Literature in the Age of Rabelais



AFTER Gutenberg the impulse to self-display took an added form—the itch to be in print. It was a costly urge, for the only copyright then known was the “exclusive privilege” given by civil or ecclesiastical authorities to print a specified book. Such a grant was exceptional, and without it rival publishers, even in the same country, might “pirate” a work at will. If a book sold well the publisher would usually give the author an honorarium; but almost the only publications profitable enough to earn such a fee were popular romances, tales of magic or marvels, and controversial pamphlets which had to be abusive to sell. Works of scholarship were lucky to pay their cost. Publishers encouraged authors to dedicate such productions to state or Church dignitaries, or affluent magnates or lords, in the hope of a gift for the laud.

Printing and publishing were generally united in the same firm, and the man or family that engaged in them was a vital factor in his town and times. Fame through printing alone was rare. Claude Garamond of Paris managed it by discarding the “Gothic” type that German printers had adopted from manuscript lettering, and designing (c. 1540) a “roman” type based on the Carolongian minuscule script of the ninth century as developed by Italian humanists and the Aldine press. Italian, French, and English printers chose this roman form; the Germans clung to Gothic till the nineteenth century. Some styles of type still bear Garamond’s name.

Germany led the world in publishing. There were active firms in Basel, Strasbourg, Augsburg, Nuremberg, Wittenberg, Cologne, Leipzig, Frankfurt, and Magdeburg. Twice a year publishers and booksellers met at the Frankfurt fair, bought and sold books, and exchanged ideas. One Frankfurt printer issued the first newspaper (1548)—a sheet distributed at the fair and reporting recent events. Antwerp became a publishing center when Christopher Plantin turned his bindery into a printing shop (1555); two years later he sent 1,200 volumes to the Frankfurt fair. In France the hub of the book trade was Lyons; 200 printing establishments made the city challenge Paris as the intellectual capital of the land.

Étienne Dolet, printer and humanist, was the firebrand of Lyons. Born in Orléans, schooled in Paris, he fell in love with Cicero; “I approve only of Christ and Tully.” Hearing that thought was exceptionally free at Padua, he hurried there, and exchanged irreverent epigrams with skeptical Averroists. At Toulouse he became the soul of a freethinking band that laughed at “Papists” and Lutherans alike. Banished, he went to Lyons and made a name for himself with poems and articles, but he killed a painter in an argument, and fled to Paris, where Marguerite of Navarre won him a pardon from the King. He became friends—and quarreled—with Marot and Rabelais. Returning to Lyons, he set up a printing press, and specialized in publishing heretical works. The Inquisition summoned him, tried him, imprisoned him; he escaped, but was captured on a clandestine visit to his son. On August 3, 1546, he was burned alive.

The most distinguished of French publishers were the Étiennes, a dynasty as persistent in printing as the Fuggers in finance. Henri Étienne started his press at Paris about 1500; it was continued by his sons Francis, Robert, and Charles; to these four France owed her finest editions of the Greek and Latin classics. Robert compiled a Thesaurus linguae latinae (1532), which became the leaning-post for all later Latin-French dictionaries. To the Étiennes Latin became a second tongue; they regularly spoke it in their family life. Francis I praised their work, supported Marguerite in defending them against the Sorbonne, and on one occasion joined the coterie of scholars that met in Robert’s shop; a famous story tells how the King waited patiently while Robert corrected an urgent proof. Francis provided the funds with which Robert engaged Garamond to design and cast a new font of Greek type, so beautiful that it became the model of most later printing in Greek. The Sorbonne disapproved of the King’s flirtation with Hellenism; a professor warned Parlement (1539) that “to propagate a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew would operate to the destruction of all religion”; as for Hebrew, said a monk, it was “well known that all who learn Hebrew presently become Jews.” 1 After being harassed by the Sorbonne for thirty years Robert transferred his press to Geneva (1552); and there, in the year of his death (1559), he revealed his Protestant inclinations by publishing an edition of Calvin’s Institutes. His son Henri Étienne II upheld the repute of the family by issuing in Paris handsome editions of the classics, and compiling in five volumes a Thesaurus linguae graecae (1572), which is still the most complete of all Greek dictionaries. He brought the Sorbonne down upon him by publishing an Apologie pour Herodote(1566), in which he pointed out the parallels between Christian miracles and the incredible marvels related by the Greek. He in his turn sought refuge in Geneva, but found the Calvinist regime as intolerant as the Sorbonne.

Many publications of this age were models of typography, engraving, and binding. The heavy half-metallic bindings of the fifteenth century gave place to lighter and cheaper covers in leather, velum, or parchment. Jean Grolier de Servières, treasurer of France in 1534, had most of his 3,000 volumes so elegantly bound in Levantine morocco that they rank among the handsomest books in existence. Private libraries were now numberless, and public libraries were opened in many cities—Cracow (1517), Hamburg (1529), Nuremberg (1538).... Under Francis I the old royal library assembled by Charles VIII was transferred from the Louvre to Fontainebleau, and was enriched with new collections and fine bindings; this Bibliothèque du Roi became, after the Revolution, the Bibliothèque Nationale. Many monastic libraries perished in the Reformation, but many passed into private hands, and what was of value in them found its way into public repositories. Much is lost in history, but so much of worth has been preserved that not a hundred lifetimes could absorb it.

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