity, be condensed and I have presented the arguments in the same order as the points raised against them.
- The argument “a silentio” is purely negative. Barbary pirates captured ships so frequently that we can be certain that only a small number of these incidents were recorded in the archives.
- Another negative argument. Fr. Jerónimo Gracián, who also was captured by Turkish pirates eight years before Vincent de Paul had the same misfortune, doesn’t mention either his companions or the ship. So in at least one story of this genre, things work out just as they did in Vincent’s account. We lnow that ships were often sunk after they had been pillaged. It may be that Vincent was separated from his companions and never heard any more about them. This would account for his silence on the subject.
- We know from writers who were Vincent’s contemporaries that in quite a number of cases the ships were allowed to go free and this was particularly true if they were French. The pirates were content to “stroke them”, that is to plunder their cargo and provisions. The Turkish brigantines could be manoeuvred so rapidly that it would be impossible for the cumbersome Christian galleys to overtake them and in skirmishes like these the Turks made mockery of the enemy’s vessels.
- The pirates expeditions often lasted quite a bit longer than a week. Very reliable witnesses speak of expeditions lasting as long as a month or a month and a half. The problem of drinking water could be solved in various ways. To begin with, the Turkish brigs were not as small as Grandchamp thought. Also, the Turks used to take on fresh water at unguarded spots along the coast. They requisitioned the water supplies of ships they attacked and, finally, to make sure that there would be enough water for the crew, they ignored the needs of the galley slaves and of their prisoners. We learn from reliable sources that these wretched men were often reduced to drinking salt water or else they died of thirst.
- It wouldn’t be possible for a slave with a chain round his neck to leave the ranks and go off and visit the consul. The pirates resorted to various tricks to elude the vigilance of the French consul and we are told they sometimes circumcised French captives to make them look like Moslems.
- Vincent’s vague manner of writing was nothing unusual; other witnesses who were very familiar with the geography of Tunisia wrote in a similar vein. Vincent does not state that he was taken back to the “brig” or the “ship” ‑ terms which he used earlier ‑ but to the “bateau”. In seventeenth century French, this word was used to describe a small craft whose precise function was to navigate rivers and lakes.
- It frequently happened that a group of fisherman owned Christian slaves in common. Vincent makes no mention of the social status of his first owner and it is possible that this man was a wealthy fisherman. Neither does he expressly state that he was seasick. He uses the more general expression that the sea did not agree with him. There is nothing to indicate that the fisherman lived in Tunis; he might have lived in another locality along the coast. Finally, we know from other documents that people fished on the lake and in the sea, but fish from the lake were of poor quality.
- The “lingua franca”, an international language at Mediterranean ports, would be a mixture of Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French and it was quite widespread in Algiers and Tunis. Among those who vouched for this were the Spanish writers Haedo and Cervantes. There would be no problem of communication between Christian slaves and their Moslem owners.
- This is an incredibly naive suggestion even though it comes from Fr. Coste. Vincent is obviously referring here to the tricks and contrivances of a magician or ventriloquist. Such ruses are mentioned in other stories about slaves in Vincent’s time.
- There is nothing in Vincent’s letters to indicate that the doctor had just embarked. He could have died during the overland journey from Tunis to Bizerta. People commonly made the journey from Tunis to Constantinople by travelling overland as far as Sfax or even Tripoli. In such a case the expression “on the road” would be most appropiate. The same expression is used by Spanish writers of that time when speaking of sea voyages. When Vincent uses this expression in later writings he is, in fact, referring to land journeys, but there are no parallel passages where he uses different expressions when speaking of sea voyages.
- If the doctor had died during the journey from Tunis to Bizerta or from Tunis to Sfax, the news could have reached Tunis immediately. Even if he had died at sea, we should not forget that a very effective Moslem postal service had been in operation since the eighth century. News could have been transmitted in a relatively short space of time from any of the stopping off points on the journey.
- We can see from the two previous arguments that it was a mistake to suppose that the third sale could not have taken place before September, 1606. It could quite well have coincided with Savery de Brèves’ stay in Tunis. The phrase “was coming” didn’t strictly mean “he was going to come”. The phrase indicated, rather, “the reason for his visit was”… (he was coming in order to…). To say that Monsieur de Brèves stayed in Tunis from 17th June to 24th August is a very elastic expression for the time involved.
