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Which Side Was Rabelais On?

The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais

by Lucien Febvre, translated by Beatrice Gottlieb
Harvard University Press, 516 pp., $35.00

The original version of this book was first published in 1942 (there were reprints in 1947 and 1962). It was primarily a polemical work directed against the interpretation of Rabelais as a militant anti-Christian atheist that had been put forward by Abel Lefranc in his introduction to Pantagruel in 1922. There is therefore some need to justify the publication of an English translation of a French book published forty years ago, and dealing mainly with French literature, that is directed against a view of Rabelais sixty years old and, one would have hoped, now completely obsolete. I think this publication can, however, be justified, for the following reasons.

Although roughly half the book is devoted to a demolition, detailed and thorough, of Lefranc’s view of Rabelais, Febvre’s aim was far wider than this: namely, to demonstrate the wrongness and folly of anachronistically reading back into the sixteenth century opinions and attitudes that only became possible after the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, such as the rejection of any kind of Christianity and of all supernatural phenomena.

Now it is very doubtful whether this kind of anachronism is today quite obsolete. As recently as 1957 Henri Busson published a revised edition of his Les Sources et le développement du rationalisme dans la littérature française de la Renaissance - (1533-1601) (The Origins and Development of Rationalism in French Literature of the Renaissance), also dating from 1922. In his foreword about Febvre’s general attack on anachronistic history he writes bitterly: “Sans aucune vanité, mais avec fermeté, nous dirons que l’on est étonné que dans les deux cents pages consacrées par M.L. Febvre à cette question, notre étude sur le Rationalisme du XVIe siècle non seulement n’est pas réfutée, mais qu’elle n’y est pas même citée une seule fois” (With no vanity, but with firmness, we will say that it is astonishing that in the two hundred pages devoted by M.L. Febvre to this question, our study on rationalism in the sixteenth century not only is not refuted, but is not even cited once).

In fact Febvre cites Busson’s large thesis at least five times (pages 15, 53, 207, 232, 233). But it is true that he does not refute it, except by implication. This is a pity, since Busson was a very erudite, if somewhat misguided, scholar, and his book contains not a few genuine counter-instances to Febvre’s general thesis that radically anti-Christian opinions were impossible, literally “unthinkable,” in the sixteenth century.

Such opinions were unthinkable, Febvre argues, because there were no non-Christian philosophical systems available to provide the terms in which anti-Christian ideas could be thought or expressed. Like all negative historical arguments, this thesis is very fragile and vulnerable; we never know enough about any period in history to be able safely to make negative universal statements. In fact, Febvre soon refuted his own thesis by publishing in 1942 a study of the Cymbalum Mundi, an anonymous work of 1537 which Febvre took to be radically anti-Christian. In this study, Origène et Des Périers ou l’énigme du Cymbalum Mundi (Paris, 1942), Febvre argued that the anti-Christian arguments of Celsus, refuted, but also quoted, in the third century AD by Origen in his Contra Celsum, provided the necessary philosophical frame-work and terminology for the writer of the Cymbalum Mundi, whom he believed to be Bonaventure Des Périers. Another counter-instance of the same kind would have been Epicurean atomism, available in the attractive form of Lucretius’ De rerum natura. A third instance is ancient skepticism, in particular the works of Sextus Empiricus, known to G.F. Pico from the late fifteenth century onward. This instance would, in fact, have strengthened Febvre’s case, since Sextus Empiricus, from Pico to Montaigne and beyond, was used to defend various kinds of Christianity against actual or possible philosophical attack.

Febvre’s book, then, is not on a subject that is by now out of date—indeed the dangers of anachronism and over-simplification are a permanent threat to historians, and especially nowadays to students who are eagerly searching for “relevance” in their historical studies. Moreover, Febvre’s extraordinarily wide, firsthand knowledge of sixteenth-century France makes this still one of the best introductory books for students of the Renaissance, and not only students of French literature and history (hence the usefulness of an English translation). Reading it again, after about thirty-five years, I realized with surprise how often my first impulse to read the works of a certain author of the sixteenth century or earlier, such as, for example, Guillaume Postel, Bonaventure Des Périers, or Etienne Dolet, had arisen from my having gone through Febvre’s book to prepare myself for my first years of university teaching, and how thin, narrow, and lifeless that teaching would have been without it.

