A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 3.

Rabelais and His Followers.

Fiction at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century prose fiction in France was represented by a considerable mass of literature divided sharply into two separate classes of very different nature and value. On the one hand the prose versions of the Chansons de Gestes and the romances, Arthurian and adventurous, which had succeeded the last and most extensive verse rehandlings of these works in the fourteenth century, made up a considerable body of work, rarely possessing much literary merit, and characterised by all the faults of monotony, repetition, and absence of truthful character-drawing which distinguish late mediaeval work. On the other hand, there was a smaller body of short prose tales178 sometimes serious in character and of not inconsiderable antiquity, more frequently comic and satirical, and corresponding in prose to the Fabliaux in verse. It has been pointed out that in the hands, real or supposed, of Antoine de la Salle this latter kind of work had attained a high standard of perfection. But it was as yet extremely limited in style, scope, and subject. Valour, courtesy, and love made up the list of subjects of the serious work, and the stock materials for satire, women, marriage, priests, etc., that of the comic. Although we have some lively presentment of the actual manners of the time in Antoine de la Salle, it is accidental only, and of its thoughts on any but the stock subjects we have nothing. There was thus room for a vast improvement, or rather for a complete revolution, in this particular class of work, and this revolution was at a comparatively early period of the new century effected by the greatest man and the greatest book of the French Renaissance.


François Rabelais179 was born at Chinon about 1495 (the alternative date of 1483 which used to be given is improbable if not impossible), and at an early age was destined to the cloister. He not only became a full monk, but also took priest's orders. Before he was thirty he acquired the reputation of a good classical scholar, and this seems to have brought him into trouble with his brethren the Cordeliers or Franciscans, who were at this time among the least cultivated of the monastic orders. With the consent of the Pope he migrated to a Benedictine convent, and became canon at Maillezais. This migration, however, did not satisfy him, and before long he quitted his new convent without permission and took to the life of a wandering scholar. The tolerance of the first period of the Renaissance however still existed in France, and he suffered no inconvenience from this breach of rule. After studying medicine and natural science under the protection of Geoffrey d'Estissac, Bishop of Maillezais, he went to Montpellier to continue these studies, and in the early years of the fourth decade of the century practised regularly at Lyons. He was attached to the suite of Cardinal du Bellay in two embassies to Rome, returned to Montpellier, took his doctor's degree, and again practised in several cities of the South. Towards 1539 Du Bellay again established him in a convent, probably as a safeguard against the persecution which was then threatening. But the conventual life as then practised was too repugnant to Rabelais to be long endured, and he once more set out on his travels, this time in Savoy and Italy, the personal protection of the king guaranteeing him from danger. He then returned to France, taking however the precaution to soften some expressions in his books. At the death of Francis he retired first to Metz, and then to Rome, still with Du Bellay. The Cardinal de Chatillon, soon after gave him the living of Meudon, which he held with another in Maine for a year or two, resigning them both in 1551, and dying in 1553. Such at least are the most probable and best ascertained dates and events in a life which has been overlaid with a good deal of fiction, and many of the facts of which are decidedly obscure. Rabelais did not very early become an author, and his first works were of a purely erudite kind. During his stay at Lyons he seems to have done a good deal of work for the printers, as editor and reader, especially in reference to medical works, such as Galen and Hippocrates. He edited too, and perhaps in part re-wrote, a prose romance, Les Grandes et Inestimables Chroniques du Grant et Énorme Géant Gargantua. This work, the author of which is unknown, and no earlier copies of which exist, gave him no doubt at least the idea of his own famous book. The next year (1532) followed the first instalment of this —Pantagruel Roi des Dipsodes Restitué en Son naturel avec ses Faicts et Proueses Espouvantables. Three years afterwards came Gargantua proper, the first book of the entire work as we now have it. Eleven years however passed before the work was continued, the second book of Pantagruel not being published till 1546, and the third six years later, just before the author's death, in 1552. The fourth or last book did not appear as a whole until 1564, though the first sixteen chapters had been given to the world two years before. This fourth book, the fifth of the entire work, has, from the length of time which elapsed before its publication and from certain variations which exist in the MS. and the first printed editions, been suspected of spuriousness. Such a question cannot be debated here at length. But there is no external testimony of sufficient value to discredit Rabelais' authorship, while the internal testimony in its favour is overwhelming180. It may be said, without hesitation, that not a single writer capable of having written it, save Rabelais himself, is known to literary history at the time. It has been supposed, with a good deal of probability, that the book was left in the rough. The considerable periods which, as has been mentioned, intervened between the publications of the other books seem to show that the author indulged a good deal in revision; and, as the third book was only published just before his death, he could have had little time for this in the case of the fourth. This would account for a certain appearance of greater boldness and directness in the satire as well as for occasional various readings. In genius both of thought and expression this book is perhaps superior to any other; and, if it were decided that Rabelais did not write it, much of what are now considered the Rabelaisian characteristics must be transferred to an entirely unknown writer who has left not the smallest vestige of himself or his genius. It is not possible to give here a detailed abstract of Gargantua and Pantagruel: indeed, from the studied desultoriness of the work, any such abstract must of necessity be nearly as long as the book itself181. It is sufficient to say that both Gargantua and his son Pantagruel are the heroes of adventures, designedly exaggerated and burlesqued from those common in the romances of chivalry. The chief events of the earlier romance are, first, the war between Grandgousier, Gargantua's father, the pattern of easy-going royalty, and Picrochole, king of Lerne, the ideal of an arbitrary despot intent only on conquest; and, secondly, the founding of the Abbey of Thelema, a fanciful institution, in which Rabelais propounds as first principles everything that is most opposed to the forced abstinence, the real self-indulgence, the idleness and the ignorance of the debased monastic communities he knew so well and hated so much. Pantagruel is Gargantua's son, and, like him, a giant, but the extravagances derived from his gianthood are not kept up in the second part as they are in the first. A very important personage in Pantagruel is Panurge, a singular companion, whom Pantagruel picks up at Paris, and who is perhaps the greatest single creation of Rabelais. Some ideas may have been taken for him from the Cingar of Merlinus Coccaius, or Folengo, a Macaronic Italian poet182, but on the whole he is original, and is hardly comparable to any one else in literature except Falstaff. The main idea of Panurge is the absence of morality in the wide Aristotelian sense with the presence of almost all other good qualities. After a time, in which Pantagruel and his companions (among whom, as in the former romance, Friar John is the embodiment of hearty and healthy animalism, as Panurge is of a somewhat diseased intellectual refinement) are engaged in wars of the old romance kind, a whim of Panurge determines the conclusion of the story. He desires to get married; and an entire book is occupied by the various devices to which he resorts in order to determine whether it is wise or not for him to do so. At last it is decided that a voyage must be made to the oracle of the Dive Bouteille. The last two books are occupied with this voyage, in which many strange countries are visited, and at last, the oracle being reached, the word Trinq is vouchsafed, not only, it would seem, to solve Panurge's doubts, but also as a general answer to the riddle of the painful earth.

