Vincent, Letter 0001. To Monsieur De Comet, in Dax

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoWritings of Vincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Vincent de Paul .

Letter I - The original autograph letter, written in a fine, compact hand, covers three pages. Its history is well worth knowing. Along with the original of the letter that follows, it passed from the hands of M. de Comet to those of Catherine de Cornet, wife of Jean de Saint-Martin. Their son, Saint-Martin &Ages, found them in 1658 as he was going through the family papers. Pleased with his discovery, he took them to Canon de Saint-Martin, his uncle, a close friend of the Saint. The good canon thought that Monsieur Vincent would be very pleased to read these pages and immediately had a copy made for his illustrious friend. The copies did not remain in Vincent's hands for long. After reading them, he burned them. By lifting the veil hiding two years of his youth, at once the most tragic and the most glorious, the revelation of these documents was of a nature to wound his deep humility. His letter of thanks was also one of supplication in which he begged M. de Saint-Martin to send him the originals. Brother Ducouniau, his secretary, who was doing the writing, warned the Canon of Dax of the danger threatening the precious manuscripts if they were to fall into the Saint's hands. He advised him to send them to Jean Watebled, Superior of the College des Bons-Enfants, which he did. (Abelly, op. cit., vol. 1, chap. IV, p. 17.) Jean Watebled shared the letters with Antoine Portal Rene Almeras, Thomas Berthe, Jean Dehorgny, Brother Ducournau, and probably others studied them. No need to describe their astonishment and joy; these pages were a revelation for them. This was in August 1658. Brother Ducournau hastened to thank Canon de Saint-Martin, and the Saint waited a long time for the originals he had requested. On March 18, 1660, feeling that his end was near, he renewed his plea in a letter which we shall publish further on.The two letters to M. de Comet remained in the archives of Saint-Lazare until 1789 or 1791. They were either stolen at the time of the looting or confiscated two years later with the rest of the estate. How did the first of these letters come into the hands of Pelletier de Saint-Fargeau, and then become the property of his colleague, Carnot? We have no idea. On January 31, 1854, it appeared M a sale of autographs along with a few other letters of Saint Vincent and several outlines of sermons and speeches for the meetings of the Ladies of Charity of the Hotel-Dieu.In May of that same ran it is listed in one of Laverdet's catalogues as coming from the collection of M. de is Bouisse-Rochefort and priced at five hundred francs. Lavesdet ex­changed it for some manuscripts of Montesquieu. Shortly afterwards we find it in Fontenay-le­Comte, in the autograph collection of Madame Joseph Fillon. Benjamin Fitton gave it to the Daughters of Charity working in the hospital of Fontenay, where it remained for many years, carefully preserved in en expensive album. When the hospital closed in 1979, the letter was added to the collection of the Archives of the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity, 140 rue du Bac, Paris. Abelly did not reproduce it in its entirety; he omitted passages that seemed to him unworthy of a saint, among others, those which might have given rise to the suspicion that Saint Vincent believed in alchemy. Firmin Joussemet, Madame Fillon's nephew, published it in its unabridged form in 1856 in the Revue des provinces de l'Ouest. The recipient of the letter was M. de Comet the younger. (Cf. Abelly, op. cit.. vol. 1, chap. IV, P. 14.) We are using Comet and not Comma to conform to the spelling used by the Saint and by the members of the Comet family.

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One might have thought two years ago, judging by the ap­pearance of the favorable progress of my affairs that, contrary to my deserts, fortune was endeavoring only to make me more envied than imitated1; but alas! it was only to make of me an exam­ple of her vicissitudes and inconstancy, changing her favor into disfavor and her good luck into misfortune.

You may have heard, Monsieur, since you are well acquainted with my affairs, how I found, on my return from Bordeaux2, a will drawn up in my favor by a good old woman from Toulouse. Her property consisted of some furniture and some land that the bipartite court of Castres3 had awarded to her in place of three or four hundred écus4 owed to her by a wicked rogue. In order to obtain part of it, I set out for the place to sell the goods, as was recommended by my best friends and by my need for money to meet the debts I had contracted and the great expense I foresaw as proper for me to make in the pursuit of the affair that my temerity does not allow me to mention5.

