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The Abbé d’Aubignac and the Death of Homer

Will Theiss

Princeton University

François Hédelin (1604-1676), the abbé d’Aubignac, wrote the Conjectures académiques, ou, Dissertation sur l’Iliade sometime in the 1660s. He intended to shock. Homer, he was the first to argue, never existed. The Iliad was boring and much too long. Its protagonists were misconceived. What hero would spend his time cooking ‘stews’ by his ship, as Achilles does in book 9, ‘like a good butler’?

The Conjectures were published posthumously in 1715. Historians have therefore tended to write d’Aubignac into the margins of the famous eighteenth-century Homeric debates: first the querelles des anciens et des moderns, and later the German scholarship of F. A. Wolf. By contrast, I argue that theConjectures must be seen in their seventeenth-century context, in the Paris and Versailles of Richelieu and Louis XIV. It was by projecting this world back into antiquity, I show, that d’Aubignac reached his startling conclusions. In particular, the court culture and dramatic culture of his time gave d’Aubignac the tools to demolish Homer and deconstruct the Iliad.

As a courtier, d’Aubignac tutored the nephews of Richelieu and banqueted in Versailles. He therefore observed that the songs performed at court later circulated in the streets of Paris: ‘the strains of our royal ballets go secretly in the mouths of the valets and gatekeepers, and fall into the hands of beggars.’ This gave d’Aubignac a model for understanding oral epic. Ancient singers performed at court; they sang short, heroic songs; these songs ‘fell from Court into the crossroads’ and became the property of the blind, wandering poets of Greece whom later writers called Homer. D’Aubignac thus used the sociology of contemporary song to feed his Homeric scholarship long before Milman Parry went to Yugoslavia.

As a dramatist, d’Aubignac wrote French classical tragedy, engaged in pamphlet warfare with Corneille, and authored the influential Pratique du théâtre (1657). This, I argue, furnished the other pillar of his history of the Iliad. What the ancient singers performed at court, according to d’Aubignac, was tragedy before the invention of actors, ‘played entirely through the chorus’. And the ridiculous ‘burlesques’ of the Iliad that so grated on d’Aubignac were nothing other than the fourth acts—the ‘satyr plays’—known to be a part of ancient drama.

But by demolishing Homer, d’Aubignac also rescued the Iliad. As a whole, the poem was disastrous. But broken up into ‘little tales’ and ‘hors-d’oeuvres’, as the tragedies were originally sung, each piece retained its beauty. If this dialectic of analysis and unitarianism is the characteristically modern way of reading Homer, I conclude, it was nevertheless born in the seventeenth century.

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Homer in the Renaissance

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