Besides his great work, Rabelais was the author of a few extant letters, and probably of a good many that are not extant, of a little burlesque almanack called the Pantagrueline Prognostication, which is full of his peculiar humour, of a short work entitled Sciomachie, describing a festival at Rome, and of a few poems of no great merit. In Gargantua and Pantagruel, however, his whole literary interest and character are concentrated. Few books have been the subject of greater controversy as to their meaning and general intention. The author, as if on purpose to baffle investigation, mixes up real persons mentioned by their real names, real persons mentioned in transparent allegory, and entirely fictitious characters, in the most inextricable way. Occasionally, as in his chapters on education, he is perfectly serious, and allows no touch of humour or satire to escape him. Elsewhere he indulges in the wildest buffoonery. Two of the most notable characteristics of Rabelais are, first, his extraordinary predilection for heaping up piles of synonymous words, and huge lists of things; secondly, his habit of indulging in the coarsest allusions and descriptions. Both of these were to some extent mere exaggerations of his mediaeval models, but both show the peculiar characteristics of their author. The book as a whole has received the most various explanations as well as the most various appreciations. It has been regarded as in the main a political and personal satire, in every incident and character of which some reference must be sought to actual personages and events of the time; as an elaborate pamphlet against the Roman Catholic Church; as a defence of mere epicurean materialism, and even an attack on Christianity itself; as a huge piece of mischief intended to delude readers into the belief that something serious is meant, when in reality nothing of the kind is intended. Even more fantastic explanations than these have been attempted; such, for instance, as the idea that the voyage of Pantagruel is an allegorical account of the processes employed in the manufacture of wine. The true explanation, as far as there is any, of the book seems, however, to be not very difficult to make out, provided that the interpreter does not endeavour to force a meaning where there very probably is none. The form of it was pretty well prescribed by the old romances of adventure, and must be taken as given to Rabelais, not as invented by him for a special purpose; a war, a quest, these are the subjects of every story in verse and prose for five centuries, and Rabelais followed the stream. But when he had thus got his main theme settled, he gave the widest licence of comment, allusion, digression, and adaptation to his own fancy and his own intellect. Both of these were typical, and, except for a certain deficiency in the poetical element, fully typical of the time. Rabelais was a very learned man, a man of the world, a man of pleasure, a man of obvious interest in political and ecclesiastical problems. He was animated by that lively appetite for enjoyment, business, study, all the occupations of life, which characterised the Renaissance in its earlier stages, in all countries and especially in France. Nor had science of any kind yet been divided and subdivided so that each man could only aspire to handle certain portions of it. Accordingly, Rabelais is prodigal of learning in season and out of season. But independently of all this, he had an immense humour, and this pervades the whole book, turning the preposterous adventures into satirical allegories or half allegories, irradiating the somewhat miscellaneous erudition with lambent light, and making the whole alive and fresh to this day. The extreme coarseness of language, which makes Rabelais difficult to read now-a-days, seems to have arisen from a variety of causes. The essence of his book was exaggeration, and he exaggerated in this as in other matters. His keen appetite for the ludicrous, and a kind of shamelessness which may have been partly due to individual peculiarity, but had not a little also to do with his education and studies, inclined him to make free with a department of thought where ludicrous ideas are, as it has been said, to be had for the picking up by those whom shame does not trouble at the expense of those whom it does. But besides all this, there was in Rabelais a knowledge of human nature, and a faculty of expressing that knowledge in literary form, in which he is inferior to Shakespeare alone. Caricatured as his types purposely are, they are all easily reducible to natural dimensions and properties; while occasionally, though all too rarely, the author drops his mask and speaks gravely, seriously, and then always wisely. These latter passages are, it may be added, unsurpassed in mere prose style for many long years after the author's death.

