On 1 January 1582 the poet and scholar Jean Passerat (1534–1602) sent a gift to his patron Henri de Mesmes: a poem in Latin hexameters about nothing (“De nihilo”). It became a literary sensation, prompting, over the next decades, a long and varied sequence of poetic and prose responses in Latin and vernacular languages by various authors competing to out-do Passerat, and one another, in ingenuity. Why did this poem catch the imagination of so many as the sixteenth century turned into the seventeenth? This article offers the first complete account of the ‘Nothing’ phenomenon, as it passed between multiple languages, literary genres and cultural contexts. It traces its dissemination via networks linked to institutions of learning, to academies and salons, to patrons and to coteries of poets. Focusing on the French context in particular, it then goes on to argue that the literary and political significance of these texts is greater than has hitherto been recognized.
The majority of early modern authors who wrote Latin verse wrote love poems. They did so in a variety of genres and styles, engaging not only with classical Roman and Greek models, but also with mediaeval and contemporary vernacular traditions of poetry. Their poetry had a transnational dimension, but also needs to be situated within local and national contexts. They used the poetic discourse of love to reflect and comment on wider social, ethical and literary issues, and reconfigured its codes of representation in response to changing conceptions of love in the philosophical and religious spheres. Their poetry often aligned itself with dominant discourses of power and gender, but it could also be subtly subversive or even openly transgressive.