Villainy and the Figure of the ‘vilain’ in French Renaissance Satire

27 February 2013, 12:00 - 14:00

CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, S3 (Third floor)

Dr. Jonathan Patterson (French) presents at the CRASSH Postdoctoral Research Seminar.

The event is free to attend but registration is required. Please click on the link at the right hand side of the page to register your place. A sandwich lunch will be provided.

Abstract

This seminar will explore the social and moral conditions of villainy (vilenie) and of villains (vilains) in sixteenth-century French literature. The villain is traditionally stereotyped in fiction as being lowborn with low morals, working against ‘the good characters’. Scholars such as Eugene Waith have nonetheless demonstrated how these traditional villain-noble and villain-hero oppositions are subtly undermined in English Renaissance tragedy. What happens, then, when we turn to French comic fiction? My paper takes as its principal object chapters 45-7 of François Rabelais’s Quart Livre (1552). These three chapters of Rabelais’s Odyssean fourth book humorously dismantle any straightforward correlation of low moral conduct with low social status. Rabelais recounts how two vilains, a humble farm labourer and his wife, cheat a demonic tempter ‘of noble and ancient stock’ in a crop-growing contest. Within this apparently simple, formulaic fable we find humorous, satirical digressions, in which an array of Lucifer’s choicest villains – theologians, lawyers, and usurers – start to repent of their usual sins. Is villainy thus tantamount to base behaviour which may be remedied by religious reform? To what extent are socially lowly vilains capable of moral excellence? Is coarse behaviour still viewed as an indelible mark the lower social orders? Rabelais’s Quart Livre provides no stable answer; but, like John Marston’s later Scourge of Villainy (1599), it animates satire with gleeful references to indecency across an array of social types. This paper will, I hope, stimulate lively discussion on how villainy of the French Renaissance compares with that seen across various other disciplines.

About Jonathan Patterson

Jonathan Patterson works on early modern French literature, thought and history. From 2008 to 2011 he was Gledhill Scholar at Sidney Sussex College. His PhD research, supervised by Neil Kenny, examines representations of avarice in early modern France (c.1540-1615). His published research considers Marie de Gournay, gender and poetry (2010); and avarice in the agronomical writings of Olivier de Serres (forthcoming, October 2012). His postdoctoral project will be an interdisciplinary study of villainy in the Renaissance.

 

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