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Eloquence non vaine: The Search for Suitable Style in Early Modern France

  • Author(s): Battis, Stacey Elizabeth;
  • Advisor(s): Hampton, Timothy;
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the fate of Classical theories of eloquence in early sixteenth-century France. Eloquence is a treasured commonplace inherited by the humanists from ancient Greece and Rome. It denotes the potent combination of elegant speech and irresistibly persuasive power, whether in oral or written form. Early modern writers were eager to translate this linguistic force into their vernacular to strengthen both their language and their literature. The twin projects of fashioning a French eloquence and a strong French language- in other words, "making eloquence French" and "making French eloquent" - participate in a growing sense of nationalism that is mediated by discourses on national language and literature. At the same time, however, imaginative writing shows itself to be less interested in the success stories of an eloquent France and more in the failures of eloquence. The process of domesticating eloquence sparks an ideological divide between imaginative writing and prescriptive texts such as treatises on rhetoric and poetry. The writers of my corpus mostly evoke the tradition of rhetorical theory to undermine it and, in so doing, they expose the vanity of eloquence. What are the stakes behind the representation of such a failure in the larger scope of the humanist project, at the heart of which is this kind of language? What does the failure of eloquence tell us about vernacular literary production in the early modern period?

Taking these questions as a point of departure, this dissertation investigates how Classical and Renaissance concepts of eloquence are dissected in three major prose works published before the publication of Joachim Du Bellay's Deffence et illustration de la langue française in 1549. These works cannot be defined by one, single genre: instead, they are textual hybrids, borrowing discursive practices from history, fable, chronicle, autobiography, romance, and novel. It is the contention of this dissertation that the writers of my corpus fully utilize the manifold possibilities of hybrid imaginative writing in order to question eloquence and, more specifically, to expose the impossibility of a perfect eloquence. Such writing provides both a defective and an ideal space for this exploration. It is defective in that imaginative writing cannot account for the traditional requirements of an oral eloquent speech, namely, persuading by adapting according to the needs of the moment and by exploiting proximity to the audience to gain sway over their affective response. An eloquent speech set into print cannot recreate the speech-act of the orator. However, imaginative writing uses its fixity precisely to create situations in which eloquence can be closely scrutinized. It becomes important to set the reading audience at a safe distance from the performance of eloquence being read, for eloquence is often framed as a harmful contagion. The ideal reader of written eloquence is one who is in the know about how eloquence works, and is thus immune to its effects.

The dissertation consists of three chapters, each dedicated to a major prose writer of the early sixteenth century in France: Jean Lemaire de Belges, François Rabelais, and Hélisenne de Crenne. An historical and conceptual introduction chapter precedes the analysis, and I end with a conclusion that looks forward to the later stylistic experiments of Michel de Montaigne. The dissertation contributes to the history of rhetoric in Renaissance France, and engages debates about the emergence of modern `literature' from earlier rhetorical traditions.

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