RENAISSANCE AND REFORMATION
The literature of the sixteenth century is dominated by two chief influences—that of the Renaissance and that of the Reformation. When French armies under Charles VIII. and Louis XII. made a descent on Italy, they found everywhere a recognition of the importance of art, an enthusiasm for beauty, a feeling for the æsthetic as well as the scholarly aspects of antiquity, a new joy in life, an universal curiosity, a new confidence in human reason. To Latin culture a Greek culture had been added; and side by side with the mediæval master of the understanding, Aristotle, the master of the imaginative reason, Plato, was held in honour. Before the first quarter of the sixteenth century closed, France had received a great gift from Italy, which profoundly modified, but by no means effaced, the characteristics of her national genius. The Reformation was a recovery of Christian antiquity and of Hebraism, and for a time the religious movement made common cause with the Renaissance; but the grave morals, the opposition of grace to nature, and the dogmatic spirit of theology after a time alienated the Reforming party from the mere humanism of literature and art. An interest in general ideas and a capacity for dealing with them were fostered by the study of antiquity both classical and Christian, by the meeting of various tendencies, and by the conflict of rival creeds. To embody general ideas in art under a presiding feeling for beauty, to harmonise thought and form, was the great work of the seventeenth century; but before this could be effected it was necessary that France should enjoy tranquillity after the strife of the civil wars.
Learning had received the distinction of court patronage when Louis XII. appointed the great scholar Budé his secretary. Around Francis I., although he was himself rather a lover of the splendour and ornament of the Renaissance than of its finer spirit, men of learning and poets gathered. On the suggestion of GUILLAUME BUDÉ he endowed professorships of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, to which were added those of medicine, mathematics, and philosophy (1530-40), and in this projected foundation of the Collège de France an important step was made towards the secularisation of learned studies. The King's sister, MARGUERITE OF NAVARRE (1492-1549), perhaps the most accomplished woman of her time, represents more admirably than Francis the genius of the age. She studied Latin, Italian, Spanish, German, Hebrew, and, when forty, occupied herself with Greek. Her heart was ardent as well as her intellect; she was gay and mundane, and at the same time she was serious (with even a strain of mystical emotion) in her concern for religion. Although not in communion with the Reformers, she sympathised with them, and extended a generous protection to those who incurred danger through their liberal opinions. Her poems, Marguerites de la Marguerite des Princesses (1547), show the mediæval influences forming a junction with those of the Renaissance. Some are religious, but side by side with her four dramatic Mysteries and her eloquent Triomphe de l'Agneau appears the Histoire des Satyres et Nymphes de Diane, imitated from the Italian of Sannazaro. Among her latest poems, which remained in manuscript until 1896, are a pastoral dramatic piece expressing her grief for the death of her brother Francis I.; a second dramatic poem, Comédie jouée au Mont de Marsan, in which love (human or divine) triumphs over the spirit of the world, over superstitious asceticism, and over the wiser temper of religious moderation. Les Prisons tells in allegory of her servitude to passion, to worldly ambition, and to the desire for human knowledge, until at last the divine love brought her deliverance. The union of the mundane and the moral spirit is singularly shown in Marguerite's collection of prose tales, written in imitation of Boccaccio, the Heptaméron des Nouvelles (1558).
These tales were not an indiscretion of youth; probably Marguerite composed them a few years before her death; perhaps their licence and wanton mirth were meant to enliven the melancholy hours of her beloved brother; certainly the writer is ingenious in extracting edifying lessons from narratives which do not promise edification. They are not so gross as other writings of the time, and this is Marguerite's true defence; to laugh at the immoralities of monks and priests was a tradition in literature which neither the spirit of the Renaissance nor that of the Reformation condemned. A company of ladies and gentlemen, detained by floods on their return from the Pyrenean baths, beguile the time by telling these tales, and the pious widow Dame Oisille gives excellent assistance in showing how they tend to a moral purpose. The series, designed to equal in number the tales of the Decameron, is incomplete. Possibly Marguerite was aided by some one or more of the authors of whom she was the patroness and protector; but no sufficient evidence exists for the ascription of the Heptaméron to Bonaventure des Périers.
