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Conquests Within and Without: Recent French Scholarship on the Renaissance.

When Ronsard fulminated about the sorry state of France in his Discours of 1562 he created one of the first modern prosopopoeia of the nation. France, mother France, was the nourishing figure of the country under the Valois dynasty. Her body, fleshed out in Ronsard's poem from earlier models in Alain Chartier and Christine de Pizan and the figure that Du Bellay coined in the name of "France, mere des arts" in one of the celebrated sonnets of the Regrets (1558), insists that the spirit of nation and of appurtenance is conveyed through an erotically changed maternal object, the mother whom one protects and admires but also the person who arouses desire at the drop of a hat. It might be said that the currency of this personification in the golden years of the Pleiade betrays fears and doubt about the state of France within and outside of its borders. To win the appeal of its subjects and to unify a sense of family, nature, genealogy, and Christian goodness Ronsard fashioned a hybrid symbol of growth, generation, and fecundity, but also of plight, anger, and violation, a Mother Courage flagging in times of civil war. In her classical garb she would have the attributes of both Ceres and Christian deities, but in hard times wear the torn cloth of a woman raped. She would make the nation cohere through the new force of humanism. She would speak the vernacular idiom, French, and set her words in rivalry with Latin and many patois on French soil; she would be, as du Bellay lamented so often in his verse, the woman for whom the traveler to other worlds, both old and new and east and west, would pine and conquer.

It is hardly surprising that a good deal of French scholarship on the Renaissance of the last year deals with these conflicts. The force of decolonization, the impact of the European Union, a shrinkage of the eminence of French in the world at large, and renewed interrogation about its policies in the Second World War, along with the bloodbath resulting from the circulation of myths about purities of "nationhood" in the Balkans, have inspired scholars to see where and how the idea of France was born in the Renaissance. Two areas are keynote: first, work on France in the Americas in the wake of 1492 has not waned. It seeks to qualify received ideas about the "white legend," generated in the sixteenth century to counter the Iberian leyenda negra, but also to reconsider the background to imperial policies developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a span of time synchronous with the reinvention of the French Renaissance. Second, close readings of grammarians and polymaths betray a fascination with the relation of vernacular language to pedagogy and geography. They seem to say that wherever French is charted in comparative grammars, Latin-French dictionaries, translations of classical authors, or treatises of orthography, an implicit politics of language lays out a plan that will eventually produce and control French subjects. Grammar books not only solidify the language and its modes of instruction; by inverse means, their dissemination inspires a consciousness of dialects, local practices, and habits that become the grounds for an anthropology of France.(1) The discovery of these differences is celebrated in the ethnographic dimension of a work such as Bonaventure Des Periers's Discours non plus melancholiques que divers, de choses mesmement qui appartiennent a notre France (1557), his Nouvelles recreations et joyeux devis (1558), or Noel du Fail's Propos rustiques (1547). They have precocious expression in the works of grammarians who, in the words of Claude Longeon, are "fighting for the French language."(2)

Now, inversely, French exploration and colonization outside of its boundaries begin at a moment synchronous with the growth of grammars. Cartographers of Dieppe map out the coastlines of Canada, the Caribbean Islands, and Brazil; Oronce Fine registers the fruits of Verrazano's voyages under Francis I in his cordiform world-map of 1534 (illustrated in Albert Ronsin's article on the teaching of geography at Saint-Die-des-Vosges at the beginning of the sixteenth century, in Lestringant, 64). Commerce moves west, but maps and documents show that travel did not harbor enormous colonial ambitions. Movement into or about the country needs to be correlated with travel outward for reasons, obscure to us, that welcomed alterity or that saw the friend in the stranger. In his brilliant study of cultural differences that resonate in texts treating of dogma and religious diversity, Terence Cave asks us to put ourselves in the place of either Alcofribas Nasier, the narrator of Pantagruel, wandering over the mountains and lands in his master's mouth (the source of the episode belongs to Folengo), who meets a cabbage planter tending to his crops, or Montaigne, in his report of an encounter he had with native Americans in Rouen, who confers with naked friends from worlds beyond his ken.

