The Sorbonnic Trots: Staging the Intestinal Distress of the Roman Catholic Church in French Reform Theater *
Persels, Jeff, Renaissance Quarterly
Given that this current age so often has recourse to metaphors of illness to elucidate social and cultural troubles--so many collective rhetorical neuroses in an era of psychoanalysis, so many cancers eating away at the latter-day body politic--we should not be (and, in fact, rarely are) surprised to find earlier ages equally devoted to the figurative potential of mortal infirmity. Venereal disease (syphilis, gonorrhea) and melancholia are but two of the most familiar maux du siecle of the sixteenth century, to be joined by the less-fashionable epilepsy or "falling sickness," the haut real of later baroque poetry; ergotism and erysipelas (the redoubtables feu Saint Antoine of Rabelaisian curses); whooping cough, a versifying Pierre Gringore's coqueluche; the renal calculi made famous by Montaigne; the chaude pisse or "burnt piss" made equally famous by Rabelais; the antique but defiant leprosy of the fabliaux; and the eternal return of the plague. If they did not all necessarily affect the population in epidemic proportions throughout the sixteenth century, all nonetheless found their way into metaphor: so many real and symbolic marks of Cain, of humanity's fallen condition, of our exile from Eden, and of our distance from God. Although contemporary medicine by and large fulfilled the expectations of both its practitioners and patients--God willing, this cure will cure; God not willing, how can human intervention prevail?--it certainly could not successfully set that original fracture, cauterize that original amputation, purge that original madness. (2)
Such was rather the mediating role of the church, its celestial attending physician the Christus Medicus of Augustinian tradition, a spiritual roi thaumaturge; its temporal one Christ's vicar, the pope, the established head of a universal healthcare system whose staff's efficacy and competence were to come under--if not unprecedented then certainly unparalleled--fire in the sixteenth century:
Paule, Leon, Jules, Clement Ont mis nostre France en tourment. Jules, Clement, Leon et Paule Ont pertrouble toute la Gaule. Paule, Clement, Leon et Jules Ont beaucoup gaigne par leurs Bules. Jules, Clement, Paule, Leon Ont fait des maux un milion. (Tabourot des Accordz, fol. 147r-v). (3)
So rhymes Estienne Tabourot, seigneur des Accordz (1547-90), revealing himself more a Gallic chauvinist than a heretic; and, to be fair, he appends to this in his Bigarrures of 1583 an equally scurrilous octet on the protesting papal counterparts, "Luther, Viret, Beze et Calvin." Nonetheless, "mis en tourment," "pertrouble," "des maux un milion"--those who should be looking after the spiritual health of Christianity are perceived in many Evangelical and Reformist quarters as torturing it, troubling it, making it sick.
This is the rhetorical trope we have chosen to pursue in this article, what late-medieval and Renaissance theater specialist Werner Helmich has defined as "la maladie et la guerison allegorique" (allegorical illness and cure) (1:xix). We shall pay specific attention to the ways contemporary polemical playwrights use illness as metaphor in a representative sampling of French-language plays. Which particular ailment or ailments did they use and why? How might we link them to concurrent social conditions and understandings of the body--its functions and malfunctions--the better to explain the choice and potential appeal of such a metaphor? We shall focus on four plays, the first three of which are thought to have been composed and performed in the 1520s and 1530s (though the latter point, of course, is harder to confirm), the last from the reinvigorated polemical stock of the 1560s when France slid inevitably toward internecine conflict. (4) All of them verifiably (or at least reasonably) are suspected to be by the hand of an active and experienced campaigner against the perceived abuses of the Roman church; all of them exploit to an appreciable extent the same durable motif as if in implicit synoptic dialogue with each other (and perhaps with a lost or misplaced French or foreign prototype). The trope central to all of them can be found in polemical works of other genres, both discursive and iconographic, down through the Wars of Religion, which must say something of its hold on the popular imagination. (5)
The early Farce des theologastres (The Farce of the Bad Theologians) will be our first consideration. (6) It has been convincingly dated to the first wave of French-language Lutheran material in the mid-1520s and attributed to the Paris Faculty of Theology's favorite whipping-boy and eventual victim, Louis de Berquin (1485-1529). (7) An economical 650-odd octosyllabic verses long, including the occasional macaronic Latin line and minimal but obvious stage directions, it both replicates established morality play conventions --primarily in its extensive use of allegory--and outlines the rhetorical scheme and figures that will characterize much of later Calvinist polemic in French, whether dramatic, oratorical, or merely discursive.
