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Database of Obscenities

Gossip and Nonsense: Excessive Language in Renaissance France

This project, funded by an AHRC research grant award, explores the uses of gossip and nonsense in literature during the French Renaissance. Investigating Renaissance gossip and nonsense in both well-known and less famous works will provide a unique perspective onto the past, an insight into part of our cultural heritage which would otherwise remain hidden, while it will also shed light on concerns of the present day as gossip and nonsense still play a part in everyday life, ranging from the gossip columns of tabloids to incomprehensible official jargon.

Gossip and nonsense have a particular power in the historical context of Renaissance France because they mark the point where the contemporary style of linguistic excess, seen in abundant lists, fulsome praise, and overflowing rhetoric, seems to go too far, in terms of either morality or meaning or both. Indeed, the great Dutch humanist Erasmus, whose guidebooks on how to write copiously were enormously influential throughout Europe, was also one of the foremost theorists of the dangers of an unbridled tongue.

Neither gossip nor nonsense has been much studied as far as French Renaissance literature is concerned, yet they demand sustained enquiry. Gossip has an important role to play in Renaissance stories, given its unusual capacity both to reinforce links between those sharing gossip and undermine social networks, by casting damaging aspersions on individuals. Indeed, gossip became a literary genre of the time, as male writers expressed their political views through works purporting to transcribe the gossip of women of all social classes. Nonsense can pose even more basic questions, as the chapters of nonsense penned by Rabelais call interpretation itself into question. Yet, like gossip, nonsense can serve political or moral purposes, mocking the kind of legal and medical writings and practices that sought to order the messiness of human experience. Hence our research will uncover the wide range of social, political and moral uses made of nonsense and gossip in French Renaissance literary texts.

This project is a continuation of a research network on the notion of Obscenity in Renaissance France, also funded by the AHRC (2007-09).

This project, managed by Dr Hugh Roberts (University of Exeter) and Dr Emily Butterworth (King’s College London), will study gossip and nonsense as twin aspects of a culture of excessive language in Renaissance France. We plan to make our research known through 2 books (a monograph on gossip authored by Butterworth and another on nonsense by Roberts), a PhD thesis, an interdisciplinary symposium and workshop involving an international group of researchers and leading to a special issue of a journal, panels at 2 conferences, this website, 2 refereed articles, and artwork produced by Dom Hills and Clare Qualmann in collaboration with the project team.

Principal Investigator

Professor Hugh Roberts (University of Exeter)


Dr Emily Butterworth (King's College London)

PhD Student

Anna Blaen

Advisory board

Professor Michel Jeanneret (Université de Genève)


Dom Hills

Clare Qualmann

International participants in symposium and workshop

Dr Mathilde Bombart (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3)

Dr Andrea Brady (Queen Mary, University of London)

Dr Dominique Brancher (Universität Basel)

Professor Jeanice Brooks (University of Southampton)

Callan Davies (University of Exeter)

Dr Filippo de Vivo (Birkbeck University of London)

Professor Mark Greengrass (University of Sheffield)

Dr Grégoire Holtz (University of Toronto)

Professor Nicholas McDowell (University of Exeter)

Professor Guillaume Peureux (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense)

Professor Adam Zucker (University of Massachusetts Amherst)


Renaissance Society of America, San Diego, 4-6 April 2013

Organizer: Hugh Roberts
Chair: Una McIlvenna

  • Hugh Roberts, 'French Renaissance Nonsense Poetry: From coq-à-l'âne to galimatias'
  • Mathilde Bombart, 'Constituer une dignité d'auteur: pratiques de la rumeur et de la calomnie dans les querelles littéraires du premier XVII siècle'
  • Guillaume Peureux, 'Discours insensés et excessifs: réflexions sur la renaissance de la satire'

Symposium: 'Gossip and Nonsense: Excessive Language in Renaissance England and France'

University of Exeter, 4-5 July 2013

Symposium Programme