Reason for Renaissance Strife

So far, we have looked at the foremost literary forms that exploded with vitality in Renaissance and have traced their classical influence on the writers of the age. Translators boomed with the advent of the printing press; dramatists steeped themselves in the comedies of Plautus and the tragedies of Seneca; the epic excelled at placing classical supernatural and heroic prophecies to the fore in the tales of Tasso, Ariosto, Spenser and Milton; pastoral and romance blossomed in a popularity never before seen and did so on lines first drawn by Theocritus and Virgil. What remains is to look at the chief Renaissance writers of those the two greatest powers of western European literature – France and England.

The main conflicts occurring within the Renaissance are:

  1. The conflict between the Catholic and the Protestant forms of Christianity. It affected Shakespeare, who chose to downplay the Christian elements of his characters. It is even more visible in Donne, a Catholic convert whose Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius his Conclave were aimed at converting others. His Biathanatos shows a more conflicted man – his defence of suicide therein at odds with his Catholicism.
  2. The conflict within the Roman church between the liberals and the conservatives. The liberals were unwilling the leave the Catholic communion entirely, but refused to subscribe to all its doctrines – notables within this conflict are Rabelais and Erasmus, who refused the sacraments on his deathbed although an ordained priest.
  3. The conflict between the upper class and the self-assertive middle class. The new bourgeois knew they could not seize power for themselves but they brimmed with
    King Lear
    King Lear: Shakespeare delves into questions of inheritance

    ambition to infiltrate it, bringing with them many liberal ideas to the existing oligarchies. Marlowe’s tragedies seethe with the lust for power, while Shakespeare’s greatest plays all deal with the question of hereditary power and its legitimacy – Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear.

  4. The conflict between science and its two enemies – superstition and authoritative theology.Galileo is the classic example, but there are many others. Engineering and architecture was improved by building on the classical models of Vitruvius, and Rabelais himself lectured on Hippocrates and Galen. Combined with earnest experiment and discovery, the world of medicine was transformed.
  1. The conflict between authority and individuality. Far from new and far from finished as a discourse, the conflict did breathe new light in the Renaissance, particularly in light of thinkers such as Macchiavelli, whose work The Prince preached to the individual politico to scorn all moral and religious restraints on their road to attainment. In Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, the only authority under God is the voice of the philosopher kings. In Montaigne individual reflection trumps institutional doctrine throughout.

For France in particular, the sixteenth century was a fractious time: from the Italian wars of Francis I through the tension and eruption of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 to the assassination of Henry IV in 1610, there is distinct unease in the political and cultural order. The Renaissance was a spiritual revolution: a civil war in which both sides were strong and determined. Often that civil war was waged within one man’s soul. France was one of the most erratic place for writers, who would find their own way of dealing with the turmoil. We shall examine how two cases dealt with the tumult, and to what extent turning to Rome worked as consolation and inspiration alike.

Rabelais: Erratic Insecurity

Rabelais as a writer eschews instability. He can often be difficult to understand and impossible to find consistent. In this he is a figure of his place and time. Doubt and insecurity are notable by their absence in the French baroque works of Moliere and Corneille, but in Rabelais we find idealism side-by-side with coarseness; humour is

Rabelais: A wanderer both in life and literature

closely followed by a fixed earnestness. Rabelais represents man at odds with a ruptured and changing world. The Graeco-Roman world had resurfaced, but there was also a deep spiritual questioning being done, institutions were being undermined and previously solid systems scrutinised, and the conflicts listed above were continuously coming to a boil.

Francois Rabelais (1483/94-1553) had entered a monastery early in life, but he had found the ignorance and simplicity enjoined by St Francis rather irksome, and took it on himself to learn the classics. Having experienced the seizure of his books and restraint of his friends, he managed to obtain a special licence from Pope Clement VII in 1524 that would make him a Benedictine – an order more in line with his scholarly interests. Even this did not tame him. He seems to have become a wanderer for a time before emerging as a physician and teacher of Greek and modern medicinal doctrines. Ever in a disagreement, he fell sour with Lyons hospital and the Sorbonne before he would die in 1553, fighting and laughing as he had done for most of his life.

