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Kaoru Takahashi

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Issues for today in 16th century France research

Kaoru Takahashi
Professor of French Language, French Literature and 16th Century France Research, Faculty of Law, Chuo University

The beginnings of 16th century France research in Japan

The title I have given may be exaggerated as I am not very confident I can talk about content fitting that title. In Japan about 80 years ago, prominent 16th century France researcher Kazuo Watanabe began publishing outstanding translations and research. Over the next few decades, Watanabe translated the five volumes of Gargantua and Pantagruel, which appears humorous but is actually a deep literary work, by the early 16th Century France profound thinker, Francois Rabelais. In addition, he introduced the lives and works of people who were not known in Japan but well known in France, and creating the foundations for 16th Century France research in Japan. He educated many followers, but there was one regrettable thing. Because Watanabe's achievements were so great, his followers became too humble. Fortunately, the generation of Watanabe followers has changed, where unknown scholars, such as myself with no connections to Watanabe, can involve ourselves in 16th century France in our own style. I would like to talk about how someone like me became involved in 16th century France, what significance 16th century France research has and the issues involved, from the viewpoint of a lesser-known scholar.

My 16th century research

Personally speaking, I belong to fringe of the so-called edge of the All-Campus Joint Struggle generation. I had my distorted thoughts, and the All-Campus Joint Struggle movement (with sympathy), and those in movements opposing that, looked upon them from an angle of third party. However, those ideals clashed, sometimes with both sides denouncing each other. The shadow pantomime that was the factional logic which culminated in the Asama-Sanso Incident, when put in another time and place and portrayed on the stage of 16th century France, especially in the latter half when the main players of the religious wars, who washed blood with blood, were telling companions.

16th century interest in Europe and America

Putting my personal emotions aside, the 16th century was an extremely attractive era, even in European and American societies, and in America there is a journal titled 16th Century, with other titles such as Renaissance and Reformation in Canada, Humanism and Renaissance Library in Switzerland, and in France, Renaissance and Reformation and 16th Century springing to mind immediately. If we narrow it down to the late 16th century thinker Michel Montaigne, where there is the Montaigne Society Journal in France, there is also the journal called Montaigne Research in America. Why does the 16th century attract the attention of so many researchers?

What kind of era was the 16th century?

At the beginning of the 16th century there was a discovery of a new continent. The influence of printing technology invented in the mid 15th century took hold after entering the 16th century. (Incidentally, books printed before 1501 are called incunabulum, and are remarkably more valuable than those printed after 1501.) The processes of humanism in Italy, the change from what had been a worldview centered around God and religion to one that focused on human values and concerns, the occurrence of the Renaissance, a movement which called for a "return to the classical model to take a new look at classical culture and the past", and defeat in the Italian Wars (1494-1559 wars in which France deployed troops to wage battle for dominium), all exerted great influence over French culture. On the other hand, "return to the classical model" wasn't only a motto for the Renaissance, but also took shape as a sign of distrust toward the Roman church in France, Germany and the Netherlands, calling for a following of the teachings of the Gospel. Representative of that was German Martin Luther, and the Reformation which he started, attracted supporters throughout Europe. In particular, John Calvin, ruler of Geneva in Switzerland and founder of Calvinism, exerted his influence on migrants to the new continent, and nowadays, the reprint in America of the 1560 Geneva Bible is a support for many Christians. In short, the 16th century is the historical and cultural equivalent of the Azuchi-Momoyama period in Japan, and is the period that decided the path European culture would take in the future. And Europeans, naturally, and also Americans, who have no past, have particular ideas about this period as the foundations of their own identity.

