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FR3: Inventing French Literature

This paper is available for the academic year 2024-25.

Inventing French Literature

This paper will introduce students to the earliest literature in the French language, composed and written down ca. 1050–1300.

The High Middle Ages was a time of great innovation in French literary culture. Many of our notions about what literature is and what it can do can be begin to take shape in this period. Medieval French literature also elaborates ideas about what it means to fight for a country; how racial otherness is constructed and marked; and how we behave in love.



Students will read:

  • the epic songs that recount the deeds of Charlemagne and the peers of France
  • tales of the wonderous deeds of the saints
  • bawdy tales about peasants, merchants, and lecherous priests
  • the first romances of Arthur, Lancelot, and the Round Table
  • plays staged in town squares, featuring knights, martyrs, angels, publicans, and criminals
  • the songs sung by women as they sewed and by kings in their halls

Along the way, students will learn why, how, and in what form French first came to be written down, what the words ‘literature’ and ‘the author’ meant in the Middle Ages, the role that patrons and audiences played in the creation of this new vernacular literature, and how texts were performed, read, and transmitted. They will become sensitive to the way writers answered the challenges—and exploited the opportunities—offered by a language that was only beginning to be inscribed on the page and how the French language earned its literary credentials. Finally, students will learn how genres were shaped by particular signifying practices and dominant ideologies, but they will also see how individual authors could use literature to call those ideologies into question, to understand the relationship between France and the larger world, and to imagine other worlds.


Preparatory reading: 


We strongly encourage students to begin exploring the material over the summer.

A full list of preparatory materials can be found here.


Teaching and learning: 

The paper is taught in weekly lectures throughout Michaelmas and Lent terms. In addition, there will be two workshops on reading Old French language at the beginning of the year and two revision seminars in Easter term, all at the Faculty. There will be several more, optional workshops on reading specific Old French texts during Michaelmas and Lent terms. Students will receive 8–10 supervisions in college.




The paper is assessed via an exam of three sections. Each section offers multiple questions, of which students must choose and answer one. Section A comprises comparative essay questions concerning the special topic. Section B offers essay questions on individual texts, authors, or genres. Section C is the commentary section (choice of three passages). This paper is also available for examination by Long Essay.


Course Contacts: 
Dr Mary Franklin-Brown