The Renaissance Body (Winter 2011)

If the Renaissance is famous for discovering unknown continents and ancient texts, the body too was a new territory of conquest. How did literature respond to the rise of the anatomical gaze in the arts and in medicine, and how did it stage the aesthetic, religious, philosophical, and moral issues related to such a promotion, or deconstruction, of the body? Did literature aim at representing the body, or did it use it instead as a ubiquitous signifier for intellectual, emotional, and political ideas?
This course also explores how the body, the locus of desire, pleasure and disease, functioned as a reminder of human mortality and was caught in the web of gender issues.

The RenaissanceBodyProject website was designed specifically for the course Frengen 219: it features a collective blog, private e-diaries, an archive of 16th century images and texts, and a creative interface where students have the option to publish online essays or multimedia projects.
Texts from the reading list include prose fiction (Rabelais), poetry (Blasons anatomiques, Scève, Ronsard, Labé), essays (Montaigne) and emblem literature. Additional documents include music scores, tapestries, paintings, drawings, and anatomical plates.

Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585)

Portrait de RonsardPortrait de Ronsard (Les Amours, 1552)


Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) was born at the Château de la Poissonniere, in the province of Vendomois, to a noble family. Educated at the Collège de Navarre in Paris from age nine, Ronsard spent three years in England attached to the king’s service as a page following the marriage of Madeleine de France to James V of Scotland. When he returned to France in 1540, he joined the service of the Duke of Orléans, then became a secretary to Lazare de Baïf, the father of his future fellow-poet in the Pléiade, Antoine de Baïf. His apparently promising diplomatic career was cut short by a sudden and incurable deafness. Ronsard devoted himself to study at the Collège de Coqueret, where the principal, Jean Dorat, taught Greek and Latin and introduced Ronsard to a high vision of literature and humanism. Dorat’s pupil Antoine de Baïf accompanied Ronsard, and was soon followed by Belleau and Joachim du Bellay, who was to produce in 1549 the Défense et illustration de la langue française, widely considered the founding gesture of the Pléiade movement.
Ronsard’s first major literary work came with the publication of the Quatre premiers livres des Odes in 1550, where he attempted to revive ancient lyric poetry in the form of Pindaric and Horatian odes. This somewhat bombastic gesture drew sharp criticism and the mockery of court poet Saint-Gelais. The ensuing polemics opposed a young generation of ambitious poets led by Du Bellay and Ronsard who aspired to imitate and rival with classical and Italian poetry, and the admirers of Marot, Saint-Gelais and a more traditional canon of French poetry. Ronsard’s next literary achievement, the Amours (1552), brought him this time fame and popular success: he reconciled soon after with Saint-Gelais and became the leading court poet. Though undoubtedly marked by Petrarchan influences, this love sonnet sequence dedicated to Cassandre displays Ronsard’s unique talent and hedonist inspiration. The rhetorical and imagistic patterns inherited from the Italian poet (the emotional landscape of piercing arrows, filters and poisons) are detached in the Amours from their context of mystical adoration, and instead imbued with a vivid sensuality that significantly alters their reading. The frequent references to metamorphosis in the Amours speak to the quality of the poet’s own desires: he portrays himself transformed as a bouquet in the hand of the beloved, the water in her bath, the rain of gold upon her breast, a flea kising her skin, granting him a taste of the voluptuousness is unfulfilled desires aspire to.
Enjoying an immediate and overwhelming popularity, Ronsard went on to publish his Hymnes, dedicated to Marguerite de Valois, in 1555, the Continuation des Amours and Nouvelle Continuation des Amours dedicated this time to Marie in 1555-1556. He collected his Oeuvres as early as 1560, and was to polish and rearrange them continuously until his death.
Extraordinarily well-known and respected during his lifetime, he was honored with gifts from Queen Elizabeth, and consulted by Tasso on the Gerusalemme. His work was not universally admired, however; during his lifetime he faced opposition by both the followers of Marot, who found his outspoken contempt of merely vernacular and medieval forms and his insistence that French poets “follow the ancients” an insult to the earlier poets, and the Huguenot faction antagonized by his strong connections to the royal family and the catholic party.

