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,…

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