Compare and contrast - Baldesar Castiglione's Book of the Courtier and Francois Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel.

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        Baldesar Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier and Francois Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel are two fundamentally different books. Both texts describe sixteenth century lives in a different manner and both address the issues of love, marriage, sexuality, women’s position in society and gender equality.  Castiglione  uses plain narrative and a series of conversations between his characters to address these subjects while Rabelais uses satire and grotesque and, therefore, his book requires a greater amount of interpretation.

        Castiglione wrote  his book between 1515 and 1528. He intended his book to be read  by the aristocracy, which, during the early sixteenth century, was in crisis because of the new politics of the centralization of power. For this reason, his book became a manual for courtiers and court ladies. In The Courtier,  the Renaissance notion of individualism is very clear. In addition to Castiglione’s image of the ideal courtier,  he also tries to present a picture of the perfect woman, not any woman, but an aristocrat, while Rabelais’s description of the role of women is more general. The reader of Gargantua and Pantagruel learns about gender issues through the stories of the main characters in the book.

        The issues of women, marriage, sexuality and equality are especially visible in

Book III of both Castiglione’s and Rabelais’s books. Some historians explain this coincidence by claiming that Rabelais’s third book is, in part, a satire of Castiglione’s Courtier. Castiglione dedicates the entire third book of his work to the portrayal of a perfect dona di palazza and, through this description, he clarifies the role of women in the court. On the other hand, in the third book of Gargantua and Pantagruel  the author addresses the issues of women, sexuality and marriage through the character Panurge and his dilemma whether to marry or not. Through a series of conversations about marriage and the nature of cuckoldry, the author uses Panurge to presents his views about women’s role in society.

        In The Courtier, issues concerning gender differences are brought up in conversation between the members of the Court at Urbino, for whom describing the perfect courtier and court lady is a game, played during their free time. The pattern of conversation between the courtiers tells the reader a lot about the role of men and women at Court. As David Quint suggests, ladies had little to say about the qualities of the dona di palazza, because men were the main participants of discussion; this pattern reflects the “general subordination of women in the patriarchal culture in Renaissance Italy.” 1 Castiglione’s participants in the discussion about women can generally be divided into two camps: those who defend women (Cesare Gonzage and Magnificio Guliano de’ Medici) and their opponents (Niccolo Frisio, Ottaviano Fregos and Gasparo).  In reading The Courtier, it is easy to see that majority of those who participate in the discussion are rather critical of women’s nature. Nevertheless, Castiglione allows signor Magnifico and Gonzaga to defend women and to assign them many positive virtues. Castiglione gives his dona di palazza, many virtues that are equivalent to those of a man. “She has the same virtues of mind as he and her education is symmetrical with his.”2 Castiglione’s court lady is supposed to receive a humanistic education according with the idea of studia humanitas. On the other hand, Castiglione makes a clear distinction between men and women. Contrary to the courtier, the court lady is not supposed to participate in bodily exercises “such as  riding, handling weapons and wrestling” and “ought to be a complete stranger” to them.3 The role of the dona di palazza is very straightforward. “Grace” is her main occupation because, by her grace and charm, she should be able to move the courtier, who, influenced by these virtues, would please her and perform a variety of brave and chivalrous deeds. Women’s charm, according to David Quint, is also important because it makes men adorn and seduce women, and, in this light, charm  is a means of civilizing and pacifying a noble man.4 Castiglione does not leave any doubts that charm and grace should be the main occupations of a court lady. Even signor Magnifico, a defender of women, states: “a woman ought to be very unlike a man, (…) so it is seemly for a woman to have a soft and delicate tenderness, with an air of womanly sweetness in her every movement.” 5 Accordingly with the idea that women should be charming, all of the activities that Castiglione allows women are subordinated to charm. Therefore, Castiglione writes that women should not play the drums, trumpets, that their dress should not appear frivolous and that, while dancing, they should not make any energetic and violent movements.  In addition to charm, Castiglione emphasizes that women should be of gentle birth. He also underlines that beauty is an important characteristic of women, since “that woman lacks much who lacks beauty.”6

        In Gargantua and Pantagruel, issues concerning women and their role in the society are especially portrayed in Panrge’s struggle to decide whether to marry or not and in his conversations with other characters. Such descriptions underline the gender differences present in Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais, unlike Castiglione, does not see charm as the major characteristic that a woman should possess.  In one of the chapters of Rabelais’s book,  the main character, Pantagruel, tries to explain the idea behind the law which allows newly married men avoid going to war. His explanation tells the reader a lot about the role of women  in society.  He explains that the purpose of such a law  is to see whether a woman is fertile or not. From this, the reader can deduce that the main role of Rabelais’s women was to provide their husbands with heirs and also  with “domestic comfort and good housekeeping.” 7 This notion is also underlined in other parts of the book. For example, in the chapter entitled “How Panurge consulted Pantagruel as to whether he should marry” , Panurge holds that women ought to take care of their husbands and provide them with children: “unmarried (…) if I happened to fall ill, I should not be at all well looked after. (…) there’s no other way of getting legitimate sons and daughters , by whom I can hope to perpetuate my name.”8

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        Similarly to Castiglione, Rabelais also underlines the importance of beauty and charm for women. This notion is especially visible in Panurge’s dream. In his dream, Rabelais’s character had a “young and charming wife, a perfect beauty, who treated [him] kindly, and made as much fuss of [him] as [he] was her darling fancy-boy.”9 This passage indicates that beauty and charm are indeed important. Nevertheless, these two traits do not seem to be as important for Rabelais as they are for Castigione. Later in the book, Rabelais’s characters express their belief that a woman should cherish her husband, do everything she ...

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