Stanwood on Kamil, 'Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751'

Neil Kamil. Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751. Early America: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. xxiv + 1058 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-7390-4.

Reviewed by Owen Stanwood (Department of History, Catholic University of America)
Published on H-Atlantic (March, 2006)

Words and Things in the Protestant Atlantic

The great promise of the "Atlantic approach," say its promoters, is that it allows historians to break free of national historiographies. Despite the rhetoric, however, relatively few Atlanticists have made good on this promise. Much Atlantic history is little more than imperial or colonial history under a different name, examining one nation's "Atlantic" experience, but rarely probing connections between peoples or empires. Moreover, a disproportionate number of these studies focus on the English or British Atlantics, paying far less attention to seafarers and colonizers from other nations. While much of this scholarship has been excellent--even groundbreaking--it has done little to encourage early modernists to move outside of their national bubbles.[1] Neil Kamil's Fortress of the Soul, however, is an entirely different kind of study. With a cavalier disregard for geographic or disciplinary boundaries, Kamil ranges around the Atlantic world trying to recover the experiences and beliefs of Huguenot artisans from the Aunis-Saintonge region of southeastern France, survivors of the Wars of Religion who ranged as far as colonial America. What he finds is a world in which faith, family, and craft meant a lot more than ethnicity or nationality. The book provides a template for a new kind of Atlantic history--particularly relevant for those who study the seventeenth century--that perceives transoceanic links in terms of confession rather than nationality.

Kamil begins by examining the painful choice faced by French Protestants during the sixteenth-century civil wars: to fight or to hide. Many Huguenots, inspired by the rhetoric of John Calvin, chose to fight, and they lambasted those who chose to hide as hell-bound "Nicodemites," too frightened of earthly punishment to remain true to their consciences. Kamil shows more sympathy to those who avoided confrontation and tries to tell their story. According to him, hiding was a spiritual strategy inherited from Lutheran Pietism that came about as a response to the utter hopelessness of violent conflict. The only way to preserve their faith, these Huguenots saw, was to turn it inward. They still expressed their beliefs, but only in coded ways, especially through material culture. Thus, Kamil connects Huguenot religious and political beliefs to their legendary skills as craftspeople. As a result, if a historian wishes to know what the Huguenots thought or felt, he or she must look at what they made: ceramics, or furniture, or silverware. These objects served as "memory places," encoding beliefs in a language that only the artisan and a few others could have deciphered (p. 644).

The key figure in this story is the Saintongeais potter and natural philosopher Bernard Palissy (1510-1590). It was he who first came up with the idea of "artisanal security," that Huguenot artisans could find safety not in violent confrontation with Catholics, but by expressing spirituality in their craft. Palissy aired this opinion in an essay entitled "De la ville de forteresse" (1563), a critical appraisal of the militant policies of the consistory of the "fortress city" of La Rochelle, a Calvinist bastion that stood as a symbol of orthodoxy and resistance in the Protestant world. Palissy believed that this physical fortress offered a false sense of security, and that believers had better develop internal defenses to serve them when its walls could no longer provide protection. Palissy's warning appeared prescient when La Rochelle finally fell to Louis XIII and Richelieu in 1628, marking a major disappointment for the global Protestant cause. While Protestantism was still legal in France, it took a lower profile, and in Kamil's estimation, many Huguenots began to accept Palissy's ideal of artisanal security, finding comfort in their craft rather than militant opposition to Catholicism.

Kamil's attempts to measure the impact of Palissy's ideas meet numerous pitfalls. First off, there is the obvious problem that secret knowledge is difficult to recover, especially centuries later. By his own admission, Kamil identified few "simple artisans" who shared Palissy's philosophy or were demonstrably influenced by the potter's ideas (p. 191). Indeed, he could not even show that Palissy's books circulated widely in French Protestant communities. Palissy's writings did have an impact, but not among Huguenot artisans. Instead, they became key texts in the international Protestant scientific community, influencing such luminaries as Robert Fludd (1574-1637) and especially John Winthrop Jr. (1606-1676). Much of the middle part of the book focuses on Winthrop's scientific endeavors in seventeenth-century New England, viewing the scientist as the embodiment of the "Palissean" worldview after the fall of La Rochelle. The discussion is enlightening, but it suffers from two problems. First, the connections between Palissy and Winthrop are not compelling; Winthrop owned one of Palissy's books and shared his alchemical interests, but anything more is speculation. More importantly, Winthrop was neither a Huguenot nor an artisan, so he seems a bit out of place in a book that is supposed to be about how ordinary French Protestants dealt with religious violence. Kamil is to be commended for showing links between Protestants of various nationalities, but he has the tendency to go off on tangents that last hundreds of pages and take him far away from the book's central argument.

