Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Le Savoir et les vers Concorde de la médecine et de la poésie dans les Deux livres des venins de Jacques Grévin
by Pierre-Antoine, Joseph Apollon, Ph.D., Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, School of Graduate Studies, 2019, 510; 22624449
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation is an in-depth study of the Deux livres des venins [Two Books of Venoms], a treatise on poisons and antidotes published in 1568 by the Renaissance poet and physician Jacques Grévin (1538–1570). Grévin’s magnum opus drew direct inspiration from two famous poems by Nicander of Colophon (ca. 250–ca. 170 BC), Theriaca and Alexipharmaca, of which it offered both a detailed commentary and a copious amplification, courtesy of such scientific sources as Galen, Dioscorides, Pliny, Aelian, Aetius and many others. Nicander’s poems, which describe poisonous animals (snakes in particular), plants and minerals as well as remedies against their effects, had previously been edited and translated into Latin by the physician Jean de Gorris; a French translation in alexandrins by Grévin himself was published under the title Les Œuvres de Nicandre alongside the prose of his Deux livres, thus acknowledging the vital relation of the two works. The objective of our thesis is to explain this relation via a thorough analysis of both texts, while situating it within the dual context of Renaissance medicine and poetics during a time of considerable turmoil in both fields (a tireless polemist, Grévin embraced the Reformation early in his double career and was involved in a succession of poetic and medical controversies, reassessed here according to their impact on his “Nicander project”).

The first part of the dissertation, after a survey of Grévin’s complex trajectory, studies the scientific content of the Deux livres and their methodical validation and enrichment of Nicander’s matter; the second part focuses on the specific role that Grévin envisioned for poetry in the elaboration and transmission of this content, not only through Nicander’s translated verse, but also through the very prose of his own treatise.

Unanimous in their belief that poetry contained knowledge and could convey a form of truth under the guise of verse and fiction, Renaissance poets and poeticians differed greatly in their understanding of the means and goals of such didacticism. Some of Grévin’s peers thought that poetry could not be strictly translated without losing its soul; nor should it be tasked to teach the facts of nature in a systematic manner. Others held the opposite views, to which Grévin subscribed: his translation of Nicander was a manifesto on both counts. Accordingly, the Deux livres, while written in prose and drawing on a large number of prose sources, remained faithful (with a few exceptions) to the material offered by the Theriaca and Alexipharmaca and to the order in which they presented it. At the same time, one of the treatise’s missions was to explain the content of the poems: Nicander’s text, while considered truthful (and indeed didactic) by its Renaissance admirers, is remarkably obscure; Grévin’s translation respected this opacity, and his prose strove to clarify it.

The Deux livres also contain many poetic quotations (all in French) from Nicander and other poets from Antiquity (Virgil, Lucan, Oppian, Ovid, etc.) as well as two modern poets (Ronsard and Grévin himself). Most of these quotations perform a didactic function: they serve to illustrate or reinforce a factual argument. Yet they are also meant to give artistic pleasure, and the synergy between these two aspects, while assumed to have been achieved by Nicander’s masterpieces and implied as well by the treatise that quotes from them, is far from uniform: some of the quotations are more didactic and truthful than others. Furthermore, Nicander himself knew how to intertwine accurate description and fanciful fiction, to a variety of effects. In other words, the “concord” between the arts of medicine and poetry that Grévin sought to achieve did not assume their identity, nor the reduction of one to the other. It was because their respective missions were not fully aligned that their collaboration proved so rewarding.

While studying this collaboration, this thesis also acknowledges that it was short-lived. The Deux livres were printed only once, and were heavily plagiarized by such luminaries as Ambroise Paré soon after Grévin’s untimely death. Paré’s borrowings mostly discarded poetic quotations, which suggests that the plagiarist no longer understood our author’s attempt to reconcile his two arts. Conversely, modern interest in Grévin has so far focused mostly on his poetry (although this has begun to change in recent years). The time has come to read Grévin’s double enterprise on its own terms, so as to show how and why, in his view, poetry could contribute as such to the spreading of practical, life-saving knowledge for humanity’s benefit.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Cornilliat, François
Commitee: Pairet, Ana, Tamas, Jennifer, Renner, Bernd
School: Rutgers The State University of New Jersey, School of Graduate Studies
Department: French
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 81/7(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: French literature
Keywords: Medicine, Poetry, Renaissance, Snake, Tale, Venom
Publication Number: 22624449
ISBN: 9781392646861
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