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Domestic Georgic from Rabelais to Milton

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Abstract

This dissertation uncovers the unexpected affinity of major early modern literary figures for the minor, incremental operations of preservation, maintenance, and what could be broadly construed as housekeeping. Reading male-authored literary works alongside domestic manuals and recipe manuscripts, many of which were written by or for women, I show how canonical early modern texts shared the primary concern of home and garden maintenance: the necessity of constant, almost invisible labor in order to keep the things of the world—perishable material, fragile bodies, precarious real and virtual communities—intact. When scholars ignore authors’ persistent comparisons of their own work to small-scale acts of domestic preservation, they pass over a still-viable possibility that I bring into focus: the conception of literary labor not as a desperate striving for originality, fame, and a starring role in a narrative of progress, but as a form of maintenance work that aims at preserving individual and collective life.

This maintenance work falls under the category of, though it is rarely recognized as, georgic: the (agri)cultural topos whose early modern resurgence is usually associated with the heroically laborious advancement of learning, the forwarding of foundational national mythologies, and groundbreaking formal innovation. Authors working both within and aslant of the georgic tradition, I show, denaturalize the conflation of cultivation and progress by situating their work in domestic spaces and practices where preservation, not progress, is the provisional goal. For Erasmus and François Rabelais, humanist education is less about the forward march of knowledge than the maintenance of texts, bodies, and communities; for Joachim Du Bellay, tending to the French garden of letters yields only invisible or uncertain results. For authors writing in the midst or wake of civil war—Michel de Montaigne, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton—domestic georgic intellectual labor becomes a mode of precarious individual and collective survival, rather than of certain improvement.

The first half of this dissertation recasts the heroes of humanism as housewives at heart. Reading Erasmus’s commentary on his own scholarly labors alongside one of the most influential accounts of labor in the twentieth century, that of Hannah Arendt, I suggest that the humanist condition—the drive to preserve the classical tradition through active means—is, in practice, housewifery. My chapters on Rabelais and Du Bellay locate deep concerns about the fragility of culture and community at the heart of the French authors most associated with celebratory textual excess and robust linguistic fertility programs. In the second half, I shift from the shaky beginnings of national cohesion to the context of civil war, where collective precarity was even more apparent, and where the maintenance work that animates Virgil’s Georgics—a poem also written with civil war in the background—became even more urgent. I argue that Montaigne, Marvell, and Milton respond to political degeneration by redefining progress and reproduction as minor, cyclical, metabolic repair, whether of the self, the family, or the Christian community.

I trace the domestic georgic mode through sixteenth-century France and seventeenth-century England through close stylistic analysis. Through an attention to small-scale textual patterns like parenthetical interruption, self-correction, and repetition, as well as to thematic concerns with small-scale acts of domestic preservation, I recover overlooked attitudes about “unproductive” labor and non-linear progress in the works of the early modern authors often credited with industriously ushering in modernity. By revealing male authors’ deep identifications with menial labors that were and are often relegated to “women’s work,” my project exposes a genealogy from the glorified texts of Renaissance humanism to the insufficiently valued intellectual labor of today. In academia and online, performed by manuscript digitizers and “content providers,” this labor, if visible at all, is often disparaged as mechanical, expendable, or a “labor of love” that should be its own reward. Yet this unseen, unappreciated work makes possible the communities and institutions we claim to value.

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This item is under embargo until August 5, 2023.