- In 1936, Grandchamp understood the word “timar” and that the proper translation was “owner”. We can be more certain that Vincent’s “temat” is the equivalent of the arabic word “to’met” ‑ a non ‑ hereditary fief which is exactly the sense in which Vincent used the term. Other sources have attested that there was such a custom in Tunis.
- The mountains that Vincent refers to, could well be the hills that surround the city from a radius of between twelve and thirty kilometres. There is nothing in the letter to indicate that they may not have been even further away, in the direction of Goleta or the Cape of Bon.
In the language of the seventeenth century the word “desert” does not necessarily imply the land was barren or infertile; it simply means that there were few inhabitants. Le Vacher, a missionary sent by St. Vincent to North Africa, visited “tenant holdings” and rural dwellings or farms in “the mountains, in places more inhabited by lions than by men”, and these were, six, eight, ten or twelve leagues away from Tunis.
- Human behaviour doesn’t have to comply with the dictates of literary critics. It just happened that the Greek woman was the first to show affection for the captive and it was the Turkish woman who intervened on his behalf. There is nothing implausible in that. We have no indication that there was any romance between the slave and his owner’s wives. A recurring feature in Vincent’s biography is the attraction that a certain type of woman felt for him. In every case (Madame de Gondi, Louise de Marillac, the Duchessd’Aiguillon, etc.) he used his infuence for good. From a psychological point of view this is the trait of Vincent’s character that we can be most certain about.
- All writers of this “genre”, whether their work be history or fiction, have testified to the easy relationship between Moslem women and Christian slaves which at times led to immoral situations. Such writers range from Haedo and Gracián to Gómez de Losada and from Father Dan to Aranda or Rocqueville.
- Yet another negative argument. If Vincent had had to relate everything the critics want to know, he would have had to write a treatise, not a letter.
- a) Passengers who did not regularly travel by sea did not “choose” their route ‑ this would surely depend on circumstances ‑ winds, tidal currents, the vigilance of Turkish galleys, etc.
b) The “small skiff” must have been carefully chosen (ten months would have been more than ample time for that) and great care would he needed to make sure that it was safe and could travel fast. There are many accounts of escapes that were as spectacular as Vincent’s or even more so, and which were more perilous. We note particularly, that of Father Dan, whose escape from La Calle to Marseilles took less than seven days and that of an un‑named French slave who, in 1650, used a leather raft that had neither sail nor rudder. It was possible to cross from Tunis to Marseilles in three days.
c) This was why the apostate took so many precautions and waited ten months to make the crossing as comfortably and as safely as possible.
- Reprisals and punishments were carried out when the Turks managed to capture the fugitives or when the owner reported an escape. As master and slave had escaped together there would be nobody to report the fact and for this reason it is not mentioned in the archives.
- Turbet‑Delof describes this argument as contradictory, philistine and a masterly example of a priorism. It was precisely because he knew the dangers that Christian slaves were exposed to in North Africa, that Vincent was moved to send his missionaries there and to buy the two consulates. He was unlikely to have done this had he not himself been a captive. He did know the Moslem mentality, and this made him warn the missionaries to be very careful to avoid proseletyzing Moslems and apostates.
- It is not true that Comet did not answer the first letter. In his second letter, Vincent acknowledges receipt of his ordination papers but these did not have the Bishop’s seal and so he was obliged to ask for a second set. If Comet set no store by the letter, how is it that he preserved it so carefully and bequeathed it to his heirs?
- This argument is no longer put forward by the anti‑ captivity faction. It was based on the mistaken identification of the apostate as Guillaume Gautier. Investigations carried out at a later date than Grandchamp’s writings, prove beyond all doubt that another person was involved. Moreover, the reconciliation didn’t take place on 29th June, but at the beginning of July (cf. Annals  P 182‑188).
- Another negative argument. All the time that he was a slave Vincent never mentioned that he was a priest. If an of his companions at this time remembered his name, they wouldn’t have identified him as the famous Monsieur Vincent. Or it could be that none of them were still alive and at liberty by 1630, the date when Vincent began to be famous.
- Tunis was, in fact, under Turkish sovereignty. In the seventeenth century, French people thought that the Turkish empire extended as far as Salé in Morocco.