History and conversions in 16th century research in France

Now, as I am a French language professor, let's follow the history of 16th century research in France. There are two points of view in France when evaluating their own country in the 16th century. One is through the Reformation and its child, the religious wars and the positive side of early modern times when the Edict of Nantes came to fruition, not initially as a dominion of the feudal lords, but as unified kingdom providing a national format. The other view looks at civilization and the negative aspects of the unclear and vague literature left behind before the classicalism era of the 17th century in which the French pride themselves in. Regarding the former, from the beginning of the 18th century an exceptional amount of interest was shown in ancient 16th century documents, with various historical records being republished. On the other hand, although the field of literature had its exceptions, the argument between old and new (a haughty dispute into which was superior, ancient Greek and Roman literature or French literature since the 17th century) never eventuated, and was bundled into literature prior to creation of classicalism literature. It reminds me of the haibutsu kishaku [anti-Buddhist movement] during the Meiji Restoration. Putting that aside, in the first 25 years of the 19th century, the significance of 16th century literature was finally put to question in the press, but even that was mainly isolated research surrounding the great writers and poets. Moreover, with a demonstratively progressive view of history sweeping through the world of thought at the time in the background, this was limited to an awareness of how it became the foundations of modern literature. The rapid change to the situation came, not from the literary world, but the field of history. In 1942, Lucien Febvre, a heterodox scholar in the history world of the time, wrote part of the epochal book The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, presenting a stock argument that in the 16th century there was a civilization inherent to the 16th century. For example, of the five senses, sight is given a high status in the 19th and 20th centuries, but, he says, in the 16th century, preference was given to hearing over sight. If the issue was limited to sight and hearing, due to new research, Febvre's case was recognized that it would not necessarily be correct. However, the impact of his essay was surprising. Looking around the whole world of thought, in the 1960s, when philosopher Michel Foucault postulated that each period has its own intellectual system, it was said to have brought about a Copernican revolution, but Febvre had said words along the same lines as Foucault 20 years earlier.

Present state of and dissatisfaction with 16th century research

Febvre's essays exerted much influence. Even speaking in terms of literature only, trends that believe the lesser known writers and poets buried in obscurity reflected the era more than the great writers and poets over the ages have appeared, and in an attempt to reject the progressive view of history with thorough demonstrativeness, dust has been brushed of the mountain of archives to search for a single name (and I must add that I am a person who doesn't detest that procedure.) Unfortunately, it cannot be said that these various kinds of experiments in 16th century research have fully extended to Japan. That can be put down to geographical location and being blessed with historical materials on the great writers, as well as a lack of foundation for those types of experiments to be accepted in Japan. But one major reason that can be given is the advancement in computer hardware and software. Academic publishers in Europe and America have produced an outpouring of software with works of writers and poets that had, up until then, been in print, regardless of whether they were great or lesser known writers, eliminating the laborious task of searching for a single word at a stroke. This may be convenient, but it is also thought to be harmful. During the process of searching through a mountain of archives for a single word, a researcher inevitably reads through those archives. Doing so, the researcher unconsciously acquires knowledge relating to those archives. However, that process is not required when searching for a word on a computer. I am not saying don't use computers. We cannot get by without using the conveniences of civilization. But, I fear that in a contrary meaning, on some occasions modern children, who have become used to computers, keep their distance from the piles of archives. Is this the groundless fear of a senile old man? In any case, as a mere lover of literature, I sincerely hope that literature is read carefully.

Kaoru Takahashi
Professor of French Language, French Literature and 16th Century France Research, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Born in Tokyo in 1950. Entered the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Saitama University in 1969. The theme of his graduation thesis was Baudelaire and the "Paris Scene". Completed his Master's Program in the Graduate School of Literature, Tokyo University of Education, in 1975. His master's thesis was titled "Les Tragiques" Variant Readings in the First Publication and Reprint and Agrippa d'Aubigne. After that he chose 16th century France as his lifelong research topic. Completed his doctorate in 1978 at International Literature Research Llaboratories at Tsukuba University. Became a full-time lecturer at the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Komazawa University in the same year. After working as an assistant professor and professor at the same university, became a professor at the Faculty of Law, Chuo University in 1996. Publications include To the Scene of Language: Middle Class Intellect in 16th Century France (Chuo University Press), and translations such as Lucien Febvre's The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (Hosei University Press).