The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel.
Whilst searching through Medieval books and manuscripts for images of ‘witches’ and their symbols this book from 1565 emerged from the archives. It is an absurd collection of characters bound into a single volume, images only, except for a preface by the man who published it in 1565. The images are woodcuts, there are 120 in total and each deserves pause for thought and conjecture.
The publisher, a Frenchman called Richard Breton was a bookbinder, book illustrator and Protestant in the court of Catherine de Medici. He worked with a colleague, himself an artist, called Francois Desprez. He had previously published the work of Francois Rabelais, a satirist and lover of the grotesque of the early C16th who wrote a tale of two giants, Gargantua and of Pantagruel. Desprez had collaborated with Rabelais in the production of this work.
Twelve years after the death of Rabelais in 1553, the publisher Breton produced a volume of grotesques, ‘The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel’. The word drolatic meaning humorous or funny. Breton in his introduction, hints that the work is by Rabelais himself but is now thought to be the work of Breton’s partner Francois Desprez.
What of the images themselves?
They are grotesque and clearly meant to adhere to the time when the emergence of satire, of masked carnival and other seedy and disturbed behaviours were imagined and actuated in the growing European populations of the C16th. They are a mixture of man and animals, of imps and demons, with obvious sexual overtones. There is a suggestion of disease and sorcery as well.
The bizarre and disturbing can be found in Medieval and indeed earlier works of art. In architecture we see repeated grotesque images on Christian churches. They appear on the doorways, imps carved into high unseen corners or leering out of choir stalls ends, the grotesque was imagined in all places in Medieval life so why not printed into a book? Somehow though, we accept the grotesque on our religious buildings but when seen on page after page of a book, image after image with limited narrative then somehow it is all the more shocking and was that its purpose? Was it pointing out the cruel and absurd in life? Was it all about satire or did the images in some way play with the very real fears of demons and devils in Medieval society?
Take a look at some more of the images and judge for yourself.
The whole book can be seen online at archive.org
It has been added to our Resource table where we are attempting to curate online source material as much of it as possible open access.
Be warned he seems to enjoy the use of a lot of phallic imagery, along with frogs, fish and elephants.