Monsieur Vincent is silent
Vincent de Paul’s life‑long silence about this extraordinary adventure, and his desperation in the last days of his life to recover and destroy the “wretched letter,” are perhaps the most compelling arguments and merit a more detailed examination.
First of all, we should note that there is a strange reversal of dialectical position with regard to the date of Vincent’s birth and the controversy over his captivity. In the first case, the Saint’s own words are used to support the argument in favour of the traditionally held date. In the second case, Vincent’s words (his letters) are called into question and the argument based not on what he said, but on what he left unsaid. Doesn’t this suggest that sources and documents are being quoted on two different levels and used for contradictory purposes?
We cannot analyse Vincent’s silence without reference to the total personality of the man, and at this stage in the biography we haven’t enough information to make a judgment. But even if it means jumping ahead and using information about the Saint that was available later, we have to put on record that Vincent, in his mature years, and even more so in his old age, was complete master of himself and we never hear of any uncontrolled outbursts in unguarded moments. He always says what he wants to say and nothing more. He never talked much about other events in his life that are perfectly well documented in other sources. He never told anyone that he had studied at Toulouse University, or that he had been chaplain to Marguerite de Valois; he never referred to the fact that he had been Abbot of Saint Laurent de Chaumes, Canon of Ecouis and Prior of Grosse‑Sauve. If we have to erase from the life of St. Vincent de Paul everything that he deliberately kept silent about, we would have to cross out with one stroke of the pen, whole chapters of his life.
At this point in the debate we can already glimpse some of the reasons for his prolonged silence and for his fears that the letters might be published. Leaving aside the question of the Saint’s humility, though his contemporaries who recognised the extent of his virtue were convinced by this; and disregarding, too, Vincent’s leanings towards the secrets of alchemy which were nothing more than innocent tricks of “white magic”, there is one aspect of the problem that Turbet‑Delof has emphasised, namely, the remorse that Vincent must have felt after his conversion, for having throughout his captivity, concealed the fact that he was a priest. Conscious of this incident in his earlier life, what moral authority would he have for exhorting his missionaries in Tunis and Algiers to be faithful witnesses to Christ, even unto death? Does it not also conceal something more serious (something painfully odious to the Saint’s heart) his conviction that captive priests were “irregular” and the sacraments they administered might have been invalid?[note]S.V.P. V p.85; VII p.117: ES V p.81; VII p.107.[/note]
Moreover, in 1658, Vincent was committed to touching the hearts of people in France over the terrible plight of slaves in North Africa and appealing for funds to pay the ransom of the consul Barreau, a brother of the Mission, who had been detained by the Turkish authorities. In these circumstances, would not the discovery of the letter he had written as a young man, painting a somewhat rosy picture of life in captivity, give a different message from the one he was urging in his appeal? “Wretched letter…”!
And doesn’t the whole letter breathe such self‑ confidence, and a certainty that God was guiding his steps, that constrasts sharply with Vincent’s later spirituality when he would be at such pains to discover the mysterious signs of Providence? Would he not consider this letter to be contrary to the teachings he was then trying to instil into his missionaries? Defrennes was certainly right when he wrote, “For a man who was as self‑controlled and master of himself as Monsieur Vincent was, there can be a thousand good reasons for his silence.”[note]P. DEFRENNES, refered article, p.395.[/note]
Another contradiction can be seen in the writings of those who denied the historical authenticity of Vincent’s captivity, and this is particularly true of Rédier’s work. The letter is factually correct up to the point where Vincent de Paul arrives in Marseilles. At this point the fiction begins. The Bordeaux affair is authentic and so is the inheritance from the old lady of Castres. It is true that Vincent was in debt and that he sold the horse. He would agree that Vincent was covetous, even to the point of having a man put in prison for failing to pay his debts. The only part that is not true is Vincent’s captivity.
Such a reasoning can only come from manipulation of the historical documents; it would be to accept whatever is in accord with a preconceived theory and to reject whatever contradicts it. The letter must be accepted or rejected in its entirety.
Those who come out aginst the captivity would deprive us of the true picture of Vincent before his conversion ‑ the reckless young fellow who was not too scrupulous in money matters, who trusted too much in himself and was inclined to regard his own intuitions as divine interventions… Those who don’t believe in Vincent’s captivity would give us back the precocious little saint they wanted to demythologise.
