Humor and Religious Politics in 16th Century France

Dr. Bruce Hayes from the University of Kansas studied BYU’s collection of 16th century French political pamphlets before reporting on his findings in a lecture.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 7, 2020)—Dr. Bruce Hayes, associate professor and chair of the Department of French, Francophone, and Italian Studies at University of Kansas, is a graduate of the BYU French program. In 2019 he returned to his alma mater in order to study the university’s impressive collection of political pamphlets written in 16th century France.

Hayes has dedicated a large portion of his career to studying religious polemics, verbal or written attacks, penned during this time period—the century of the Reformation. Religious conflict in Europe at the time created the ideal environment for politiques like François Rabelais and Pierre Viret to express their opinions through the written word.

In these pamphlets humor is abundant, although it is a specific type of humor that Hayes has deemed “humor that’s not actually funny.” Many of the satires included in these 16th century publications attack either the Catholic or Protestant factions and their respective traditions.

Hayes sides with Freud’s opinion that humor can be divided into different categories, clearly stating that some humor is innocent, but all jokes are divisive. Jokes, according to Freud, are either hostile or obscene. Hostile jokes in 16th century French publications are Hayes’ focus.

“The purpose of these jokes is to turn the hearer, who was indifferent to begin with, into a co-hater and co-despiser and create their concrete for, at the enemy, a host of opponents where at first there was only one,” Hayes explained.

One pamphlet in particular, the Satire Ménippée de la vertu du Catholicon published in 1594, mocks a gathering of the Holy League. A group of fanatical Catholics, the Holy League held a colloquium to dispute Henry de Navarre’s legitimacy as king. De Navarre was next in line for the throne, but he was also the leader of the Protestant army.

The Holy League hosted a gathering to encourage other like-minded parties to help it in its efforts to keep de Navarre out of power. The Satire Ménippée de la vertu du Catholicon humorously depicts a scene just outside the meeting on the street; it irreverently illustrates furtive foreigners, the selling of relics, and other Catholic customs.

“It totally makes fun of what supposed to be the solemn event,” Hayes remarked. “This is what really interests me: really aggressive satire and religious fanaticism and what happens when those two things come together.”

His in-depth study of these polemics has shown Hayes that employing satiric humor is a unique way of expressing truth. A delicate balance must be maintained, especially when dealing with humor and religious values. When used correctly, humor can shed light on subjects that are typically considered off limits, like religion.

Hayes’ latest book, Hostile Humor in Renaissance France is set to come out during the spring of 2020.

—Tori Hamilton (Editing & Publishing, ’20)