- The Elegance of the Ecolier Limousin: The European Context of Rabelais’ Linguistic Parody
The episode of the Ecolier Limousin which occupies chapter 6 of Rabelais’ Pantagruel has traditionally been understood to exemplify a socio-linguistic type identified by Geoffroy Tory, in the prefatory epistle to the readers of his Champfleury, as the “écumeur de latin” or skimmer of Latin. Tory characterizes this style of speech with a sample phrase that the Ecolier repeats nearly verbatim in his conversation with Pantagruel and his retainers: “Nous transfretons la Sequane au dilucule, et crepuscule, nous deambulons par les compites et quadriviers de l’urbe, nous despumons la verbocination Latiale et comme verisimiles amorabonds captivons la benevolence de l’omnijuge omniforme et omnigene sexe feminin” (Rabelais 233).1 One of Pantagruel’s as yet unnamed followers instantly recognizes in this unconventional speech the type of the “écorcheur de latin,” a variant on the “écumeur”: “Seigneur sans doubte ce gallant veult contrefaire la langue des Parisians, mais il ne faict que escorcher le latin et cuide ainsi Pindariser, et luy semble bien qu’il est quelque grand orateur en Françoys: par ce qu’il dedaigne l’usance commun de parler” (234). The Ecolier indignantly repudiates this calumny and expresses his contempt for [End Page 873] the low, popular style of his interlocutor by rephrasing his accusation in his own peculiar idiom, which consists of inserting Latin words into a vernacular context that conserves the syntax and the inflexions of the French language: “Seignor missayre, mon genie n’est poinct apte nate à ce que dict ce flagitiose nebulon, pour excorier la cuticule de nostre vernacule Gallicque.” If he defies common usage, he only does so in order to enrich the vernacular through latinization: “mais vice versement je gnave opere et par vele et rames je me enite de le locupleter de la redundance latinicome” (234). This verbal exchange offers a parodic image of a widespread literary and linguistic phenomenon, which is known in reference to the romance languages as the relatinization of the vernacular or simply the Latin invasion.2
The ideal of latinization aspires to emancipate the vernacular from popular usage and to elevate it to the status of the classical languages. At the same time, the latinizing impulse compromises the autonomy of the vernacular and inhibits its expansion. Inevitably, this impulse results in a variety of hybrid forms and grotesquely opaque styles that easily lend themselves to parody and ridicule. Nevertheless, the ideal of latinization carried an indisputable prestige and enjoyed a wide vogue in the European Renaissance. It also coincided with the quest for a more refined and artificial Latin prose style by Renaissance humanists eager to expand the canon of Latin literature beyond the confines of the Ciceronian golden age. In both cases, such verbal elitism was inspired by humanist idealism more than by mere sophistry and conceit. Therefore, it is the contention of this paper that the Ecolier is not simply a caricature of the linguistic abuses of the university students in Paris or of the fatuous pretensions of scholasticism.3 He [End Page 874] participates in the European vogue of Latinate diction and obscure and archaic styles; he belongs to a context of lexical experimentation and linguistic hybridism. He is a figure in the controversy over archaisms and unusual diction and in the debate over the meaning and authority of usage. His linguistic performance raises profound questions of the relationship between past and present and the intersection of language and time.
What motivates the Ecolier and his fellow latinizers to defy common usage? What does it mean to speak against “l’usance commun de parler”? To understand this phenomenon historically rather than to dismiss it as mere affectation, we need to retrieve the notion of usage or custom bequeathed by classical antiquity to the Renaissance. Custom or consuetudo is a preoccupation of ancient rhetorical treatises such as the De oratore and the Institutio oratoria, and these works were widely read and commented on throughout the Renaissance. However, the most important stimulus for Renaissance reflection on usage may have been the passage from the Ars poetica where Horace discusses and authorizes the use of neologisms on the...