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French comic fiction: “food for thought”: The theme of food, drink and feasting in the following 16th/17th century French books: Rabelais’ Gargantua, Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyage dans la lune and Charles Sorel’s Histoire comique de Francion.

Comic fiction was given a marginal position in French literary history for centuries. However, the 'histoires comiques' were brought back into critical focus in the 20th century and new light was thrown on their satirical qualities and unique role as social commentaries. With the theme of food, drink and feasting as a starting point the present analysis will look at the development of French comic fiction in the 16th and 17th centuries, focusing on Rabelais' Gargantua, Sorel's Histoire comique de Francion and Cyrano de Bergerac's Voyage dans la lune. After a brief look at the historical background the essay will analyse the three texts individually and specific reference will be made to Bakhtin and his theory of carnival culture. Furthermore, it will examine the concepts of Menippean satire and the picaresque novel. Finally, it will discuss the literary utopia and the idea of free will as seen in Rabelais and the Abbey of Thélème.

16th and 17th century France was a place of change. The country was developing into a leading power in Europe but this growth must be seen against a background of religious and political conflicts and civil war. The whole continent was dominated by a series of religious wars in the aftermath of the Reformation; in France, The Wars of Religion were fought in the later half of the 16th century. This lengthy conflict between Catholics and Huguenots came to an end in 1598 with the issue of the Edict of Nantes, which granted rights to the Huguenots but also ensured the continual power of the Catholic Church. Protestants and Catholics were fighting each other in neighbouring countries in the Thirty Years War, which caused great devastation in Europe. The power of the French Catholic Church went hand in hand with the growing authority of the monarchy in the first half of the 17th century. The opposition to the crown grew and resulted in civil war, the 'Fronde', from 1648 to 1653. The opposition was crushed and the crown emerged from the conflict determined to suppress further opposition and establish itself as the absolute power in the country.

The writers of comic fiction in France in the 16th and 17th centuries shared a wish to experiment; they were 'free spirits' with a disregard for established literary and social rules, as has been shown above. They used the literary form of satire as a means of criticising the contemporary social, political or religious systems. Another literary form that should be mentioned in this context is the utopia, which depicts an ideal civilisation, often the direct opposite to the society in which the author lived. The utopia, by describing an imaginary world, throws a new light on the customs of contemporary society. It functions as an indirect social critique and hence was a logical choice for writers who wished to avoid persecution by the authorities. The criticism was hidden behind a description of an imaginary world and could be 'excused' as a mere fantasy. In Gargantua, Rabelais constructed his utopia, the Abbey of Thélème. The abbey lets the inhabitants act upon their free will in all matters. The main rule of the abbey is that there are no rules: "All their life was regulated not by laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their free will and pleasure". The humanist educational ideal is also promoted at the abbey: "So nobly were they instructed that there was not a man or woman among them who could not read, write, sing, play musical instruments, speak five or six languages, and compose in them both verse and prose". The Abbey of Thélème is generally considered a criticism of the monastery systems of the time but is also another example of form and content being linked together in the text: the aim is a freedom from rules, literary, religious and social. The utopia would remain popular with writers in the 17th and 18th centuries: a utopian influence can be seen in Voyage dans la lune as well as in Voltaire's Candide.

The 'histoires comiques' evolve but some of the similarities remain. There is a line of French writers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries from Rabelais to Voltaire that choose comic fiction as their preferred form of subversion. The comic tradition is of great importance in French literary history, not only because of its role in the development of the modern novel, but also because of its controversial nature. Comic fiction produced some of the most important works of social criticism in France. One may find a deeper knowledge beneath the comic surface and, as Rabelais states in the prologue to Gargantua, diligent reading will teach the reader about matters to do with religion, public and private life.

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