© Emily Dalton and Cécile Alduy.


Selective Bibliography:

Works by Ronsard:

“Hymne de la France” (1549)
“Ode a la Paix” (1549)
Les quatre premiers Livres des Odes de Pierre de Ronsard, Vandomois (1550)
Les Amours de Pierre de Ronsard, Vandomoys [Amours de Cassandre] (1552)
Hymnes (1555)
Continuation des Amours [Amours de Marie] (1555) ; Nouvelle Continuation des Amours (1556)
Elégies, mascarades et bergeries (1565)
Les Œuvres de P. de Ronsard gentilhomme Vandomois (1560; 1578, 1589…)
Quatre premiers livres de la Franciade (1572)
Sonnets pour Hélène (1578)
RONSARD, Pierre de, Œuvres complètes, édition critique par P. Laumonier, réed. par I. Silver et R. Lebègue, Paris, Hachette, S.T.F.M., 1914-1975, 20 tomes.
Critical Works:
CAVE, Terence, The Cornucopian Text. Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1985.
DASSONVILLE, Michel, Ronsard. Étude historique et littéraire, Genève, Droz, 1968-1990, 5 vol.
KRITZMAN, Lawrence D., The Rhetoric of Sexuality and the Literature of the French Renaissance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
MÉNAGER, Daniel, Ronsard: le roi, le poète et les hommes, Genève, Droz,1979.
PY, Albert, Imitation et Renaissance dans la poésie de Ronsard, Genève, Droz, 1984.
RIGOLOT, François, Poésie et Renaissance, Paris, Seuil, “Point Essai”, 2003.
Ronsard en son IVe centenaire. actes du colloque international Pierre de Ronsard (Paris-Tours, septembre 1985), éd. Y. Bellenger, J. Céard, D. Ménager et M. Simonin, Genève, Droz, 1988-1989.
Ronsard in Cambridge, proceedings of the Cambridge Ronsard Colloquium, 10-12 April 1985, éd. par Philip Ford et Gillian Jondorf avec une introduction de Dorothy Gabe Coleman, Cambridge, Cambridge French Colloquia, 1986
ROUGET, François, Pierre de Ronsard, Roma, Memini, Bibliothèque des Écrivains français, 2006.
STURM-Maddox, Sara, Ronsard, Petrarch, and the “Amours”, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1999.

Online resources:
Encyclopedia Britanica (1919)

Students' Highlights:

"Ronsard conceived of the poet as a recipient of the divine inspiration of the Muses without which no amount of study could fashion a poet out of an ordinary mortal. For Ronsard, this inspiration was accompanied by a moral obligation to hold one’s poetic gifts as sacred and to channel them toward appropriately worthy matters. His lofty vision of the poetic mission stood in contrast to the conception of the poetic creation as craft or as a mere branch of rhetoric, that had prevailed in France in the years prior to the Pléiade. Like many of his fellow sixteenth century poets, Ronsard saw his art as mimetic: he believed his task was to imitate nature, to articulate the truths of particular objects, and to place these truths in relation to larger universal truths. Indeed, in his preface to the 1550 Odes he announces: “I am of the opinion that no Poetry should be held praiseworthy or finished unless it represents nature, which was esteemed beautiful by the ancients only because it was inconstant and variable in its perfections.” It is in part his determination to portray Nature’s varies abundance that underlies the dazzling variety of style and form that marks his literary production." (Emily Dalton)

Marsile Ficin (1433-1499)

Marsile Ficin

Philosophe, traducteur et commentateur de Platon, humaniste, mais aussi fils de médecin, Ficin est le plus éminent représentant du platonisme de la Renaissance.

