Jean-Francois Vallee

title.none: Des Periers, Le Cymbalum Mundi

identifier.other: baj9928.9602.002 96.02.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jean-Francois Vallee, Universite de Montreal,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Bonaventure Des Periers. Le Cymbalum Mundi, ed. Yves Delegue. Paris: Honore Champion Editeur, 1995. Pp. 156. 160 FF. ISBN: ISBN 2-85203-442-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.02.02

Bonaventure Des Periers. Le Cymbalum Mundi, ed. Yves Delegue. Paris: Honore Champion Editeur, 1995. Pp. 156. 160 FF. ISBN: ISBN 2-85203-442-5.

Reviewed by:

Jean-Francois Vallee
Universite de Montreal,

The Cymbalum Mundi (hereafter CM) is a very intriguing satirical dialogue attributed to the early Renaissance French writer Bonaventure Des Periers.1 Published anonymously in Paris in 1537 by Jehan Morin,2 it was subsequently banned by the French parliament. Though the Faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne found no obvious "errors of faith" in the booklet, it was still declared "perniciosus". From then on the CM bore the reputation of being a dangerous, possibly even atheistic, work. It disappeared from print for close to two centuries and resurfaced in the 18th century without, then, causing scandal. It, however, regained its infamous reputation in the 19th century and has since been the subject of much interpretative debate.

Indeed, this very enigmatic four part dialogue, written in Lucianic fashion, has puzzled French Renaissance scholars for the past century. Various commentators have suggested different theories explaining its "meaning". The end result is a chorus of radically dissonant voices: some critics see the work as an early example of atheism or anti religious writing (Abel Lefranc, Henri Busson, Lucien Febvre), others read it as "simply" skeptical or Epicurean (Becker, Bohatec, Wencelius), some consider it a defense of an evangelical mystical position close to that of queen Marguerite de Navarre (Saulnier, Nurse), and, finally, others see in it only a pleasant satire (Cheneviere, Delaruelle, Morrison). These remarkably dissenting interpretations are in themselves a sign that the CM is an interesting work typical of the oft complex and sophisticated nature of humanist writing.

Unfortunately, Des Periers' deliciously polemical and equivocal dialogue is little known to all save a small circle of specialists, though it is certainly deserving of a wider audience (maybe even of an English translation...). Until recently, the only available modern edition of the CM was Peter Hampshire Nurse's, who brought the dialogue back to light with his 1958 edition for Manchester University Press. This edition was reissued at the Librairie Droz in 1983 with a preface by M. A. Screech. It is a very good edition and is still available but its price (20 Swiss Francs, about $30 US) and accessibility (Droz is a rather specialized publisher) certainly haven't made it a best-seller even in scholarly circles. Nurse's introduction also imposes a very debatable reading of the text.

Yves Delegue does, in part, justify his new edition by the need to make this wonderful little text more widely available. The problem is that his publisher, Honore Champion, is not exactly the Penguin Classics of the French publishing industry. And the price of the book is pretty much the same as that of the Droz edition (160 French Francs) The real purpose and justification of Delegue's edition lies elsewhere. If it is not likely to substantially increase the readership of the CM , it will, at least, have accomplished three very important things. First of all, it combines an up to date and all-inclusive bibliography with useful annexes assembling, for the first time, all the pertinent texts concerning the banning of the CM, various biographical excerpts on Des Periers and his supposed authorship of the CM, and, finally, possible sources of the four dialogues. Secondly, this edition adds to the already high quality of the Nurse edition (also based on the "editio princeps" of 1537) by reinstating the original punctuation and capitalization of the text (which are important given the rather oral nature and rhythm of the writing). Finally, and most importantly, Delegue's edition recommends itself for its (re)interpretation of Des Periers' highly enigmatic work in an extensive and, on occasion, dense introduction. This part of the Delegue edition undoubtedly deserves the closest attention.

Delegue has clearly read all the critical literature on the CM; but instead of extensively summarizing these sometimes belated interpretations in his introduction, he very quickly launches into an original reading of the CM. His chief virtue is that, unlike other commentators of the CM, he avoids the pitfall of theological diagnosis, that is, of trying to pinpoint "the" religious meaning of the text, a critical stance that, as Delegue rightfully notes, has blinded most readers to the semantic complexity and subtle nature of Des Periers' work.

Delegue chooses, instead, to follow the thread of the diverse representations of speech and language in the four dialogues. In a way, he takes Wolfgang Boerner's reading of the CM as a "satire of the discursive practices of its time"3 a step further, liberating it from its socio-historical limitations. Delegue states that he doesn't want to impose "a" meaning on the CM, nor, he assures us, does he want to close the debate but, rather, to launch it anew. And renew it he certainly does. Whether he succeeds in avoiding the former is less clear, since his reading does, in a way, impose if not "a" meaning, then at least a definite "perspective" on the text. It is, however, a very suggestive perspective, since the question of speech (as that of its opposite: silence) is perhaps the crucial theme of the CM. It is surprising that so few commentators have concentrated on it, especially, as Delegue notes in his foreword, since it is precisely this question that ensures the significance of the work for modern (or postmodern?) readers. Indeed, the question of the uses and abuses of speech and language, their relationship to truth, power, opinion, and experience, are still very contemporary (to say the least!).

