BMCR 2012.03.25

Homer and the Politics of Authority in Renaissance France. Classical presences

, Homer and the Politics of Authority in Renaissance France. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xii, 245. ISBN 9780199731565 $85.00.


Arguments can be made to support or refute Plato’s suggestion in the Republic that the Iliad and the Odyssey be banished from the ideal city-state; what cannot be disputed, however, is how fully this suggestion has been ignored. That Plato even had to explicitly propose such a ban demonstrates the influence of the epics on political thinking in Antiquity. Their analysis by writers and politicians in subsequent periods, too, where they were viewed as sources of political (and other forms of) wisdom, has been one of the consistent themes of their reception. Even as their historical veracity was called into question, even as their theology was dismissed, their political importance remained. It is from this political tradition of Homeric reception that Marc Bizer draws the subject of his book and, indeed, it is the very diversity (both geographical and temporal) of such adaptations that makes his book at once so informative and so frustrating. On the one hand, this will surely be the definitive volume regarding the literary, ideological and political reception and application of the Homeric texts in Renaissance France. On the other hand, because of its narrow focus, the volume lacks a comparative temporal perspective which would contextualize Homeric adaptation in the Renaissance in relation to preceding medieval adaptations and succeeding Enlightenment ones. Nor does it engage in a detailed way with a broader geographical perspective which would connect Renaissance French reception with that of its European counterparts. Such context would demonstrate that, though Renaissance French writers developed a unique corpus of Homeric adaptations, their contribution was but one iteration of the pan-European phenomenon, stretching from Antiquity to the present, of accruing political authority through adapting Homer.

Part I, “Making Homer French, 1530-1560,” introduces the reader to Guillaume Budé and Jean Dorat, both early philologists, who, after the rediscovery of the Homeric texts in Greek, were instrumental in creating a space for them in Renaissance French politics and literature. The opening chapter of this first part, “Guillaume Budé: Instituting a Homeric French King,” describes the process by which the epic allegorical tradition, developed in the Classics primarily in commentaries and writing on Virgil, was transferred to the newly discovered Greek texts of Homer. Bizer focuses on Desiderius Erasmus’ allegorical interpretations of Homer in his Institutio Principis Christiani ( The Education of a Christian Prince). This work, in the “mirror for princes” genre ( “Miroir du prince”), was one in which political education was offered via comparison with historical figures. Though Bizer focuses on Erasmus (and rightly so, since, as a friend of Budé, he had the most direct influence on him), he omits any mention of the widespread earlier use of Homer in the mirror for princes genre such as Ioannes Tzetzes’ twelfth- century Allegories of the Iliad and Odyssey, written for the Byzantine emperors and their wives and, across the Channel, John Lydgate’s Troy Book, written to educate the future Henry V. In the later French tradition, too, Fénelon’s Aventures de Télémaque (1699), written for the Duc de Bourgogne, second in line to the French throne, retold Telemachus’ travels to model the values of an Enlightenment ruler.

Bizer is at his best when performing close readings of Budé’s Homeric allegories. His analysis of Odysseus is particularly intriguing. A complicated figure even in Antiquity, Odysseus represents the virtues of endurance and fortitude and, when strapped to the mast as he passes the Sirens, an allegorical Christ on the cross resisting (female sexual) temptation. And yet, at the same time, other allegorical readings emphasize his vices: he is a braggart, often incautious and, above all, a deceptive trickster. Bizer demonstrates how Budé allegorizes Odysseus for both his virtues and his vices, as his didactic situation requires.

The second section, “Jean Dorat: Towards an Official French Heroic Idiom,” describes Dorat’s promotion of Homeric literary aesthetics and the formation of the Pléiade group, whom Bizer describes as “the royal mythographers of … [King] Henry II” (59). Though Dorat also taught that the principles of proper kingship could be found in Homer, Bizer’s main interest is in his cultivation of an epic register in French literature. A particular highlight of this section, however, is Bizer’s analysis of the royal chateau at Fontainebleau, which featured statues of heroes of the Trojan War as well as paintings depicting scenes from the epics. Bizer’s analyses demonstrate that the literary elements on which the book focuses were but a single component of the larger monarchical project of Homeric appropriation: many European dynasties claimed descent from Trojan refugees, and thus sought to bolster this genealogical claim in a variety of contexts, from literary patronage to public ceremonies. (The convergence of these different expressions of Trojan War themes to bolster political legitimacy in the Early Modern period was addressed in Marie Tanner’s The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor, (Yale University Press, 1993), a volume which Bizer does not reference.)

The fruits of Dorat’s labors are described in the third section, “Royal Mythography and Its Discontents: Joachim Du Bellay and Etienne de la Boétie.” Bizer argues that the Pléiade in particular were in competition to produce a French epic to rival Homer. Pierre de Ronsard’s Franciade (1572) is the most obvious attempt: an epic, modeled on the Aeneid, which describes how Hector’s son Francus founded the dynasty of French kings. Bizer constrasts this with Joachim Du Bellay’s collection of lyric poems, Les Regrets. Though the Franciade may be “a successor to the Aeneid … du Bellay claims a poetic Odyssey for himself” (89) in which, like Odysseus telling his tale to the Phaiakians, Du Bellay, in exile himself, pines for his distant home.

