Rabelais’s Box

Peter Burke

  • Rabelais by M.A. Screech
    Duckworth, 494 pp, £35.00, November 1979, ISBN 0 7156 0970 X

When Alcibiades, in that dialogue of Plato’s entitled The Symposium, praises his master Socrates, beyond all doubt the prince of philosophers, he compares him, amongst other things, to a Silenus. Now a Silenus, in ancient days, was a little box, of the kind we see today in apothecaries’ shops, painted on the outside with such gay, comical figures as harpies, satyrs, bridled geese, horned hares, saddled ducks, flying goats, stags in harness, and other devices of that sort, light-heartedly invented for the purpose of mirth, as was Silenus himself, the master of good old Bacchus. But inside these boxes were kept rare drugs, such as balm, ambergris, cardamum, musk, civet, mineral essences, and other precious things. Just such an object, according to Plato, was Socrates. For to view him from the outside and judge by his external appearance, no one would have given a shred of an onion for him, so ugly was his body and so absurd his appearance, with his pointed nose, his bovine expression, and his idiotic face … What is more, he was always laughing, always drinking glass for glass with everybody, always playing the fool, and always concealing his divine wisdom. But had you opened that box, you would have found inside a heavenly and priceless drug: a superhuman understanding, miraculous virtue, invincible courage, unrivalled sobriety, unfailing contentment …

Gargantua, Prologue, translated by J.R. Cohen

Rabelais, too, may be compared to a Silenus. His big book is not unlike that little box painted with grotesques. Whether the comic exterior conceals a serious message – the marrow of the bone – has been a matter of controversy from his day to ours. Unfortunately, the historians and critics who believe that Rabelais’s ‘Pantagrueline mythologies’ have a serious meaning could hardly disagree more about what that meaning is. For Etienne Gilson, writing in the 1920s, as for Alban Krailsheimer more recently, Rabelais belongs to the medieval Franciscan tradition. For Abel Lefranc, also writing in the Twenties, Rabelais was a secret rationalist, and his book intended to undermine Christianity. Lefranc’s work irritated Lucien Febvre, one of the founders of the Annales school of French historians, into writing a study of the religion of Rabelais (published in 1942), designed to show not only that Rabelais was not an atheist, but also that there were no atheists in the 16th century, and even that there could not possibly have been any. For Febvre, Rabelais was an Erasmian. Professor Screech, however, argued in 1959, as he still does, that Rabelais was an ‘evangelical’, sympathetic to Luther as well as to Erasmus.

Commentators who are less convinced that there is a serious message hidden in the box disagree just as much about the place of Rabelais in the history of literature. To the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, it is obvious that Rabelais belongs to ‘the culture of folk humour’; to the French Marxist, Henri Lefebvre, he is the spokesman of the bourgeoisie; to other critics, from Northrop Frye to Dorothy Coleman, he is a humanist, reviving the tradition of the Menippean satires of Lucian.

There are times when the sight of the critics disputing over the Pantagrueline marrow may remind the onlooker of the philosophers portrayed in the Cymbalum Mundi of Rabelais’s contemporary Bonaventure Des Périers, searching in the sand for the philosopher’s stone and fighting over the fragments. If one thing is visible in the dust of controversy, it is the need for a painstaking and precise explication de texte. Without a detailed map of the terrain, the quest for Rabelais’s real meaning is bound to go astray. Even if there is no ‘real’ meaning below the surface, a text as allusively comic and comically allusive as that of Rabelais is bound to be in need of a certain amount of commentary after 450 years or so.

Explication de texte, rather than literary criticism or intellectual biography, is what Professor Screech gives us in his third book on Rabelais, to whom he has devoted the best part of a lifetime of research. His commentary is about the same length – some 200,000 words – as the first four books of Rabelais (the Fifth Book, of uncertain authorship, is excluded from Screech’s study). He follows the text book by book, and sometimes chapter by chapter, focusing on key episodes and glossing them by pointing out the author’s allusions, sources, models and targets. Given Rabelais’s wide range of interests, remarkable even in a ‘Renaissance man’, the task of glossing him is a formidable one. He requires a rhetorical-philosophical-legal-medical-theological commentary. This is just what he gets from Professor Screech, who seems to have made the attempt to look at everything Rabelais is known to have read, in order to place him in his cultural context.

