It is indeed essential to consider Moisant in his family and social background and, besides, in the present case, this study will reveal an exemplary social promotion, under the"Ancien Régime".
Moisant's family hailed from Brittany where some of its members had been councillors in the local Parliament, Seneschals, Lieutenants-Généraux and also a few soldiers and clergymen. In the 16th century there was a Nicolas de Moisant in Rouen who belonged to the Protestant faith (Reformed Church) nicknamed by the Catliolics RPR (la religion prétendue réformée = the so-called reformed church). Nicolas had made a substantial fortune in the cloth trade; Rouen was then the second city in the kingdom and one of the most active.
This Nicolas was the great-grandfather of Jacques; another Nicolas, the grandfather, married Catherine Péronne from Dieppe in 1555. One of their eleven children, Guillaume, settled in Caen where he carried on with the cloth trade and ended up buying the finest house in town, the Hôtel d'Escoville, also known as 'l'Hôtel du Grand Cheval' = the Mansion of the Great Horse, owing to a remarkable equestrian subject carved on the pediment over the gateway which may have represented one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and was defaced in 1793.
From his marriage with Marthe Soyer from Dieppe, in 1605, were born two daughters and one son: Jacques.
Marrying into the Soyer family meant for Guillaume Moisant a great match which underlined his thriving situation. His environment was one of gowned people (professors, judges, lawyers) officials and wealthy citizens, some recently raised to the nobility, all active enterprising people, eager to climb the social ladder and who, moreover, belonged to the Protestant faith,that is to say to a minority intent on a militant solidarity.
As for Guillaume Moisant, in 1618 he bought the property of Brieux near Caen and was, henceforward, known as Moisant de Brieux. He died in 1624.
Jacques Moisant de Brieux,born on 15 May 1611, received a sound education, first at the Collège du Bois in Caen where his teacher was Antoine Halley who introduced him to Latin poetry and inspired his pupil with a lasting regard. Then he followed the path of the young calvinists of his age, spending some time in Sedan where he met the future Duke of Montausier .(1610-1690) with whom he enjoyed a lifelong friendship. Montausier, eventually, became Governor of Normandy and was reunited with Moisant in Caen.
After some travelling and the purchase of the office of Councillor with the Parliament of Metz, Moisant married Catherine Van der Thomb, also of the Reformed Church, who brought this wealthy young man a dowry of 100,000 pounds.
On his return to Caen, Jacques Moisant dedicated himself to literary life and developed contacts with the scholars of the region. He entertained a select society to which he could devote all his time. After the acquisition, in 1637, of the manor house and fief of La Luzerne at Bernières-sur-Mer, he spent his time between a brilliant intellectual life in town, and a more homely one in the country which enabled him to enjoy resting, reading, meditating and also afforded him time to cultivate his garden (in the proper not Voltairean sense) and to gaze at the sea stretching as far as the eye could reach, in front of the manor house.
The Académie Française had just been founded in Paris in 1635, originating in Conrart's home, given rules by Chapelain, implemented under the patronage of Richelieu who pressed to have the Statutes adopted.
Now, Moisant de Brieux often met Conrart and we already know of his connection with Montausier, the son-in-law of Madame de Rambouillet...Thus was sown the idea of an Academy in Caen.
( see History, the foundation ).
More than madrigals and epigrans in which everybody displayed his talent, Moisant was in search of a more elaborate form of literature. He published a poem in Latin 'Gallus Gallinaceus' which earned him a gold necklace from Queen Christina of Sweden, whose flattering reputation among the literary or philosophical circles of her time is well-known.
In the same vein, Moisant de Brieux usually kept up a lavish correspondence in Latin with his many acquaintances, particularly Ménage, Conrart, Godeau and Chapelain; it was the latter who gave the following judgement on Caen :
" Caen is another Paris for knowledge and style and although it is not so populated or vast, it is no less great for its exquisite manners and deep learning.".
Another select correspondent was Jean Régnault de Segrais, the Caen poet then in Paris :
"Segrais the sincere and loyal friend
Whose heart is made of that pure metal
That all saw gleaming in the first ages."
Raised to the nobility by Louis XIV in 1644, Moisant received his letters patent of nobility to confirm it in 1665:
"For the regard and reputation he now enjoys among scholars and Men of Letters."His coat of arms is : "azure with three crosses or, two and one".
The poet spent the following years establishing his literary reputation. Then he and his friends decided in 1652 to create the Academy of Belles Lettres in Caen, "the younger sister of The Académie Française" as the great writers of the Age of Louis XIV called it.
At that time, he appeared as a subtle and delicate thinker, a kind, conciliating man, obliging and helpful and whose only ambition was for the Society he had founded.
He produced a steady flow of publications till his death : letters, critical texts, poems, paraphrases of psalms (most of them in Latin) then, towards the end of his life, " Christian and Moral Meditations, "Inquisitive Entertainments" and, above all, "The Origins of a few age-old Customs" which remains the only work still consulted to-day.
The end of the life of the Founder of our Academy was saddened by bereavement in his family and the suffering due to his frail health. He was not spared in his literary life either as in 1667 during a violent argument opposing Samuel Bochart, his lifelong friend and the bishop of Avranches P-D.Huet, another friend, the former suddenly collapsed and died in Moisant's arms; he was 68.
Gradually, the poet grew detached from his worldly goods. In May 1674 he passed away from post-operative complications of the stone disease. It was Halley, his old tutor who broke the news to the Duke of Montausier. Moisant himself had written the follovving lines :
"My soul, remember your highborn quality
Let us forsake the world and behold heaven."
Bayle pronounced Moisant de Brieux, "the greatest poet that ever lived in France and one well versed in Belles Lettres" He is, undoubtedly, an excellent Latin poet, greatly appreciated by his contemporaries but his French verse sounds somewhat more artificial; however, some of his letters bear witness to a verve and wit akin to Voiture's.
Be that as it may, the founder of the Academy of Caen does not deserve the unwarranted oblivion into which he has generally sunk and, consequently he should have an honourable place in the 17th century anthologies.
Of the six children born to the Moisants only François, the eldest (who was to be converted to the Catholic faith at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes) and his sister Catherine were to have an issue whose descendants are still with ust now-a-days.
*To Transactions 1996: Mr Michel de Pontville