The Life and Death (and then ‘Life’ and then ‘Death’) of Francine Descartes

October 19, 2010

René Descartes (1596-1650) was a 17th century philosopher and mathematician who is now best known for the phrase ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore I am’.  The simple meaning of the phrase is that by wondering if one exists, one proves one’s existence (as there has to be someone doing the wondering).  It is said to be the only irrefutable truth, as anything else can potentially be dismissed as a dream or figment of the imagination.

René Descartes

Descartes first committed to pursuing a life of science and wisdom on the night of 10th November 1619 when he had three dreams or visions that had a profound effect on him.  In the first dream he was being tossed around by whirlwind outside a college; in the second he was awoken by a loud thundering inside his head to find sparks flying out of his stove; and in the third he found a dictionary and book of Latin verse containing the phrase ‘What path shall I follow in life?’ on his bedside table.

Although he never married, Descartes had a relationship with Helena Jans van der Strom, a Dutch servant girl working for the bookshop owner with whom Descartes was lodging at the time.  This led to the birth of their daughter, Francine Descartes, on October 15th, 1634.  The three of them moved back from Amsterdam to Deventer the following winter under the story that Helena was Descartes servant and Francine his niece.

In 1640 Descartes made plans to take Francine to France to be educated, but before that could happen Francine died of scarlet fever on September 7th 1640, just before her sixth birthday.  The death of his daughter had a profound effect on Descartes, some even suggesting that it is what changed his focus from medicine to searching for universal answers and the great works he is known for today.

Helena and Descartes remained close, however in 1644 she married a local innkeeper; Descartes himself provided the 1000-guilder dowry for this wedding and ended up staying in the area for a number of years to pursue his studies, as well as his life-long passion for automata.

In 1649 Descartes was reluctantly summoned as a teacher for Queen Christina of Sweden who was fascinated by his modern philosophical incite and he set off by ship across the North Sea.  Reports from the boat indicate that Descartes had told the crew that he was traveling with his young daughter Francine (despite this being 9 years after her death) and that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances.  During the voyage, however, they hit a particularly bad storm and, fearing they would have to abandon ship, it became necessary to summon Descartes.  When the crew arrived at his quarters he was elsewhere on the ship and so in order to save his daughter they broke down the door – only to find the room empty. 

An 18th Century Automaton capable of drawing pictures and writing poems.

In the centre of the room there was a large, suspicious looking trunk and the crew, fuelled by the mysterious circumstances of Descartes’ travel arrangements, decided to look inside.

On opening the case they were shocked to find an incredibly lifelike, full sized doll of a 5 year old girl -Francine- but their shock quickly turned to terror when the doll sat upright and turned its eyes to look at them; it was one of Descartes automatons.

They showed the primitive robot to the captain who, having never seen anything like it before, believed it to be the work of black magic and the source of the storm.  He ordered the crew to throw it overboard where it was lost at sea.

Not long after arriving in Sweden, and deprived of his precious ‘daughter’, René Descartes died of pneumonia on 11 February 1650.  Presumably ‘Francine’ is still somewhere at the bottom of the North Sea.


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