Febvre, Lucien. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais. Trans. Beatrice Gottlieb. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
On the surface, Lucien Febvre’s The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century is a riposte to Abel Lefranc’s startling 1922 denunciation of Francois Rabelais as an atheist. In Lefranc’s estimation, Rabelais’ light-hearted works were a cover for a serious attack on the Catholic Church and of Christianity. Since he began publishing in 1532, this placed Rabelais well ahead of a wave of later critics, and also raises the question of why Rabelais, like so many others, were not burned at the stake for heresy. Febvre addresses Lefranc’s wild claims by both refuting their content, but also attacks his methodology as a historian. In many ways this is the most interesting aspect of Febvre’s work.
As one of the founders of the Annales school of historiography, Febvre argued for history that looked beyond high politics, diplomacy, and war to examine the whole of society. This examination could not be a top-down affair, which focused on the culture and practices of the elites, but should be a bottom-up affair. The advantage of this “history from the bottom” is that it provides a broader and clearer view of the issues and attitudes of the vast majority of the people, rather than the top ten percent (xxii). Because there are fewer documents directly referring to the lives and thoughts of ordinary people, this approach to history is very difficult despite the promise it holds.
Febvre focused on the trickiest aspect of history at the grass roots level, what he called mentalite, or the thoughts and feelings people and groups. In The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, he uses the mentalite of sixteenth century writers and their customers to strike blows against Lefranc’s contention that Rabelais was an atheist. On key example is this particular epithet. Febvre argues that in the sixteenth century conservative polemicists used the word atheist like later generations would use communist or liberal to tar those with wild and disruptive ideals. Lacking context, Lefranc was unable to discern this bit of nuance (133). In this way, those who disagreed with Rabelais sought to label him with terms that would evoke a visceral negative reaction from emotional and non-critical. Febvre insists that amassing this sort of contextual cultural map is a key requirement before analyzing the past. Without requisite knowledge of the mentalite of the period, Febvre believes that Lefranc committed the unpardonable error of projecting modern concerns and attitudes back on his subject.
Febvre’s approach and concerns are valid for any era or approach to historical research, despite, or even due to, the difficult of addressing them. Interpreting grand events, diplomacy, and war based solely on the written documents of governments, businesses, and armies seems cleaner and surer on the surface, and this is where my comfort zone resides. The business of saying what happened feels and looks surer and less dangerous than determining why those things occurred beyond the most superficial level since they remove the appearance of individuals from the analysis.
The problem is that this approach skews the picture. Without delving into the softer, more hidden aspects of actor’s personalities, even those clear documents only provide so much information. This steps into the realm of the unknown, the interpretive, and sometimes seems like divination or guess work that too easily conforms to the prejudices of the historian. At the lower rungs of the social ladder this tendency may become more pronounced – a historian of the Civil War examining the reasons soldiers fought for the Confederacy may attribute motives that make sense to him, rather than what may be sensible to those who actually fought due to a lack of evidence. When looking at the motivations of American or French soldiers fighting in Vietnam, I struggle to view the conflicts through their interpretive framework rather than my own. Since the past is gone, we have to find a way to interact with it in ways that do not add additional layers of distortion. By countering Lefranc’s portrayal of Rabelais as an atheist, Febrve was attempting to both correct the record, and show historians how to avoid the same errors.