skip to Main Content

The Cymbalum mundi is a funny and mysterious book published anonymously in 1537 in Paris, and again in 1538 in Lyon. A collection of satirical dialogues, it was very quickly censored and suppressed following an extraordinary intervention by King Francis I.

Only one copy of the Paris edition of the book survived destruction and is preciously preserved at the Bibliothèque municipale de Versailles. After disappearing from circulation for over 150 years, the “cymbal of the world” once again began to draw the attention of literati and book lovers following the publication of several new editions in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. For the past five centuries, scholars have been passionately debating its meaning: some believe it to be the first truly atheist work in French literature, while others view it as a perfectly Catholic or influenced by various forms of evangelical or libertine spirituality.

All agree, however, that it is a delightful masterpiece that is rich in meaning, well beyond these religious interpretations. This new English translation of the original text – accompanied by abundant annotations,  explanatory documents  and bibliographies – aims to share the joyous music of the Cymbalum Mundi with 21st-century readers. They should derive great pleasure from these dialogues featuring all-too-human gods, humans sorely lacking in divinity and curiously talkative animals: the book concludes indeed with a dialogue between two dogs!

All of these peculiar characters engage in comical conversations on serious themes such as the abuse of power, social inequalities, dishonesty, lust for glory, the dogmatic violence of religion, poor treatment of animals, sectarian polarization, “fake news,” the rejection of dialogue, etc. – all of which uncannily echo many of the issues we still face today, five centuries later.

Published on the cusp of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, a brief period in the history of humanity dominated by printed books and media, the Cymbalum Mundi resonates again today as we move into the digital age and this parenthesis appears to be closing.

What are the messages is this mysterious Cymbal trying to convey to us?

Mercure, messager des dieux

Mercure, messager des dieux.
Gravure de François Perrier, d’après Raphaël, c. 1625-1645

Back To Top