- La Vie genereuse des Mercelots, Gueuz, et Boesmiens
At the very end of the sixteenth century, an anonymous account of a youth's induction into an elaborately organized underworld of landless vagabonds saw the light of day in Lyons. The anonymous author styled himself a gentilhomme breton at a time when Bretons were widely taken for thieves. He described a sociopolitical organization as fully convoluted as anything devised by Henry IV, and provided a brief dictionary of the coded language by which his new friends communicated under the noses of the authorities. La Vie genereuse was an immediate hit: it was reprinted in Paris at least four times over the next twenty-five years and, as we might expect, in Troyes in 1627. Indeed, we already have modern editions of this important text including one by Roger Chartier, the leading historian of the interaction between the print industry and the ideas and conversations of the [End Page 895] literate —a broader swath of the populace than we had thought before him (Figures de la gueuserie, 1982).
Delaplace and Champion have, however, given us a scrupulously accurate edition of the 1596 editio princeps, with variants and extensive critical apparatus and commentary. Their work makes it possible for us to appreciate the bravura literary performance enacted here, and to relate it to the evolution of the French language as well as social structures. The prospect of a language closed to the law-abiding population apparently filled readers with fear and fascination, as early modern elites sought to impose language comprehensible to their robin members venturing into the countryside, for instance in witch hunts. The fissures separating these landless adventurers from Pechon de Ruby's readers were not simply linguistic, however: they were also national or even racial, inasmuch as the poor were characterized as Bohemians or Romany. They resorted to healing, fortunetelling, and counterfeiting, and devoted all their ingenuity and sociability to passing their counterfeit coins. Above all, they engaged in false begging: it is not hard to read the widespread guilt and anxiety over the decline of poor relief into these accounts of travelers taking unfair advantage of traditional forms of mutual aid and solidarity. In addition, however, in the detailed description of the ceremonies by which Pechon de Ruby was admitted into this counterorder, I see fascination with the elaboration of ceremonies and hardening of hierarchies that would shortly end up creating Versailles, along with glimpses of the survival of a more traditional taste for Carnival and disorder: Delaplace appeals several times to the memory of Bakhtin. We owe the editor and publisher a substantial debt of gratitude for making this text available, with all the materials we could desire to make our own sense of it. [End Page 896]