The foremost reason why novels The Unfortunate Traveller by Thomas Nash, The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, and The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (Old Arcadia) by Philip Sidney are being commonly referred to as such that represent a high literary and philosophical value, is that the themes and motifs, contained in these literary works, promote the spirit of a secularized (non-religious) living. Given the fact that the earlier mentioned novels were written in a time when Christianity was still enjoying an overwhelming dominance in Europe’s intellectual sphere, it does not come as a particular surprise why the publishing of Nash, Rabelais, and Sidney’s masterpieces resulted in undermining Church’s authority. After all, before the initial phases of the Renaissance era, Europe’s ‘intellectual’ discourse revolved exclusively around the life of Jesus Christ and the lives of countless ‘saints’ (scholasticism). Therefore, by being exposed to the works of Nash, Rabelais, and Sidney, readers were provided with an opportunity to expand their intellectual horizons. And, as practice indicates – the more intellectually advanced people are, the less they are being tempted to provide monetary donations to the self-proclaimed ‘God’s representatives on Earth’. In this paper, I will aim to explore the validity of an earlier outlined thesis at length.
For us to be able to gain a comprehensive insight into why it is being fully appropriate to refer to the publishing of Nash’s picturesque novel The Unfortunate Traveller as nothing short of a revolutionary event, it is important to understand that, during the Middle Ages, it was specifically the assumption of Christian clergy’s ‘sanctity, which used to justify clergy’s aspiration to hold supreme authority over just about all the aspects of ordinary people’s lives. Back then, it represented a common practice for the members of the Church’s clergy to be referred to as ‘men of God’ – in a perfectly literal sense of this word. After all, just as it is often being the case nowadays, throughout the course Medieval era, high-ranking Church’s officials never ceased advertising the virtues of a ‘humble living’, while pointing out to the fact that one’s preoccupation with pursuing material riches is a direct pathway to hell. At the same time, however, the majority of these officials represented the most blatant example of people who thought of material enrichment as constituting the foremost purpose of their lives.
Therefore, it is fully explainable why the exposure of an apparent similarity between the lifestyles of Christian ‘shepherds’ and the lifestyles of money-extortionists, murderers and drunkards, could not have possibly resulted in anything else but the dramatic weakening of Church’s authority. In its turn, this explains why Nash’s picaresque novel had instantly fallen out of favor with Church’s officials.
After all, the bulk of the novel’s themes and motifs are being concerned with the author’s strive to reveal the sheer extent of these officials’ hypocrisy, as people who used to actively contribute to the outbreaks of several 16th-century religious wars in Europe.
The validity of this statement can be illustrated in regards to how the novel’s main character Jack Wilton refers to the actual consequences of Church’s ministers preaching the message of ‘peace and tolerance’: “Ministers and pastors, sell away your sects and schisms to the decrepit churches in contention beyond the sea; they have been so long inured to war, both about matters of religion and regiment, that now they have no peace of mind but in troubling all other men’s peace” (Nash 19). Being an intellectually honest individual, Nash could not help pointing out to a simple fact that Church’s high-ranking ‘fathers’ (both: Catholic and Protestant) had a direct interest in adding oil to the flame of religious wars, which throughout the 16th-17th centuries, had reduced Europe’s population by half. However, it is namely the representatives of the Catholic clergy, which appear to be the target of the bulk of Nash’s criticism. For example, while reflecting upon the ‘highly spiritual’ realities of Vatican’s living, Wilton states: “Italy, the paradise of the earth… how doth it form our young master? From thence he brings… the art of epicurizing, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of sodomitry” (Nash 54). Given what we know about the lifestyles of 16th century’s Catholic high-ranking clergymen, there can be few doubts as to the fact that, while referring to the ‘art of whoring’, for example, Nash did, want for such his remark to be taken literally. Thus, it would not be much of an exaggeration to define Nash’s The Unfortunate Traveller as a truly revolutionary work of English 16th century’s literature, because readers’ exposure to the main character’s experiences was helping them to gain a better insight into the true essence of organized religion – hence, naturally prompting them to choose in favor of a secularized living.
The same can be said about Rabelais’s novel Gargantua and Pantagruel. After all, this novel features plenty of scenes in which both: Gargantua and Pantagruel refer to the Catholic monks as nothing short of social parasites who indulge in bellyful idling, without being required to contribute to the society’s well-being: “A monk… doth not labor and work, as do the peasant and artificial; doth not ward and defend the country, as doth the man of war; cureth not the sick and diseased, as the physician doth…” (Rabelais 104). Nevertheless, unlike what is was the case with Thomas Nash, in his novel, Rabelais did not only strive to reveal a simple fact that the Christian ‘servants of God’ are being just as morally wicked and corrupted as many of those they claim to be helping to realize ‘God’s shining truth’, but that Christianity itself could not possibly relate to the notion of ‘truth’, by definition. The reason for this is apparent – as it is being implied by Rabelais throughout his novel’s entirety, Christian fables that involve talking donkeys, motionless Sun standing still in the sky, and Jesus’ ‘immaculate conception’, are nothing but the byproducts of one’s mental inadequateness.