Cave offers thus a "topography of possible perceptions at given historical moments" (18), where the most conventional or everyday practices infrequently traduce virtual, suppressed perceptions in the margins of speech and writing. Cave studies how expression of belief, whether in skeptical or dogmatic cast, opens access to different ways of living. Ronsard's Remonstrance au peuple de France, a univocal defence of the Catholic faith, entertains a view of the pagan through a conditional clause in the first-person ("Certes si je n'avois une certaine foy...") that is self-centering but that also disavows empathy. The grammar of Ronsard's locution "already allows a movement toward the hypothesis of a foreign belief" (55), even when cast in a narrow ideological frame. That Montaigne cites the same passage in the "Apologie de Raimond Sebond" attests to "the irruption, in the midst of a discourse on religion, of the expression of a strictly non-Christian belief" (58). The shading offered by these figures is symptomatic of our pre-modern history at a vital point, where self-examination and engaged inquiry of foreign cultures are of the same texture. In these moments, Cave argues, we see the beginnings of a "moi futur," a self built from doubt, that permeates the world, people, and things of its moment.

Cave perceives the origins of an anthropology in the ineffable articulations of history, religion, and poetic language. The Isagoge and Grammatica latino-gallica by the medical doctor Jacques Dubois (Sylvius), published in Paris (at Robert Estienne, 1531), elegantly translated into French and edited by Colette Demaiziere, implies that anatomy and study of vernacular usage are of the same order. Dubois recalls Alcofribas Nasier, in the first chapter of Pantagruel, who plots a genealogy of his hero in a way that "all good historiographers have trated their chronicles, not only Arabs, Barbarians, and Latins, but also the Greeks and Pagans, all eternal drinkers." Following Rabelais's ecumenical example, he does so after "having somewhat scrubbed clean French language in returning it to its native luster that had become a bit tarnished and rusted." Sylvius wants to restore a "classical purity" that is built upon its confusion with Greek, Hebrew, and Latin origins. The generosity of the enterprise, in which other languages will be included in the work on French, is underscored in the intention to "awaken people given to the infectious study of foreign languages," and in turn to "learn fully the system of their own so that, as might magpies and starlings, they avoid uttering the words of their own kin without remarking, appreciating, or understanding them, all the while it would be shameful for a person to appear as a stranger in his or her mother tongue" (201, emphasis added). The sentence suggests that Dubois indeed would like his readers to get lost in their vernacular. The very science science of an anatomy of Franco-Latin words and loci, argues Dubois, will resituate French subjects on an historical language-map. The latter is figured as a nurturing body - in other words, as a personification of France within Latinity.

Olivia Rosenthal's A haute voix: Diction et prononciation au XVIe et XVIIe siecle, the acts of a symposium, prints thirteen studies that constitute an anthropology of the ways that language moves between nature and culture and animals and humans by way of speech, song, and the printed word. Following the hypothesis that print and writing are not exclusively transcriptive in purpose, the authors investigate how speakers see and hear language as it is uttered in their environing world. Rosenthal aptly shows how narrative strategies convey a world where the ostensively originary peasants of a locale in Brittany in the Propos rustiques speak as did "animals when they used to talk" (14). Is it a golden age or a zoo, a return to origins staged on regional soil or a colonial policy dictated by language? The ambiguity is countered by Barthelemy Aneau's Imagination poetique (1552), in which return to pagan times separates originary man from the sublime idioms of nature. Humans cry, dispute, and vociferate. They are a far cry from the "common life" of the community of animals. But they are animals nonetheless, and must conceive of their community through what they observe in the world of natural history.