On my arrival, I found out that the fox had left the locality because the good woman had a warrant out for his arrest for the same debt. I was informed that he was doing very well in Marseilles and had considerable means. Whereupon my attorney decided (as indeed was also dictated by the nature of the affair) that I should proceed to Marseilles. He thought that, once I had him arrested, I would be able to get two or three hundred ecus from him. Since I bad no money at all to carry out this plan, I sold the horse I had hired in Toulouse. I intended to pay for it on my return, which misfortune delayed so long that I am in great disgrace for having left my affairs in such disorder. I would never have done so had the Lord given me as much success in my undertaking as appearances led me to expect.

I set out, therefore, on this advice, caught my man in Mar­seilles, had him arrested, and agreed to three hundred exus, which he gave me in cash6. Just as I was about to leave by land, I was persuaded by a gentleman with whom I had lodged to go with him by boat as far as Narbonne since the weather was so favorable. I did this in order to get there sooner and to save money, or, to be more exact, so as never to get there and to lose everything.

The wind was as favorable as was necessary to take us to Narbonne that same day, which meant covering fifty leagues7, if God had not allowed three Turkish brigantines8 to bear down upon us. They were sailing along the coast of the Gulf of Lion in order to seize the ships coming from Beaucaire where there was a fair considered to be one of the finest in Christendom9. They attacked us so violently that two or three of our men were killed and all the rest wounded, including myself. I received an arrow wound that will serve me as a clock for the rest of my life10. We were forced to surrender to those criminals worse than tigers whose first bursts of rage caused them to hack our pilot into a hundred thousand pieces because they had lost one of their leaders in addition to four or five of their galley slaves whom our men had killed.

Once that was done, they chained us, after crudely dressing our wounds, and continued their course, committing a thousand rob­beries. However, they allowed those who surrendered without fighting to go free after they had robbed them. And finally, at the end of seven or eight days, laden with booty, they set sail for Barbary, a lair and den of thieves, though the Grand Turk11 does not admit it. On arriving there, they put us up for sale with a report of our capture, which they said had been made on a Spanish ship because, without that lie, we would have been released by the consul whom the King maintains there to assure free trade for the French12.

Their procedure for selling us was thus: after stripping us naked, they gave each of us a pair of pants, a linen jacket, and a small cap, and walked us up and down through the city of ‘Timis where they had purposely come to sell us. When they had had us make five or six rounds through the city with a chain around our neck, they took us back to the boat so that the merchants could come and see who could eat well and who could not, so as to show that our wounds were not mortal. That being done, they brought us back to the square where the merchants came to examine us just as one does when buying a horse or an ox. They made us open our mouths in order to look over our teeth; felt our ribs; probed our wounds; and made us walk, trot, and run; then carry loads and wrestle to judge each one’s strength; and a thousand other kinds of brutalities13

I was sold to a fisherman who was soon obliged to get rid of me because I found nothing so repugnant as the sea; then by the fisherman to an old man, a Spagirite doctor14, a master at drawing out quintessences, a most benevolent and amenable man. From what he told me, he had worked for fifty years in his quest for the philosophers’ stone. He had searched for the stone in vain, but was quite successful with another kind of transmutation of metals. In proof of this, I often saw him melt together equal parts of gold and silver, place them in thin sheets, and then put on a layer of some powders, then another layer of the sheets, and then another layer of the powders. He would put them in a crucible or goldsmith’s melting vessel, keep it on the fire for twenty-four hours, and then open it to find that the silver had become gold. More often still, he would congeal or fix mercury into fine silver and sell it in order to give alms to the poor. My job was to maintain the fire in ten or twelve furnaces; doing so, thank. God, was as much a pleasure as it was an affliction for me. He loved me dearly, and took great delight in speaking to me about alchemy and even more about his law, putting forth all his efforts to win me over to it, promising me copious wealth and all his knowledge.

