Less Rightly Said: Scandals and Readers in Sixteenth-Century France

Less Rightly Said: Scandals and Readers in Sixteenth-Century France

by Antonia Szabari

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Well-known scholars and poets living in sixteenth-century France, including Erasmus, Ronsard, Calvin, and Rabelais, promoted elite satire that "corrected vices" but "spared the person"—yet this period, torn apart by religious differences, also saw the rise of a much cruder, personal satire that aimed at converting readers to its ideological, religious, and, increasingly, political ideas. By focusing on popular pamphlets along with more canonical works, Less Rightly Said shows that the satirists did not simply renounce the moral ideal of elite, humanist scholarship but rather transmitted and manipulated that scholarship according to their ideological needs. Szabari identifies the emergence of a political genre that provides us with a more thorough understanding of the culture of printing and reading, of the political function of invectives, and of the general role of dissensus in early modern French society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804773546
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 10/23/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 44 MB
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About the Author

Antónia Szabari is Assistant Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California.

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Less Rightly Said

By Antóia Szabari


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6292-2

Chapter One

The Heretic and the Book

An illustration (statua haereticorum) in Bernard of Luxemburg's Catalogus haereticorum (1522) shows a man standing on a pillar with his feet tied with chains held firmly by two infernal creatures at the foot of the pillar (Figure 5). A third, winged devil hovers by his head holding a blower to his ear. He is blowing, as the viewer understands, "hellish" doctrines into it. The man thus enchained and indoctrinated with "windy" ideas is the "heretic," and the pillar upon which he stands both symbolizes the height to which his deluded imagination elevates him and causes him to stray from orthodoxy and serves as his pillory. The blazing fire whose flames embrace the bottom of the column call to mind both hell and the actual flames that burned those condemned as heretics to be executed (alive or after being hanged) at the stake and often elevated above a pyre. The "heretic" in the image is poised with his right hand raised and his index finger pointing-the gesture of teaching-but his downward gaze and the direction of his index finger pointing toward the infernal bottom reveals the sacrilegious nature of his doctrines. In his left hand, he is holding a book, the depository of his false teachings.

The downward-pointing index finger and the book are emblems that recall the official view of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and during the Reformation that heresies sprang up and became resuscitated over large intervals of time and even over considerable geographic distances because of heretical books. The idea was that Hus read Wycliffe and Luther read Hus. The book was an important symbol, as polemical reasoning sought to establish continuities and analogies even among widely different ideas of religious dissent. Although heresy was defined as a form of false teaching, as sheer untruth, from the time of the church fathers onward it represented, not only an object of attack and refutation, but also that of record keeping, enumeration, and knowledge. Describing, inventorying, and classifying "heretical" teachings obliged polemicists to discern, paradoxically, a "logic" in it. The goal was not to understand the doctrines of religious dissenters in their own right, but much rather to render them knowable, known, and even notorious through analogies with earlier and already known heretical teachings, that is, teachings that have already been condemned as heretical. Theologians assumed (and often created) such analogies between teachings separated by large spaces and long time periods, sometimes by many centuries. Often-cited sources were the polemical writings of Augustine on heresies, the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, the Summa contra gentiles of Thomas Aquinas, and decrees of church councils. The lists established by theologians rendered "heresies" and "heretics" known by imposing a certain set of correspondences on their various doctrines rather than granting them a unique voice. Although Catholic theology refuses to grant a positive being to evil, false knowledge existed in the church as a shadow of true knowledge, as its internal perversion, and the possibility of naming and systematizing and extending these acts into taxonomic lists lent it an objective existence.