On the other hand, isn’t the fact that Vincent begged Canon Saint Martin to send the letter back an indirect proof of their authenticity? If Vincent wanted all traces of his youthful fantasy to disappear, why wasn’t he simple and straightfoward enough to tell his good friend that this was a story he had invented about a wild episode in his youth? From the moment people got to know about it there was no move made to destroy the letters. Those in the know discussed the matter. It wasn’t enough to destroy the letters, it was absolutely essential to deny that the contents were true. In 1659 Vincent did not lack the humility to accuse himself of that sin. He didn’t fail to describe that letter as “wretched” but he never said that what he had written was untrue.
Let us add one final methodological consideration. In any rational historical criticism one can’t reject an argument (in our case, Vincent’s letters) because a difficulty remains unsolved; his later silence. As René Laurentin wrote about Coste’s difficulties in accepting that Catherine Labouré was a saint: “Coste emphasized difficulties that other people were trying to diminish. It is a good way of finding a solution. But this method was carried to extremes, and the exaggerated claims of so much German scientific literature in the nineteenth century are reflected in Coste’s writings.”[note]R. LAURENTIN, op. cit., Vol.1 p.35.[/note] Neither is his allegation against Vincent de Paul “free from the excesses of mistrustful criticism and a strong bias towards polemics. His conclusions often go beyond the original premise. His negativeassessments are disproportionate to the information on which they are based.”[note]Ibid. p.37.[/note]
After listening to the arguments for and against Vincent’s captivity; what, finally, are we to make of it? We believe that the reader now has at hand all the necessary information to make his own judgment. The author feels that the following conclusions cannot be argued against.
a) When the difficulties put forward by those who reject Vincent’s account of his captivity are compared with many parallel and contemporary testimonies, they are shown to contain inconsistencies.
b) Much of the information given by Vincent, receives overwhelming confirmation when it is subjected to similar comparisons, and it is also borne out by what we know of Vincent’s character in his later years.
c) Recent findings have seriously weakened the argument based on Vincent’s silence, and the only strong point in favour of this proposition is that it raises a difficulty which has yet to be solved ‑it is not definite proof.
To sum up then; we should add Turbet‑Delof’s conclusions: “I do not say that everything happened in the way Vincent de Paul describes it. I just say that everything could have happened like that. There is nothing in Vincent’s writing, or in other sources, that would lead us to reject this testimony. In conclusion, we must accept one of two alternatives; either Vincent de Paul was a prisoner in Tunis from 1605 to 1607, or we must regard his letter of 24th July, 1607, and the postscript dated 28th February, 1608, as a brilliant fraud which he perpetrated without any possible access to literary or other sources for inspiration.”[note]G. TURBET‑DELOF, second article quoted, p.339. From a literary point of view, Vincent’s letters about the captivity bear some resemblance to the French “turquerie”, or to to the picaresque genre in Spanish and Moorish literature. Turbet‑Delof, who was an authority on French “turqueries” says that Vincent’s journeys might be a historical or travel “turquerie” but not a fictional one. These might be a connection between Vincent’ story of his captivity and similar stories in ‘D. Quixote’ or certain episodes in “Guzmán de Alfarache’ by Mateo Alemán, since both these Spanish works were published before 1607. But nobody has been able to prove such a link. In fact, the opposite would seem to be true; the Cervantes and Guzmán accounts of captives and “pícaros” show that Vincent’s story rings true. The reality of such situations is part of Mateo Alemán andCervantes’ literary creations but it is part of the lifehistory of Vincent de Paul. See our article “Las cartas vicencianas de la cautividad, ¿novela picaresca?” Anales(1980) p.137‑147, and further references in the works of J.GRACIAN, D. HAEDO, E. ARANDA, P. DAN, G. GOMEZ DE LOSADA, inthe Bibliografía and in our article, “Corsarios berberiscos ycautivos cristianos. Nuevos datos para el tema de la cautividad tunecina de Vicente de Paúl:” Anales (1979) p.445‑465.[/note]
As long as we have no proof that Vincent was in some other part of France, or in some other foreign place, between 1605 and 1607, we have to accept his statement that he was a captive in Tunis at that time.