The Royal Galleys and a Digital Library

A Collision Between a Burning Vessel and a Galley. Engraving by G. Callot.

A Collision Between a Burning Vessel and a Galley. Engraving by G. Callot.

One of the tools I use when looking for books of interest is the HathiTrust Digital Library. When I find a book that may be helpful in my research, I can usually find it on here. What the HathiTrust Library allows me to do is to search a book’s contents for certain keywords. Due to copyright restrictions, they won’t show the actual contents of the book, but they will display how many results are returned for those keywords and on what pages they were found.

As you can probably guess, one of my most frequently used keywords in these searches is “Chastain”. Recently, I discovered a French book titled Les Galères de France et Les Galériens Protestants Des XVII et XVIII Siècles, which translates to The Galleys of France and the Protestant Galley Slaves of the 17th and 18th Centuries. After 1685, Protestants who were captured fleeing the country could be, like slaves, forced to row on Louis XIV’s royal galleys. I entered “Chastain” into HathiTrust’s search and was surprised when it returned two results. One on page 11 and one on page 56. I requested the book from my library via interlibrary loan and waited patiently for its arrival.

The Virtual Museum of Protestantism has a short but informative article about these Protestant galley-rowers. Here’s a segment.

The 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, or the Revoking of the Edict of Nantes, made provisions to sentence to the galleys those Protestants who attempted to leave the country or who publicly practised their faith in the banned Reformed Church .

Among those who were sentenced :

  • 22% for leaving the country
  • 53% for illegally gatherings of « Churches ofthe Desert »
  • 11% for possession of firearms or gunpowder
  • 1% for protecting or sheltering a pastor

Very few pastors were sentenced to the galleys because they were generally sentenced to death instead.

The life of these rowers is described as follows:

The rowers were kept tied to their bench twenty-four hours a day on the uncovered single deck of the galley, sitting on both sides of a gangway, at the end of a 12-metre long oar. Two teams rowed at the same time at a pace of twenty to twenty-five strokes a minute ; sails could sometimes be used instead to propel the boat.

They served at sea for roughly two to three months ; the rest of the time, the galleys remained in Marseilles ; a large number of the convicts were hired by the port craftsmen. They seldom escaped because a huge reward was promised in the event that they were caught. The others, who had remained on board, had to hand-make stockings.

Jean Marteilhe, who was sentenced as a rower in 1701, lived this life for 12 years. He later wrote a book, Memoirs of a Galley-Rower at the Service of the Sun King. It turns out he was one of the lucky ones. Approximately 550 Protestants served for up to 30 years.

When The Galleys of France and the Protestant Galley Slaves of the 17th and 18th Centuries finally arrived the other day, I immediately turned it to page 11. Here is what I saw.

du 1 octobre 1685 , amenés de Grenoble par Benoist de VAux, commis au greffe crimineul du Parlement de Dauphiné:

Racolet, Jean

6886. — Jean Racolet, de Noyon, près Arcis-sur-Aube, tonnelier, âgé de 45 ans, de moyenne stature, poil chastain, roux, le visage et le nez long, les yeux gris, condamné par arrest rendu au Parlement de Paris le 28 mars 1685, pour les cas résultant du procès.

à 5 ans.

This translates roughly to:

October 1, 1685, led by Benoist Grenoble Vaux , clerk at the Criminal Registry of the Parliament of Dauphiné:

Racolet , Jean

6886. – Jean Racolet , Noyon , near Arcis-sur-Aube, cooper, 45 years old, of medium stature, chestnut colored hair, red face and long nose, gray eyes, condemned by decree made ​​to Parliament of Paris, March 28, 1685, for cases arising from the proceedings.

5 years.

(There’s also a note saying that he died in one of the prisoner hospitals in April of 1690.)

Chastain means chestnut in Old French. In this case, it was used to describe the prisoner’s hair color. I found the same on page 56. Contrary to appearances after searching the book at HathiTrust, there were no Chastains rowing as slaves on the Sun King’s galleys, just two unfortunate souls with dark brown hair.

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