When Kamil returns to Huguenot artisans in the final section of the book, the limitations of his argument become clear. After seven hundred pages of background, the reader expects the final section to deliver the goods, so to speak, providing expert interpretation of material culture evidence to show how Huguenot artisans inscribed their spirituality in their work after migrating to New York following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. But while Kamil does provide interesting commentary on Huguenot furniture production in North America, he makes little effort to demonstrate what kinds of messages were hidden in these objects, claiming rather meekly that "historians can never fully know the variety of cultural associations" that New Yorkers saw in chairs and other furnishings (p. 761). Perhaps Kamil is being honest about the limitations of his evidence, but in a book packed with speculation, it seems unfair not to indulge the reader a bit more, especially since Kamil's method shows such great promise. In the beginning of his discussion of New York's Huguenots, Kamil challenges the premise of Huguenot assimilation posited by historians such as Jon Butler, pointing out that Huguenots were always good at hiding, and that they retained their distinctive culture in their craftsmanship even while appearing to blend into the dominant English culture.[2] It is a wonderful argument and a stunning example of how material culture analysis could lead to an interpretive breakthrough; unfortunately, Kamil is not able to find much to back up his claims.

The book's section on New York also suffers from an incomplete portrait of how Huguenots fit into the colony's polyglot society. Kamil focuses on Huguenot connections to English Quakers, another refugee people who practiced a faith focused on inward spirituality and dominated artisanal trades. While these links were important, Kamil exaggerates them, implying that most or all of New York's Huguenots advocated latitudinarian religion and toleration against the persecution of "established" Dutch Calvinist and Anglican hierarchies. In fact, New York's religious climate was rarely so straightforward. The colony's French inhabitants, like their English and Dutch neighbors, were divided on matters of faith and politics. Many of them preferred the example of La Rochelle over that of Palissy, advocating a militant response to the Catholic threat. When the German-born militia captain Jacob Leisler took over the colony's government in the name of the international Protestant cause in 1689, for example, some of the colony's Huguenots followed Leisler, while others questioned his extreme methods and favored a quieter approach. A close analysis of the event could have bolstered Kamil's argument--especially if Huguenot artisans favored the anti-Leislerian side. But the book barely deals with the rebellion (see pp. 803, 885) and in his brief treatment Kamil unfortunately misidentifies Jacob Leisler's main opponent Nicholas Bayard as a "leading Huguenot Leislerian" (p. 803). What Kamil fails to realize is that the key debate in sixteenth-century Huguenot circles--to hide or to fight--also appeared in seventeenth-century America among Protestant refugees.[3]

Despite its problems of interpretation and evidence--as well as its extraordinary length and complexity--Kamil's book is a welcome addition to Atlantic studies. While it ultimately fails to make a very compelling case, its method and approach are so innovative that it deserves to be read and pondered by any historian interested in early modern religion and culture. First, it demonstrates the great promise of material culture analysis not only to social historians, but to scholars of ideas as well. Second, the book shows how Atlantic historians can move beyond the nation state and finally view the early modern Atlantic in terms that contemporaries themselves would understand.


[1]. See, for example, the following recent essay collections on Atlantic history: David Armitage and Michael Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); and Elizabeth Mancke and Carole Shammas, eds., The Creation of the British Atlantic World (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

[2]. Jon Butler, The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

[3]. On Huguenots in Leisler's Rebellion see especially, David William Voorhees, "The 'fervent Zeale' of Jacob Leisler," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d. ser., 51 (1994): pp. 447-472.

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Citation: Owen Stanwood. Review of Kamil, Neil, Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. March, 2006.

Copyright © 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at