Né en 1433 à Figline in Valdarno, fils d’un médecin renommé. Il suit son père à Florence lorsque celui-ci va exercer à l’hôpital Santa Maria Nuova, et se destine lui-même à la médecine, mais ses études lui font découvrir la philosophie, vers laquelle l’humaniste C. Landino le pousse également vers 1456. Protégé par Pierozzi (archevêque de Florence) puis par Cosme de Médicis à partir de 1459, il se consacre à la traduction. Il traduit d’abord, en 1463, le Poimandres et d’autres textes du corpus hermétique. A la mort de Cosme (1464) il passe sous la protection de Pierre, puis de Laurent le Magnifique (à partir de 1469). Ce dernier lui donne les moyens de fonder à Carregio l’Académie Platonicienne. En 1473 il est ordonné prêtre. En 1474 il publie le De Christiana Religione, puis en 1482 la Theologia Platonica, deux textes qui tentent la concordance du néoplatonisme et du christianisme. En 1484 il publie son œuvre maîtresse : la traduction de la totalité des Dialogues de Platon. Il achève en 1486 celle des Ennéades de Plotin, qui ne sera publiée qu’en 1492.

Ficin entreprend la traduction latine d’un grand nombre de textes platoniciens et néoplatoniciens (les Dialogues de Platon, les Ennéades de Plotin, divers traités de Jamblique, de Porphyre, de Proclus et du pseudo-Denys). Son œuvre de traducteur et d’exégète du platonisme eut une importance considérable dans l’Europe de la Renaissance. Son oeuvre personnelle est un effort de conciliation entre la révélation chrétienne et la "théologie platonicienne". Il s’oppose ainsi à l’aristotélisme des écoles de son époque qu’il accuse de détruire la religion. Ficin, en s’appuyant sur la tradition platonicienne, élabore une nouvelle apologétique, fondée sur une "pia philosophia" et une "docta religio".

“L’âme elle-même étant très pure, comme l’enseigne la vraie philosophie, elle n’est unie à ce corps grossier et terreux, si différent d’elle, que par une sorte de corpuscule éthéré et diaphane, que nous appelons “esprit” [qui est] né sous l’influence de la chaleur du coeur de la partie la plus limpide du sang, et répandue ensuite dans l’ensemble du corps.” (Théologie platonicienne)

"Quelle merveille est ce doncques, si l’œil ouvert et fiché droict sur quelqu’un darde les aiguillons de ses rayons contre les yeulx de cil [= celui] qui de pres le regarde ? Et d’avantage qu’avec ces aiguillons, qui sont les chariots des esprits (spirituum vehicula), estend et applique ceste vapeur de sang que nous appelons esprit ? Dont l’aiguillon venimeux perce tout oultre les yeulx, et considéré qu’il est envoyé du cœur de cil [=celui] qui frappe, retourne aux entrailles de l’homme frappé, comme sa propre assiette, navre le cœur, s’amoindrit et se perd au doz plus d’icelluy et retourne en sang." (De Amore, dernier discours)

Influence de Ficin sur la poésie française:

"La théorie de l’amour de l’humaniste Marsile Ficin, inspirée du Banquet (Symposium en anglais) de Platon, a exercé une influence considérable sur la poésie de la Renaissance française. Dieu, pour Ficin, est le principe même de l’amour, et l’amour humain n’est qu’une étape vers l’amour divin. Il est provoqué par la vue de la beauté, qui est une manifestation de la perfection divine à travers le corps. Cette reconnaissance de la valeur du corps est caractéristique de la Renaissance. On considère que la beauté du corps est le reflet de la beauté de l’âme et de l’harmonie des vertus qui l’habitent. Le désir provoqué par la vue d’un beau corps doit dépasser l’aspect physique et s’intéresser à la beauté de l’âme, des idées et de l’unité divine. L’amour véritable n’a rien à voir avec l’amour sensuel. A cette conception mystique, Ficin joint certains éléments de la tradition pétrarquiste: l’amour pénètre des yeux au coeur, trouble le sang et l’âme de l’amant qui abandonne son corps pour vivre dans le corps de sa bien-aimée, à condition que celle-ci réponde à son amour. Si la bien-aimée n’y répond pas, l’âme de l’amant meurt.