Each of the essays address the conflict differently. For Marie-Luce Demonet, in De Differentia vulgarium linguarum (1533) of Charles de Bovelles, the articulation of vowels and consonants is spatialized by a line of demarcation traced between "rough" northerners and "effeminate" meridionals. Each way of speaking is a sign of barbarity for the other, but by and large both camps share the view that vowels are to the mind as consonants are to the body. The animal, the illiterate, is he or she who cannot graph or decompose syllables into groups of vowels or consonants. Therein lie the beginnings of an anthropology when it records an alphabetical speech that registers vocal difference, and so too the groundwork for conquest of the pagan pockets of France. A countermovement ensues when a physiology of difference, espoused by Laurent Joubert and Montaigne, looks at the brute fact of articulation as an element of nature. Here and elsewhere the authors show how the inflections of voice and writing together yield meaning and force that have no equivalent at other times in modern history.

If the cultivation of the vernacular and dissemination of grammar on French soil cause a nation to cohere and grow, its effects are resonant in the Essais of Montaigne. Michael Screech's exhaustive study and transcription of Montaigne's copy of Lambinus's edition of De Rerum Natura (Paris: Guillaume Roville, ca. 1563-1564) shows how the essayist's diligent reading and annotation inform his sensibility. Lucretius helps Montaigne "dethrone Man from his arrogant pre-eminence" (32) in the course of his drafting of the "Apologie" and other chapters. Montaigne deploys the philosopher to destabilize the authority of given points of view - even those of Lucretius himself - in order to mobilize the senses. In a note that echoes a dazzling moment in the "Apologie" (Villey-Saulnier edition 591 and 582), Montaigne writes on a flyleaf of Lambinus, "when the senses seem to be deceived, as when to those aboard ship the earth appears to move and similar things, it is not the senses which are deceived, but the animus ..." (33). The description elucidates the optical and aural perspective of the encounter with the Indians. It also reflects how Montaigne seems to touch and feel his environing world as a molecular entity, the knowledge of whose variety and life supersedes ideologies all the while one can grant them their passing privilege.(3) "When the grapevines freeze in my village, my priest calls it the ire of God against the human race, and esteems that sickness of draught already comes from the Cannibals." Natural phenomena did not require divine or ideological agency for explanation to people who lived and felt the workings of the world from daily observation of the workings of nature. What came from beyond known borders, from new hemispheres fathomed from cosmographies, or within the landscapes of everyday life comprised a scientific object. Yet the latter is situated in the imagination, and is subject to speculation and creative revery.

In fact, in La France-Amerique, a compendium reprinting thirty-two papers from a 1994 conference on the currents flowing between the New World and renascent France, Francois Rigolot (in "Doulce France et amere Amerique") shows how Sebastian Munster's Cosmographia universalis, a first great work of cultural and descriptive geography, offers a style of observation that welcomes alterity through paradox, unforeseen juxtapositons, and narrative traits given to oxymoron that eventually informs Montaigne's anthroplogy (118-28).(4) Of contrary tenor is Marc Lescarbot's expansionist discourse in L'histoire de la nouvelle-France, a work of 1609. Written for French royalty, his reflection underscores the failure of French efforts at colonization. A grim picture of the past is painted to argue for new expeditions to western lands. In his study Michel Bideaux alertly stresses how the detailed account of failed colonial missions to Villegagnon and Florida is in reality expansionist propoganda directed toward Louis XIII. These contrasting views provide a frame for a gamut of essays on cartography, overseas commerce, the politics of evengelicism, the rhetoric of colonialism, and the presence of early French ethnography in Shakespeare, Swift, Franklin, Cesaire, and Crevecoeur. Throughout the book are debated the stakes of the representation of"the other" and those of encounter (as opposed to conquest), where the middle years of the sixteenth century, Lestringant notes in concluding remarks, are those of intense inquiry and interrogation flowing both outward and inward, to and from the origins of the subjectivities built from the exchanges of plural individuals and nations.

