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The Style of Paris: Renaissance Origins of the French Enlightenment

The Style of Paris: Renaissance Origins of the French Enlightenment

by George Huppert

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"... impressive and challenging reevaluation of the sixteenth-century origins of the Enlightenment." —Sixteenth Century Journal

In this book, George Huppert introduces the reader to a group of talented young men, some of them teenagers, who were the talk of the town in Renaissance Paris. They called themselves philosophes, they wrote poetry, they studied


"... impressive and challenging reevaluation of the sixteenth-century origins of the Enlightenment." —Sixteenth Century Journal

In this book, George Huppert introduces the reader to a group of talented young men, some of them teenagers, who were the talk of the town in Renaissance Paris. They called themselves philosophes, they wrote poetry, they studied Greek and mathematics—and they entertained subversive notions concerning religion and politics. Classically trained, they wrote, nevertheless, in French, so as to reach the widest possible audience. These young radicals fostered a succession of disciples who expressed confidence in the eventual enlightenment of humankind and whose ideas would bear fruit two centuries later.

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Indiana University Press
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The Style of Paris

Renaissance Origins of the French Enlightenment

By George Huppert

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1999 George Huppert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-33492-3


Portrait of a Discreet Philosophe

* * *

The year is 1546. Monsieur d'Aramon, the French ambassador to the Court of the Turkish Sultan, sets out from Paris in late December, heading for Venice, where he will arrive in February to prepare for his voyage to Constantinople. This is no simple matter, since Aramon is accompanied by large quantities of baggage and by a sizeable staff which includes specialists of various sorts whom we would describe as military, cultural and scientific attaches.

Aramon, himself a military man, is experienced in matters concerning the Levant trade and Turkish diplomacy, having served both in Venice and in Constantinople previously. This new posting, however, involves a diplomatic mission of unusual scope: he is to encourage Suleiman the Magnificent to invade Hungary. In view of the missions importance, it is not surprising that the ambassador is provided with generous resources. In Venice, he is lodged, together with his staff, in the palatial residence of the French ambassador, while arrangements are made to charter three galleys which are to carry the French party to Ragusa, the next stop on their itinerary.

Among the experts in Aramons entourage there can be found, at various times, the cartographer Nicholas de Nicolay, the topographer and archeologist Pierre Gilles, the geographer André Thevet, and the botanist Pierre Belon. These men were not on the ambassador s payroll, nor were they at his orders. The experts who accompanied Aramon were there because their own powerful patrons had arranged, informally, for them to join the expedition, perhaps at the Kings suggestion, in any case with the Kings approval. Gilles was in the service of the Cardinal d'Armagnac, Thevet s patron was the Cardinal de Lorraine, while Belon was a protégé of the Cardinal de Tournon, who was in the habit of surrounding himself with a phalanx of young intellectuals of very high caliber.

Belon served as the Cardinal s apothecary, among other things. His instructions called for him to take advantage of the expedition to look around in the Turkish universe in a leisurely way, collecting specimens and observing whatever might be of use to European pharmacists. Upon his return to Paris almost three years later, having collected a mass of material, Belon would settle down in his Cardinals splendid abbey of St. Germain des Prés and start writing a number of books, making good use of his field work.

For the moment, Belon treated Aramons party as a handy support network. He dropped in, both in Venice and, later, in Constantinople, when it suited him, but he felt free to go his own way for months at a time. He crossed to Ragusa in one of Aramons galleys, but, once there, in March of 1547, he took leave from the ambassador, who was to proceed toward his destination by land, and chose to team up with another French apothecary, by the name of Villars, on an exploration of the Dalmatian coast south of Ragusa. Early spring in the Adriatic is a seductive setting and Belon was particularly interested in marine biology. There were dolphins to observe at sea and interesting flora and fauna on the islands, on Corfu, Zante, Cythera. Braving dangerous seas and escaping capture by pirates, Belon landed on Crete, which was a Venetian colony. Here he stayed for some time, investigating all sorts of things which he was to report on in his books upon his return.

It is Pierre Belon who is the subject of this portrait. His travels were to take him to "Greece, Asia, Judaea, Egypt, Arabia and other foreign countries." This was an itinerary remarkable enough for a European of his generation, although not unique, since pilgrims and merchants, not to mention apothecaries from Dijon and clock makers from Paris, come to our attention, here and there, along the way. As long as Belon stayed within the world of Italian dependencies in the Eastern Mediterranean, he was not on totally unfamiliar ground. Later, in Egypt, Syria, or the Anatolian hinterland, he would be more of an oddity, but it was not the fact that he found himself in unusual surroundings that should be most surprising to the reader of his reports. It is the author's point of view that is a revelation.

In one book in particular Belon speaks to his readers in so candid and surprising a fashion that it is possible to reconstruct something close to his philosophy from occasional and discreet clues. The book in question was first published in Paris in 1553, under the title Les Observations de plusieurs singularitez & choses mémorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Iudée, Egypte, Arabie & autres pays estranges. Unlike Bêlons other works, which are straightforward technical treatises concerning plants and animals, written in Latin for a specialized readership of natural scientists, his Observations are written in French and are designed to appeal to a broader audience. Even so, there were sufficient botanical and zoological data included in the book to warrant a Latin version of it.

