This book brings readers the first translation into English of the seventeenth-century Breviarium Politicorum Secundum Rubricas Mazarinicas, the “Politician’s Breviary,” inspired by the legacy of Cardinal Jules Mazarin. Although our times have changed since its first publication more than three hundred years ago, its recommendations are still relevant to current and aspiring leaders and politicians.
The original 1684 publication and subsequent editions published in Latin, Italian, and French were purposely anonymous. For centuries, they professed to reflect the values and prescriptions of a towering figure of European history, Cardinal Jules Mazarin. The book quickly exploded into popularity and continued to captivate European readers through the eighteenth century, becoming part of a subgenre, including Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, that could be considered “power literature.” Eventually, publishers attributed the collection of principles and maxims to Cardinal Mazarin. The enduring Breviary remains as engaging, practical, and easy to read as ever, and it offers uncommonly candid reflections on human nature.
My first acquaintance and fascination with Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV (his pupil and future king under whom he served), and novels such as The Three Musketeers came during my school years. My reacquaintance with the storied Italian who became chief minister to French kings happened while browsing in a bookstore in Paris. There, I spotted a thin blue book on display in the section dedicated to small-scale publishers: the French Bréviaire des politiciens, released exactly three hundred years after its first publication in Latin. The work, familiar to historians, was largely unknown to contemporary readers. As I flipped through the pages, the book struck me as absolutely compelling. Later, I realized that no English version of the Breviary existed and, therefore, that readers limited to books published in the world’s most-spoken language were missing out.
This translation is not a word-for-word conversion from one or other editions of the work. The Latin versions are often obscure, sentence constructions are awkward, the style is not consistent, and archaisms make reading difficult for modern audiences. Still, this English version remains close to the original text and retains most of the language, ideas, and values expressed in the Breviarium while respecting modern gender sensitivities.
Although we may never know for certain who really compiled the thoughts eventually attributed to Mazarin, placing the Breviarium in its historical context is key to understanding the spirit and purpose of the work.
Cardinal Jules Mazarin features among the most esteemed, hated, and certainly the most prominent and influential politicians of France’s long history. In a brief introduction such as this, I cannot do justice to the abundance and complexity of primary sources and scholarly papers about this period that are available in French and world libraries and private collections; in addition, the kingships’ storyline of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been muddled and cluttered with misinformation and slander spread by France’s enemies. The profusion of fanciful historical fiction and creative nonfiction has only contributed to the growing culture of alternate history alive in the popular consciousness. Therefore, I will try to bring a little clarity to Mazarin’s life and times.
Giulio Raimondo Mazzarino was born in 1602 near Rome to well-educated parents. His mother was from the noble Bufalini family, associated with the powerful Italian Colonna family, which formed part of the papal nobility. These strong ties ushered seven-year-old Mazarin into Rome’s most respected school, the Jesuit College, where he excelled. At seventeen, he accompanied one of the Colonna sons to study law in Spain, but he shortly returned to Rome to resume his studies and develop credentials. By the age of twenty-two, he was serving as a papal envoy and displaying great diplomatic skills.
In this capacity, and boosted by the successes of his missions, Mazarin first met King Louis XIII and his leading minister, Cardinal Richelieu, in 1629 and 1630. Pope Urban VIII appointed Mazarin vice-legate in Avignon (France), but more importantly, in 1634, as minister extraordinaire to France. Mazarin lived in Paris and for a few months in Avignon before returning to Rome in 1636. But by the end of 1639, in the wake of frictions with the pope (a matter too intricate to be gone into here), Mazarin left Rome for France and entered the service of Richelieu. Initially suspicious of Mazarin, Richelieu soon came to appreciate him.
Mazarin’s reputation and diplomatic career soared. After the death of Richelieu in 1642, followed months later by the death of Louis XIII, the regent Anne of Austria appointed Mazarin prime minister, effectively elevating the cardinal to the position of France’s de facto ruler. Godfather to the king’s first son, who was born in 1638, Mazarin also became the future Louis XIV’s tutor.
By 1648, Mazarin had achieved many diplomatic successes, particularly by concluding the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War. Primarily fought in central Europe, the war had originated in 1618 as a conflict among a few German princes and would eventually claim the lives of millions of people from combat, disease, and famine.
To bear the cost of the Thirty Years’ War and the associated Franco-Spanish War, begun in 1635, Louis XIII had levied heavy taxes, imposing many hardships on his subjects, who lived in abject poverty. Mazarin appeared to be no friend of the people, for several reasons. He had assumed the cloak of the heir of Richelieu, and he was Italian; his cleverness reeked of hypocrisy and dissimulation, akin to that of another Italian, Machiavelli; his power was second only to that of the king; he controlled France’s army and finances, levied taxes by decree, and appointed generals and governors; he accepted prestigious positions and accumulated extraordinary personal wealth, including palaces, fleets of ships, and collections of statues, paintings, books (about thirty thousand volumes), precious gems, gold, and silver.
In 1648, Mazarin’s adversaries fomented civil unrest, called the Fronde (named for part of a children’s game), the first of several open rebellions by the nobility and the parliamentary courts. The royal court fled to one of its residences in the nearby French countryside, but Mazarin and the Prince of Condé crushed the rebellion. Condé then switched sides and instigated a more serious second wave of unrest. In 1651, Mazarin evaded his enemies and fled to Germany. Rebels vandalized his Paris palace and sold his possessions on the public square. After a series of intrigues and shifts of alliances among conflicting parties, royal forces led by the Vicomte de Turenne defeated Condé in July 1652, ending the second Fronde.