His literary works are centred around two giant kings, Gargantua and Pantagruel. They are father and son living in an estranged version of contemporary France. Rabelais was keen to express the generational difference between these two giants. The idea of Gargantua he took from a cheap book sold at fairs, The Great and Inestimable Chronicles of the Great and Enormous Giant Gargantua, published in Lyons in 1532 – a sort of Superman of the age. Pantagruel Rabelais makes his son. He is both better educated and more modern than his father. The exploits contained in Rabelais have their inspiration in comic Italian epics of medieval prowess, such as Luigi Pulci’s Morgante of 1483. The medieval mannerism has the work littered with a large amount of dirty jokes and lethargic wish-fulfillment, so it is strange to find it laced with classical learning and contemporary scientific and philosophical thought. It is as if Rabelais took all the culture and learning of the age in, only to reject it and embrace absurdity.

Characters are given names in Greek that describe their personality – the reader Anagnostes; the good-natured courtier Eudemon; the nimble squire Gymnast; the tutor Epistemon to name but a few. The humanistic education given to Gargantua after the giant’s previous basic learning efforts is a reflection on the new revival in classical learning that Rabelais would have seen scholars attempt to give the uninitiated in his Renaissance France. The description of his curriculum – which was perhaps inspired by the great educator Vittorino da Feltre – is an essential document for anyone who wishes to study the re-emergence of classical ideals in the Renaissance. Through this education,

Gargantua: Part Classicist, part slob

Gargantua becomes a descendent of Plato and Cicero, his community resembling something like the Guards in The Republic, his letter in Pantagruel 2.8 littered with antitheses and rhetorical phraseology. Gargantua can partly be seemed to have his name as he possesses a gargantuan appetite for learning all languages, for reading all the great books, for assimilating all the useful sciences. He is the perpetually self-educating Renaissance character, he is Rabelais himself.

Rabelais’ favourite classical authors were scientists – Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, Pliny; philosophers – Plutarch, Plato; and antiquarians – Pausanias, Athenaeus. The humour in the tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel is reminiscent of Aristophanes and contains the satirical fragrance of Lucian – the Greek sceptic of the Roman Empire gave Rabelais his description of hell , where the great are made small. his greatest debt to modern writers are to More’s Utopia and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly as well as his Adages – a collection of some 3,000 lines from the classics, with explanations.

Was Rabelais a great artist? Almost certainly not. He was too rough, too silly. The serious conflicts of the time could only be resolved by strong will or by great art. He instead dove into boundless education, administered by his own terms. There is a medieval naivety to his work that shows his inability to adjust to the changing times in which he lived. He would leave the serious pontificating to later Frenchmen who would have seen more of what the sixteenth century had to offer. We shall now delve into seeing if Montaigne could fill any of the gaps left by rambunctious Rabelais.

Montaigne: Reflecting on Restlessness

Rabelais’ disjointed lunacy contrasts with the calm serenity of Montaigne. Saint-Beuve called the latter ‘the wisest of all Frenchme’. Michel de Montaigne (1533-92) was an experienced soul with a large repertoire of classical knowledge upon which he could console himself in his musing of an unsettled France. He was as well-travelled as

Montaigne: Sublime reading list and a sublime mind

Rabelais and was better read. He came from the wine-owning estate of Yquem and had been granted classical training by his father, who was sympathetic to Michel’s love of antiquity which had been stimulated in Italy. He was tutored by a strict German who would communicate in nothing but Latin to the young Montainge. It left an indelible mark upon his psyche. Sent to the College de Guienne, one of the finest in France, he thrived in leading roles in the Latin tragedies of Buchanan and Muret.

His Essays, for which he would become well-known, were penned late in life. After his 1571 retirement from public life and took to writing. His style was not classical in form, but it could not hide his wealth of classical knowledge, nor its hold on his frame of thinking. He published two books of his Essays in 1580 before he was called back to public life to serve as mayor of Bordeaux. He would have time to publish a third collection of essays in 1588. For him, reading was a high type of aesthetic activity, an intellectual venture that could take him far above simple escape-reading or narcotic-reading.