Though this section offers a detailed analysis of the poetic contest between Ronsard and Du Bellay, it would perhaps have been useful to think about their projects—long poems glorifying the French monarchy through a genealogical connection to Trojan heroes — in light of previous instances of Trojan War literature in French. A comparison of the two Renaissance poems with Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie and the anonymous Roman d’Enéas, both from the twelfth century, might have offered some insight into previous efforts by French poets to write a long poem on the Trojan War containing elements of both epic and romance. For the Franciade, too, even a brief comparison to Dudo of Saint Quentin’s eleventh century History of the Normans, which attributes a Trojan genealogy to the Norman dynasty, not to mention Snorri Sturluson’s Edda and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which offer Trojan genealogies for the dynasties of Sweden and England, would have offered examples of earlier attempts to ground political legitimacy in Trojan city-founders as well as demonstrating that, though adapted to a French Renaissance context, Ronsard was by no means the only or the first to attempt such a task. (Nor was he the last: Joel Barlow, for example, sought something similar for the newly founded United States, producing in 1807 his Columbiad, which described an Odyssey of Columbus’ voyage across the ocean and then an Iliad of his wars with the native peoples.)

Part II, “Homer and the Problem of Authority During the Wars of Religion (1560-1592)” describes a different but complementary approach to the ideological use of Homer by Catholics and Huguenots. Similar to their didactic use of Homer as a mirror for princes, the Catholic Jean Begat used (what he perceived to be) Homeric ideas of governance as a persuasive rhetorical device: to urge the king to stamp out Protestantism in France. This, however, is an expansion of the use of Homer in the mirror for princes: previously, Homer had been used to construct an ideal king; here, he is used to construct an ideal kingdom. Homer’s power as a political authority and the persuasiveness of these exempla is reflected in the Huguenot response: whereas they had previously drawn their exempla from Scripture, they, too, began to rely on Homer. Bizer analyzes this shift through close readings of the politically motivated commentaries on Homer by the Catholic Guillaume Paquelin and the Huguenot Jean de Sponde.

The Wars of Religion, however, also coincided with the last years of the French monarchy’s genealogical claim to descent from Trojan heroes, as was ably demonstrated by Elizabeth A.R. Brown in “The Trojan Origins of the French and the Brothers Du Tillet” (in After Rome’s Fall: Narrators and Sources of Early Medieval History, Ed. Alexander Murray. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1998, pp. 348-384). Since Bizer provided such detail and insight on the rise of this claim to bolster the political legitimacy of the French kings, it would have been interesting to read his thoughts on the consequences of its decline. The penultimate chapter, “Trojan/French Chaos,” analyzes Robert Garnier’s 1579 Troade, noting how the “tragic portrayal of the consequences of war and the arbitrary exercise of power” show “[f]or the first time … a thoroughly negative view of Homeric heroes. … [T]he myth of the Trojan origins in France – clearly associated with the losing party – is resuscitated to suggest just how deplorable the situation in France really was” (193). Bizer’s close reading of the play demonstrates this new negative use of the Trojan War as a critique of contemporary political events. One wonders what, if any, effect the discrediting of the genealogical claim had on the depiction of Homeric characters. Did Garnier’s work reflect a new attitude in general or simply a new possibility of saying what had been thought but until then had been forbidden expression?

It is left to Montaigne, in the final chapter, to synthesize these various trends. Montaigne draws back the curtain, so to speak, on the use of Homer in the French Renaissance, espousing a view held by most modern scholars and accurately summarized by Bizer : in his Apologie de Raimond Sebond, Montaigne demonstrates “that Homer’s exegetes use Homer merely to ventriloquize themselves — just as La Boétie had shown how the Pléiade had used Homer as a vehicle for royal propaganda — thus unmasking Homer as an empty vessel” (213). Perhaps because he was simply an brilliant and progressive thinker, or perhaps again because the genealogical claim had been discredited, Montaigne ultimately regards the royal line as “derived from itself and from no other source,” not even Homer (213).

Though the use of Homer in the Renaissance can fairly be said to stop here, the legacy of Homeric analysis, if no longer as a miroir du prince (as in Fénelon’s Télémaque), at least as a miroir du pays or miroir du citoyen, continued, as when at the end of Act II of André Gide’s Philoctète (1899), Neoptolemos, alone onstage cries out: “Philoctète! enseigne-moi la vertu…” ( Théatre Complet. Ides et Calendes: Paris, 1947, p. 164). Thus, the tradition of Homeric reception continues; we can only hope our guides through these later iterations are as thorough and insightful as Bizer.