In this light the renewed commitment to study of landscape and pastoral description is explained by the mobilization of point of view.(5) The eye can wander in an image of a miniature world in words, tapestry, or painting; it can take cognizance of its own penchant to move about and to mix revery and free attention. The eye moves about space represented in painting and writing according to a haptic process, but it also is inflected by memory or figments of lands new, lost, or of fabled origin. The eye that seeks to touch what it sees navigates by virtue of received images or representations of space. Nathalie Dauvois's De la 'Satura'a la Bergerie, along with the third volume of a critical edition of Remy Belleau's Oeuvres poetiques, indicates how the land described in vernacular eclogue, in funerary poetry, or in commemorative inscriptions figure in a geographical impulse that, in order better to know them, displaces French lands and spaces into other times and spaces. What resembles a classical landscape also identifies the national countryside. The idea of a past space suffuses the present and, as a result, makes the latter cohere. The rural landscapre does not match what is given in Latin models. In a broad way we can say that the tradition is part of a politics that also marks early books of grammar.

It is fitting that Gilbert Gadoffre's monumental work on the birth of cultural projects, La Revolution culturelle dans la France des humanistes, ends with studies of the metamorphoses of the "persona France" and the construction of French identity. France was alone in "offering the spectacle of a country that knew how to unite the spirit of the warrior to the taste for letters, a paradoxical association that the Valois were best able to exemplify" (314). The prosopopoia of France combines the traits of Ceres, Minerva, and Pallas. Later, in war, she becomes the woman, sullied by her subjects, who vilipends them in order to inspire unity in the midst of strife. The same "afflicted mother" (308) nonetheless bears evidence of a new identification of French culture. As Gadoffre suggests in the final chapter, she prompts humanists and subjects to imagine a genealogy that rehearses the beginnings of civilization. She is part of a "conversion of France to a convivial humanism" (345) and to a topic, now occupying sociologists and historians of different stripe, concerning the history of French universalism. Gadoffre's book is a crucial study of its origins, and so too is a good deal of recent French work on the Renaissance. Summing up, we can say that the idea of a universalist project has its most creative beginnings in the conflicts of the emergent nation with Christendom and of the vernacular with its Greek, Latin, and Hebrew avatars. These books indeed inform us of the beginnings of what Fernand Bruadel has called "the identity of France."


1 Two pathfinding works apply to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Une politique de la langue (Paris: Gallimard, 1975) Michel de Certeau, Dominique Julia, and Jacques Revel theorized a longstanding "politics of language" that moves between discovery of what is unknown in the nation and imposition upon it of an official ideolect. Their hypotheses are extended to the creation of popular culture in nineteenth-century institutions devoted to folklore and museology in "La beaute du mort," in Michel de Certeau, La culture au pluriel (Paris: Seuil, 1993), 45-72.

2 Claude Longeon, ed., Premiers combats pour la langue francaise (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1989).

3 It would be appropriate to correlate the Lucretian strain of Montaigne's atomism in the affective distinction that a contemporary avatar, Gilles Deleuze, articulated in the "molar" and "molecular" aspects of the "rich inorganic life of things," in Difference and Repetition, The Movement-Image, and other writings. Affect, sensation, and knowledge are conjoined in the aesthetic dimension of Lucretian thinking.

4 In La geographie de la Renaissance (1420-1620) (Paris: Bibliotheque nationale, 1980), Numa Broc observes that Monster inaugurates a practice of cultural geography, in which national borders are loosely drawn along lines of linguistic division. The author literally maps movements of culture by studying discourses and spaces in the same matrix (studied in chapter four, in which descriptive cosmography is seen overtaking celestial cosmography by the 1550s).

5 Anglophone readers will welcome Graham Larkin's translation and richly illustrated edition of Thierry Mariage, The World of Andre Le Notre (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), especially in chapters one and three.
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Author:Conley, Tom
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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