By Nicholas Barone
William Theiss is a PhD candidate in early modern European history at Princeton University. He received a BA in comparative literature from Yale University in 2016 and an MPhil in early modern history from the University of Cambridge in 2017. His previous scholarly work has appeared here in the JHI Blog and the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.
Theiss discussed his recent JHI article, “The Abbé d’Aubignac’s Homer and the Culture of the Street in Seventeenth-Century Paris,” published in January 2023, with contributing editor Nick Barone.
Nick Barone: Let’s begin with some basic empirical context. Who was François Hédelin, abbé d’Aubignac? What was his intellectual and educational background?
William Theiss: Hédelin was a French priest who lived from 1604 to 1676, and he took the name d’Aubignac after the property where he was a cleric. But although this property was not in Paris, and although he himself grew up in the provinces, he was the consummate Parisian. He was one of those pre-Revolutionary abbés who were religious in name, but in fact dedicated themselves to erudition or literature. Being the tutor to the nephew of the Cardinal Richelieu, even though this nephew died in a naval battle, put d’Aubignac at the center of arguably the first great age in Parisian literature, the so-called classical age, even though d’Aubignac’s own relationship to this milieu was as of a parasite and an increasingly unpopular gadfly. He wrote notorious screeds against the poet Corneille, and since Corneille was and remains a canonical French author, d’Aubignac comes across as a ridiculous and petty figure. I should also say that unlike many of the other abbés of the Academie Française, d’Aubignac was not especially erudite—ironically for an innovative scholar of Homer, he probably didn’t know much Greek.
I came across d’Aubignac because his book Conjectures académiques, ou Dissertation sur l’Iliade wound up on my generals exam reading list on Greek philology when I was in my second year of graduate school, advised by Joshua Billings. This is a speech that d’Aubignac delivered in the 1660s toward the end of his life, first published long after his death in 1715. There was no English translation, but there are plenty of French editions, so I picked it up from the library and was immediately transfixed. For one thing, the book is hilarious. But for another, it seemed true: it seemed to lay out a theory of the oral transmission of Homeric poetry that is somehow not so different from what some scholars believe today, and yet it did so from a polemic against the poem and a condemnation of it. So all I had at first was the pleasure of spending time with d’Aubignac on the page, and the question of where this wild book came from.
NB: You deftly toggle between different methodological registers, preoccupations, and approaches in this article—contextualist intellectual history, Darntonian cultural history, urban studies, Bourdeiuan social theory, the history of classical reception, the politics of reading and translation. How did you arrive at this theoretical syncretism? What questions initially animated your project? Put more vulgarly, who were your primary influences in drafting this article?
WT: Thank you! I should say that this article has no new archival discoveries, and it does not unearth anything that is not widely available in the library. Instead, the point is to bring together two worlds of scholarship that have each yielded important results but have not spoken much to each other. One the one hand, there is the urban history of Paris, which was the European city par excellence even before Hausmann’s famous modernizing project, as scholars such as Hilary Ballon, Joan DeJean, and Nicholas Hammond have shown, among others. On the other hand, there’s the history of classical scholarship, which has been investigating for a long time the cultural history of the reception of ancient texts and especially Homer—I mean scholars such as Anthony Grafton, Glenn Most, Luigi Ferreri, and Kirsti Simonsuuri. So when d’Aubignac writes, We know there was no Homer because of the way that Parisian street-performers sing on the Pont Neuf, I thought, wait a minute: what? What did d’Aubignac see on the streets of Paris that led him to make this absurd claim? To answer your question, d’Aubignac was the original toggler, the person who connected the ethnography of Parisian street life, almost like a seventeenth-century Catholic Walter Benjamin, with a new social theory of the transmission of culture across class and a new theory of Homer.
NB: Can you walk us through the state of Homeric criticism before Hédelin’s interventions? From what prior intellectual labors did the “Homeric Question” emerge?
WT: I can try. The criticism of Homer was alive and well in antiquity, including in Plato’s Athens, where he complained about the singers who were singing Homeric verse for money. At the library of Alexandria, in the Hellenistic period, ancient critics developed what we call textual criticism in order to set the definitive text of Homer for the first time. Rumors also swirled in antiquity that perhaps Homer had sung rather than written his poetry and that the Greek tyrant Peisistratus had had to gather the different verse fragments centuries after they were performed, and as Tania Demetriou has shown, the best Renaissance scholars, including Isaac Casaubon, had perked up their ears at comments like this, and begun to wonder whether Homer was different from all other poets and all other texts. They invented the special aura around Homer that persists to this day.