God always kept alive in me the conviction that I would be freed because of my unceasing prayers to Him and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, through whose sole intercession I firmly believe I was delivered. The hope and firm belief, therefore, that I had of seeing you again, Monsieur, made me persistent in asking him to teach me how to cure gravel, for which I used to see him working miracles every day. This he did; indeed, he had me prepare and administer the ingredients. Oh! how many times I have wished since then that I had been a slave before the death of your late brother and commaecenas15 in doing good for me16, and that I had had the secret I am sending you17. I beg you to accept it with as much pleasure as my belief is firm that, if I had known what I am sending you, death would not already have triumphed over him (at least by that means), although it is said that man’s days are num­bered before God. That is true, but it is not because God had calculated his days to be a certain number, but the number was calculated before God because it came about that way; or, to speak more clearly, he did not die when he did because God had antici­pated it that way or had calculated the number of his days to be so many, but he had anticipated it that way and the number of his days was known to be so many, because he died when he did.

I was, therefore, with this old man from the month of Sep­tember 160518 until the following August when he was seized and taken away to the Grand Sultan19 to work for him, but in vain; he died of grief on the way. He left me to one of his nephews, a real anthropomorphist20, who sold me again soon after his uncle’s death, because he heard that M. de Bréves21, the Kings’ Ambas­sador in ‘flukey, was coming with valid and explicit letters patent from the Grand Thrk to reclaim the Christian slaves.

A renegade22 from Nice in Savoy, hostile by nature, bought me and took me to his temat23;that is what they call the land that one holds as a sharecropper of the Grand Lord, because the people own nothing; everything belongs to the Sultan. This man’s temat was in the mountains, where the country is extremely hot and forsaken. One of the three wives that he had (she was like a Greek-Christian, but schismatic) possessed a fine mind and be­came very fond of me; and nearer the end, another of them, a native Thrk, who served God’s immense mercy as an instrument in recalling her husband from apostasy and restoring him to the bosom of the Church, brought about my deliverance from slavery. As she was interested in knowing our way of life, she used to come to see me every day in the fields where I was digging. At the end, she ordered me to sing praises to my God. The memory of the Quomodo cantabimus in terra aliena of the children of Israel, captives in Babylon, made me begin, with tears in my eyes, the psalm24 Super flumina Babylonis, and then the Salve, Regina and several other hymns. The pleasure she received from these was as great as her admiration of them. She did not fail to tell her hus­band in the evening that he had been wrong to give up his religion, which she considered exceedingly good because of what I had told her about our God and some praises I had sung to Him in her presence. She said that these latter gave her such divine pleasure that she did not believe the paradise of her fathers, which she was awaiting, was as glorious or accompanied by so much joy as the pleasure she felt while I was praising my God. She concluded that there was something marvelous about it.

This other Caiphas or Balaarn’s ass, by her words, caused her husband to tell me the very next day that our escaping to France depended only upon an opportunity25, but that he would remedy matters so well within a short time that God would be praised by it. A few days became ten months, during which he kept alive in me these vain but finally realized hopes. At the end of that time, we escaped in a little skiff and made our way, on June 28, to Aigues-Mortes26 and soon after to Avignon, where the Vice­Legate27 received the renegade publicly, with tears in his eyes and his voice broken by sobs, in the church of Saint-Pierre, to the honor of God and the edification of the congregation. The above-mentioned prelate has kept us both with him in order to take us to Rome. He is going there just as soon as his successor to the three-year term of office28 —which he completed on the feast of Saint John— has arrived29.He has promised the penitent that he would have him admitted into the austere convent of the Fate ben fra­telli30, to which he has vowed himself31, and see that I was pro­vided with some good benefice. He does me the honor of loving me very much and treating me with affection because of a few alchemy secrets that I have taught him. He values these more, he says, than if 10 li averse datto un monte di oro32, because he has worked on them his whole lifetime and desires no other satisfac­tion. This same Bishop, since he knows that I am a churchman, has ordered me to send for my letters of ordination, assuring me that he will help me and provide me with a very good benefice. I was at a loss to find a trustworthy man to do this, when a friend of mine from the household of this same Bishop recommended to me Monsieur Canterelle, the bearer of this letter, who was going to Toulouse. I asked him to take the trouble of riding as far as Dax to deliver this letter to you and to obtain the above-mentioned papers and the ones I received in Toulouse as a Bachelor of Theology33. I entreat you to give them to him. I am sending you a voucher for them for that purpose. The said Monsieur Canterelle is of the household and has been expressly ordered by the Bishop to carry out his commission faithfully and to send the papers to me in Rome, if indeed we have set out.

