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Renaissance Folly: Reading the Unreason of European Early Modernity

Class at Faculty of Arts |





An era of change and discovery, early modernity was an age that placed great faith in the capabilities of man and his reason. The world became larger to the Western mind and science and rationality sought to clarify and categorise the exciting discoveries. Yet, where reason reigns, folly gladly follows. This course is based on readings of some of the most celebrated texts of early modern folly, which expose the underside of the age’s received wisdom.

The course will start with Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, a work that introduced a new and paradoxical kind of philosophising to the European mind. Having described contextually and critically the prism of folly through which serious discourses of the Renaissance are refracted, we shall move through early modern Europe. We shall work from the great bodily farces of Eulenspiegel and Rabelais’ giants; through to the follies of the civic society as exposed in the texts of Aretino and Držić; and on to the regrettably overlooked Bohemian holy fool, Jan Paleček.

Finally, after paying close attention to Shakespeare’s mastery of folly in its comic, historical and tragic incarnations, the course will end with a look into Cervantes’ fooling with both fiction and Renaissance reality. Such tour of early modern Europe will ultimately tell a story of an age that coped with its own contradictions through the dynamic and multifaceted discourse of folly.

Since the working language of the course will be English, the primary texts for the course will be provided in

English translations, but students are strongly advised to work with originals, if possible. Primary texts will be accompanied by further reading. Each session will be introduced by a 10-minute student presentation covering key points from both primary and secondary texts. A discussion will follow, moderated by the instructor and concluded by instructor’s closing remarks or a short lecture.


Credits will be given on the basis of students’ presentations, their participation in discussions and a final essay

(4000 words max.), the topic of which is to be discussed with the instructor. Required class attendance is 75%

(three unexcused absences—not when one’s presentation is scheduled—will be tolerated).

COURSE SCHEDULE 1. Introduction 2. Approaching Renaissance Folly

Reading: Bakhtin, Mikhail, “Rabelais in the History of Laughter” in: Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky

(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984 [1965]) 59-144.

Foucault, Michel, “Stultifera Navis” in: History of Madness, trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa (London & New

York: Routledge, 2006 [1972]) 3-44. 3. The Paradoxical Wisdom of Folly: Desiderius Erasmus, Praise of Folly (1511)

Reading: Erasmus, Desiderius, The Praise of Folie, transl. Sir Thomas Chaloner, ed. by Clarence H. Miller, Early

English Text Society, 257 (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).

Kaiser, Walter, “The Praise of Folly”; “The Ironic Mock Encomium” in: Praisers of Folly: Erasmus, Rabelais,

Shakespeare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963) 19-27; 35-50. 4. Body as an Instrument of Folly: Till Eulenspiegel (c. 1512)

Reading: Oppenheimer, Paul, ed., Till Eulenspiegel. His Adventures (New York: Routledge, 2001). Or: Lindow,

Wolfgang, ed., Ein kurtzweilig Lesen von Dil Ulenspiegel nach dem Druck von 1515 (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1966).

Tales 1-46 and 89-95.

Classen, Albrecht, “Laughter as the Ultimate Epistemological Vehicle in the Hands of Till Eulenspiegel”

Neophilologus 92, no. 3 (July 1, 2008) 471–489. 5. Giant Reversals of Reason: Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564)

Reading: Rabelais, François, Gargantua and Pantagruel. Transl. M. A. Screech (London: Penguin, 2006). Or:

Rabelais, François, and Pierre Jourda, Œuvres Complètes. (Paris: Garnier frères, 1962). Books “Pantagruel” and


Defaux, Gerard, “Rabelais and the Monsters of Antiphysis”, MLN 110/5 (1995) 1017-42.

Schwartz, Jerome, “Introduction” in: Irony and Ideology in Rabelais: Structures of Subversion (Cambridge, 1990) 1

-6. 6. Making a Mockery of Modesty and Morality: Pietro Aretino, Dialogues (1534-1536)

Reading: Aretino, Pietro, Aretino’s Dialogues, transl. Raymond Rosenthal (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1971). Or: Aretino, Pietro, and Antonino Foschini, I Ragionamenti (Milano: Dall’Oglio, 1960). Part one—introduction and days one, two and three.

Waddington, Raymond B., “Ostentatio genitalium: Revaluing Sexuality” in: Aretino’s Satyr: Sexuality, Satire and

Self-Projection in Sixteenth Century Literature and Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) 3-33. 7. Playing with Politics in Renaissance Ragusa: Marin Držić, Uncle Maroje (1550)

Reading: Držić, Marin, Luko Paljetak, et al. Dundo Maroje=Uncle Maroje... (Dubrovnik: Matica Hrvatska, 2008). Or:

Držić, Marin, Dundo Maroje in Držić, Marin and Frano Čale, Djela (Zagreb: Liber, 1979) 339-524.

Čale, Frano, “Marin Držić between Philosophy and Politics”, in Comparative Studies in Croatian Literature (Zagreb:

Zavod za znanost o književnosti, 1972) 125-158. 8. The Wisdom of the Holy Fool: Histories of Brother Jan Paleček (1583)

Reading: “Budapešťský rukopis Artikulů Bratra Palečka” in: Urbánek, Rudolf, and Josef Hrabák, eds., Příspěvky k dějinám starší české literatury (Prague: Nakladatelsví Československé akademie věd, 1958) 83-89. English translation will be provided.

Šarochová, Gabriela V., “Kristovská postava bratra Jana Palečka, šaška” in: Marginalia Historica (Prague: Katedra dějin a didaktiky dějepisu Pedagogické fakulty UK 1, 1996) 25-39. 9. The Folly of History: William Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV (1597)

Reading: 1 Henry IV in: The Norton Shakespeare, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.,

Inc., 1997).

Bell, Robert, “The Anatomy of Folly in Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad.’” in Humor—International Journal of Humor

Research 14, no. 2 (2008) 181–201. 10. The Folly of Love: William Shakespeare, As You Like It (1599)

Reading: As You Like It in: The Norton Shakespeare, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W.W. Norton and

Co., Inc., 1997).

Ryan, Kiernan, “‘Ducdame’: As You Like It” in: Shakespeare’s Comedies (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009) 198-234. 11. The Folly of Hope: William Shakespeare, King Lear (c. 1603)

Reading: King Lear in: The Norton Shakespeare, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W.W. Norton and Co.,

Inc., 1997).

Bate, Jonathan, “Shakespeare’s Foolosophy”, in Shakespeare Performed: Essays in Honor of R. A. Foakes, ed. by

Grace Ioppolo (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2000), 17-33. 12. Foolish Fictions—Reality and Representation: Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605-1615)

Reading: Cervantes, Saavedra Miguel de, Don Quixote, transl. Edith Grossman (London: Vintage, 2005). Or:

Cervantes, Saavedra Miguel de, and Francisco Rico, Don Quijote De La Mancha (Madrid: Real Academia

Española, 2004). Chapters 1-11 and 25-27 of First Part; and 1-15 of Second Part. 

Wilson, Diana de Armas, “‘Unreason’s Reason’: Cervantes at the Frontiers of Difference” (Philosophy and

Literature, Volume 16, Number 1, 1992) 49-67.

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