The Sorbonnic Trots: Staging the Intestinal Distress of the Roman Catholic Church in French Reform Theater *

By Persels, Jeff | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

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).

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