I brought from ‘flukey two stones that nature has faceted like diamonds. I am sending one of them to you. May your pleasure in accepting it equal my feeling of unworthiness in offering it to you.

It is impossible, Monsieur, for you and my relatives not to have been slandered by my creditors on my account. I would already have partly satisfied them with one hundred or one hundred twenty ecus given me by our penitent, had I not been advised by my best friends to keep them until my return from Rome so as to avoid the mishaps that might be mine for want of money (although I eat at the Bishop’s table and enjoy his favor), but I think that all this disgrace will turn to good.

I am writing to Monsieur D’Arnaudirt34 and to my mother. I beg you to have my letters sent to them by a man whom Monsieur Canterelle will pay. If, by chance, my mother has withdrawn the letters, they are filed as a measure of precaution with Monsieur Rabel35.I have nothing else to say except that, entreating you to continue your holy affection for me, I remain, Monsieur, your most humble and obedient servant.


Avignon, July 24, 1607

Addressed: Monsieur de Comet, advocate at the Presidial Court of Dax, in Dax

  1. At that time Saint Vincent was successfully directing a well-attended boarding school in ‘Toulouse.
  2. It has been conjectured that the Duc d’Epenron, Jean-Louis de Nogaret de la Valetta (1554-1642), Governor of Provence, and then of Guyenne (1622), had called the Saint to his house to offer him a bishopric. (Cf. Collet, op. cit., p. 15.)
  3. Court divisions established by the pacificatory edict of 1576 in the Parlement of Paris and in that of Toulouse with residence in Caatres for the purpose of judging cases in which Protestants were concerned. These courts were made up of an equal number of Catholics and Protestants.
  4. Thinughout this edition the various denominations of foreign money have been left in the French since no adequate. unchanging value in modern currency can be assigned. One [cu equals three Riles; one thousand livres could support two priests and one brother for a year.
  5. Might this be the bishopric offered by the Duc d’Epernon?
  6. The Saint wrote content [pleased], but the spelling matters little; we think that comptant [cash) corresponds better to his thought.
  7. One league equals about two and a half miles or four kilometers.
  8. Brigantines at that time were small, decked ships rigged with only one sail and having eight to sixteen benches, each for a single oarsman. The oars were wide and flat.
  9. Beaucaire was the central market for goods coming from the East. The fair opened each year on July n and brought to that city countless boats from Marseilles, Cette, AiguesMortes and elsewhere. At the time of their departure, the boats that were headed for the open sea formed their own escort or had themselves accompanied by galleys for protection in case of attack. The pirates from the East and from Barbary lay in wait for them, posted on watch all along the coast, not far from the mouths of the Rhone. (Cf. Theodore Pas in, Essai historique et juridique sur In foire de Beaucaire [Aix: B. Niel, 1900]; Abel Boutin, Les &WO’s de paix a de commerce de la France avec la Barbaric, 1515-1830 [Paris: Pedone, 1902].)
  10. The Saint suffered from his wound whenever the weather changed.
  11. The Emperor of the Ottoman Empire who resided in Turkey and ruled the farflung areas of the Empire through Heys.
  12. The Capitulations of 1535, 1569, 1581 and 1604 stipulated that the Barbary pirates would respect the freedom of French trade.
  13. This description corresponds almost word for word with those left by other freed slaves. Abel Boutin summarizes their testimony as follows: “All morning long the captives were on exhibition. According to eye witnesses, this was the most painful time of their captivity. Completely naked, under the burning rays of a tropical sun, they had to submit to all kinds of handling by the buyers, who examined them as is done with cattle or horses in our modem markets. They inspected their frame and the quality of their muscles. They tested their strength. They made them walk, run and jump. They looked at their teeth, the palms of their hands. . . . ” (Boutin, op. cit., p. 162.) In Algiers, the sale was made through the intermediary of dealers who went around the market one after another, passing in