Among the poets whom Marguerite received with favour at her court was CLÉMENT MAROT, the versifier, as characterised by Boileau, of "elegant badinage." His predecessors and early contemporaries in the opening years of the sixteenth century continued the manner of the so-called rhétoriqueurs, who endeavoured to maintain allegory, now decrepit or effete, with the aid of ingenuities of versification and pedantry of diction; or else they carried on something of the more living tradition of Villon or of Coquillard. Among the former, Jean le Maire de Belges deserves to be remembered less for his verse than for his prose work, Illustrations de Gaule et Singularitez de Troie, in which the Trojan origin of the French people is set forth with some feeling for beauty and a mass of crude erudition. Clément Marot, born at Cahors in 1495 or 1496, a poet's son, was for a time in the service of Francis I. as valet de chambre, and accompanied his master to the battle of Pavia, where he was wounded and made prisoner. Pursued by the Catholics as a heretic, and afterwards by the Genevan Calvinists as a libertine, he was protected as long as was possible by the King and by his sister. He died at Turin, a refugee to Italy, in 1544.
In his literary origins Marot belongs to the Middle Ages; he edited the Roman de la Rose and the works of Villon; his immediate masters were the grands rhétoriqueurs; but the spirit of the Renaissance and his own genius delivered him from the oppression of their authority, and his intellect was attracted by the revolt and the promise of freedom found in the Reforming party. A light and pleasure-loving nature, a temper which made the prudent conduct of life impossible, exposed him to risks, over which, aided by protectors whom he knew how to flatter with a delicate grace, he glided without fatal mishap. He did not bring to poetry depth of passion or solidity of thought; he brought what was needed—a bright intelligence, a sense of measure and proportion, grace, gaiety, esprit. Escaping, after his early Temple de Cupido, from the allegorising style, he learned to express his personal sentiments, and something of the gay, bourgeois spirit of France, with aristocratic distinction. His poetry of the court and of occasion has lost its savour; but when he writes familiarly (as in the Épître au Roi pour avoir été derobé), or tells a short tale (like the fable of the rat and the lion), he is charmingly bright and natural. None of his poems—elegies, epistles, satires, songs, epigrams, rondeaux, pastorals, ballades—overwhelm us by their length; he was not a writer of vast imaginative ambitions. His best epigrams are masterpieces in their kind, with happy turns of thought and expression in which art seems to have the ease of nature. The satirical epistle supposed to be sent, not by Marot, but by his valet, to Marot's adversary, Sagon, is spirited in its insolence. L'Enfer is a satiric outbreak of indignation suggested by his imprisonment in the Châtelet on the charge of heresy. His versified translation of forty-nine Psalms added to his glory, and brought him the honour of personal danger from the hostility of the Sorbonne; but to attempt such a translation is to aim at what is impossible. His gift to French poetry is especially a gift of finer art—firm and delicate expression, felicity in rendering a thought or a feeling, certainty and grace in poetic evolution, skill in handling the decasyllabic line. A great poet Marot was not, and could not be; but, coming at a fortunate moment, his work served literature in important ways; it was a return from laboured rhetoric to nature. In the classical age his merit was recognised by La Bruyère, and the author of the Fables and the Contes—in some respects a kindred spirit—acknowledged a debt to Marot.
From Marot as a poet much was learned by Marguerite of Navarre. Of his contemporaries, who were also disciples, the most distinguished was MELIN DE SAINT-GELAIS, and on the master's death Melin passed for an eminent poet. We can regard him now more justly, as one who in slender work sought for elegance, and fell into a mannered prettiness. While preserving something of the French spirit, he suffered from the frigid ingenuities which an imitation of Italian models suggested to him; but it cannot be forgotten that Saint-Gelais brought the sonnet from Italy into French poetry. The school of Marot, ambitious in little things, affected much the blason, which celebrates an eyebrow, a lip, a bosom, a jewel, a flower, a precious stone; lyrical inspiration was slender, but clearness and grace were worth attaining, and the conception of poetry as a fine art served to lead the way towards Ronsard and the Pléiade.
