Detail from Ruggiero rescuing Angelica
by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1819
In The History of the Thirteen, Ferragus XXIII is the Chief of the Companions of the Order of Devorants, a secret society known as The Thirteen. He uses the alias Henri Bourignard and also poses as a Portugese count. But who is Ferragus and who are the Thirteen?
In the various legends based on the exploits of Charlemagne, Ferragus is alternately a giant or a Saracen knight.
From Thomas Bulfinch's Legends of Charlemagne:
Orlando, or Roland, particularly distinguished himself by his combat with Ferragus. Ferragus was a giant, and moreover, his skin was of such impenetrable stuff that no sword could make any impression upon it. The giant's mode of fighting was to seize his adversary in his arms and carry him off, in spite of all the struggles he could make. Roland's utmost skill only availed to keep him out of the giant's clutches, but all his efforts to wound him with the sword were useless. After long fighting, Ferragus was so weary that he proposed a truce, and when it was agreed upon, he lay down and immediately fell asleep. He slept in perfect security, for it was against all the laws of chivalry to take advantage of an adversary under such circumstances. But Ferragus lay so uncomfortably for the want of a pillow, that Orlando took pity upon him, and brought a smooth stone and placed it under his head. When the giant woke up, after a refreshing nap, and perceived what Orlando had done, he seemed quite grateful, became sociable, and talked freely in the usual boastful style of such characters. Among other things, he told Orlando that he need not attempt to kill him with a sword, for that every part of his body was invulnerable, except this; and as he spoke, he put his hand to the vital part, just in the middle of his breast. Aided by this information, Orlando succeeded, when the fight was renewed, in piercing the giant in the very spot he had pointed out, and giving him a death-wound. Great was the rejoicing in the Christian camp, and many the praises showered upon the victorious paladin by the Emperor and all his host.
In Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Ferragus is a Saracen Knight named Ferrau rather than a giant. In the beginning of this glorious epic he loses his knightly helmet in a stream. After an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve his knightly helmet, the angry ghost of the brother of the fair Angelica, from whom Ferrau captured the knightly helmet after defeating him in a previous glorious battle, rises from the water, knightly helmet in hand reclaiming his rightful property post mortem.
The ghost then promptly informs Ferrau that he must wear no other knightly helmet until he captures the one that Orlando is wearing, which was captured by Orlando from a Saracen knight named Almontes, whom he defeated in a previous glorious battle. Ferrau swears an oath to do this. Fighting without a knightly helmet is no problem for Ferrau, who, like the giant Ferragus, is invulnerable, except for his belly button.
Incidentally Ferrau is one of Orlando's many rivals for the love of the fair Angelica. They will fight many a glorious battle. In the end of this glorious epic neither one of them has been able to defeat the other. But we know that Orlando is destined to defeat Ferrau in a future glorious battle because the Saracens always lose in these glorious epics. Angelica, for her part, is in love with some other guy and has no interest in Orlando, Ferrau, or her numerous other admirers.
Ruggiero rescuing Angelica by Jean
Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1819
But what does any of this have to do with the Ferragus in The History of the Thirteen? Who is Ferragus and who are the Thirteen, The answer to this question may lie in Balzac's political views.
The History of the Thirteen was written in 1833 during the early days of the July Monarchy. A liberal constitutional monarchy which began with the overthrow of the restoration government of Charles X in the July Revolution of 1830.
Under the July Monarchy government Louise-Phillipe of the Orleans branch of the house of Bourbon was crowned king. This regime, dominated by the haute bourgeois, was bureaucratic, inefficient, and very corrupt. Only the wealthiest members of society could vote. Common people did not have the right to vote or assemble. Republicans who supported a democratic goverment were considered enemies of the state and in 1834 the very word Republican was made illegal. Consequently a host of secret societies and clubs like the Thirteen formed during this era of conspiracies and intrigues.
Balzac was a conservative and supported Charles X as the legitimate monarch, but with some reservations. While criticizing the aristocracy for it's self interest and it's failure to perceive political realities, Balzac wanted to restore the monarchy and the church to what he considered their proper place as the social, political, and moral leaders of society.
At the time Balzac wrote The History of the Thirteen he was deeply involved in politics and was even considering running for public office. Balzac thought France needed a man of vision such as himself to restore balance and harmony to society. In The History of the Thirteen he is making of a study and critique of french society as a vehicle to express his political views.
In Ferragus, the first of the three novella that make up The History of the Thirteen, Balzac uses a story about a young baron's selfish pursuit of a respectable married borgeois lady as a analogy for the political situation in France during the July Monarchy.
The characters in the story are types representing entire classes of society. A young baron represents the younger generation of aristocrats, selfishly courting the favor of the borgeois government of Louise-Phillipe without considering the consequences. His aunt, a dowager duchess, represents the old aristocracy, too out of touch to perceive the situation until it is too late to prevent a calamity. A respectable married borgeois lady represents the borgeois government whose reputation may be ruined by the selfish ambitions of young aristocrats. A pretty young gizette represents the third estate, disenfranchised, used, and abused.
But who are Ferragus and the Thirteen? My theory is that Ferragus and the Thirteen represent the rationalists of these clandestine republican clubs. He must have perceived rationalism and the liberal democratic ideas of these clandestine clubs as amoral and atheistic, the cause of years of bloodshed during the Revolution and Napoleonic wars, an infidel invasion analagous to the Saracen invasion in Charlemagne's day. Ferragus is Orlando's invincible adversary. Perhaps Orlando is Balzac himself using his pen as a sword to save France and Angelica is France herself, a damsel in distress.