Once again, Mazarin had succeeded. Throughout those tumultuous years, which confirmed France as the dominant continental power, the cardinal strengthened his king’s rule. After Mazarin’s death, Louis XIV decided not to replace him and instead directly took charge of governing France, possibly following Mazarin’s recommendation. His decisive action marked a new phase in Louis XIV’s reign. Political relationships with Italy disintegrated. In 1684, the year the Breviarium was first published, French naval forces bombarded Genoa, an important Spanish foothold, showering the city with thirteen thousand explosive cannonballs. France’s adversaries became the United Provinces of the Netherlands (the Dutch Republic and its colonial empire), England, and Prussia.
In October 1685, Louis XIV revoked Henry IV’s 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had granted some religious liberty and civil rights to his Protestant subjects, the Huguenots, and declared Protestantism illegal. The Huguenots were persecuted and often tortured. About four hundred thousand of them fled France and settled in enemy countries and in the New World.
Between 1661 and 1688, Mazarin’s followers published a few flattering biographies. Incendiary accounts followed, some published posthumously. For nearly a century after the cardinal’s death, interest in the political dynamics of Mazarin’s times seemed to wax and wane.
Seventeenth-century France was ready for the ancient propaganda tool of political pamphlets. During and for years following the first and second Fronde, an unprecedented flurry of anti-Mazarin rhetoric flowed into public view in the form of pamphlets called the Mazarinades. Scholars have collected more than five thousand Mazarinades, analyzing their tone, tenor, accusations, and originators.
There were different categories of pamphleteers, corresponding to their individual proclivities or allegiances. Some pamphlet creators were seditionists, direct actors in the Fronde; others were mercenary writers selling their pamphlets. Some wrote these short papers to amuse themselves. Still others longed to create scandals. Good writers were few and pamphlets were rarely signed. Most were poorly typeset and printed on the lowest-quality paper. Better versions were circulated in manuscript format. Publishers chose the most marketable works and reprinted them under different titles, and peddlers disseminated them.
Pamphlets continued to appear after Mazarin’s death, attacking his memory and repeating against Louis XIV and France the accusations made against him, justified or not: greed, avarice, cunning, depraved living, and everything else imaginable. Examples of the more substantive pamphlets include the Breviarium Politicorum (1684), between these book covers; the Maximes de Louis XIV (1689); the Salut de la France à M. le Dauphin (1690); the Véritable tableau de la France (1690); and the Alcoran de Louis XIV, ou le testament politique du Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1695).
The number of pamphlets peaked between 1684 and 1692. Most of them were printed in Germany or posed as German publications. Such is the case with the Breviarium, published in at least four editions during that period, followed by at least five more up to 1724. Other pamphlets showed imprints in Holland, Italy, and France. Just as the pamphlets were anonymous, so, too, was the 1684 Breviarium, published twenty-three years after Mazarin’s death.Furthermore, perhaps in an early effort to be politically correct, the publishers introduced the book not as a tool intended to deceive and manipulate others but touted it as a resource to keep readers from being deceived and manipulated.
Subsequent editions into the 1700s also did not attribute the work, either because the author was unknown or for fear of retaliation. Modern translations into French, Spanish, and Italian, however, have ascribed authorship to Cardinal Mazarin, but it is doubtful that the Breviarium drew on Mazarin’s writings in any substantive way. Even as we know he was a prolific note-taker, Mazarin’s statements of record are not found in the Breviarium, which more reflects principles and maxims circulating in seventeenth-century Italian high society. The Breviarium’s mastery of one’s social and political environment is presented in a polemical and provocative way and placed under the authority of a prominent historical personage and persona.
Even the word “maxims” is a bit of a misnomer. The section titled “Maxims,” terse one-liners of wisdom, is brief. Most of the Breviarium was composed in a narrative format as advice and principles on how those who govern (or aspire to govern) should manage their lives, behave, and interact with others. It neither contains profound or philosophical considerations nor pretends to be written to heighten the minds of intellectuals. Still, many of its recommendations have deep meaning. The aim of the book was to perpetuate animosity against France and Louis XIV by exciting and amusing its readers, mainly rulers, politicians, and influential people in Europe.
Power literature has been produced since ancient times to educate aspiring rulers and those already in command and to offer guides outlining techniques to acquire and maintain sovereign authority and control over one’s subjects. Five hundred years before the Christian era, Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War. Around 350 bce, Aristotle expressed principles that drive political power in his Treatise on Government. Fifty years later, Indian philosopher and prime minister Kautilya wrote the Arthashastra, a handbook for those who reign over a kingdom. Around 220 bce, Chinese general Wáng wrote the Thirty-Six Stratagems. Perhaps influencing treatises closer to Mazarin’s times are Baldassare Castiglione’s familiar Book of the Courtier (1528), Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince(1532), and Baltasar Gracián’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle (1647).
And since the nineteenth century, we might add the works of Talleyrand, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others who, to varying degrees, explored our ongoing physical and psychological need to empower ourselves, allow someone of power to dominate us, or protect our power from others who would usurp it.
Early courts had no monopoly on duplicity. Although in most places we no longer have an absolute king, prince, master, or patron, power and influence are still concentrated in the hands of a few people. The power centers are now fragmented across factions and cliques in government, corporations, and other formal and informal settings, but the essence of the game has not changed. Secrecy, manipulation, dissimulation, deception, subterfuge, greed, and maleficence still dominate high-stakes games of politics and business, assuring that the anonymous Breviarium is as relevant today as it was more than three centuries ago. Although current leaders, politicians, and advocates for various causes may not be aware of the ancient roots of their strategies, they practice variations of their themes at local, national, and global levels.
Whoever strives to liberate society from the abuses of power and avoid being deceived and manipulated must read and reread this small book.