This objective existence was cemented through an onomastics. The condemnation of one "heretic" could turn his name into a general term with which to classify his real or purported "followers," or the members of a "sect." Because Luther's ideas made the deepest impact upon the Catholic Church, in the first third of the sixteenth century, all "new" doctrines were labeled "Lutheran." Thus Luther's name was no longer a simple proper name after January 3, 1521, when Pope Leo X excommunicated him and condemned all his followers to bearing the title "Lutheran" and the punishments this name incurs. Excommunication, the speech act that performs the exclusion, is not an act of arbitrary violence but that which Austin calls an "illocutionary performative utterance" corresponding to the necessary conventions: as the incipit of the bull Decet Romanam pontificem ("It behooves the Roman Pontiff") makes clear, the Pope is duly authorized to pronounce the excommunication and anathema of heretics and of their followers; Martin Luther and his followers are subject to his religious authority; and Pope Leo X follows liturgical formulas established well before him in the church for the excommunication of heretics. Noë Béda, who served as the syndic of the Sorbonne till his disgrace in 1534, dipped his pen into his signature vituperative ink to follow suit to the papal excommunication and condemn "these [pejorative] heretics" in the faculty's Determinatio issued on April 15, 1521. He accused Luther of reviving the doctrines of a "race of vipers that poison the Church with their pestilent venom" such as Hermogenes, Philetus, Hymenaeus, Ebion, Marcion, Apelles, Sabellius, Mani, Arius, Peter Waldes, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus. Although Béda does not discuss any single concrete detail of Luther's theology, he still vaguely evokes some of Luther's arguments through these names of former heretics. For example, Philetus and Hymenaeus denied the resurrection of the body. While Luther never did so, Béda's analogy refers to Luther's attack on the doctrine of purgatory. Because the idea of purgatory was more vividly implanted in people's imagination than that of heaven, Luther indeed dealt a formidable blow to the medieval understanding of life after death. Moreover, the name Hymenaeus (Greek "belonging to marriage") evokes another one of Luther's "effronteries": the marriage of priests, monks, and nuns. Even though no concrete system of dogma arises out of these analogies (and to see a system or organization in unorthodox ideas was far from being Béda's goal), a continuity between past and present emerges. The syndic of the Sorbonne applies the same iron logic to his adversaries as that with which he condemns Berquin's translations of Erasmus and the books of Jacques Lefèvre d'Etaples, accusing both of "Lutheran heresy."

Bernard of Luxemburg's alphabetical catalogue of heretics and heresies was an innovation that converted the old art of drawing correspondences between past and present attacks on orthodoxy into a short yet rich encyclopedic source. Printed in 1522, it was conceived as a weapon against the spread of Luther's doctrines and his influence among students, professionals, and the clergy, all of whom could easily read and understand the simple Latin in the book. The book presents centuries of errors in an ordered fashion, thus providing the reader with a system of correspondences and, before Pierre Bayle's Dictionaire historique et critique, indeed, with a whole world of references to error. Each name in the catalogue is given an objective being through specification of the time, the place, and the "errors" associated with the name. Genealogies can be traced by those browsing in the Catalogus through correspondences and similarities that are indicated in some of the entries. Often, the reader does not even need to read the entries, for the titles already provide sufficient information about a given individual and place him in a web of correspondences. Notably, "Lutherans" are placed in the catalogue between "Luciferans" and "Mahomet," where the similarity of the names "Luciferans" (a medieval sect rumored to worship the devil) and "Lutherans" reinforces Bernard's claim that Luther is one of Lucifer's "satellites." The Catalogus is a more elaborate form of the earlier lists of names of heretics, and it is a powerful tool of spatialization that serves not only to help memorize or look up various heresies and heretics, but also constructs the imaginary identity of each "heresy" and each "heretic" in the multiplicity of its relations to others right on the page.

Even before lists of heretics evolved into indexes issued from time to time by authorities anxious to control and suppress unorthodoxies, poetic and visual representations of heretics crop up in Catholic polemical literature. The Sorbonne published its first index of forbidden books in 1540, by which time polemical print was in full swing. Indexes have notoriously little effect in the sixteenth century. Indeed, the most powerful attack against new teachings and their purported followers is not made from within the dominant discourse of theology, not even when appeal is made to emotions such as fear. Luc Racaut argues that the stereotypical descriptions of heresy and heretics that dominate the works of Catholic polemicists are more powerful than inherently religious, eschatological visions that warn the faithful that the end of time is nearing and bid him or her to return to the right path. Instead of simply intimidating the faithful, Catholic pamphlets exploit their readers' hunger for knowledge-which had already been whetted by the Reformation-about matters of faith, and they also offer them other sorts of "knowledge," notably, deprecating information about those who have "fallen away" from faith, shaping thus the portrait of the religious other. In the course of the sixteenth century, French Catholic polemicists give many faces to the "heretic," exploiting the political implications of the ambiguous place occupied by this figure, both outside Catholicism and inside it as its ever-threatening corruption. As persecution forces many into hiding in France or into exile abroad, religious dissidence indeed appears both inside and outside the geographic and political boundaries of the French kingdom.

