Rabelais, Renaissance, and Reformation: Recent French Works on the Renaissance

By Schiffman, Zachary Sayre | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Rabelais, Renaissance, and Reformation: Recent French Works on the Renaissance


Schiffman, Zachary Sayre, Renaissance Quarterly


The renaissance is protean, forcing US to fix it with descriptive labels or bracket it with interpretive structures in order to make any sense of it. Recent works on Rabelais - himself a shifting and many faceted figure - not only illustrate this tendency but also illuminate the need for new interpretative models of the French Renaissance. Whereas some of these works attempt to fix Rabelais with the "humanist/humanism" label, others attempt to bracket him with post-modern interpretative structures, generally blending phenomenology, critical theory, and structuralism. And whereas some of these works unwittingly reveal the poverty of their interpretive frameworks, others point the way toward a new one that takes Rabelais's own cultural milieu more seriously. After reviewing all these interpretations, I shall try to describe the nature of this cultural milieu, which is defined by the coincidence of "Renaissance" and "Reformation" in the sixteenth century. These conflicting forces account for the high degree of unease and anxiety that defines the French Renaissance and many of its cultural products.

Madeleine Lazard reveals all in the title of her work, Rabelais, l'humaniste (Paris: Hachette, 1993), which synthesizes recent Rabelais scholarship for a general audience. This kind of effort makes great demands on an author, who must be able to summarize and generalize judiciously. Unfortunately, Lazard is only partially successful. The opening section of the book, which attempts to place Rabelais in his cultural context, presents a hopelessly Whiggish view of Renaissance humanism as the triumph of critical thinking over medieval dogmatism, resulting in the "rediscovery of man, the reaffirmation of his dignity, the assertion of his freedom" (26). Of course, Lazard does not neglect Rabelais's evangelical side, but her version of Christian humanism reduces religion to the status of an adjective. The reform movement simply becomes an extension of Renaissance ideals into the spiritual realm.

Her Whiggish view of humanism, however, is more than redeemed by her excellent treatment of Rabelais's medical training and its influence. Here she breaks no new ground, but she does present a vivid picture of medical education in sixteenth-century France. Medicine forms one of the major tributaries of the Greek revival, and it creates one of the fundamental contexts for Rabelais's humanism. Closely following Roland Antonioli's Rabelais et la medecine (Geneva: Droz, 1976), Lazard nicely summarizes the role of medical learning and medical controversies in Rabelais's novel. Perhaps she should have written a book entitled, Rabelais, L'humaniste medical, for this more detailed approach might have provided a clearer portrait of Rabelais.

Marie Madeleine Fontaine explores some of the dimensions of Rabelais's medical humanism in her collection of essays, Libertes et savoirs du corps a la Renaissance (Caen: Paradigme, 1993). In "Quaresmeprenant: l'image litteraire et la contestation de l'analogie medicale," she analyzes chapters 29-32 of Book Four, concerning the internal and external anatomy of Quaresmeprenant - the personification of Lent - who rules as king of an island skirted by Pantagruel and Panurge in their voyages. These chapters show how Rabelais uses his medical humanism in the service of his evangelism - his Erasmian preference for the spirit rather than the letter of Christianity. In several long lists detailing the anatomy of Quaresmeprenant, Rabelais ridicules not only religious superstition but also medical learning.

The analogies in these anatomical lists are usually interpreted as examples of Rabelais's comic invention - "His lobes are like a gimlet [tirefond]," "His liver like a double axe," "His feet like guitars" - but Fontaine shows how they reflect contemporary medical learning, which relies upon similar analogies. Indeed, the anatomical descriptions in sixteenth-century medical texts are hardly less monstrous, often comparing parts of the body to everyday objects. …

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