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Sixteenth-century ‘rederijker’ farce: extreme bodies and derailed language

15 April 2008

In the farces written by sixteenth-century rhetoricians (‘rederijkers’), the human body is presented as ‘a sack of skin full of flesh and bones’ and the language runs away with its users, according to Femke Kramer. Kramer will be awarded her PhD on 24 April 2008 by the University of Groningen for her thesis Mooi vies, knap lelijk [Beautifully disgusting, wonderfully ugly], about the aesthetics of this unknown dramatic repertoire by amateur writers who dominated the cultural life of the Southern and Western Low Countries in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


The rhetoricians make their farcical personages wax lyrically and indiscreetly about their extravagant postures, their aging skin or their emaciated carcasses. For example, one woman boasts that she has the waistline ‘of a cart’ and thighs ‘as thick as those of a mare’. They also love to dwell on food by telling stories of their revels, or by rubbing food all over themselves and each other. The heightened emotions and violent actions this often leads to are described in great detail. Kramer: ‘For example, the personages often describe in great detail their plans to knock their opponent’s nose into his brain.’ There’s also a lot of cursing and swearing, and in addition to Roman Catholic saints, the most exotic beings are called upon to exorcise the devil from someone possessed, for example. ‘But everything is always presented in beautifully formulated sentences full of resounding words and wonderful metaphors,’ according to Kramer. ‘The pleasure the rhetoricians had in their writing just leaps off the page.’  

Experimental cultural phase

It is generally assumed that this aestheticization of extremes, ‘ugliness’ and violence, called ‘grotesque realism’ by Mikhail Bakhtin, indicates that the culture was in an experimental phase. ‘The descriptions of the extreme, earthy and organic dimensions of existence were at the time not suppressed by aesthetic norms dedicated to balance and perfection,’ according to Kramer. The literary innovations from the same period also confirm that rhetorician literature was going through such an experimental phase. Kramer: ‘The rhetoricians developed all kinds of new genres, for example the morality play, and also experimented with verse forms and rhyming schemes in their poetry.’ 

Catalogue with summaries

The 77 farces examined by Kramer have not previously been studied systematically by theme and language treatment. Some of them are not even published in modern editions. ‘That’s partly why I include a catalogue of summaries of the plays at the back of my book.’ That the grotesque-realistic aesthetics in rhetorician farce has not been noticed in the past is, in the researcher’s opinion, due to the strong focus in literary historiography on the social and ideological function of historical texts. Kramer: ‘I hope that my study will encourage not only literary historians but also theatre studies scholars to conduct further research into the theatrical and literary qualities of this repertoire.’ 

Curriculum Vitae

Femke Kramer (1963) works at the University of Groningen as a lecturer in writing and presentation skills and academic communication, and as a writing consultant and educational advisor. She is the joint founder of Theatre Group Marot and joint organizer of two international festivals for Medieval and Early Renaissance theatre. Kramer will be awarded her PhD by the Faculty of Arts. Her supervisors are Prof. M. Gosman and Prof. D. Coigneau (Ghent). Her thesis is entitled Mooi vies, knap lelijk. Grotesk realisme in rederijkerskluchten. 

More  information

F.L. Kramer, tel. 050 - 363 51 85 (work), e-mail: f.l.kramer  

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.
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