There is a memorable scene in Gargantua and Pantagruel, in which Rabelais tells the story of Gargantua’s birth. According to the author, Gargantua was born out of his mother’s ear: “The cotyledons of her (Gargamella’s) matrix were presently loosed, through which the child sprang up and leaped, and so, entering into the hollow vein… and from thence making his way towards the left side, issued forth at her left ear” (Rabelias 33). While anticipating readers’ critical reaction to his account of Gargantua’s birth, Rabelias suggests that those who will doubt the truthfulness of Gargantua’s birth story are nothing but arrogant ‘heretics’. This is because God’s omnipotence is a well-proven ‘fact’: “I tell you, it is not impossible with God, and, if he pleased, all women henceforth should bring forth their children at the ear” (Rabelias 34). It is needless to mention, of course, that author’s account of how Gargantua was born into this world is nothing but a mockery of the Biblical fable of Jesus’ ‘immaculate conception’. After all, even today, the main proof to the soundness of a story about Saint Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Ghost continues to serve as references to God’s omnipotence. This again points out to a clearly defined revolutionary spirit of Rabelias’s novel – in Gargantua and Pantagruel, Rabelias succeeded in exposing the sheer fallaciousness of essentially irrational claims, which traditionally served as a foundation for Christianity’s theological doctrine.
We can only admire the strength of Rabelias’s intellectual honesty. Apparently, despite being perfectly aware that his exposure of Christianity’s erroneousness could well result in him being chained up to the pole and burned as a ‘heretic’, he nevertheless proceeded with revealing less than admirable essentials of Christian faith – hence, undermining the formerly unchallengeable authority of the religion of ‘peace and tolerance’.
Even though that Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (Old Arcadia) does not contain any explicit referrals to the conceptual erroneousness of Christianity, there can be little doubt as to the fact that the reading of Sidney’s masterpiece did help his contemporaries to embrace the ideals of a secularized living. One of the reasons why I believe for this to be the case is because the foremost idea, which is being explored throughout Sidney book’s entirety, is that there are two types of people – intellectually advanced aristocrats, endowed with the refined sense of aesthetics, and ‘commoners’, whose existential modes are being reflective of these people’s animalistic instincts. As it was noted by Lamb: “The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia places readers in a relationship of literary kinship with its father-author… Those who approve it (Sidney’s novel) are ‘the noble, the wise, the virtuous’… Anyone else is dismissed as a ‘worthless reader’” (57). Such Sidney’s elitist conceptualization of his potential readers, of course, stands in striking opposition to the egalitarian spirit of Christianity. After all, according to what Jesus used to preach to his followers, there are no intellectual or class barriers of the way of people accepting him as a ‘savior’.
Moreover, Sidney’s masterpiece also establishes a dialectical relationship between the concept of ‘lower humanity’ and several psychological traits, deeply embedded into the lifestyles of ‘unworthy readers’, such as people’s tendency to rely on their irrational ‘feelings’, while addressing life’s challenges (as opposed to relying on their sense of rationale), their subliminal belief in the realness of ‘miracles’, and their inclination towards professing various ritualistic prejudices. Yet, it is specifically people’s endowment with earlier mentioned psychological traits, which has been traditionally predisposing them towards converting to Christianity. This is exactly the reason why the overwhelming majority of early Christians could be defined as just about anything, but people burdened with too much intellect.
This partially explains the ease, with which Sidney incorporates erotic overtones into narration’s parts that were meant to appeal to intellectually advanced audiences: “There came to the lodge-door six maids, all in one livery of scarlet petticoats, which were tucked up almost to their knees… their legs naked” (Sidney 247), and the virtual absence of these overtones in the parts that were meant to appeal to the ‘lower order’ audiences. Sidney wanted to emphasize that there can be no universally applicable morality – the more intellectually advanced and culturally refined a particular individual is, the less he or she would be tempted to refer to one’s nakedness as being ‘sinful’, and vice versa. Such Sidney’s idea, of course, was not even slightly correlative with the manner of how Church used to address sex-related issues. Whereas, according to Christianity’s conventions, people’s endowment with physical bodies is exactly what prevents them from being able to reunite with their ‘heavenly father’, according to Sidney, the foremost purpose of people’s endowment with physical bodies is to provide them with an opportunity to enjoy a variety of different sensual pleasures. Therefore, it will only be logical to reinstate once again that there are several good reasons to believe that, just as it is being the case with Nash’s and Rabelias’s novels, throughout the 16th-17th centuries, Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia did contribute to the process of Christianity’s authority being continuously undermined.
I believe that the provided earlier line of argumentation, in regards to how I believe Nash, Rabelias, and Sidney’s literary works used to challenge Christianity’s theological legitimacy, in general, and the authority of Church’s officials, in particular, is being fully consistent with paper’s initial thesis. By exposing Christianity’s theological inconsistencies and the immoral ways of Church officials, they were helping readers to embrace the ideals of humanism.
Therefore, the contribution of all three authors to the process of Western civilization breaking out of Christianity’s intellectual imprisonment can be hardly overestimated. This is exactly the reason why even today, their literary masterpieces continue to represent an unwavering philosophical value.
Lamb, Mary. “Exhibiting Class and Displaying the Body in Sidney’s Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 37.1 (1997): pp. 55-72. Print.
Nash, Thomas. The Unfortunate Traveller. Oxford Authorship Site. 2002.
Rabelais, Francois. Gargantua and Pantagruel. New York: Forgotten Books, 1952. Print.
Sidney, Philip. The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. London: S. Low, Son &Marston, 1868. Print.