As a young boy he devoured Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though by the time of his Essays his chief influences were Plutarch and Seneca. For the former, he made use of Amyot’s translation – his grasp of Latin being far stronger than his grasp of Greek. Next to these in prose is Cicero, particularly his philosophical essays. His favourite poets he is kind enough to name – Virgil, Lucretius, Catullus, Horace, Lucan, and Terence. His gaps in reading were with the Greeks – he knew no tragedians first hand, likewise Thucydides, and knew nothing of Aristophanes. The Greek philosopher’s he is stronger – Plato as well as the aforementioned Plutarch were keenly read, though Aristotle came much later in life, a belated interest in the Nicomachean Ethics arose as death approached.

The complete reading list of Montaigne is substantive and as comprehensive as could be for a man of his time – it is worth creating a list of what his known knowledge of the classics entailed:

Aesop Ammian Appian Aristotle Arrian
St Augustine Aulus Gellius Ausonius Caesar Catullus
Cicero Claudian Diodorus Siculus Diogenes Laertius Heliodorus
Herodotus Historia Augusta Homer Horace Isocrates
Josephus Justin Juvenal Livy Lucan
Lucian Lucretius Manilius Martial Oppian
Ovid Perisius Petronius Plato Plautus
Pliny the Elder Pliny the Younger Plutarch Propertius Quintilian
Sallust Seneca Sextus Empiricus Sidonius Apollinaris Suetonius
Tacitus Terence Tibullus Valerius Maximus Virgil

Montaigne had managed to amass such a list by focusing on the reading that mattered – he focused in on the classics and was not distracted by any short pop articles, magazines and newspapers that attract the modern reader. This latter form of reading, which is to literature as chewing gum is to eating, was not in Montaigne’s repertoire. The work that came out of this reading, his Essays, are uniquely his own. He did not imitate the ancients as Ronsard imitated Virgil. He pours in and out of references in relation to a variety of scatter-gun topics which were occupying his mind at any one time – and he does so with such alacrity and ease it seems the classical references are almost anecdotal. He did not want to be a classic in modern dress any more than he wanted to be a polymath. He wanted to be Michel de Montaigne and the classics gave him the ability to achieve this.

He used his essays in three ways:

  1. As philosophical doctrine – his penchant for finding the true and valuable in apophthegms of old
  2. As treasuries of illustration – after he had laid down his truth, the classics were his sources of illustration to proving that truth. See his use of Alexander the Great, Plautus and Martial in Essays 1.55 Of Smells and Odours, when trying to convey the importance of perfume and sweet-smelling perspiration.
  3. As compact well-reasoned argument – there were no modern philosophers to put so much thinking into such a concentrated place. Only the classics, in their great span of centuries and civilisations, carefully collected and cultivated, could aid his argument, and give Montaigne greater confidence in his own understanding of the world.

So, was Montaigne the inventor of the modern essay? Perhaps, but that does not seem to be what he had in mind. He was writing short-form moral treatises. His themes – Cruelty, Glory, Anger, etc. – mirror the topics pondered by the likes of Seneca and Plutarch some 1500 years earlier. He would have been heavily inspired by the earlier Adages of Erasmus and, as is often the case, the work morphed into something new and original in the writing. He called these essays – perhaps from the word assay, i.e. to weigh and measure. It was an attempt at psychological self-description, what Rousseau would later call ‘a daring and unheard-of task’.  The essay would develop from the sixteenth century with other influences that enlarged its form and purpose. One of these was classical: the psychological character-sketch, invented by Theophrastus, and embodied in the characters of comedy by his pupil Menander.

Whereas Rabelais’ Gargantua contained autobiographical elements, Montaigne makes his work unashamedly his. France had moved away from trite medieval allegory during the course of the century. The war and strife since the protestant reformation had caused men of learning to retreat deep into their own mind to find solace and, possibly, solutions. With Montaigne, we are lucky enough to have his thoughts pour out on the page. When compared to Rabelais, Montaigne’s Essays show the Renaissance’s gift (or curse) of greater moral and intellectual freedom. It is the track walked by the humanists, from Erasmus to Montaigne, in the sixteenth century. Stability would not come to France immediately in the sixteenth century – protestant convulsion would only cease with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Nevertheless, France was moving toward the more mature literary creations of the court of Louis XIV. The fractious mind would give way to purpose and pomp. This will be discussed later, but now we shall stay in the Renaissance, and move across the channel to the old enemy – England.