Par la suite, les interprètes de Ficin tentent d’unir son approche mystique de l’amour avec la conception pétrarquiste de l’amour. De plus, ils développent l’idée de l’amour comme source de perfectionnement. Le but de l’amour est le perfectionnement mutuel des amoureux car l’amour ne recherche que la perfection de l’être aimé et nous force à nous surpasser. Certains auteurs insistent aussi sur le caractère cosmique de l’amour: l’amour est le lien universel qui crée l’harmonie des mouvements des corps célestes et l’unité de la vie dans l’univers. L’amour est suprême connaissance, dépasse l’intelligence et la raison, et nous rattache à l’unité du tout.

Ces idées influencent directement la poésie de Maurice Scève, de Marguerite de Navarre, de Louise Labé, de Pontus de Tyard et des poètes de la Pléiade. Tous perçoivent un lien entre l’amour humain et le principe cosmique qui maintient la vie de l’univers; c’est pourquoi, dans leur poésie, ils établissent de nombreuses correspondances entre les sentiments ou émotions et la succession des cycles et des saisons. Certains poètes de la Pléiade, cependant, l’épicurien Ronsard par exemple, répugnent à la mystique de l’amour pur: ils adoptent la conception néo-platonicienne de l’amour et célèbrent la beauté de l’être aimé comme un signe de vertu, mais chez eux l’élan mystique et l’inspiration ne s’opposent pas aux joies des sens.

Ces auteurs considèrent la poésie, et surtout la poésie amoureuse, comme une source de connaissance. La contemplation et l’amour réconcilient les contraires, libèrent l’homme des passions et l’élèvent vers Dieu. Grâce aux Muses, la poésie (et la musique qui lui est souvent associée) apaise l’âme, y ramène l’ordre et l’harmonie, et l’éveille à la connaissance. Les mystères sacrés (dont le dieu est Dionysos/Bacchus) inspirent et ravissent l’âme, et la transportent plus près de Dieu. Sources et fontaines sont des symboles courants de l’inspiration poétique, car elles rappellent la mythique Hippocrène. Enfin, l’amour, auquel préside Aphrodite/Vénus, révèle l’essence profonde du monde. Bref, le poète est un prophète ; il est aussi comparé à Orphée. Notons que l’aspiration spirituelle, bien que de type chrétien, s’exprime souvent au travers d’images païennes de la mythologie grecque ou romaine.

L’intérêt pour la relation entre l’âme et le corps se traduit, sur le plan esthétique, par l’importance attachée à la forme et à l’expression poétiques."

(Extrait de Weber, Henri. La création poétique au XVIe siècle en France, Paris, Nizet.)

textual promiscuity

Montaigne seems to be having some fun redefining terms at the beginning of the essay. Temperance is as much a temptress as volupté, seducing the author away from the necessary excesses of study (56, 58); he's hungry not to eat, but to be recognized, or read, or eaten (62, though he quickly corrects his stated appetite); the Protestant criticism of private confession is made to seem perverse, as Montaigne's public confession worms its way, by means of books, into ladies' bedrooms (62). When he finally gets around to "mon theme," which one might assume, given the title, would be the sustained textual analysis of a poem by Virgil, we are thrust into a discussion of "l'action genitale" (62-3).

So how are we to read Montaigne's claims about sexuality and gender difference, whose key terms are often of appetite, moderation, and propriety, when he's set up the essay by inverting the "proper" meaning of such terms -- temperance is immoderate, he's hungry to be eaten, the most public is the most private, and text is replaced with sex? What does his textual and semantic promiscuity (straying far from his stated subject and mixing a range of classical texts with French folk sayings) have to do with the content of the essay?

cannibalistic reading

I probably have "les yeux plus grands que le ventre" but I want to cannibalize everyone's ideas and ask what a self-referential or self-consuming preoccupation ("Je suis moymesmes la matiere de mon livre") and the proto-phenemonological "embodied cognition" Michaela and Cici brought up have to do with Montaigne's writing and also reading practices, with the way he assimilates and (re)produces texts and experience. Is his obsessive digestion and citation/glossing of ancient and contemporary sources cannibalistic, and if it is, is that a problem? How are the theophagy of the Catholic Eucharist and the bibliophagy of pagan texts similar, and how are they different? How are both of these practices similar to and different from the normal eating of food? How is Montaigne offering (or not) his text to us for our consumption, compared to the way Rabelais does?