The original French version would have appealed to readers interested in exotic travels. Belon wrote with authority about the landscape, the economy, and the social conditions of the countries he visited. He was also a writer of genuine talent. His style, bold and fresh, was a reflection of the author's stance in the culture wars of his time. He was writing his Observations from within a particular set of assumptions which he shared with a number of other young intellectuals in Paris. These assumptions are the subject of my inquiry.

To call on Pierre Belon as the lead witness may seem an odd way of proceeding, since Belon may be thought of as, at most, a marginal fellow traveler of the group of young men who called themselves philosophes and whose outlook I choose to call that of the style of Paris — stile de Paris,modus parisiensis — after the new and fashionable college curriculum which was at the center of their philosophical stance. It so happens that Belon the apothecary, Belon the naturalist, was also a philosophe with a sharp point of view on such topics as freedom of thought, social equality, and religious toleration, concerns close to the heart of writers better known to historians of literature, writers like Etienne de La Boetie or Michel de Montaigne, who, like Belon, described themselves as philosophes.

Belon was a mature thinker, close to thirty years old, when he set out on his voyage, just about the time when La Boetie, who was not quite eighteen then, could have written the first draft of his provocative diatribe against tyranny. He would have been revising it a few years later when Belon published his Observations. By then, the well-known botanist and the young law student would have been moving in the same circles. La Boetie's Voluntary Servitude, however, was to circulate only in manuscript for another twenty years. This was how the younger Montaigne came to know of it.

As for Montaigne, although he would not be ready to record his own observations on human nature for some years, he had already absorbed the lessons of the Parisian style, taught, as he had been, in the public college of the city of Bordeaux, by eminent practitioners of the style, including the young and notorious Marc Antoine Muret who, like Belon, was a member of Tournon's brain trust.

The daring positions which the public might, in later years, associate with writers such as La Boetie or Montaigne were still, in 1553, expressed mostly in private. Belon chose to publish his Observations, although only those familiar with the tenor of the discussions held in avant-garde Parisian salons would have been able to extricate, from the mass of botanical data contained in Belons memoir, the ideological principles nonchalantly inserted along the way like whitewashed milestones marking the traveler s path. These markers, taken together, constitute a map which leads to a new way of seeing the world.

The very decision to write in French — to write a serious book, filled with scientific observations, in French rather than in Latin — this was already a bold departure, shocking to traditionalists. That serious poetry might be presented in the writer's native tongue, and that the result need not inevitably be inferior to the works of the Roman and Greek poets studied in the classroom — this was a point of view which had recently been expressed in print. Jacques Peletier, who had been the secretary of the bishop of Le Mans, whom Belon also served, advised poets to write in French in the introduction to his translation of the Arspoetica of the Roman poet Horace, published in 1545. Soon after, in 1549, the poet Joachim Du Bellay published his Dejfense et illustration of the French language, in which he restated Peletier s arguments with more panache. By that time, Belon was on his way back from Greece. The Parisian literary scene into which he now settled was filled with echoes of the language debate.

In a letter written by a Parisian lawyer, Estienne Pasquier, in 1552, when he was 22 years old and belonged to more than one literary coterie, including the suburban salon of Jean Brinon, which Belon also frequented, one can hear the case being made, with great conviction, for writing scholarly and scientific works in French. Pasquier is addressing Adrien Turnebe, the Royal Professor of Greek.

"Well, then," he writes, "you believe that it is a waste of time and a waste of good paper to write in the vernacular. You think that our language is too common to express noble ideas. If we have anything beautiful to say, you maintain, we should say it in Latin. Now, as for me, I shall always belong to the party of those who have confidence in the vernacular. I believe that we shall recreate the Golden Age once we abandon this degenerate affectation of favoring foreign things."

The Greeks, after all, Pasquier reminds his correspondent, achieved greatness by writing in their own language. The Romans, too, intimidated though they may have been by the cultural superiority of the Greeks, chose to write serious works of literature and philosophy in their own language — "and in so doing, they produced a number of philosophes of their own." As for the French, it stands to reason that they should study languages, not for their own sake, but as a way of gaining access to the works written in those languages. Pasquier claims to have no patience with those pedants who study Greek only to argue about some grammatical point instead of getting to the heart of what Plato or Aristotle thought. With a reformer's zeal, Pasquier conjures up a vision of the whole French nation becoming philosophical at an early age, improving in this way on previous generations, if only boys did not have to waste so many years learning Greek and Latin. "Good God," he exclaims, "don't you see how useful it would be if all worthwhile science and scholarship were available in French?"

