Bonaventure Des Périers (d. ca.1544)
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Les nouuelles recreations et ioyeux deuis de feu Bonauenture des Periers, valet de Chambre de la Royne de Nauarre.
Lyon: Guillaume Rouille, 1561.
Other editions of Des Périers’s works in the Gordon Collection:
Gordon 1544 .D47
Gordon 1598 .D47
Gordon 1711 .D47
Gordon 1873 .D47
The few and radically different testimonies to Bonaventure that have survived from the sixteenth century trace a fragmented portrait. Viewed as a competent, but uninspiring poet by some, Des Périers was reviled by others as a dangerous, godless libertine. His legacy today relies almost entirely on the Cymbalum Mundi, four cryptic dialogues concerning the religious controversies of the period that earned him Calvin’s strong condemnation. Twentieth-century critics may have seen Des Périers’s enigmatic religious views more favorably, but it is this puzzle of faith that continues to intrigue readers.
In 1544, the year of Des Périers’s death, his collected works were published in Lyon, edited by his friend Antoine Du Moulin and printed by Jean de Tournes. The title of this volume, Recueil des oeuvres de feu Bonaventure Des Periers, identifies the author as the Vallet de Chambre de Treschrestienne Princesse Marguerite de France, Royne de Navarre. The 1544 collection includes Des Périers’s poems, which were largely ignored by the later Pléïade poets, and have been all but forgotten by modern readers. The Gordon copy of the very rare book bears the bookplate of a previous owner, Jean-Paul Barbier, noted collector and bibliophile.
Another work published only after his death (if Des Périers’s authorship is to be accepted), the Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis, is rarely read in the light of Des Périers’s religious beliefs, but instead is lumped together with the many collections of nouvelles written in France during the second half of the sixteenth century. Given the uncertainty of Des Périers’s authorship in the case of both the Cymbalum Mundi and the Nouvelles récréations, the first published anonymously, the second posthumously, scholars have repeatedly compared the two works, hoping to prove or disprove their common source, but have inevitably selected one or the other work for their most probing criticism. Indeed the comic tales of the Nouvelles Récréations seem at first glance to have little in common with the enigmatic dialogues in the Cymbalum Mundi.
Sixteenth-century France, however, has been characterized as a period of paradox. The authors associated with the two best-documented periods of Des Périers’s life, Marguerite de Navarre and Clément Marot, likewise wrote works whose diversity trouble the modern critic. Like his contemporaries, Des Périers composed religious poetry, but also literature of a distinctly secular nature. He shared a self-conscious story-telling technique with Marguerite as well as a fascination with the arbitrariness of human language. On the other hand, the topics of his nouvelles and the quick-witted common male rogues that people them, recall Marot’s verve and humor.
Thanks to these two monumental authors, Bonaventure Des Périers’s life is not a complete mystery to us. Where his path crossed theirs, documents remain to attest to his presence. Once the biographical curiosity assuaged, however, there is no need to keep Des Périers’s literature in the shadow of these French Renaissance heavyweights. In both of his prose works, Des Périers proves innovative, not so much in the ideas he presents, but in his approach to those ideas. Nowhere in his works does he actually state heretical beliefs, as the Sorbonne reluctantly concluded concerning the Cymbalum Mundi. Instead Des Périers questions, undermines, and denounces religious, but also literary, social and linguistic tenets. This is most explicit in the Nouvelles Récréations, where Des Périers comments in a daring way on topics of interest to many of his fellow humanists: class tensions in urban centers (tales 18 and 19, for example), gender relations that go beyond fabliaux-like sexual confrontations (tales 63 and 65), and the importance of education as well as its limitations (tales 14, 21, 63, 76).
By far his most valuable insight, however, lies in his treatment of language. During a time when many linguistic debates focused on the merits of the vernacular, Des Périers reveals the polysemy of the French language. By offering examples of regional, professional, class and gender-specific idioms, Des Périers conjures up the dizzying height of the Tower of Babel, while continuing to celebrate the versatility and local effectiveness of this vernacular tongue.
Questions of language, of silence and of human resilience in the face of the absurd resound in all of the works attributed to Des Périers, even the most trite of his patronage poems. Whether or not the shadowy figure of Des Périers (dates of birth and death unknown, place of birth contested, family status unknown, religious affiliation unclear, relationship to other poets undocumented, etc.) actually links the Cymbalum Mundi to the Nouvelles Récréations or not, these two works must be read together to gain a better understanding of the religious, literary and linguistic crises menacing early sixteenth-century France, and to prevent today’s critics from placing too much emphasis on tidy categorization.
Editions and Translations:
Cymbalum mundi / Bonaventure Des Périer. Critical edition by Max Gauna. Paris: H. Champion, 2000.
Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis I-XC / Bonaventure Des Périers; Critical edition by Krystyna Kasprzyk. Paris : Librairie H. Champion, 1980.
Novel pastimes and merry tales. English translation of the Nouvelles recreations et joyeux deviz Translated with an introduction and notes by Raymond C. La Charité and Virginia A. La Charité. [Lexington, Ky., University Press of Kentucky, c1972]
Selected works of criticism and interpretation:
Demerson, Guy. "Bonaventure Des Périers et les langages privés," pp. 101-113. Soulié, Marguerite (ed.); and Aulotte, Robert (introd.). La Littérature de la Renaissance. Geneva: Slatkine, 1984.
Giacone, Franco, ed. Le Cymbalum mundi : actes du colloque de Rome (3-6 novembre 2000). (Conclusion by Richard Cooper.) Geneva: Droz, 2003. (Includes a large collection of scholarly articles presented at the conference.)
Hassell, James Woodrow, Jr. Sources and Analogues of the Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis of Bonaventure Des Périers, vol. 2. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1969.
Kasprzyk, Krystyna. “Des Périers et la communication.” Etudes seiziémistes offertes à V.L. Saulnier. Genève: Droz, 1980. 169-178.
Smith, Malcolm. “A Sixteenth-century anti-theist (on the Cymbalum Mundi)." Bibliothéque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 53 (1991): 593-618.
Sozzi, Lionello, ed. La Nouvelle française à la Renaissance. Preface by V.L. Saulnier. Geneva: Slatkine, 1981.
---. Les contes de Bonaventure Des Périers : contribution à l'étude de la nouvelle française de la Renaissance. Torino: G. Giappichelli, 1964.
http://www.sfdes.fr/?page_id=276 — Bibliographie d’agrégation. Bibliography of editions and secondary works for the study of Des Périers, Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis, prepared by Jean-Claude Arnould et Bénédicte Boudou for the 2009 “Programme d’agrégation.” The extensive bibliography can be downloaded as a Word document from the SFDES (Société Française d’Etude du Seizième Siècle) website.
http://gallica.bnf.fr/ - The Gallica site includes numerous editions of Des Périers' works, including another copy of the 1544 Nouvelles récréations.
Materials on this page were generously contributed by Emily Thompson, Webster University (2003).