Montaigne presents the account of cannibals as through the (transparent) lens of an "homme simple," and he communicates with the visiting natives through an (obfuscating) intepreter. Is Montaigne presenting his own writing as a straightforward reading of his "sources," or as an interpretation or "gloss," the very thing he would find tiresome coming from someone else? (He seems to have rather limited cannibalistic tastes: he seems to say, as Greg points out, that he wants to assimilate his own and intellectual ancestors' textual flesh, but complains how others' interpretions "alterer" "les choses pures.") Does writing, or citation, or translation, necessarily involve the corruption of original sources, or can it add value? (To keep with cooking metaphors, Derrida describes translation as "relever": to simultaneously negate and elevate the original, in a Hegelian sense, but also to "season" food, adding extra flavor to make the original ingredient more itself.) How seriously are we to take Montaigne's claim (couched in references to Plato and Aristotle, testaments to his highly refined classical education) that the Brazilians really live better, in unadulterated nature, than the postlapsarian Europeans? Is there even really, in Montaigne's account, any such thing as unadulterated (even unseasoned) nature, or has it all already been somehow manipulated (even just by observing it, or by writing about it)?

(I'll be doing my close reading on the passage in "Des Cannibales" describing the Brazilians' living conditions and diet, 255-57 in the Flammarion edition, so come with an appetite for pickled coriander.)

reciprocity & revolution

As Baker's article discusses, there seems to be more reciprocity, or at least the hope for it, in Labé's poems than in some of the others we've encountered. Love is not a one-way street, with the poet's steadily accumulating desire met only with the beloved's silent refusal. For Labé, loving often follows logically, even grammatically, from being beloved (Sonnet X: "Tant de vertus qui te font être aimé, ... Ne te pourraient aussi bien faire aimer?").  Love is based on equity even when it goes wrong. In Sonnet XXIII the poet, abandoned by a lover who used to heap praise on her, hopes that he suffers "autant que moi."

But before we start celebrating a paradigm of mutual fulfillment and gender equality, there's still some unredeemed unrequited love, and Labé isn't always very fair to her sex. In Elégie I, Labé makes a mockery of the "pareille pour pareille" reciprocity some older women, who scorned love in their youth, eventually receive. Love (the male-gendered god) even takes pleasure at requiting love with not-love: "Ainsi Amour prend son plaisir à faire / Que le veuil d'un soit à l'autre contraire. / Tel n'aime point, qu'une Dame aimera; / Tel aime aussi, qui aimé ne sera" (E.I). If you're one of those elderly unloved women, however, it's not so fun: you'll be stuck struggling to hide your gray hair with an ill-fitting wig and somehow get rid of the wrinkles "gravé" on your face, and the men you love will be embarrassed at how ugly you are (E.I). It was surprising to me to see a female poet painting such a grim caricature of a woman. Probably naively, I was expecting Labé to speak for her fellow "Dames Lyonnoises," or women in general; but did anyone else think she seemed to think of herself as distinctly different, or better, than other women?

If you're a female poet, after all, instead of having lines engraved on your face, you can have your lines "engravés" in marble (end of E.II). In her preface, Labé contrasts feminine "beauté" against "science et vertu," and she seems to be claiming for women a positive, "manly" virtù -- the kind that's about writing, rather than being written on or about. But that phrase (" le [le sexe féminin] non en beauté seulment, mais en science et vertu passer ou égaler les hommes...," pp. 93-94) is couched in a long sentence of concessives, negations, and self-effacements; not exactly an unequivocal call to arms. And why the invocation to "surpass or equal" men? It's almost as if she's scaling back, or self-correcting: "let's surpass--I mean, hold on, let's not go crazy, let's just try to be equal to men." So how revolutionary and subversive is Labé, really? And if she is, how much, if anything, is she doing for her fellow women?

writing on stones, bodies, and minds

Ronsard seems to conceive (of) and embody the poems in his Amours in two different ways: as organic, living things, and as inorganic, petrified things. Sometimes (as in VI) he is a feminine vessel who gestates and gives birth to his "Amour" or his poem (to what extent do his loves only exist as poems?). But sometimes the poem is framed as written in stone, as in the opening "Vœu," and the poet himself is often turned to rock, or petrified, by Cassandre. How is preservation via a sort of biological reproduction different from preservation in or as inert matter? Does Ronsard privilege one over the other?

