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The 16th Century, Humanism

The school of thought known as humanism promoted the revival of Greek and Roman artistic and philosophical models that celebrated the worth of the individual. The royal courts of King Francis I and his sister Margaret of Navarre in particular fostered the humanist spirit. At these courts artists, poets, and philologists (scholars of language) received support for their work. In 1530 Francis founded an institution for the study of ancient languages. The study of the humanities was the core curriculum, replacing the formal logic of scholasticism. The institute eventually evolved into the distinguished College de France.

The arrival of the Renaissance in France did not, however, immediately produce works born from the new ideas. The rhetoriqueurs, a group of poets devoted to the old ideas of rhetoric (rules of composition) and form, dominated the first quarter of the century. Clement Marot, the son of one of these writers, was the first great poet of the century. Many of his writings belong to medieval genres, such as allegory, but he was also an innovator; in a sense he was the last representative of the Middle Ages and the first of the Renaissance. His primary accomplishment was the introduction into France of the sonnet, a verse form developed by the Italians.

The first great French writer of Renaissance prose, Francois Rabelais, brought together the humanist passion for knowledge and the Italian love of beauty and pleasure. The gigantic hunger and thirst of his fictional giants Pantagruel and Gargantua symbolize the new era’s insatiable appetite for learning and pleasures of the senses. In his works Pantagruel (1532), Gargantua (1534), Le tiers livre (1546; The Third Book), and Le quart livre (1552; The Fourth Book), Rabelais satirized stupidity, snobbism, superstition, and contemporary institutions, and he offered insights on education, war, justice, and religion. At the same time he exalted the cultivation and blossoming of all human faculties and potentials.

Two other writers of Rabelais's generation merit particular mention: Margaret of Navarre and Maurice Sceve. The sister of Francis I, Margaret was the author of L'heptameron (1559; The Heptameron). Inspired by Il decamerone by the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio (1353; The Decameron), the work is a collection of tales supposedly recounted by travelers detained by bad weather in the Pyrenees Mountains. Sceve was the chief representative of L'Ecole lyonnaise (The School of Lyons), which included two important female poets, Louise Labe and Pernette du Guillet. The latter inspired Sceve's masterpiece, a collection of poems entitled Delie (1544). The Lyons poets wrote of spiritual love and yearning, and their poems indicate a new acceptance of human emotion in written works.

 

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