The most powerful personality in literature of the first half of the sixteenth century was not a poet, though he wrote verses, but a great creator in imaginative prose, great partly by virtue of his native genius, partly because the sap of the new age of enthusiasm for science and learning was thronging in his veins—FRANÇOIS RABELAIS. Born about 1490 or 1495, at Chinon, in Touraine, of parents in a modest station, he received his education in the village of Seuillé and at the convent of La Baumette. He revolted against the routine of the schools, and longed for some nutriment more succulent and savoury. For fifteen years he lived as a Franciscan monk in the cell and cloisters of the monastery at Fontenay-le-Comte. In books, but not those of a monastic library, he found salvation; mathematics, astronomy, law, Latin, Greek consoled him during his period of uncongenial seclusion. His criminal companions—books which might be suspected of heresy—were sequestrated. The young Bishop of Maillezais—his friend Geoffroy d'Estissac, who had aided his studies—and the great scholar Budé came to his rescue, and passing first, by favour of the Pope, to the Benedictine abbey of Maillezais, before long he quitted the cloister, and, as a secular priest, began his wanderings of a scholar in search of universal knowledge. In 1530-31 he was at Montpellier, studying medicine and lecturing on medical works of Hippocrates and Galen; next year, at Lyons, one of the learned group gathered around the great printers of that city, he practised his art of physic in the public hospital, and was known as a scientific author. Towards the close of 1532 he re-edited the popular romance Chroniques Gargantuines, which tells the adventures of the "enormous giant Gargantua." It was eagerly read, and brought laughter to the lips of Master Rabelais' patients. Learning, he held, was good, but few things in this world are wholesomer than laughter. The success of the Chroniques seems to have moved him to write a continuation, and in 1533 appeared Pantagruel, the story of the deeds and prowess of Gargantua's giant son, newly composed by Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram which concealed the name of François Rabelais. It forms the second of the five books which make up its author's famous work. A recast or rather a new creation of the Chronicles of Gargantua, replacing the original Chroniques, followed in 1535. It was not until 1546 and 1552 that the second and—in its complete form—the third books of Pantagruel appeared, and the authorship was acknowledged. The last book was posthumous (1562 in part, 1564 in full), and the inferiority of style, together with the more bitter spirit of its satire, have led many critics to the opinion that it is only in part from the hand of the great and wise humourist.
Rabelais was in Rome in 1534, and again in 1535, as physician to the French ambassador, Jean du Bellay, Bishop of Paris. He pursued his scientific studies in medicine and botany, took lessons in Arabic, and had all a savant's intelligent curiosity for the remains of antiquity. Some years of his life were passed in wandering from one French university to another. Fearing the hostility of the Sorbonne, during the last illness of his protector Francis I., he fled to the imperial city of Metz. He was once again in Rome with Cardinal du Bellay, in 1549. Next year the author of Pantagruel was appointed curé of Meudon, near Paris, but, perhaps as a concession to public opinion, he resigned his clerical charges on the eve of the publication of his fourth book. Rabelais died probably in 1552 or 1553, aged about sixty years.
On his death it might well have been said that the gaiety of nations was eclipsed; but to his contemporaries Rabelais appeared less as the enormous humourist, the buffoon Homer, than as a great scholar and man of science, whose bright temper and mirthful conversation were in no way inconsistent with good sense, sound judgment, and even a habit of moderation. It is thus that he should still be regarded. Below his laughter lay wisdom; below his orgy of grossness lay a noble ideality; below the extravagances of his imagination lay the equilibrium of a spirit sane and strong. The life that was in him was so abounding and exultant that it broke all dikes and dams; and laughter for him needed no justification, it was a part of this abounding life. After the mediæval asceticism and the intellectual bondage of scholasticism, life in Rabelais has its vast outbreak and explosion; he would be no fragment of humanity, but a complete man. He would enjoy the world to the full, and yet at the same time there is something of stoicism in his philosophy of life; while gaily accepting the good things of the earth, he would hold himself detached from the gifts of fortune, and possess his soul in a strenuous sanity. Let us return—such is his teaching—to nature, honouring the body, but giving higher honour to the intellect and to the moral feeling; let us take life seriously, and therefore gaily; let us face death cheerfully, knowing that we do not wholly die; with light in the understanding and love in the heart, we can confront all dangers and defy all doubts.
