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Guillaume Gueroult's
Le Premier Livre des emblemes,
Balthazar Arnoullet, 1550


This work is reproduced from Glasgow University Library: SM535

This is the third vernacular French emblem book, appearing just over a decade after Guillaume de la Perriere’s Theatre des bons engins and Gilles Corrozet's Hecatomgramphie. Although the first to contain the word embleme in the title, Gueroult's Premier Livre conforms much less than its predecessors to what we now see as the norms of the Renaissance emblem, with the use of the term possibly being for marketing purposes. Indeed the work is in many ways much closer to an eclectic collection of illustrated fables, with borrowings from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Horopollo's Hieroglyphica and Aesop, amongst others. Le Premier Livre has in turn been noted as the direct source for a number of Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables.

Guillaume Gueroult (c. 1507-c. 1564)

Gueroult was born in Rouen in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and may have studied at the University of Caen. He was also known to have lived in Geneva and Lyons, but very little biographical information has been established for sure. Gueroult was of Protestant faith (a fact reflected in many of his works), and played an important role in the quarrel between Michel Servet and Calvin. He was a leading figure in the printing trade, working for his uncle Guillaume-Simon du Bosc in Rouen and later for his brother-in-law and publisher, Balthazar Arnoullet. He authored a number of diverse works ranging from a history of plants (1550), a Premier livre des narrations fabuleuses (1558) based on Ovid, a Description philosophale de la nature et condition des animaux (1561), two volumes on the emperors of Rome (1562) and various religious works (Chansons spirituelles, 1548, Psaulms de David traduits par Marot et Bèze, 1555 and Figures de la Bible, 1564). Illustration figures prominently in these works, for example the 1561 work on animals or the 1560 Hymnes du temps, both of which juxtapose illustration with text and title/motto, effectively creating de facto emblems.

Publication History

(for more information see BFEB F.280)

A single edition exists of Le Premier Livre des emblemes, whose misleading title may be a reference to the Second Livre de la description des animaux, contenant le Blason des oyseaux (also Arnoullet, 1550), with which it is often bound. Little is known of its reception, although the lack of further editions may suggest limited success. This would be supported by the evidence of an eighteeth-century manuscript note to the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal’s copy in the Narrations fabuleuses, in which reference is made to Gueroult’s religious, philosophical geographical and historical works, but his emblems are absent.

Guillaume Gueroult’s Le Premier Livre des emblemes, Lyons, Balthazar Arnoullet, 1550

The work consists of 29 numbered emblems, generally composed of a title, then a rectangular woodcut, a quatrain and then a longer verse that effectively provides the story.

GUL: SM535: C4v-C5r. Actual page height: 146mm.
GUL: SM535: C4v-C5r. Actual page height: 146mm.

There is little thematic unity, with tales of courtiers and lovers appearing alongside animal fables and musings upon human nature. At times the emblems may seem contradictory, for example number 16—‘Fortune favorise sans labour’—as compared to number 23, ‘Bien se doit acquerir par labeur’. The repetition of certain woodcuts, which in generally illustrated a chosen scene from the tale, adds further ambiguity, as in the unjust prince (number 8) who doubles up as a drunkard (number 20). On the whole, however, the collection functions to recount a series of latter day shaggy dog stories. Numer 28, ‘En putain n’ha point de foy’, for example, recounts how a whore in a paternity suit is asked to walk across a bed of thorns, with the judge concluding that she cannot possibly know which spike pricked her.

Select Secondary Bibliography

Alison Adams, Stephen Rawles, Alison Saunders, A Bibliography of French Emblem Books, 2 vols (Geneva: Droz, 1999-2002): entry F.280. [LINK TO BIBLIOG DESCRIP]

Guillaume Gueroult, Le premier livre des emblèmes: à Lyon, chez Balthazar Arnoullet, MD.XXXXX, edited by De Vaux de Lancey (Rouen: Albert Lainé, 1937)

Enea Balmas, ‘Le Cas de Guillaume Guéroult’, in L’Emblème à la Renaissance, edited by Yves Giraud (Paris: CNRS, 1982), pp. 127-35.

Saunders, Alison. The Sixteenth-Century French Emblem Book: A Decorative and Useful Genre (Geneva: Droz, 1988).

Page written by Laurence Grove.


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