Giants in Those Days

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism by Walter E Stephens.

To begin, Stephens builds a case against the idea that there is anything essentially ‘folkloric’ about giants in Rabelais or any 16th-century European discourse. In general, he is opposed to the notion that there is a ‘popular’ culture that includes elements unavailable to elite, learned culture. (This idea being criticized is an important element of Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World.) In particular, Stephens points to gigantology as a preoccupation more peculiar to the learned elite than to the unlettered masses.

‘Traditional’ (i.e. medieval) gigantology, both scholarly and—to the extent that it existed— popular, was rooted in biblical and classical texts, and portrayed giants as depraved, evil, and godless: very different from what we see in Rabelais. Dante developed them as denizens of Hell. Giants were primarily antediluvian, and were generally understood as a race distinct from (or debased from) humanity. Key biblical giants included the nephilim (offspring of the “sons of God and daughters of men” in Genesis 6) and the anakim (indigenous opposition to the settlement of Canaan in Numbers and Deuteronomy).

The valorization of giants as national (later misrepresented as ‘folk’) heroes begins with the fraudulent historiography of Annius of Viterbo (1432-1502). Annius was a supporter of a papal imperialism predicated on [E]T[r]uscan nationalism, to be centered in his own hometown of Viterbo. In his Antiquities, he created a polemical history, forging “Babylonian” and “Egyptian” source texts to complement and spin biblical history, while undercutting Greek sources, in order to create an account in which papal authority descends from Noah (inventor of wine, we must note), through the Etruscans Osiris and Hercules, into latter days. It was full of bad philology and weirdly sloppy scholarship, but it started a sort of intellectual cottage industry based on these forged documents and bad assumptions (c.f. Holy Blood, Holy Grail). In the Antiquities, Noah was himself a giant! Annius’ postdiluvian giants are then expressive of national greatness in physical and technological terms, passed through concocted pedigrees.

Jean Lemaire de Belges (1473-1525), who appears as a character in Pantagruel, was a poet and historian who wrote his Illustrations de Gaule et singularitéz de Troye in the Annian vein. But he quoted selectively from Annius’ Antiquities so as to eliminate the claims of Etruscan supremacy, and to replace them with Gallic preeminence. Lemaire accepted Annius’ gigantology, and thus accreted Charlemagne and the French royalty into the new Gallic version of Annian imperial destiny. Instead of Viterbo, the center of civilization was to be Lemaire’s Belgian home of Gavay. Lemaire’s work was much more accessible than Annius, being published in French, and set partially in the forms of epic narrative and pastoral romance. Lemaire had many disciples and imitators.

It was thus Lemaire’s gigantology that would have been uppermost in the minds of cultured readers in Rabelais’ time. But the conflicts between this account of giants and the traditional version would be obvious to them as well. Traditional giants defied authority; Annian giants expressed it. Stephens demonstrates how Rabelais shows an awareness of both gigantologies, and his initial writings (in Pantagruel, which became Book II) are intended to undermine Lemaire’s nationalistic enterprise through parody of his giant lore. The Rabelaisian narrator Alcofrybas Nasier is an overblown Annian historian, concerned with specious etymologies, incredible genealogies, and privileged geographies. (Chinon thus succeeds Viterbo and Gavay.)

In Pantagruel, Rabelais deliberately highlights the resemblances between Lemaire’s historiographic Illustrations and the popular romances of the Grandes Chroniques, with their unbelievable, legendary aspects. Pieces of parodic writing often thought to be sacrilegious examples of Rabelais’ antichristian sentiment are instead criticisms of Annian history: they show how Alcofrybas cannot maintain sound Christian doctrine along with his crazy history. Rabelais expresses an Evangelical desire for the union of Christendom, opposed to the hieratic and nationalistic ambitions coded into the Annian and Lemarian histories.

Pantagruel proved to be a success with a different, more popular, readership than the one that Rabelais had intended—so the parody involved in Alcofrybas went largely over their heads. In Gargantua, he corrects for this problem, and makes his Evangelical sentiments more explicit, (e.g. ch. XLVI) while marginalizing Alcofrybas after the first few chapters. Also, Rabelais had come into closer association with the du Bellays as patrons, and they were French nationalists, so he had to temper his indictments of that ideology as well. Still, the first two chapters of Gargantua are extremely “Nasiesque,” and play mercilessly with Annian themes and pretensions. Parody of Annianism—along with gigantology generally—fades out of the third and fourth books. Its renewed presence in the fifth may result from that book’s origins as a posthumous editing of outtakes from the earlier volumes (the argument of Mireille Huchon).

In sum, Stephens maintains that Rabelais invented his giants in order to exploit what he saw as the self-parodying aspects of Annian historiography. But Rabelais’ own gigantology has weathered better than that of his satirical targets. As a byproduct of his Evangelical Humanism, and in the course of adjusting his sequels to emphasize positive ideals rather than hostile criticisms, Docteur Francoys Rabelais created a third kind of giant, whose stature expressed spiritual and intellectual greatness, rather than monstrosity or hereditary power. [via]