The translation, by Beatrice Gottlieb, is excellent. There are occasional slips (e.g., on page 177, “in a universe to which God the Father will restore Jesus the Redeemer” should read: “in the universe which Jesus the Redeemer will hand back to God the Father” (dans l’univers qu’à Dieu le Père rendra Jésus le Rédempteur), but they are very few, and on the whole she has conveyed Febvre’s meaning accurately while, to my taste at least, considerably improving his style. In an effort, I presume, to break away from the pompous rhetoric of French academic prose, in which, to avoid repeating the same word in the same paragraph, Aristotle constantly appears as “le Stagirite” and even women as “les filles d’Eve,” Febvre adopted an exaggeratedly lively, chatty way of writing, evidently meant to be nearer to spoken than to written language. This had the advantage of allowing him to make valuable, bold comparisons and juxtapositions without having to commit himself to asserting historical connections; but, after a hundred pages or so, I find the constant succession of rhetorical questions, exclamation marks, dashes, and rows of dots fatiguing and annoying. As the translator writes: “Febvre’s style is difficult to convey in English. It is hard to decide which would be worse—to let it run wild in all its Gallic color or to tame it into drabness. I have tried to do neither”; and she has succeeded. She has also provided a long and informative introduction, which very competently places the book and its author against their backgrounds.

The first half of the book, Febvre’s careful, leisurely destruction of Lefranc’s absurd interpretation of Rabelais, is still most convincing and illuminating. It gives a wonderful picture of a bewilderingly fluid and rapidly changing age, in which evangelical, Erasmian Catholics, such as Rabelais in his earlier work, could still hope that the Lutheran, and later Calvinist, schisms were not irremediable and might be healed by a far-reaching reformation of the Roman Church at the long-expected general council—hopes that were not finally smashed until the end of the Council of Trent in 1563. In the second half, which gives Febvre’s own interpretation of Rabelais—or rather of the first two books of the novel, Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534?)—the pace quickens and the argument is less easy to follow and less convincing. With regard to Rabelais’s religion, there are inevitable gaps: so much work on this subject has been done since the war, especially by Michael Screech, that our grasp of it now is bound to be firmer and more precise than Febvre’s could possibly be (e.g., the full implications of “Hoc fac et vinces,” and the synergism of the storm episode in the Quart Livre, passages which, as Screech has shown, place Rabelais, as far as grace and free will are concerned, firmly in the camp of Melanchthon rather than that of Luther or Calvin).

As for philosophy, the sciences both exact and occult, etc., I certainly do not wish to criticize Febvre for having the courage to throw out some rather wild hypotheses, for example about music and sensory perception. My late colleague Frances Yates had the same kind of courage, and it is only by publishing such bold but verifiable conjectures that the bounds of history can be expanded. Still, though Febvre had the great merit, very rare at that date, of taking magic and demonology seriously, it is difficult not to be annoyed by the assumption that men of the earlier sixteenth century had a “primitive” mentality, a concept taken overtly from Lévy-Bruhl; but then, fashions in anthropology change rapidly, and the marriage between history and anthropology has been so fruitful that the risk is worth taking.

It is of course pointless to regret that a scholar lived too long ago; yet I cannot help wishing that Febvre could have read Tullio Gregory’s Theophrastus Redivivus: Erudizione e ateismo nel seicento (1979—we could do with an English translation of this fine work). Gregory’s study of this mid-seventeenth-century treatise, overtly atheistic and anti-Christian, shows clearly how, when the atheists really did get going, they were able to use, and sometimes misuse, sixteenth-century authors such as Machiavelli, Pomponazzi, Cardano, and Bodin to back up their onslaught on all revealed religion, and Christianity in particular.

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