Early Modern Period: Fiction, Gargantua and Pantagruel
The following passage comes from one of the most famous literary works of early modern Europe: François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, first published in four volumes between 1532 and 1552. A satirical chronicle of the journey through France of the giant Gargantua and his son, Pantagruel, the story’s intended audience was the French aristocracy, the educated elite upon whose patronage Rabelais—first a lawyer, then a priest, and ultimately a doctor—depended throughout his life. Gargantua and Pantagruel embodies, in part, Northern Renaissance ideals like the belief in man’s ability to fulfill his own potential. However, Rabelais’s story also illustrates the dark side of the “rebirth” of classical learning, as the Renaissance encouraged not only a positive view of man, but also a negative image of women.
The excerpt below concerns Panurge—Pantagruel’s friend—and his search for expert advice on whether he should marry. One expert, doctor Rondibilis, replies that he should not, as any wife will be unfaithful because she is ultimately an irrational being. His comments reveal contemporary medical views of feminine irrationality, believed to be caused by the uterus’s haphazard wandering about the female body. This quasi-animal’s roaming, as Rondibilis would have it, caused physical and mental unbalance. The theory of the wandering uterus, known as hysteria, was an ancient Greek idea revived during the European Renaissance.
This source is a part of the Women in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800 teaching module.
My worthy friend, the nature of women is set forth before our eyes and represented to us by the moon, in divers other things as well as in this, that they squat, skulk, constrain their inclinations, and, with all the cunning they can, dissemble and play the hypocrite in the sight and presence of their husbands; who come no sooner to be out of the way, but that forthwith they take their advantage, pass the time merrily, desist from all labour, frolic it, gad abroad, lay aside their counterfeit garb, and openly declare and manifest the interior of their dispositions, even as the moon, when she is in conjunction with the sun, is neither seen in the heavens nor on the earth, but in her opposition, when remotest from him, shineth in her greatest fullness, and wholly appeareth in her brightest splendour whilst it is night. Thus women are but women.
When I say womankind, I speak of a sex so frail, so variable, so changeable, so fickle, inconstant, and imperfect, that in my honour and reverence which is due unto her, did in a manner mistake the road which she had traced formerly, and stray exceedingly from that excellence of providential judgment by the which she had created and formed all other things, when she built, framed, and made up the woman. And having thought upon it a hundred and five times, I know not what else to determine therein, save only that in the devising, hammering, forging, and composing of the woman she hath had a much tender regard, and by a great deal more respectful heed to the delightful consortship and sociable delectation of the man, than to the perfection and accomplishment of the individual womanishness or muliebrity. The divine philosopher Plato was doubtful in what rank of living creatures to place and collocate them, whether amongst the rational animals, by elevating them to an upper seat in the specifical classis of humanity, or with the irrational, by degrading them to a lower bench on the opposite side, of a brutal kind, and mere bestiality. For nature hath posited in a privy, secret, and intestine place of their bodies, a sort of member, by some not impertinently termed an animal, which is not to be found in men. Therein sometimes are endangered certain humours so saltish, brackish, clammy, sharp, nipping, tearing, prickling, and most eagerly tickling, that by their stinging acrimony, rending nitrosity, figging itch, wriggling mordicancy, and smarting salsitude, their whole body is shaken and ebrangled, their senses totally ravished and transported, the operation of their judgment and understanding utterly confounded and all disordinate passions and perturbations of the mind thoroughly and absolutely allowed, admitted, and approved of; yea, In such sort that if nature had not been so favourable unto them as to have sprinkled their forehead with a little tincture of bashfulness and modesty, you should see them in a so frantic mood run mad after lechery, and hie apace up and down with haste and lust, in quest of and to fix some chamber-standard in their Paphian ground, that never did the Proetides, Mimallonides, nor Lyaen Thyades deport themselves in the time of their bacchanalian festivals more shamelessly, or with a so affronted and brazen-faced impudency; because this terrible animal is knit unto, and hath an union with all the chief and most principal parts of the body, as to anatomists is evident. Let it not here be thought strange that I should call it an animal, seeing therein I do no otherwise than follow and adhere to the doctrine of the academic and peripatetic philosophers. For if a proper motion be a certain mark and infallible token of the life and animation of the mover, as Aristotle writeth, and that any such thing as moveth of itself ought to be held animated and of a living nature, then assuredly Plato with very good reason did give it the denomination of an animal, for that he perceived and observed in it the proper and self-stirring motions of suffocation, precipitation, corrugation, and of indignation so extremely violent, that oftentimes by them is taken and removed from the woman all other sense and moving whatsoever, as if she were in a swounding lipothymy, benumbing syncope, epileptic, apoplectic palsy, and true resemblance of a pale-faced death.
Rabelais, François. Gargantua and Pantagruel. Edited by Donald Douglas. New York: The Modern Library, 1928.