He is the creator of characters which are types. His giants—Grandgousier, Gargantua, Pantagruel—are giants of good sense and large benevolence. The education of Pantagruel presents the ideal pedagogy of the Renaissance, an education of the whole man—mind and body—in contrast with the dwarfing subtleties and word-spinning of the effete mediæval schools. Friar John is the monk whose passion for a life of activity cannot be restrained; his violence is the overflow of wholesome energy. It is to his care that the Abbey of Thelema is confided, where young men and maidens are to be occupied with every noble toil and every high delight, an abbey whose rule has but a single clause (since goodness has no rule save freedom), "Do what you will." Of such a fraternity, love and marriage are the happiest outcome. Panurge, for whom the suggestion was derived from the macaronic poet Folengo, is the fellow of Shakespeare's Falstaff, in his lack of morals, his egoism, his inexhaustible wit; he is the worst and best of company. We would dispense with such a disreputable associate if we could, but save that he is a "very wicked lewd rogue," he is "the most virtuous man in the world," and we cannot part with him. Panurge would marry, but fears lest he may be the victim of a faithless wife; every mode of divination, every source of prediction except one is resorted to, and still his fate hangs threatening; it only remains to consult the oracle of La Dive Bouteille. The voyaging quest is long and perilous; in each island at which the adventurers touch, some social or ecclesiastical abuse is exhibited for ridicule; the word of the oracle is in the end the mysterious "Drink"—drink, that is, if one may venture to interpret an oracle, of the pure water of wisdom and knowledge, and let the unknown future rest.
The obscenity and ordure of Rabelais were to the taste of his time; his severer censures of Church and State were disguised by his buffoonery; flinging out his good sense and wise counsels with a liberal hand, he also wields vigorously the dunghill pitchfork. If he is gross beyond what can be described, he is not, apart from the evil of such grossness, a corrupter of morals, unless morals be corrupted by a belief in the goodness of the natural man. The graver wrongs of his age—wars of ambition, the abuse of public justice, the hypocrisies, cruelties, and lethargy of the ecclesiastics, distrust of the intellectual movement, spurious ideals of life—are vigorously condemned. Rabelais loves goodness, charity, truth; he pleads for the right of manhood to a full and free development of all its powers; and if questions of original sin and divine grace trouble him little, and his creed has some of the hardihood of the Renaissance, he is full of filial gratitude to le bon Dieu for His gift of life, and of a world in which to live strongly should be to live joyously.
The influence of Rabelais is seen in the writers of prose tales who were his contemporaries and successors; but they want his broad good sense and real temperance. BONAVENTURE DES PÉRIERS, whom Marguerite of Navarre favoured, and whose Nouvelles Récréations, with more of the tradition of the French fabliaux and farces and less of the Italian manner, have something in common with the stories of the Heptaméron, died in desperation by his own hand about 1543. His Lucianic dialogues which compose the Cymbalum Mundi show the audacity of scepticism which the new ideas of the Renaissance engendered in ill-balanced spirits. With all his boldness and ardour Rabelais exercised a certain discretion, and in revising his own text clearly exhibited a desire to temper valour with prudence.
It is remarkable that just at the time when Rabelais published the second and best book of his Pantagruel, in which the ideality and the realism of the Renaissance blossom to the full, there was a certain revival of the chivalric romance. The Spanish Amadis des Gaules (1540-48), translated by Herberay des Essarts, was a distant echo of the Romances of the Round Table. The gallant achievements of courtly knights, their mystical and platonic loves, were a delight to Francis I., and charmed a whole generation. Thus, for the first time, the literature of Spain reached France, and the influence of Amadis reappears in the seventeenth century in the romances of d'Urfé and Mdlle. de Scudéry.