Altogether, independently of the intrinsic interest of Rabelais' work, we go to him as we can go to only some score or half score of the greatest writers of the world, for a complete reflection of the sentiment and character of his time. As with all great writers, what he shows is in great part characteristic of humanity at all times and in all places, but, as also with all great writers except Shakespeare, more of it is local and temporary merely. This local and temporary element gives him his great historical importance. Rabelais is the literary exponent of the earlier Renaissance, with its appetite for the good things of the world as yet unblunted. Yet even in him there is a foretaste of satiety, and the Oracle of the Bottle has something, for all its joyousness, of the conclusion of the Preacher.

The popularity of Rabelais was immense, and of itself sufficed to protect him against the enmity which his hardly veiled attacks on monachism, and on other fungoid growths of the Church, could not have failed to attract. In such a case imitation was certain, and, long before the genuine series of the Pantagrueline Chronicles was completed, spurious supplements and continuations appeared, all of them without exception worthless. A more legitimate imitation coloured the work of many of the fiction writers of the remaining part of the century, though the tradition of short story writing, on the model of the Fabliaux and of the Italian tales borrowed from them, continued and was only indirectly affected by Rabelais. In this latter class one mediocre writer and two of the greatest talent — of talent amounting almost to genius — have to be noticed. In 1535, Nicholas of Troyes, a saddler by trade, produced a book entitled Grand Parangon de Nouvelles Nouvelles, in which he followed rather, as his title indicates, the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles than any other model. His sources seem to have been the Decameron and the Gesta Romanorum principally, though some of his tales are original. Very different books are the Contes of Marguerite de Navarre, usually termed the 'Heptameron,' and the Contes et Joyeux Devis of her servant Bonaventure des Périers. Neither of these books was published till a considerable period after the death, not merely of Rabelais, but of their authors.

Bonaventure des Périers.

There are few persons of the time of whom less is known than of Bonaventure des Périers183, and, by no means in consequence merely of this mystery, there are few more interesting. He must have been born somewhere about the beginning of the sixteenth century, and his friend Dolet calls him Aeduum poetam, which would seem to fix his birth somewhere in the neighbourhood at least of Autun. He was undoubtedly one of the literary courtiers of Marguerite d'Angoulême. Finally, it seems that in the persecution which, during the later years of Francis I.'s reign, came upon the Protestants and freethinkers, and which the influence of Marguerite was powerless to prevent, he committed suicide to escape the clutches of the law. Henri Estienne, however, attributes the act to insanity or delirium. However this may be, there is no doubt that Des Périers was a remarkable example of a humanist. He was certainly a good scholar, and he was also a decided freethinker. He has left poems of some merit, but not great perhaps, some translations and minor prose pieces, but certainly two works of the highest interest, the Cymbalum Mundi (1537) and the Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis (1558). The Cymbalum Mundi betrays the influence of Lucian, which was also very strong on Rabelais. It is a work in dialogue, satirising the superstitions of antiquity with a hardly dubious reference to the religious beliefs of Des Périers' own day. The Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis are compact of less perilous stuff, while they exhibit equal and perhaps greater literary skill. They consist of a hundred and twenty-nine short tales, similar in general character to those of the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles and other collections. Although, however, a great licence of subject is still allowed, the language is far less coarse than in the work of Antoine de la Salle, while the literary merits of the style are very much greater. Des Périers was beyond all doubt a great master of half-serious and half-joyous French prose. Nor is his matter much less remarkable than his style. Like Rabelais, but with the difference that his was a more poetical temperament than that of his greater contemporary, he has sudden accesses of seriousness, almost of sentiment. At these times the spirit of the French Renaissance, in its more cultivated and refined representatives, comes out in him very strongly. This spirit may be defined as a kind of cultivated sensuality, ardently enamoured of the beautiful in the world of sense, while fully devoted to intellectual truth, and at the same time always conscious of the nothingness of things, the instant pressure of death, the treacherousness of mortal delights. The rare sentences in which Des Périers gives vent to the expression of this mental attitude are for the most part admirably written, while as a teller of tales, either comic or romantic, he has few equals and fewer superiors.