All of this debate was a little above d’Aubignac’s head, and he was not familiar with all of it. Instead, his criticism of Homer came more in our sense of the word criticism: was Homer a good poet? Was the Iliad a good book? D’Aubignac’s heresy was to say, not even close. The book is disorganized, repetitive, with too many battles and no unified plot, and it’s boring. It violates every principle of classical poetics. But the genius of his Academic Conjectures was to say that the book is so bad that it could not have been written by a single author. Instead, all of its flaws are explained by its having been transmitted orally by different poets over a long period and then “stitched” together. This is how he got from the terribleness to the non-existence of Homer.
NB: In an elegant and provocative condensation of your argument on 87, you write, “The death of Homer began with the construction of a bridge.” What modes of sociability did the Pont Neuf instantiate? How do you understand the relationship between new forms of public social intercourse, aesthetic perception, and what you call the “intense experimentation with literary form” that characterized this period?
WT: Most medieval and early modern European bridges were piled high with shops and houses. They were claustrophobic and built up, so that a pedestrian on a European bridge before the seventeenth century would probably not be able to see the water, whether the Seine, the Danube, the Rhine, or the Thames. The London Bridge is a prime example of such a bridge, which had shops and houses until it was destroyed and rebuilt in the Fire of London in the late seventeenth century. The Pont Neuf in Paris was perhaps the first bridge in European history to be consciously designed with sidewalks and viewing turrets instead of buildings—for a while, sidewalks themselves or banquettes were actually synonymous with the Pont Neuf—and this had profound consequences for the way that people interacted with space in Paris. First, it was beautiful, and it made the Seine beautiful. Second, everybody wanted to gather there, to walk from bank to bank or to the Île de la Cité. Finally, the sidewalks let the bridge become the arena for musical and dramatic performance, the same way that any public square in any major city does today. These players and singers were cultural entrepreneurs, and their experiments were what gave d’Aubignac the idea of using the Parisian streetscape to argue for the non-existence of Homer.
NB: How did the economic and cultural stratification of Paris during this time shape d’Aubignac’s “social theory of Homeric poetry”? On what understanding of cultural transmission and interclass relations did such a theory rest? How did “the culture of the street” alter, reconfigure, or render visible the symbolic function of class difference in establishing a literary work’s provenance and quality?
WT: With other aristocrats, d’Aubignac found the bridge scene to be amusing and diverting but ultimately worthless. In fact, for him, the worthlessness of Parisian street culture matched only the worthlessness of Homeric poetry. This was one of the keys to his theoretical innovation. Our vision of Parisian cultural history is of course different, and we have learned, partially thanks to Robert Darnton, to regard the literary underclass of Paris as the hero of Enlightenment intellectual history. So d’Aubignac observed correctly—and part of my article tries to verify this—that singers on the Pont Neuf, especially the blind performer Philippot le Savoyard, sang famous airs de cour composed by Lully or other arias that had been heard first in Versailles. But when d’Aubignac heard the Pont Neuf singers performing well-known songs, he could not regard them as authors, because “authors” were famous poets who wrote for the stage of Richelieu. He regarded them instead as beggars. By contrast, when Milman Parry studied oral poetry in Yugoslavia in the twentieth century, he easily saw that the rural performers he recorded on his recording machines were authors of the deepest and most ingenious creativity. That’s why, to put it a little too simply, d’Aubignac and Parry arrived at almost the same theory of the oral transmission of Homer, but from completely opposite perspectives, one from the contempt for street culture and the other from admiration. And that’s why Homer exists more for Parry than for d’Aubignac.
NB: The blind street-savant Philippot le Savoyard is one of the more delightfully aberrant characters who populate your story, and his dialogic encounters with Homer, plebeian and court culture, and the semiotic tapestry of the new Parisian cityscape provide a rich analytic aperture through which to view how d’Aubignac posed and grappled with the Homeric question. Can you say a bit more about Philippot––the archival traces he left, the different ways in which he was “read,” and the cultural repertoire from which he drew? Did you encounter him first through d’Aubignac?