That is precisely the point of view Belon adopted. He decided to write in French and to use a simple, straightforward style, stripped of all rhetorical flourishes. The reader he has in mind is not an academic, not someone who knows much Latin, not someone who enjoys erudite digressions and debates. It is a lay audience of French readers Belon has in mind, readers who may become more knowledgeable as a result of his observations. "I wrote in French, seeking a simple form and avoiding all artifice or elegance," he explains. This choice he presents as a utilitarian one. He is concerned with "utilité publique" and with reaching the greatest possible number of readers so that they may share his discoveries. "Isn't it true," he asks disarmingly, "that anything worthwhile is all the more so if it is shared by the greatest number?"

Belon's decision to write in French struck the academic community as so odd, so unprecedented, so undignified that the classicists among his acquaintances, searching for an explanation, suspected that his command of the Latin language was proving inadequate to the task he set himself. Denys Lambin, a young Hellenist in Tournons entourage who knew Belon well enough and was surely envious of his success, seized the opportunity to malign him in a private letter, dismissing him as a mixer of potions who lacked a classical education.

Although he obviously could write descriptions of plants and birds in Latin, it is true that Belon could express himself in French incomparably better and that, from the point of view of a classical scholar like Lambin, he was a half-baked barbarian, a rough and ready self-made man who lacked a formal education. Lambin would have been, I should think, especially prompt to detect the lack of polish in his colleague, since he was himself a young man of modest origins. Born and raised in the seaside town of Montreuil, in Picardy, he belonged to a family of locksmiths and clock makers. At the public school in Montreuil he must have shown exceptional promise and exhausted the intellectual resources available to him there by the age of 15. He continued his education in Paris, studying Greek and earning his keep by working as a servant for a wealthy family.

However modest Lambins origins were, he was already a member in good standing of the classicists' world in 1553, even before he had published anything of his own. Perhaps the same was true of Pierre Belon when he returned from the Levant in 1549. He had not published yet, but he was known as a promising botanist and as an expert on marine biology, in spite of the fact that he did not have much formal schooling. As a boy he had been apprenticed to an apothecary, and he had entered the service of the Bishop of Le Mans at about age 20. The Bishop, René Du Bellay, was a cultivated Renaissance patron on a grand scale, interested in new ideas in literature, science and religion. Rabelais was a protégé of his, and Peletier, his secretary, was an academic with broad interests in classical literature, modern poetry, and medical science, among other subjects.

Belon served as the Bishop s apothecary and resident botanist and probably also as his secret agent in various missions abroad, in Germany and Switzerland, which would explain why he was encouraged to spend a year studying botany at Luthers university in Wittenberg, joining the team of students around a young and well-known professor of botany. After his return from Germany in 1542, Belon spent some time in Paris where he had the opportunity to further his studies in informal ways while working, without much success, on an eventual degree in medicine. His patron, Bishop Du Bellay, died in 1546, but by then Belon had found a new and far more influential patron in the Cardinal de Tournon. It was Tournon, for all intents and purposes the Kings prime minister, who gave Belon the opportunity of joining Aramons expedition.

Just what the Cardinal expected his apothecary to achieve in the course of this voyage is hard to say. No doubt Belon was expected to bring back useful information about drugs and medicinal plants. Belon planned to collect specimens, to be sure, but he had a more ambitious objective in mind. He had started out with the intention of translating the work of the ancient Greek naturalist Dioscorides into French. It was most likely in the course of thinking about this project that he came to realize how difficult it would be to find precise French equivalents for the names of plants or animals given by the ancient author. It was Bêlons intention, as he set out to explore the eastern Mediterranean shores, to establish a clear and unassailable nomenclature for the varieties of birds, fish, and plants native to the region.

Two tasks in particular awaited him in the course of his long peregrination. In the first place, he hoped to integrate exotic species, new to western Europeans, into the classifications he and his colleagues were experimenting with. In the second place, he would try to establish a reliable method for recognizing, in the flesh, through systematic observation, the species described by the ancient authorities, especially Galen and Dioscorides, whose treatises served as the foundation of formal learning in medicine and pharmacology. What he set out to do was to make sure that the words of the ancient authors actually corresponded to observable phenomena, that "les mercques escrites conviennent avec la chose quon descrit."

This was not going to be a simple task. Feeling that he was a pioneer, Belon invokes the example of Democritus. The choice of Democritus as a model to emulate is closely linked to Bêlons awareness of living in a particularly auspicious moment in human history when, after more than a thousand years of darkness, "the minds of men," which had been for so long "mired in a deep sleep" and smothered in "ancient ignorance," were at last waking up and emerging "out of the darkness in which they had been buried for so long." Rising from this noxious coma, his contemporaries were discovering every kind of knowledge. This "renaissance" he compares to the renewal of life in "plants which regain their strength in the warmth of the sunshine after a long, hard winter."


Excerpted from The Style of Paris by George Huppert. Copyright © 1999 George Huppert. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

GEORGE HUPPERT is Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is author of The Idea of Perfect History: Historical Erudition and Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France, Les Bourgeois Gentilhommes: An Essay on the Definition of Elites in Renaissance France, Public Schools in Renaissance France, and After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe, 2/e.

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