The Heptameron.

The same spirit which has just been described found even fuller expression, with greater advantages of scale and setting, in the Heptameron184 of Marguerite of Navarre. The exact authorship of this celebrated book is something of a literary puzzle. Marguerite was a prolific author, if all the works which were published under her name be unhesitatingly ascribed185 to her. Besides the poems printed under the pretty title of Les Marguerites de la Marguerite, she produced many other works, as well as the Heptameron which was not given to the world until after her death (1558). The House of Valois was by no means destitute of literary talent. But that which seems most likely to be the Queen's genuine work hardly corresponds with the remarkable power shown in the Heptameron. On the other hand, Marguerite for years maintained a literary court, in which all the most celebrated men of the time, notably Marot and Bonaventure des Périers, held places. If it were allowable to decide literary questions simply by considerations of probability, there could be little hesitation in assigning the entire Heptameron to Des Périers himself, and then its unfinished condition would be intelligible enough. The general opinion of critics, however, is that it was probably the result of the joint work of the Queen, of Des Périers, and of a good many other men, and probably some women, of letters. The idea and plan of the work are avowedly borrowed from Boccaccio, but the thing is worked out with so much originality that it becomes nothing so little as an imitation. A company of ladies and gentlemen returning from Cauterets are detained by bad weather in an out-of-the-way corner of the Pyrenees, and beguile the time by telling stories. The interludes, however, in which the tale-tellers are brought on the stage in person, are more circumstantial than those of the Decameron, and the individual characters are much more fully worked out. Indeed, the mere setting of the book, independently of its seventy-two stories (for the eighth day is begun), makes a very interesting tale, exhibiting not merely those characteristics of the time and its society which have been noticed in connection with the Contes et Joyeux Devis, but, in addition, a certain religiosity in which that time and society were also by no means deficient, though it existed side by side with freethinking of a daring kind and with unbridled licentiousness. The head of the party, Dame Oisille, is the chief representative of this religious spirit, though all the party are more or less penetrated by it. The subjects of the tales do not differ much from those of Boccaccio, though they are, as a rule, occupied with a higher class of society, and of necessity display a more polished condition of manners. They are much longer than the anecdotes of the Contes et Joyeux Devis, and generally, though not always, deal with something like a connected story instead of with mere isolated traits or apophthegms. The best of them are animated by the same spirit of refined voluptuousness which animates so much of the writing and art of the time, and which may indeed be said to be its chief feature. But this spirit has seldom been presented in a light so attractive as that which it bears in the Heptameron.

Noel du Fail.
G. Bouchet.