front of the arcade. They enumerated the qualities, real or false, of the captives . . and ended their harangue with the price desired: so many piastres. The buyers present would bid higher and the slave was awarded to the last and highest bidder. But there were also slaves who were defective, sickly, puny, or old, who could not have attracted a buyer if they had been placed on sale individually. Therefore, a batch of slaves was made up, half robust, half puny, and the whole group was awarded according to the usual procedure. (Ibid., p. 166.) Pierre Dan calculated at seven thousand the number of Christian captives in the regency of Timis alone in the early years of the seventeenth century. The master had the power of life and death over his slave. He could keep him, set him free, or resell him. The slave was his chattel. (Cf. Pierre Dan, Histoire de Barbarie at de ses corsaires [2nd ed., Paris: P. Rocokt, 1649], p. 285.)
  14. The Spagirite physicians explained the organic changes of the human body in health and in sickness as the chemists of their day explained those of the inorganic realm. Paracelsus was the founder and head of this school in the sixteenth century.
  15. Maecenas, a favorite of Augustus, was in his time the protector of literary men, especially of Virgil and Horace.
  16. M. de Comet the elder, an advocate of the Presidia] Court of Dax and a judge of Pouy, together with his brother, deserves the credit for discerning the capabilities of the young Vincent. Up to the day of his departure for the University of ‘Ibulouse, the latter allowed himself to be guided by the Comets who, in order to increase his slim resources, entrusted to him a tutorship in their own family. It must not be said, however, as did the Jansenist Martin de Samos, that Saint Vincent de Paul entered Holy Orders without a vocation so as not to upset his two benefactors. (Cf. Martin de Barcos, Defense de fist Monsieur Vincent de Paid . . . contra les Aux discours du livre de sa we publiee par M. Abelly, ancien eveque de Rodez, et contre les impostures de quelques autres ecrits sir ce sajet [n.p., 16661, p. 87.)
  17. We read in an old, undated, manuscript notebook, preserved at the hospice of Marlins (Charente-Maritime): “Saint Vincent de Paul’s remedy for gravel. Take two ounces of Vene­tian turpentine; two ounces of white turpeth; half an ounce each of mastic, galanga, clove, cubed cinnamon; one ounce of ground aloes-wood. Mix it all together with half a pound of white honey and a pint of very strong brandy. Let it stand for some time and then distill it. One should take one-fourth tablespoon in the morning, fasting, and be careful to fill it up with borage or bugloss water, taking it as many times as one desires because it cannot be detrimen­tal; on the contrary, it is very good for one’s health, especially for the kidneys. Therefore, there is no reason to follow any other diet, except that no food should be taken for an hour afterwards; and one may carry on one’s ordinary tasks. Experience will prove this. The great servant of God learned this in Barbary when he was a captive.”
  18. He remained, therefore, only about one or two months with his first owner.
  19. Achrnet I, son and successor of Mohammed III.
  20. A name given to those who attributed a human form to God. II seemed strange to Martin de Barcos that Saint Vincent mentioned here the theological opinions of his master and he presumed that Abelly had misread the original. (Cf. Martin de Barcos, R4plique d tecrit que M. Abelly, ancien eveque de Rodez, a public pour dekndre son byre de In vie de M. Vincent [n.p., 1669], p. 13.) It could be that Abelly afterwards had some doubts, because, in the second edition, the word anthropomorphize is omitted.
  21. Frangois Savary, Seigneur de Breves, Ambassador to Constantinople from 1589 to 1607 and to Rome from 1607 to 1615; tutor of Gaston, Louis XIII’s brother; the Queen’s First Squire; and a member of the Council of Despatches; one of the cleverest negotiators during the reign of Henri IV. He died in 1628 at the age of sixty-eight. Savary de Breves landed at Minis on June 17, 1606. He had orders to demand the release of all French slaves, the restitution of merchandise and ships taken by the pirates, and finally the abolition of the right of visitation. In the month of August, after lengthy negotiations, the Ilinisians promised not to interfere with the trade of French merchants and to return to the Consul everything that the corsairs might take from the French. The Ambassador left on August 24 accompanied by seventy-two slaves. All he had obtained were empty promises and the freedom of a few captives. (Cf. Jacques de Castel, Relation des voyages de Monsieur de Drives tant en Grice, Terre Sainte at Egypte qu’aux roynumes de Tunis at d’ Alger, ensemble un traite fair l’ an 1604 [Paris: n.p., 16281.) Castel was secretary to Savary de Bréves.