It's also interesting to think about when these metaphors get mixed: when mortal beings get "engraved" with (supposedly immortal) writing. In XVI, Ronsard expresses his wish to "enfanter une fleur, / Qui de mon nom & de mon mal soit peinte." The notes say this is an allusion to the hyacinth, whose coloring is said to spell out "AI" in memorium of the pain of Apollo and name of Ajax. An individual flower doesn't live long, and so doesn't seem to be a good medium for writing a lasting message. But what Ronsard wants to "enfanter" is less the single ephemeral flower than the eternal letters printed on it (and that will continue to be printed as the flower propogates itself as a species). This gives us the best of both worlds: the vulnerable delicate flower and the frozen lifeless message in one neat package. What does this suggest about Ronsard's attitude towards printing and publication?

Sometimes, too, it's the soul or heart that get engraved (as in II). Is writing on the immaterial self somehow different from writing on the material external world or on the material individual body? Are the arrows that pelt the poet comparable to pens that set poems into writing? And how much (and with what results) does Ronsard explicitly identify himself with his poems, petrifying himself as he inscribes his poems onto paper?

atemporality and embodiment

I'm really struck by how static these poems are: their logic seems anagrammic rather than narrative. If we expect love poems to move from "desired object" to "attained object," or "loved object" to "lost object," Scève's shuttle between "Délie" and "l'idée," without giving us much indication of progress in one direction or the other. Unlike sonnets, whose final couplets give at least a formal sense of closure, Scève's dizains aren't end-oriented; they -- like the squared-in emblems -- tend to mirror themselves.

My favorite example is #112, where "amoureuses sommes" in l.4 is rhymed with "nous sommes" in l.5: just when the speaker thinks he's relieved of his "sommes," these burdens get equated with existence itself. Suffering isn't going anywhere; the emblematic SOUFFRIR NON SOUFFRIR is effectively tautological rather than self-negating, the "non" permanently stuck between symmetrical sufferings. The poem ends when the wounded soul "Fait résonner le circuit Plancien," as if both the speaker and the city of Lyon, still walled in by its Roman governor, have been frozen in time.

This kind of atemporal circuitry doesn't seem to leave much room for the body, at least not a living, breathing one. Then again, even if the textual body seems from the start pretty petrified -- the dizains are stonily introduced as "si durs Epigrammes" -- there does seem to be some breathing room. In the opening "A Sa Délie," the poet's "deaths" are positively described as "renewed" ("les morts qu'en moi tu renovelles"), and even the funereal "si durs Epigrammes" contain plenty of unfixed "erreur."

So I'm really interested in Greg's question about reading aloud, and whether orality can give these poems some directionality and life. On the one hand, the voice is connected to the living body, while the text is divorced from it. On the other hand, voice dissolves into the air, while the text is embodied permanently on the page, an "immortal body" that can substitute for a mortal body. We might consider this paradox in relation to Rabelais' Prologue, where readers are asked to store the book in their bodily memories, just in case printing suddenly ceased. What kind of embodiment -- if any -- does Scève suggest is proper to poetry?

poetic labor, poetic bodies, poetic value

Vickers points out that "mimetic representation" (18) is not what the blasonneurs are going for; they're trying to show off their own virtuosity (and emphasize the production of their own textual body), not represent another body (or part). But what happens when (as others have alluded to) the line between the poet-speaker's body and the woman's body gets blurred -- the "bouche" that the praised body parts make speak is, at least in some sense, the poet's own, and the "soupir" and "larme" are sooner or later revealed to be the poet's, not the woman's. When the poems are construed as referring to the poet (and, perhaps, his own poetic labor), they come to seem like performative utterances: the poem becomes reduced to an emission from the poet's body, a sigh that escapes his mouth rather than a carefully crafted, entirely exterior object.