The influence of Rabelais on the one hand, of the Heptameron on the other, is observable in almost all the work of the same kind which the second half of the sixteenth century produced. The fantastic buffoonery and the indiscriminate prodigality of learning, which were to the outward eye the distinguishing characteristics of Pantagruel, found however more imitators than the poetical sentiment of the Heptameron. The earliest of the successors of Rabelais was Noel du Fail, a gentleman and magistrate of Britanny, who, five years before the master's death, produced two little books, Propos Rustiques186 and Baliverneries, which depict rural life and its incidents with a good deal of vividness and colour. The imitation of Rabelais is very perceptible, and sometimes a little irritating, but the work on the whole has merit, and abounds in curious local traits. The Propos Rustiques, too, are interesting because they underwent a singular travesty in the next century, and appeared under a new and misleading title. Much later, near forty years afterwards in fact, Du Fail produced the Contes d'Eutrapel187, which are rather critical and satirical dialogues than tales. There is a good deal of dry humour in them. The provinciality to be noticed in Du Fail was still a feature of French literature; and in this particular department it long continued to be prominent, perhaps owing to the example of Rabelais, who, wide as is his range, frequently takes pleasure in mixing up petty local matters with his other materials. Thus, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Guillaume Bouchet (to be carefully distinguished from Jean Bouchet, the poet of the early sixteenth century) wrote a large collection of Serées188 (Soirées), containing gossip on a great variety of subjects, mingled with details of Angevin manners; and Tabourot des Accords composed his Escraignes Dijonnaises. A singular book, or rather two singular books189, Les Matinées and Les Après-Dinées, were produced by a person, the Seigneur de Cholières, of whom little else is known. Cholières is a bad writer, and a commonplace if not stupid thinker; but he tells some quaint stories, and his book shows us the deep hold which the example of Rabelais had given to the practice of discussing grave subjects in a light tone.

Apologie pour Hérodote.
Moyen de Parvenir.

There remain two books of sufficient importance to be treated separately. The first of these is the Apologie pour Hérodote190 (1566) of the scholar Henri Estienne. In the guise of a serious defence of Herodotus from the charges of untrustworthiness and invention frequently brought against him Estienne indulges in an elaborate indictment against his own and recent times, especially against the Roman Catholic clergy. Much of his book is taken from Rabelais, or from the Heptameron; much from the preachers of the fifteenth century. Its literary merit has been a good deal exaggerated, and its extreme desultoriness and absence of coherence make it tedious to read for any length of time, but it is in a way amusing enough. Much later (1610) the last — it may almost be said the first — echo of the genuine spirit of Rabelais was sounded in the Moyen de Parvenir191 of Béroalde de Verville. This eccentric work is perhaps the most perfect example of a fatrasie in existence. In the guise of guests at a banquet the author brings in many celebrated persons of the day and of antiquity, and makes them talk from pillar to post in the strangest possible fashion. The licence of language and anecdote which Rabelais had permitted himself is equalled and exceeded; but many of the tales are told with consummate art, and, in the midst of the ribaldry and buffoonery, remarks of no small shrewdness are constantly dropped as if by accident. There seems to have been at the time something not unlike a serious idea that the book was made up from unpublished papers of Rabelais himself. All external considerations make this in the highest degree unlikely, and the resemblances are obviously those of imitation rather than of identical authorship. But undoubtedly nothing else of the kind comes so near to the excellences of Gargantua and Pantagruel.

178 Among these may be mentioned the charming story of Jehan de Paris (ed. Montaiglon, Paris, 1874), which M. de Montaiglon has clearly proved to be of the end of the fifteenth century. It is a cross between a Roman d'aventures and a nursery tale, telling how the King of France as 'John of Paris' outwitted the King of England in the suit for the hand of the Infanta of Spain.

179 Ed. Jannet and Moland. 7 vols. (2nd ed.) Paris, 1873. Also ed. Marty-Laveaux, vols. 1-4. Paris, 1870-81.

180 The question has been again discussed since the text was written by M. Paul Lacroix (Paris, 1881), whose facts and arguments fully bear out the view taken here. The other side is taken, though not very decidedly, in the fourth volume of M. Marty-Laveaux' edition. The two contain a tolerably complete survey of the question.

181 The best general commentary on Rabelais is that of M. J. Fleury. 2 vols. St. Petersburg, 1876-7.

182 For an excellent account of Folengo, see Symonds' Renaissance in Italy, vol. v. chap. 14.

183 Ed. Lacour. 2 vols. Paris, 1866.

184 Ed. Leroux de Lincy. 3 vols. Paris, 1855.

185 She was born in 1492, and was thus two years older than her brother Francis I. She married first the Duke d'Alençon, then Henri d'Albert King of Navarre. Her private character has been most unjustly attacked. She died in 1549. Marguerite is spoken of by four surnames; de Valois from her family; d'Angoulême from her father's title; d'Alençon from her first husband's; and de Navarre from that of her second. In literature, to distinguish her from her great-niece, the first wife of Henri IV., Marguerite d'Angoulême is the term most commonly used.

186 Ed. La Borderie. Paris, 1878. The bibliography of this book is very curious.

187 Ed. Hippeau. 2 vols. Paris, 1875.

188 Ed. Roybet. Paris. In course of publication.

189 Ed. Tricotel. 2 vols. Paris, 1879.

190 Ed. Ristelhuber. 2 vols. Paris, 1879.

191 Ed. Jacob. Paris, 1868. It is possibly not Béroalde's.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00