  22. Renegades were numerous. They were recruited either from among the slaves or from foreigners who had come to Barbary to escape their creditors. Those who embraced Islam were freed of all debts according to Moslem law. Slaves who converted to the religion of Mohammed had more freedom than the others and were treated less harshly. The most formidable captains spoken of in the history of Barbary piracy were almost all renegades. Once they had made their fortune, they enjoyed it peacefully in sumptuous palaces.
  23. A Turkish word.
  24. Ps. 137: 1-4. “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept. . . How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?” (NAB)
  25. It was impossible to escape by land because the regency of Timis was surrounded by deserts infested by wild beasts. By sea, flight was perilous, since the coasts were under constant surveillance. When escaping renegades were caught, they paid for their daring at­tempt with their lives.
  26. A little town in Gard situated on the bank of a large pond about five miles from the sea, to which it is joined by a canal built under Louis XV.
  27. Pietro Francesco Montorio was born in March 1558 in Nami. He was made Bishop of Nicest= in 1593, Vice-Legate of Avignon in 1604, Nuncio to Cologne in 1621, and died in Rome in June 1643.
  28. The vice-legates of Avignon were appointed for three years.
  29. The successor of Pietro Francesco Montorio was Giuseppi Ferreri, Archbishop of Urbino
  30. Do good. brothers, a popular name given to a hospital run by the Brothers of Saint John of God.
  31. Abelly does not give the rest of the letter.
  32. I had given him a mountain of gold.
  33. They found in the Saint’s room after his death his Bachelor of Theology papers received at the University of Toulouse, and those of the Licentiate in Canon Law which had been con­ferred upon him by the University of Paris. (Deposition of Brother Chollier at the process of beatification; cf. Sunnnariton es processu ne perseant probationes aoereritaDc aposiolica fabri­caw, p. 5.) Vincent de Paul never gives himself any other tides. Those who attribute to him a Licentiate in Theology (Abell); op. cit., vol. 111, chap. XIII, p. 199) or a Doctorate in the same field (Gallia Christiana, vol. II, col. 1413) are certainly mistaken.
  34. Probably Pierre Damaudin, a notary.
  35. Pierre Rabel or Ravel was, we believe, Episcopal Secretary. We find him named in a 1603 document as the representative appointed by the Bishop of Dax to transact business with the notary Bayle. (Unclassified archives of the civil seneschal of Das.)
  36. The first three letters of Saint Vincent are signed Depaul; the following ones, Vincent Depaul, or for short, VD., sometimes, V.D.P. Never in the Saint’s hand do we find de Tel in two words, although his contemporaries separated the two syllables of his name in that way. In the parish registers of his native village and the surrounding localities and at the bottom of notarized family documents we find both spellings. However, this question is not important. The particle is not considered a sign of nobility by any genealogist, and rightly so. A mere perusal of the old Catholicity registers of Pouy would convince anyone of this; nearly all the peasants have a de in front of their name. The reason for this lies in the fact that, at least in that part of the Landes, many people’s names were originally names of places. We find in Pouy two spots which were formerly called Paul and still are today: a house situated in the neighborhood of Buglose, and a stream that crosses the road about halfway between Buglose and the Berceau. It is fairly probable that the Saint’s distant relatives had lived either in that house or on the banks of that stream. They were from Paul (de Paul) and they kept that name.

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