So part of the fun is that this is not just a game on the externalized, "arbitrary" grounds of the female body: the poet is more intimately involved. And I like Vickers' vaguely economic language of the poets' personal "investment" and "risk." But what, exactly, is at stake? How does the "risk" of talking about the female body in these terms get converted into value? Is there some kind of objective value being created outside the indifferent, purely rhetorical "mal ou bien" that body parts produce? On a more concretely economic level, how is the money-like-ness of body parts in the Blasons (e.g. "la voix argentine") different from the debasement of actual money exchange in the Contreblason to "la main" (the hand defiled by "argent bailler")?

Good, Natural Bodies

Auerbach says of Rabelais that "pour lui l'homme est bon quand il suit sa nature, de même que la vie naturelle est bonne" (279). But is "natural life" really always good in Pantagruel? Are men always rejoicing in their bodily functions (women certainly aren't!)? And to what extent can we say that activities performed by the body are "natural"? In other words, are bodily functions still "natural" when they're drug-induced (even if the drugs are "natural"), or used for a kind of biological warfare rather than to satisfy a physical need?

Some moments I was thinking of were:

-the fecundity of farts: as others have discussed, Pantagruel's farts give rise to a new race (278-80), but what can we make of the fact that it was an accident (he was just trying to imitate Panurge, whose only fart-accompanying act of creation was linguistic: "Vive tousjours Pantagruel!"), and that his dwarfish, radish-like, choleric creations are hardly in his own image, a continuation of his biological line, or, for that matter, very healthy? Rabelais may rejoice in elevating the degraded lower bodily stratum, but literally elevating it -- putting "le cueur près de la merde" (280) -- might be a bad idea if you want to avoid sepsis. 

-the fetidity of farts: not every "puante exhalation" emanating from Pantagruel propagates Pygmies; sometimes his gaseous emissions cause plagues (332). Is there a difference in value between constipation and indigestion (when substances don't leave the body even though they should) and the kind of triumphant evacuations that can be seen as generative? (We might also remember the "wounded" old woman in Panurge's fable, whose profligate farts don't seem to have much redeeming value.)  

-what happens when Pantagruel's emitting body shifts from an instrument of war -- when Panurge gives him diuretics to flood the city with urine in ch. 28 -- to an object of medical concern, when he has to take diuretics to purge his ailing body (ch. 33)? How is the manipulation of the body different when the goal is an external (military) result vs. an internal (health) result? Do drugs make the body any more or less natural? Are we disappointed when Pantagruel makes the Dipsodes "alterés" by feeding them thirst-inducing food rather than by some supernatural force? 

I don't mean to kill the fun; the "natural" body and its functions definitely do seem to be a fertile source for Rabelais' linguistic play. But I also don't think the book is inviting us to celebrate all parts of bodily existence in the same way. Rabelais seems to accept excrement as a fact of life, or even as something necessary for regeneration, but does he also acknowledge a difference between productive waste and merely wasteful (or dangerous and contaminating) waste, and if so, how is this distinction maintained? 

Pantagruel's Fertility and his "Other World"

When Pantagruel inadvertently gives birth to creatures bypassing gas, Panurge notes that his “pets sont… si fertiles” (281). He is infact so fertile that he creates an entire race that he names the Pygmies whoare “volontiers colériques” because “la raison physiologique est qu’ils ont lecoeur près de la merde” (281). Why does Rabelais insist upon Pantagruel’s fecalfertility only to send these creatures off to an island, completely separatedfrom the rest of the narrative? Pantagruel himself was born of a mother and afather and is therefore responsible for carrying on their legacy. So what doesthat make these creatures in relation to Pantagruel? He clearly does not thinkof them as his children, so what role do they play in Pantagruel’s life or inthe shaping of his character for the reader?