If the genius of the Renaissance is expressed ardently and amply in the writings of Rabelais, the genius of the Reformation finds its highest and most characteristic utterance through one whom Rabelais describes as the "demoniacle" of Geneva—JEAN CALVIN (1509-64). The pale face and attenuated figure of the great Reformer, whose life was a long disease, yet whose indomitable will sustained him amid bodily infirmities, present a striking contrast to the sanguine health and overflowing animal spirits of the good physician who reckoned laughter among the means of grace. Yet Calvin was not merely a Reformer: he was also a humanist, who, in his own way, made a profound study of man, and who applied the learning of a master to the determination of dogma. His education was partly theological, partly legal; and in his body of doctrine appear some of the rigour, the severity, and the formal procedures of the law. Indignation against the imprisonment and burning of Protestants, under the pretence that they were rebellious anabaptists, drew him from obscurity; silence, he thought, was treason. He addressed to the King an eloquent letter, in which he maintained that the Reformed faith was neither new nor tending towards schism, and next year (1536) he published his lucid and logical exposition of Protestant doctrine—the Christianæ Religionis Institutio. It placed him, at the age of twenty-seven, as leader in the forefront of the new religious movement.
But the movement was not merely learned, it was popular, and Calvin was resolved to present his work to French readers in their own tongue. His translation—the Institution—appeared probably in 1541. Perhaps no work by an author of seven-and-twenty had ever so great an influence. It consists of four books—of God, of Jesus as a Mediator, of the effects of His mediatorial work, and of the exterior forms of the Church. The generous illusion of Rabelais, that human nature is essentially good, has no place in Calvin's system. Man is fallen and condemned under the law; all his righteousness is as filthy rags; God, of His mere good pleasure, from all eternity predestinated some men to eternal life and others to eternal death; the Son of God came to earth to redeem the elect; through the operation of the Holy Spirit in the gift of faith they are united to Christ, are justified through His righteousness imputed to them, and are sanctified in their hearts; the Church is the body of the faithful in every land; the officers of the Church are chosen by the people; the sacraments are two—baptism and the Lord's Supper. In his spirit of system, his clearness, and the logical enchainment of his ideas, Calvin is eminently French. On the one side he saw the Church of Rome, with—as he held—its human tradition, its mass of human superstitions, intervening between the soul and God; on the other side were the scepticism, the worldliness, the religious indifference of the Renaissance. Within the Reforming party there was the conflict of private opinions. Calvin desired to establish once for all, on the basis of the Scriptures, a coherent system of dogma which should impose itself upon the minds of men as of divine authority, which should be at once a barrier against the dangers of superstition and the dangers of libertine speculation. As the leaders of the French Revolution propounded political constitutions founded on the idea of the rights of man, so Calvin aimed at setting forth a creed proceeding, if we may so put it, from a conception of the absolute rights of God. Through the mere good pleasure of our Creator, Ruler, Judge, we are what we are.
It is not perhaps too much to say that Calvin is the greatest writer of the sixteenth century. He learned much from the prose of Latin antiquity. Clearness, precision, ordonnance, sobriety, intellectual energy are compensations for his lack of grace, imagination, sensibility, and religious unction. He wrote to convince, to impress his ideas upon other minds, and his austere purpose was attained. In the days of the pagan Renaissance, it was well for France that there should also be a Renaissance of moral rigour; if freedom was needful, so also was discipline. On the other hand, it may be admitted that Calvin's reason is sometimes the dupe of Calvin's reasoning.
His Life was written in French by his fellow-worker in the Reformation, Théodore de Bèze, who also recorded the history of the Reformed Churches in France (1580). Bèze and Viret, together with their leader Calvin, were eminent in pulpit exposition and exhortation, and in Bèze the preacher was conjoined with a poet. At Calvin's request he undertook his translation of the Psalms, to complete that by Marot, and in 1551 his sacred drama the Tragédie Française du sacrifice d'Abraham, designed to inculcate the duty of entire surrender to the divine will, and written with a grave and restrained ardour, was presented at the University of Lausanne.