Delegue thus locates the CM's "subversive" (perniciosus) nature not in its religious undertones but in its more radical unhinging of the foundations of speech. As Delegue remarks, Des Periers, in a humble yet mischievous way, traces the limits of the power of speech and of its reliability. He casts doubt on the instrument that many use to obtain power and authority.

The first dialogue in which Mercury comes down to earth in order to have Jupiter's book of Destinies bound, only to be robbed of it by two shady characters in a tavern (he, the patron God of robbers!) according to Delegue's reading is a carnavalesque reversal. Men have stolen the gods' Word for personal gain. But Jupiter's book, being an account of all things past, present, and future, should have predicted its own plundering. Hence a first paradox: in what, and who, can we believe? The confidence in the written word, and, more specifically, the divine word, has been shaken. But if writing, reading, and speaking can't be trusted, if faith seems to have been replaced by experience, can even the latter be trusted any more? The intentions and acts of the two robbers are certainly not reassuring, especially since they only recognized Mercury from the descriptions of the poets hence, from the written word, which should not be trusted, etc. Nothing is stable or monological in the CM... According to Delegue, faith in speech, and its foundation in truth, is here already seriously crippled. Who needs poststructuralists when you have Des Periers?

The second dialogue does not facilitate matters, even if Jupiter's book is temporarily forgotten. Here, Mercury, disguised as an old man, comes down to earth to witness, with his human sidekick Trigabus, the ridiculous rantings of three "philosophers": Cubercus (obviously the Reformer Bucer), Rhetulus (Luther of course) and Drarig.4 While these three theological "stooges" are busy looking for fragments of the philosophical stone in an arena full of sand, Mercury and Trigabus take pleasure in mocking them in typical Lucianic fashion. This second dialogue, in Delegue's reading, deals a blow to human speech (after the unsettling of divine speech in the first dialogue). In this case, the criteria with which to distinguish the true from the false, reality from fiction the stone from the sand are ridiculed. At the same time, however, the performative power of language is acknowledged. Rhetulus, even though he is shown not to possess truth but only sand, retains power over other men; he evens leaves the scene because of a dinner date with "important men". The power of human speech thus mocks the power of divine speech, in its performative nature, but only to hide the radical inequalities between men. Indeed, the philosophers in the dialogue admit that they do not use the power given them by the fragments of the stones to cure the ills of mankind so as not to take away the work of doctors, lawyers, etc. Why create more unemployment if you can avoid it?

The third dialogue continues the speech saga by confronting the languages of desire and of poetry, over both of which Venus (through Cupido) reigns. In this episode, we return to Mercury, flying above the earth, unconvincingly looking for Jupiter's stolen book. He is more interested actually by Venus' mission and his encounter with Cupido who shows him a private scene in a garden: the beautiful Celia regrets not having consented to the desire of her lover and is now lonely ("seulette"). Delegue here contests other critics' appraisal of this episode as central to the meaning of the CM, especially for its interpretation as a praise of silence. He points out that Cupido has no pity for Celia's situation: she has not listened to the language of desire or emotion and deserves to be isolated. The second part of this third dialogue, then, brings us back to the carnavalesque, one step down the cosmic ladder, however, since it now concerns a reversal of the hierarchy ruling men and animals. In this episode, the horse Phlegon is in fact enabled to speak by inadvertently overhearing a spell uttered by Mercury. According to Delegue, the voice of the oppressed is heard through the horse's mouth, denouncing the treatment his master has inflicted on him for years. The repressed speech of the ones reduced to silence by the masters of speech comes to the surface. Once again the authority over speech is shown to be at the root of power, inequality and evil. Yet, at the same time, the opportunity for the oppressed to speak out is here quickly recuperated by others (e.g. Ardelio, who wants to use the horses gift for personal gain).

Finally, in the enigmatic fourth dialogue of the book, Mercury and the original narrative thread give way to a new plot with two talking dogs: Hylactor and Pamphagus. Hylactor has been roaming the country for years looking for another dog with whom to converse. . He complains of being alone, until, one day, he meets Pamphagus who tells him the story that accounts for their condition (Ovid's myth of Acteo). Having met another talking dog, Hylactor would like to reveal their mastery of speech to the world. The wiser, and more contemplative, Pamphagus, weary of men's reaction and not attracted to glory like Hylactor, discourages such action. Their debate is interrupted by the discovery of a message from the people of the "inferior Antipodes", desirous to communicate with their counterparts above. However, the message reads, somebody has blocked the tunnel through the earth in which the Antipodean emissaries now find themselves stuck.