What is the significance of the “other world” inPantagruel’s mouth? The farmer inside Pantagruel’s mouth notes that outsidethere is “une terre neuve” and that his world is older. We witnessedPantagruel’s birth and we know his ancestry, so how are we to interpret thefact that his world is older than the outside world? Does this other worldsuggest that Pantagruel is somehow able to sustain life and perhaps “give birth”to a civilization in yet another way?  


After Pantagruel’s men enter his body in capsules to curehim, the narrator seems to glorify these bronze capsules (341). Although thecapsules were used to export excrement from inside Pantagruel’s body, thenarrator compares them to the Trojan Horse—an object that was used to invade,not to export (and one that demonstrated bravery and genius in a much lesscomic way). He also notes that one of the pills is at Orléans, on the steepleof the “église Sainte-Croix.” What does Rabelais mean to say by comparing thesecapsules to the Trojan Horse and by placing one in the steeple of a church? Ishe commenting on religion, on decoration, or on something else?  

Rabelais' body language

What’s the status of "natural language" in Pantagruel, and what does it have to do with the body? The Limousin schoolboy only speaks his native tongue when Pantagruel grabs him by the throat and threatens to make him vomit; at which point he also soils his pants. Is that "natural language," and if so, what does it mean? And why does Panurge, in his polyglot attempt to communicate his immediate bodily needs, take so long to speak in his "langue naturelle"? Is it immoral to "contrefaire" by speaking a language other than your "natural" one? Then again, is it ever possible (or advisable) to speak "naturally"? What might this have to do with Sarah’s question about Ch. 19 and bodies being alternative (or better?) ways of communicating than words?

What’s going on with all the references to books that are "yet to be written" or that Rabelais just makes up, and what do they say about the materiality or bodily presence of the text (this one, and texts in general)? While texts in the book are often emphatically material, they are only sometimes used as objects: the narrator prescribes both reading Pantagruel and applying the book directly to the body as remedies. Is a book bodily present (and does your body absorb it) in the same way when you’re reading it as when you’re pressing it to your cheek? Are bodies better vessels for knowledge than books? Gargantua’s letter to Pantagruel praises the printing press, but the Prologue hints that, since printing might die out, it’s better to memorize texts "par cueur" and pass them on "comme de main en main"; then again, he’s saying this in a printed book…

violence in Pantagruel

What role does violence play in Pantagruel? How is it different from violence displayed in medieval texts?

pantomime (re: chapter 19, 'dialogue' between Panurge and the Englishman

Is the shift from the spoken word to bodily gestures (that normally just accompany a scholarly dialogue) and to pantomime a reference to the discovery of new modes of expression in the Renaissance which place the body at the center? And if so, why?

(Is a reading of this scene possible that not just focuses on the parodistic quality of what is taking place?)

Pantagruel's appetite

Does Rabelais via Pantagruel's insatiable appetite that takes place on a corporeal level (the devouring of food) reflect upon the humanist quest or thirst for knowledge in the early 16th century in France? Is this a parody?

How to enjoy the website

Dear visitor,

Welcome to the RenaissanceBodyProject. To make the most of the website, including its video (in Studio) and many digital images (in Archive), please edit your browser's preferences to allow it to display images and plugs-in, and make sure it does not block pop-up windows from the site (which will enable you to enlarge iconographic documents).

For technical support, please contact Zach Chandler ( or Cécile Alduy (

For editorial questions, please contact Cécile Alduy ( We welcome your comments and suggestions. Best, the RenaissanceBodyProject webmanager

How to Use our Collective Blog

Bienvenue à tous,


Pour utiliser ce blog collectif et privé, cliquer sur "blogs" puis, "my blog" pour écrire un "post".
Chaque semaine, c'est sur ce blog que tous les étudiants posteront leurs questions sur les lectures et documents de la semaine, afin de commencer à réfléchir aux questions que nous discuterons en classe.


N'hésitez pas à poser autant de questions ou de commentaires que vous le souhaitez, et à répondre aux "posts" des autres. C'est l'occasion de continuer notre dialogue au-delà des frontières de la salle de cours.


Prêt? Partez... 


Cécile Alduy

Syndicate content