This contextual approach is, we are told, ‘one which scholars of the French Renaissance often associate with the Warburg Institute’ – an odd remark, since the method is common to many intellectual historians. What makes the Warburg Institute somewhat more distinctive is the interest shown by many of the scholars who have worked there in the survival and transformations of the Classical tradition. In this sense Professor Screech is a Warburgian in spirit. He tells us a great deal about Rabelais’s Classical culture and the uses he made of it. It is well-known that Rabelais knew Greek as well as Latin, and that, like his contemporaries Erasmus and More, he both translated and imitated Lucian, most obviously in the description of Epistemon’s visit to the underworld (Pantagruel, Chapter 30) modelled on the visit of Menippus to the same place, and in the description of the inside of Pantagruel’s mouth (Chapter 32), which is reminiscent of the travellers’ tales parodied in Lucian’s True History. Classically-educated readers (if this species is not now extinct) may well pick up these references to Lucian without benefit of commentary, together with the allusions to Plato’s Republic and Symposium in Gargantua and to the Aeneid in the storm scene in Book IV. They may even have realised how often Rabelais draws on Plutarch, notably The Decline of Oracles. But few of us will have realised that the famous episode of the ‘thawing words’ (Fourth Book, Chapters 55-6) is not just a parodied traveller’s tale, Munchhausen-style, but also a reference to a Classical debate on the nature of language, in which Rabelais follows the Hellenistic writer Ammonius, who attempted to harmonise the conflicting views of Plato and Aristotle on the nature of linguistic symbols.

In similar fashion, Screech discusses the many Biblical references in Rabelais. The parallel between the genealogy of Pantagruel and the genealogies in the Old Testament has often been noticed and is clear enough, however we are to interpret it. Less obvious to the modern reader are the precise references to the text of the New Testament. Screech discusses 16 passages from Matthew and 34 from Paul, noting the allusions to contemporary disputes over the interpretation of Hebrews xi, 1 on the nature of faith, and Romans xiv, 5 on the nature of Christian freedom. Less obvious still are the references to Hebrew legend and to what D.P. Walker has called the ‘Ancient Theology’. Professor Screech shows that the story of Pantagruel’s ancestor the giant Hurtaly, who survived the Flood by riding astride the Ark, is derived from a rabbinical story of Og, King of Bashan. He also suggests that Rabelais was sympathetic to the ‘Ancient Theology’, the idea of a special revelation to non-Christian sages like Orpheus, Zoroaster and Hermes Trismegistus.

The medical and legal allusions are in even greater need of commentary. When Panurge in the Third Book cannot make up his mind whether or not to marry, he goes for advice to Rondibilis the physician. The advice he receives makes reference, as Screech shows, to contemporary controversies between doctors who followed Galen, and believed that semen was produced by the testicles, and doctors who followed Hippocrates, and believed that semen was produced by the brain.

The chapters on Panurge’s consultation of the lawyers are stuffed with references to Roman law and its medieval glossators, themselves now desperately in need of glossing. It is possible to enjoy the Third Book without knowing that Baldus, ‘L.ult.C.de leg.’ is Baldus’s gloss on the last law in the section of the Roman Codex which bears the title ‘Concerning Legates’, but Screech’s commentary is truly indispensable in the episode of Judge Bridoye, who decides all his cases by throwing dice. ‘A satire against legal pedantry,’ says a footnote to the Penguin Rabelais. The modern reader might think that Rabelais is saying that judges reach such stupid decisions that they might just as well throw dice: but he would not be right to do so. It turns out that 16th-century lawyers, like Roman lawyers, admitted the use of lots as a means of reaching a decision in particularly difficult or ‘perplexed’ cases. Screech argues that Rabelais intends us to see Bridoye as a kind of prophet or holy fool, whose dice lead him to the right decisions. There can be few more spectacular examples of the need to place a dead author in his historical context if we are not to misunderstand what he is telling us.

There seems to be no subject taught in Renaissance universities, from elementary grammar, logic and rhetoric to the graduate courses in medicine, law and theology, which Rabelais does not bring into his book somewhere. But a rhetorical-philosophical-legal-medical-theological commentary on Rabelais is not enough, for he also makes frequent references to the political events of his day. Screech shows that the story of the war between Grandgrousier and Picrochole in Gargantua makes reference to the recent conflict between Francis I and Charles V: that he is mocking Charles’s aspirations to world empire and even his device, the pillars of Hercules. Charles V’s Latin secretary, Alonso de Valdès, had adapted the Menippean satire for propaganda purposes in his Dialogue of Mercury and Charon, making Charles the hero and Francis the villain of the piece. The second edition of Gargantua may be seen as the French riposte. Again, the reference to the ‘Council of Nitwits’ in the Fourth Book is, as Professor Screech points out, a passing flick at the Council of Trent, which the King of France had forbidden his bishops to attend.

It will be clear that Professor Screech’s book is a fascinating piece of scholarly detection. It draws on the work of many other scholars, some of whom are mentioned in the bibliography – which could usefully have been considerably longer – but many of the discoveries are the author’s own. No one has done more to place Rabelais in his time. Although the dependence of Rabelais on the patronage of the Du Bellay brothers has long been known, no one has made so clear the extent to which the four books support the brothers’ policies of reforming the Church, and making an alliance between the King of France and the German Lutherans against Charles V.