WT: Curiously, and probably on purpose, d’Aubignac never mentions Philippot in his Conjectures académiques. But after I encountered Philippot in the literature on Parisian street life in the seventeenth century, it became clear that d’Aubignac’s book is to a large extent about him. Philippot says that he was also the son of a singer, and presumably, based on the nickname, he came from Savoy. He wasn’t just active on the Pont Neuf in the 1640s and 1650s: to a large extent, he defined it, and he was the bridge’s great impresario. We know that he would sing songs in the company of a boy or several boys, who would help attract a crowd, and that he would play the hurdy-gurdy, which is like a cranked violin. There are a few valuable documents that let us reconstruct the world of Philippot: there is a beautiful painting in Philadelphia of Philippot leading a kind of bacchic procession; there are two books of his songs, which were printed on cheap paper at the base of the Pont Neuf, and which have never been critically edited or translated; and there is a kind of interview he supposedly gave to another seventeenth-century poet, Charles Coypeau. Immersing myself in these, I realized that Philippot was even more fascinating than d’Aubignac. In every way, he operated a kind of burlesque, making fun of himself, of his audience, of the city of Paris, and of the entire poetic tradition. Moreover, he actually claimed himself, in one of his songs, that he was like Homer, because he and Homer both drank themselves blind and were condemned to sing from door to door in exchange for money. So Philippot was actually Homer and Homeric theorist in one. And d’Aubignac clearly lifted his own theory of Homeric song from Philippot, a prospect that creates a dizzying hall of mirrors. Who was the author of the theory that Homer was not the author of the poems ascribed to him? The only possible answer is: Paris.
NB: A dialectic between intellectual, imaginative, and physical labor unfolds in this account, particularly in your discussion of blindness (I am reminded also that John Milton composed Paradise Lost after he lost most of his sight through dictating his verse to his daughter, Deborah). How did d’Aubignac interpret the relationship between different sensorial and perceptual capacities—and the role of the body in aesthetic labor more broadly?
WT: I’m so glad you mentioned Milton, because Milton and Philippot le Savoyard were contemporaries, each was a blind poet, and each was self-consciously competing for the mantle of Homer. Milton did this by revering Homer and nobly claiming for himself the title of the skilled epic poet. Philippot did this by dragging Homer down into the street with him and by impugning Homer as a drunk beggar. But d’Aubignac had his own experience of profane performance, or bodily performance, which he had been pondering for decades by the time he encountered Philippot on the Pont Neuf and devised his Homeric theory. And here lies the importance of Loudun. In the 1630s, d’Aubignac went to Loudun to investigate the notorious possessions of Ursuline nuns there, possessions that were the subject of a great book by Michel de Certeau. D’Aubignac argued that not only were the possessions a forgery, but that he had seen bodies perform more elaborate contortions in the circuses and theaters of Paris, where, if the nuns performed, they would be applauded. This is what your question gets at by asking about the role of the body. Singing bodies and performing bodies were a spectacle in Paris and d’Aubignac used them to banish demons and gods, including Homer.
NB: What are you working on right now? How might your research on d’Aubignac relate to your dissertation work—however elliptically—on local village manuscript preservation and the development of recognizably modern practices of state administration in central Europe?
WT: I imagined working on this article as an escape from my dissertation, which everybody needs. Unconsciously there probably were some underlying connections. In the most abstract terms, my other research is about embedded observers and anthropologists in otherwise inaccessible premodern communities, whether the oral culture of the Paris underground or Central European rural society. My dissertation is about the history of writing in the second scenario and the transition from the early modern to the modern period.
Nick Barone is a third-year PhD student in the Department of History at Princeton, specializing in modern Britain and Europe. His research focuses on the social, cultural, and intellectual dimensions of political apathy in nineteenth-century Britain and its empire, with an eye towards homologous developments on the continent. He has secondary interests in the comparative history of European statecraft, post-Kantian philosophy, aesthetics, and the history of the family. Nick graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar College in 2019 with a B.A. in English and History. He has also completed graduate work at Brown University in literary studies.
Featured image: Hendrick Mommers, Vue de Paris et de la Seine, prise du milieu du Pont- Neuf. A droite, le palais du Louvre, 1665/6. Photo copyright 2010, RMNGrand Palais (Musée du Louvre), Stéphane Maréchalle.