Briefly, an abysmally scholastic and incompetent Theologastre, together with his companion Fratres, seek to succor a moribund Foy or Faith, whose severe case of "colicque Sorbonique" (line 47)--the "Sorbonnic trots" of our title--can apparently only be cured by a purgative dose of the pure Texte de Sainte Escripture or Text of Holy Scripture, knowledge of which the popish theologian and monastic have not; they do not even know, in fact, where it is to be found. (8) Faith does, however: "Ou raison domine" (Where reason rules) (line 53); that is, in Germany. A personified though bloody and bruised Holy Scripture ("esgratine et ensenglante par le visage") enters, followed by Reason, neither of whom is known, of course, to Theologastre and Fratres. Together they lament Holy Scripture's abuse at the hands of the current church doctors, who have battered her mercilessly with glosses and syllogisms and allegorical readings, all of which, in the words of Reason, "he valent pas deux estrons" (are not worth two turds) (line 210). They set off in search of the man of the hour, the "Mercure d'Allemagne" (the German Mercury)--that is, Louis de Berquin--and persuade him to come to the aid of Holy Scripture, which he does, effecting her literal cleansing. Reason gives her a bath onstage: "Vela le texte fraiz et cler / Pour vous garir la souveraine" (Here is Scripture, flesh and clear, / To cure you, sovereign Faith) (lines 548-49), by which Faith is indeed restored to health. When the players take their leave, Reason is careful to specify in direct audience address that the farce has not been against theologians but rather against "theologastres" (lines 640-43). Among the latter were to be counted--made evident in an earlier passage--many of the leading lights of the contemporary Paris Faculty of Theology, specifically syndic Noel Beda (1470-1537). (9)
Although it makes less elaborate use of the medical trope than the other plays we shall be considering, the Farce des theologastres sets a pattern in French Reform-era theater for what apparently came to be considered a useful and seductive critical and polemical paradigm. It is an immediately accessible yet highly nuanced figure: the church is ill; she must be cured, all the more so as her illness threatens the spiritual health of those who have entrusted her with their salvation and who thus risk eternal death rather than the promised reward of eternal life. That Faith suffers from not just any illness but from a colique, ("a painful windinesse in the stomacke or entrails," to cite Cotgrave's early-seventeenth-century French-English dictionary), provoked by a surfeit of the Sorbonne's (i.e., the Paris Faculty of Theology's) exegetical gloss in place of a plain and healthy diet of pure Gospel, is important. It was, indeed, as later polemicists will draw out ad nauseam, something she ate: either, literally, the increasingly problematic consecrated and transubstantiated Host, or, figuratively, the teachings and practice of a papal authority that has strayed from those of the "primitive church." In fact, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the coming theological firestorm surrounding the Mass and transubstantiation could not be discussed in vernacular works destined for a mass audience without allusion to the metaphorical shorthand of consumption and elimination, whether the latter is provoked by illness (colic, bladder infection, diarrhea, or vomiting or medical intervention (diuretics and cathartics). It is as if the success of the Reformation hinged on one good, purgative, and--most importantly--collective bowel movement (and not just Luther's). (10)
Why this should be so is really not hard to determine. Even the most cursory glance at the legion of contemporary medical publications, themselves direct and often uncritical heirs to an ancient body of knowledge, allows us to appreciate the centrality of elimination to sixteenth-century notions of physical health and well-being. Complexion theory or humoral pathology--that is, the etiology of disease as an upset in the natural balance of humors--prevailed and was recognized as specific to the individual. This accounted for what we might today call ethnic (or racial) and gender variation as well as personal peculiarity in humoral balance, together with the particular effects of "non-naturals"--according to medical historian Nancy Siraisi, "a mixture of physiological, psychological, and environmental conditions held to affect health: air, exercise and rest, sleep and waking, food and drink, repletion and …
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Publication information: Article title: The Sorbonnic Trots: Staging the Intestinal Distress of the Roman Catholic Church in French Reform Theater *. Contributors: Persels, Jeff - Author. Journal title: Renaissance Quarterly. Volume: 56. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 2003. Page number: 1089+. © 1999 Renaissance Society of America. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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