- The World Upside Down in 16th-Century French Literature and Culture by Vincent Robert-Nicoud
Whatever one’s stance with regard to Bendellian ‘deep adaptation’ in the face of imminently cataclysmic climate change, a new study on the familiar late medieval to early modern topos of the mundus inversus cannot help but impress as timely. We live in an age of adynaton, all the more potentially terrifying in that the seemingly inevitable upturning of the natural order is not grounded on Christian eschatology but measured empirically in real time. By comparison, the confessional disturbances and civil disorders of France’s (and Western Europe’s) religious ‘troubles’ of half a millennium ago that Vincent Robert-Nicoud seeks to elucidate, via a thorough review of one of its dominant topoi, might seem trivial to us; yet they impressed many contemporaries as nothing short of existential. How that angst was both stimulated (or allayed) and disseminated via available media, the object of increasingly partisan and intransigent manipulation and escalation, is Robert-Nicoud’s focus. He methodically traces the arc and evolution of a classical meme, as it were, through the French sixteenth century, seeking first its origins in the Latin and vernacular adages, paradoxes, and emblems valued by the intellectual elite, before concentrating on one of its most prolific and influential adepts: Rabelais. His primary thesis is that troubled times produce troubled texts, and that the topos of the world upside down evolves over the span of Rabelais’s chronicles (early 1530s to early 1550s) in ways that mirror the deepening religious rifts, which in a pre-tolerant age could only have adverse repercussions on established political, social, and cultural orders. The moral becomes the polemical. Both Catholics and Reformers by the late 1550s adapt the meme as convenient shorthand for representing the opposition’s iniquitous ‘inversion’ of divine order. Robert-Nicoud compellingly illustrates this trend first via nuanced reading of the curious, under-studied marmite or ‘cooking pot’ series of prints and pamphlets, then via characterizations of the ‘social and cosmic disorders’ wrought by the spasmodic French Wars of Religion (1562–98) in the polemical works of two of the periods better-known poets, the orthodox Ronsard and the reformist Agrippa d’Aubigné, among others. His investigative reach is, however, much broader than my synopsis allows, encompassing an impressive array of textual and visual representations of the world upside down deployed in the confessional quarrels. The ultimate takeaway is an enriched understanding of the multiple uses and abuses of a common trope and topos, and thus of the ways in which early modern French authors and audiences endeavoured to adapt to their own alarming form of climate change. This very well informed and informative study does not come, alas, without a few trivial irritations: the prose style does tend to be needlessly repetitive and didactically plodding, an effect only emphasized by its old-fashioned numerical out-line format. There are also a surprising number of solecisms and typographical errors for a Brill Rodopi edition. None of that, however, should be more than a minor distraction [End Page 625] from an otherwise enlightening and well-crafted contribution to early modern French studies.