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Fortress of the Soul

Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots' New World, 1517-1751

French Huguenots made enormous contributions to the life and culture of colonial New York during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Huguenot craftsmen were the city's most successful artisans, turning out unrivaled works of furniture which were distinguished by unique designs and arcane details. More than just decorative flourishes, however, the visual language employed by Huguenot artisans reflected a distinct belief system shaped during the religious wars of sixteenth-century France.

In Fortress of the Soul, historian Neil Kamil traces the Huguenots' journey to New York from the Aunis-Saintonge region of southwestern France. There, in the sixteenth century, artisans had created a subterranean culture of clandestine workshops and meeting places inspired by the teachings of Bernard Palissy, a potter, alchemist, and philosopher who rejected the communal, militaristic ideology of the Huguenot majority which was centered in the walled city of La Rochelle. Palissy and his followers instead embraced a more fluid, portable, and discrete religious identity that encouraged members to practice their beliefs in secret while living safely—even prospering—as artisans in hostile communities. And when these artisans first fled France for England and Holland, then left Europe for America, they carried with them both their skills and their doctrine of artisanal security.

Drawing on significant archival research and fresh interpretations of Huguenot material culture, Kamil offers an exhaustive and sophisticated study of the complex worldview of the Huguenot community. From the function of sacred violence and alchemy in the visual language of Huguenot artisans, to the impact among Protestants everywhere of the destruction of La Rochelle in 1628, to the ways in which New York's Huguenots interacted with each other and with other communities of religious dissenters and refugees, Fortress of the Soul brilliantly places American colonial history and material life firmly within the larger context of the early modern Atlantic world.

About the Author

Neil Kamil is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


"Well-researched tome that is 'the story of a subterranean culture on the move, its membership fragmented by chronic warfare, exclusion, and political instability and actively in search of new modes of security.'"

- Maine Antique Digest

"Imaginative and innovative treatment of the French Reformation."

- Renaissance Quarterly

"This lavish volume presents a wide-ranging and complex reading of its rather amorphous subject."

- Carla Gardina Pestana - Journal of American History

"Fortress of the Soul demands deep respect from its readers... quite evidently the product of decades of scholarly labor."

- Glenn Adamson - Studies in the Decorative Arts

"Ambitious in its goals, complex in its interpretation and methodology, and groundbreaking in its approach."

- Gayle K. Brunelle - Itinerario: European Journal of Overseas History

"Fortress of the Soul... opens up prospects for new directions in early American scholarship."

- Mark A. Peterson - William and Mary Quarterly

"Throughout, the Fortress of the Soul displays considerable erudition and substantial energy."

- Raymond A. Mentzer - Sixteenth Century Journal

"It is clear that this study will be a landmark study, a monument in the intellectual and material history of the early modern Atlantic world."

- John L. Brooke - Winterthur Portfolio

"Kamil's innovative historical monograph richly deserves to be described as interdisciplinary."

- Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"A monumental work on a number of levels."

- Mary Henninger-Voss - Technology and Culture

"A brilliant, controversial book, full of fireworks, some real Huguenot rockets, and some metaphysical damp squibs."

- Mark Greengrass - Proceedings of the Huguenot Society of Great Britain & Ireland


"An absolutely brilliant, seminal, forefront work. Neil Kamil combines the deepest kind of erudition with a one-in-a-thousand level of sheer intellectual creativity. Most striking is the disciplinary range of this work: material culture analysis, demography, genealogy, geography, textual exegesis, ethnography, as well as more conventional forms of political, military, religious, and economic history. All are here in various contexts and proportions. Kamil's overall touch is so sure and deft that the reader is barely aware of these numerous methodological crossings. His prose is remarkably effective as well. Even where the ideas are complex and difficult, the words are simple, direct, and forceful."

- John P. Demos, Samuel Knight Professor of American History, Yale University
Johns Hopkins University Press
Early America: History, Context, Culture
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