In traditional Catholic polemics, the image of the heretical book emblematized the continuous spread of both theological and moral corruption, and for this reason it is not surprising that this emblem underwent a significant transformation with the Reformation. Catholics began to see in the heretical book an object of mechanical reproduction that was capable of spreading heresy not only to individual people or to small communities but also to the masses. Catholic polemicists published books not simply with pious readers in mind (as a medieval pious book such as a book of hours assumed a pious reader) but also for an audience susceptible to being converted to or "seduced" by "heresy." They followed the example of medieval preachers who took advantage of the imputed "malleability" of the minds of simple people: using simple language, proverbial expressions, vivid and visceral examples, shocking images, and even obscenities to instruct them. Their books contributed to the transformation of piety, to the practice and experience of religion, and to the ways in which religion was able to organize communities. Faith in these rhetorical models becomes dependent upon external tools, edifying and, more and more, blaming discourses that functioned also as artificial memory. Catholic polemicists took up the challenge presented by the "heretical book," with its real and imaginary power to transmit ideas and appeal to individuals and communities, even as they made their career out of loathing it. Pierre Gringore's Blazon des heretiques (1524) reveals most cogently this transformation of faith and religion and, along with it, the rise of a literature of Catholic ideology intended for the educated circles of clerics and students but also for the broader urban crowd, the consumers of almanacs, broadsheets, and pious books, and the avid audience of sermons. The Blazon is the first poetic effort that incorporates the list of heretics into a more elaborate textual body deploying a rich alloy of visceral and religious images.


Gringore was the first to emblazon, in vernacular verse, the imaginary figure of the heretic. The poetic accomplishment of the Blazon is wrought with a paradox that will continue, after Gringore's lifetime, to accompany conservative Catholic polemics. In order to understand the novelty of the Blazon, we need to know who the author, this great ideologue of the early sixteenth-century, was. Gringore was a court poet and the mouthpiece of the monarch whom he served. Well before the publication of the Blazon, he had acquired a reputation as the author of numerous satirical farces (originally comic interludes to serious mystery plays that evolved into independent plays) and fool's plays (sotties, or comic exchanges among two or more fools, sots and sottes). His most famous dramatic persona was Mere Sotte, a woman dressed half as the "Mother Church," half as "Mother Fool," the fool licensed to speak "foolishly" and freely:

I curse and anathemize, But beneath the habit, for insignia, I wear Mother Fool's attire.

Gringore exploits the medieval and Renaissance fad of licensed fools, women and men employed by princes and aristocrats and appearing in popular feasts (such as the Fasching and carnival in Germany and the Low Countries) and in the Sociétés joyeuses in France, especially Paris and Dijon. "The number of fools is infinite" was the motto of the Société joyeuse in Dijon, which Erasmus cites in the Praise of Folly. Although the satire at work in the fool's play was generally universal in its target, because it decried the whole world as a multitude of "fools," François Cornilliat notes that it could also lend itself to specific political aims.

Gringore's "Mother Fool," who also became his poetic persona, pokes fun at the papacy of Julius II because the pope was the French king Louis XII's (1462-1515) rival in the wars of Italy, an ambitious military enterprise that François I and Henri II continued after Louis XII's death. The Blazon des heretiques was written for another patron. This patron was Antoine, the Duke of Lorraine, who belonged to a powerful dynasty that in the course of the sixteenth century became the main pillar of orthodox and militant Catholicism, and a formidable rival of the monarchy in controlling religion. At the time when the Blazon was published, François I conducted a tolerant policy that favored religious reform. The center of this reform was Meaux, the diocese of Guillaume Briçonnet, whose humanist circle involved Lefèvre d'Etaples and Guillaume Farel. Gringore's Blazon may be the first piece of a conservative Catholic propaganda campaign, one no longer tied to the Sorbonne's theological orthodoxy, whose contours and political ambitions only become apparent later.


Excerpted from Less Rightly Said by Antóia Szabari Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


List of Figures....................vii
1. The Heretic and the Book....................23
2. Clean and Dirty Words....................44
3. Scandalous Evidence....................65
4. The Kitchen and the Digest....................96
5. Priests, Poets, and Print....................126
6. Fabricated Worlds and the Menippean Satire....................158
7. Public Scandals, Withdrawn Readers....................185

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