“Laughing in Church: Humor, Humanism, and Christianity in Renaissance France”

by Chris Flood

The Renaissance humanist Rabelais prefaced his celebrated satire, Gargantua, with a poem that ends in the following declaration: “rire est le propre de l’homme.” Rabelais’s formulation of the old Aristotelian idea does not lend itself to easy translation. It has been rendered directly as “laughter is proper to mankind,” capitalistically as “laughter is the property of mankind,” and biologically as “laughter is unique to humans.” A more philosophical, perhaps theological translation might read: “laughter is essential to humanity,” or “laughter is what makes man human.” Building from this, one could logically wonder, assuming the biblical account of man being created in God’s image, if laughter is also essential to God’s nature.

A Catholic reformer in his own right, Rabelais wrote amid the confessional strife associated with the rise of French Protestantism. Rejecting both dour Catholic scholasticism and austere Calvinism, Rabelais joined with humanists like Erasmus in developing a more joyful, but no less devout approach to Christianity. Though revolutionary at the time, this was not an entirely novel perspective. A careful, contextualized reading of the Bible and other early Christian texts reveals frequent uses of wordplay, irony, and hyperbole—in other words, humor and, presumably, laughter.

In this paper, I propose to explore the connections between biblical models and the humor that emerged in early modern, French, Christian humanism, as well as more broadly within the context of the Protestant Reformation. This process, I believe, will elucidate evolving concepts of both God and man’s relationship to God in that period.