posted with permission:
Homer and the Politics of Authority in Renaissance France. By Marc Bizer. Classical Presences. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii + 245. Hardcover, $85.00/£55.00. ISBN 978-0-19-973156-5.
Reviewed by Timothy Wutrich, Case Western Reserve University
Marc Bizer presents a compelling argument regarding the reception of Homer in sixteenth-century France in his book Homer and the Politics of Authority in Renaissance France. However, Classicists and others who are not well-read in French literature and who lack a firm command of sixteenth-century France’s complex history may find this book difficult. Bizer’s book makes an important contribution to the field of Classical reception studies as part of a dialogue with specialists, but it is not the best point of entry for someone casually interested in the topic or interested in an introduction.
Bizer writes well: his prose is clear and jargon-free. His book has two main parts. Part I, “Making Homer French, 1530–1560” describes in three chapters how French Renaissance humanists like Guillaume Budé and Jean Dorat helped promulgate Homeric studies in France, especially as a means of instructing French monarchs. Bizer begins by revealing the long tradition of Neoplatonic allegorical interpretation of Homer. Then he considers Pseudo-Plutarch’s Essay on the Life and Poetry of Homer, which presented Homer as a polymath with special authority in politics, and shows that the essay had a strong impact on Budé. Finally, Bizer recounts the persistent sixteenth-century myth that France’s royalty could trace its roots to the Trojan royal family. Bizer goes on to argue that Budé’s interpretation of Homer for François I was designed to instruct the French king in philology and statesmanship while simultaneously presenting the work of the humanists as essential for the monarchy. Bizer surveys three of Budé’s treatises which “illustrate the important connections between Greek learning, humanism, and royal power” (33).
From Budé, Bizer turns to Jean Dorat, a remarkable figure, who, although he did not publish a book, is known from his lectures on Homer and his influence on members of the group of French Renaissance poets known as the Pléiade. The Dorat chapter also features an excursus on the influence exerted by both Budé and Dorat on artists working for the French court, particularly in the Château of Fontainebleau’s “Ulysses Gallery.”
In Part I’s final chapter, Bizer offers a contrasting view of Homeric exegesis, showing that in the 1550s both the poet Joachim Du Bellay and the essayist Etienne de la Boétie used Homeric poetry to challenge the French Trojan myth. Bizer compares Du Bellay’s work with the court-sanctioned poetry of Ronsard who continued to celebrate the French monarchy. Bizer then turns to La Boétie’s essay De la servitude volontaire as the first example of a text that challenged Homeric authority in politics, particularly Homer’s apparent approval of monarchy in Iliad 2.204–5. However, the Wars of Religion and the ensuing chaos caused La Boétie to refine his views in the essay Memoire sur le pacification des troubles, which, Bizer asserts, while lacking specific Homeric reference, “constructs a pragmatic argument for one religion by insisting on the real dangers of two” (108).
Part II, “Homer and the Problem of Authority During the Wars of Religion (1560–1592),” includes four chapters that explore the ways in which Catholic and Protestant writers used Homer in polemical works. In Chapter 4 Bizer examines texts by Catholic and Huguenot writers to argue that in the 1560s “Homer continued to be invaluable in authorizing discourses on sovereignty, if ultimately he could no longer authorize sovereignty itself” (154). In Chapter 5 Bizer reveals that as the crisis in France worsened the use of Homer by both Catholic and Huguenot polemicists began to change. He observes that a writer like Jean de Sponde, who began by hoping that Henri IV would be like the Homeric heroes, ultimately wondered whether Homer should or could be used in discourse about the monarchy. In Chapter 6 Bizer turns from his study of polemical tracts to offer a reading of Garnier’s tragedy La Troade (1579) which, while indebted to Homer, Euripides, and Seneca, nevertheless draws didactic historical and political parallels with the religious wars in France. Chapter 7 argues that Montaigne felt obliged to react to the chaos in French society and politics since La Boétie’s death, especially to the extent that his friend’s writings were thought to have incited conflict. Bizer argues that while Montaigne acknowledged the authority of Homer, he questioned “the unconditional authority … [of] ancient authors, finding that they contradict themselves” (209). Bizer states that Montaigne’s assertion was that “Homer’s exegetes use Homer merely to ventriloquize themselves” and that “an end to the religious wars can only come from a monarchy whose authority is absolute, derived from itself and from no other source” (212–3). In the Conclusion Bizer asserts that he has recounted “the story of a political hermeneutics” in which Homeric exegesis “became inseparable from engaging in a politics of authority, of debating the nature of that sovereignty and eventually questioning that sovereignty itself” (215).
Scholars working on the Classical Tradition and Classical Reception will find Bizer’s arguments engaging and his methodology attractive. However, much material will be new to non-specialists in French literary or political history; the fact that Bizer does not translate everything will be an obstacle to those unused to sixteenth-century French. He also assumes that his readers know the succession of sixteenth-century French monarchs and the background of events like the Placard Affair and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Yet overall the book is informative and offers a thought-provoking take on the capacity of Homer to exert influence on political action in sixteenth-century France.