Not the least of Screech’s achievements springs from his meticulous attention to chronology. He insists on discussing the writings of Rabelais in the order in which they were written: that is (minor works apart), first Pantagruel, then Gargantua (normally printed in reverse order because Pantagruel is Gargantua’s son); then the Third Book; then the relatively short Fourth Book of 1548; and finally the full Fourth Book of 1552. Screech suggests that Rabelais’s scatological humour, dominant in Pantagruel and Gargantua, disappears in the Third Book, when ‘Rabelais’s conception of comedy deepened,’ but reappears, with a different function, in the Fourth Book, which in its final version makes a synthesis of the cruder comic techniques of the first and second books, the ‘philosophical comedy’ of the Third Book and the political propaganda of the second edition of Gargantua.

It is not altogether clear whether Screech thinks his commentary provided the context or merely some contexts for Rabelais. Of course the commentary cannot be complete. No scholarly bloodhound could ever be sure that he had tracked down all the allusions. Although this book points out allusions in Rabelais which no other modern student seems to have noticed, it makes no mention of others which have passed into scholarly currency, such as Gilbert Chinard’s suggestion that the voyages of Pantagruel in the Fourth Book allude to contemporary French explorers such as Cartier. Screech tells us that ‘Trinquemelle’ in the Third Book refers to the lawyer-humanist Tiraqueau, but not, curiously enough, that ‘Rondibilis’ in the same book is an equally transparent reference to the physician-humanist Rondelet. He drops some unexplained allusions himself: some readers might like to know who Masuccio was, since he is mentioned on page 97 (where his name has been printed ‘Masaccio’).

A more serious gap in the commentary is the relative lack of reference to popular culture. Screech argues forcefully that Rabelais was not a popular author. If by a ‘popular author’ he means an author who did not go to university, he is obviously right. If ‘popular author’ is taken to mean someone who writes for a wide audience, the question becomes more difficult. The Third Book was written for the learned, and possibly the Fourth Book as well, but it surely was – and is – possible to enjoy Gargantua and Pantagruel without benefit of commentary. ‘There is no one,’ declared one contemporary, Etienne Pasquier, ‘who does not know how much Rabelais, clowning wisely in his Gargantua and Pantagruel, gained the love of the people.’

Whether Rabelais was a popular author or not, there can be little doubt that, like other educated men in his day, he participated in popular culture and drew heavily on popular traditions, as Mikhail Bakhtin showed in a brilliant study. The tradition of ‘Shrovetide humour’, as Screech calls it, is not omitted from this book, but there are relatively few references to this tradition, compared with the wealth of references to learned traditions, some of them more than a little esoteric.

The Rabelais presented here is a serious, committed man. The presentation lacks lightness of touch and does not evoke the intellectual gaiety to which it refers. Comments on specific passages leave us with a picture of Rabelais as a humanist, an evangelical, a sceptic and a syncretist; a humanist in his enthusiasm for the revival of learning and in his contempt for scholasticism; an evangelical in his sympathy for Erasmus and Melanchthon; a sceptic in the sense that he doubts the possibility of reaching the truth by reason alone; and a syncretist in the sense that he believed that the teachings of certain great pagans, notably Socrates and Plato, were complementary to the teachings of Christ.

Screech may well be right. He develops his case with formidable learning, and it is unlikely that it will ever be disproved. Yet it seems to me that he does not make enough distinction between the allusions in the text and the beliefs of the author. Rabelais plays with ideas. He is sufficiently detached from humanism to make fun of it. Screech points out that Panurge’s praise of borrowing, which asserts that debts make the world go round, parodies Ficino’s praise of love in similar terms. He might have added that the narrative of the Picrocholine war, with its elaborate speeches, reads like a parody of humanist history, and that the long list of Gargantua’s educational activities parodies the Renaissance ideal of the ‘universal man’ expressed in texts such as Castiglione’s Courtier or the Emperor Maximilian’s Weisskunig. Pantagruel’s challenge to the Paris Arts Faculty to debate 9,764 theses surely pokes fun at Pico della Mirandola, who had offered to debate 900 theses at Rome in 1487. Rabelais may also be playing with the ideas of the evangelicals, the sceptics and the followers of the Ancient Theology. He does not let his mask fall, or open up his Silenus box. We shall never know what he thought on these matters. Like Shakespeare, Rabelais is a writer who well deserves the epithet ‘myriad-minded’. Professor Screech has given us a rich book and he has explored his subject from many angles, but even he has not given us the whole Rabelais.