Rabelais and the Franciscans

Rabelais and the Franciscans

Rabelais and the Franciscans

Rabelais and the Franciscans

Excerpt

Some of the greatest difficulties in understanding the men of the Renaissance result from their own prejudices. As a consequence of their passionate rejection of the medieval legacy and all it stood for, we tend to accept them as the torchbearers of a new age, and to echo them in treating the antithesis 'medieval and Renaissance' as if it were as valid as 'ancient and modern'. Even now, when a supreme semantic irony has made the originally pejorative 'Gothic' a respectable and even admirable epithet, the tendency persists to take seriously the protests of such men as Rabelais against the 'tenèbres des Gothz'. Though there is less excuse today than formerly for misunderstanding the Middle Ages, and the true significance of the Renaissance, critical work on some of the greatest authors still betrays strange blind spots.

Rabelais is an outstanding case in point. His work frequently and vigorously expresses his contempt for previous centuries and admiration for the ancient world and contemporary humanism, but by its very form and existence demonstrates the impossibility of breaking with the past. In his life as in his work Rabelais shows the paradoxical, and sometimes anomalous, situation into which history had thrust him. His early training, up to the age of twenty-five or so, had been in the order which led the attack on the New Learning, and yet while still a member of that order he began his own classical studies and made contact with Budé and other leading humanists. His first published works were erudite essays in law and medicine, but he first achieved literary immortality as the anonymous author of a book written in the popular and medieval tradition.

When one considers the enormous mass of critical work devoted to Rabelais, much of it of the highest quality, it is, to say the least, curious that an element universally recognized as important should have received so little attention. There are countless studies of Rabelais's classical sources and humanistic affinities, of his friends and enemies, of his literary antecedents and successors, but he must be almost unique in having no full study devoted to his formative years. Many years ago now Gilson admirable essay 'Rabelais Franciscain' showed how much . . .

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