With this episode, Delegue reveals himself a brilliant commentator in showing the profound and tragic paradox at the root of the human capacity for speech. Speech, he writes, is the instrument with which we can communicate, establish relationships with other people, and thus emerge from our isolation; hence, Hylactor's dream of finally being able to communicate with somebody. At the same time, however, once it has the possibility of attaining its objective, speech has an inherently perverse tendency to betray that which is its justification in the first place: the desire for glory, power, or revenge, cancels the potential of speech for creating relationships. And even where the latter dominates, it often will be unacknowledged by others as is manifest in the Antipode episode, where the "superior Antipodeans" have blocked the passageway of the "inferior Antipodeans" who wanted only to exchange, communicate and converse with their fellow men.

Delegue's multifarious interpretation of the four dialogues of the CM is summarized in a table on p. 34 of his introduction. Although perhaps excessively systematic, this procedure has the advantage of providing the reader with an overview of the sometimes convoluted interpretations of the previous pages. By classifying the uses and abuses of speech according to three binary oppositions (true/false, efficient/vain and good/bad), Delegue manages to bring together, sometimes uneasily, all the combinations and episodes of the CM.

Fortunately, Delegue does not end his introduction on such a "classificatory" note; he returns to the fundamental ambiguity of a text that probably will never yield all the keys to its multiple meanings. The only certainty about the CM is its uncertainty, claims Delegue; the CM exposes the reader, just when the latter thought he was exposing the text's meaning.

Finally, Delegue broadens his perspective by linking the question of speech to that of curiosity, perhaps the other most important theme of the CM. The characters are constantly yielding to or denouncing the desire for novelty, for "news" ("nouvelles"), a desire associated by Delegue to the emergence of the modern concepts of time, progress, profit, etc. According to Delegue, speech is the cause, the instrument, and the locus of curiosity. He wonders if Des Periers intended to make the case for silence and contemplation against speech, but he concludes that the CM "tells" us that we cannot abandon speech; it is what distinguishes us from the animals. It is what keeps us apart and binds us together at the same time. We cannot and must not keep to ourselves.

All in all, one must say that Delegue brings a new interpretative depth to the CM, freeing it from the sterile theological and doctrinal debates in which it has been mired for decades, if not centuries, and giving it a more universal and even "timeless" meaning.

But Delegue's introduction is not without its faults. In giving such a universal interpretation of the CM, Delegue tends to evacuate its historical and culturally specific dimension, its commentary on its own time and space. Delegue does include many interesting references to, and comparisons with, other French Renaissance authors, especially Rabelais, Montaigne and Marguerite de Navarre. And he points out the importance of the Marot-Sagon literary controversy for understanding the CM. But the historical, religious, and social contexts of the text are almost totally absent from his interpretation.

A further problem is that Delegue, unfortunately, does not seriously analyze the tongue in cheek introductory letter to the CM. This is a bit of a shame since this short letter written by a Thomas Du Clevier and addressed to a Pierre Tryocan has been the subject of many interpretive debates which have fueled the skeptical and even atheistic readings of the book.5 In this fictional epistle, Du Clevier pleads with Tryocan that he not let his translation fall into the hands of those who deal with the too "common" art of printing. This passage seems significant in the context of a reading of the CM as a satire of the uses of speech, language, and the written word. Indeed, if one can be critical of Delegue's reading of the CM, one would have to admit that he could have been more heedful of the differences and of the complex interplay between oral, written and printed speech that have an important role in this "printed (oral-like) dialogue supposedly only available in manuscript". The fact that Delegue never really acknowledges the differences between oral and written speech is also discernible in his odd comments on the genre of this text. Twice he insists on the theatrical or dramatic nature of the CM and the oral character of its writing, going so far as to propose a staging of the dialogue. One must insist, however, that the CM belongs to the very long, and then popular, genre of the (written) dialogue that was not meant to be staged but read. The revival of the dialogue genre in the Renaissance and its widespread use by humanist writers should have been taken into account in Delegue's study. One can imagine that framing Delegue's speculations about the uses of speech, language and the written word with considerations on the genre of the text, its rhetorical nature, and the rise of print culture would have made it even more far-reaching in its scope.

Delegue has nevertheless initiated the dialogue on these questions and we can be grateful that he has liberated this wonderfully enigmatic work from the straight-jacket of theological and doctrinal scholarly debates to which it had thus far been confined.

1 One must add, however, that this attribution rests on later testimony alone (mainly that of Henri Estienne in 1563).
2 It was published a second time in Lyon in 1538, by Benoist Bonyn, before its actual banning later that year.
3 Wolfgang Boerner, Das "Cymbalum Mundi" des Bonaventure Des Periers. Eine Satire auf die Redepraxis im Zeitalter des Glaubensspaltung. Muenchen, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1980.
4 Drarig's name has been interpreted differently. The most common opinion holds that he represents Erasmus (through the latter's little known family name Geerts or Gerhard). But M. A. Screech in his preface to the 1983 Hampshire Nurse edition of the CM convincingly shows that Drarig represents more likely Girard Roussel, bishop of Oleron and queen Marguerite's chaplain.
5 Especially because of the obvious anagrams in the names of Thomas Du Clevier and Pierre Tryocan, resulting in "Thomas I(n)credule" ("Thomas Unbeliever") and "Pierre Croyant" ("Peter Believer").