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FR4: Rethinking the Human: French Literature, Thought and Culture, 1500-1700

This paper is available in the academic year 2023-24.

What does it mean to be 'human'? What kinds of 'human' are valued, and why - or why not? This paper covers key literary, cultural, philosophical and religious developments in the two centuries involved – the Renaissance, the Reformation (Protestant and Catholic), the consolidation of absolute monarchy, the revival of ancient philosophies and the emergence of new ones. It explores the effects of these developments, along with the impact of expanding geographical horizons, on inherited conceptions of human nature. Relationships such as those between body and soul, men and women, human knowledge and faith in God, self and other, are radically reinterpreted during this period. This activity of reinterpretation in an expanding, diverse world will be the main focus of the paper.

Learning outcomes:

  • Detailed knowledge of major texts of French literary and/or intellectual history.
  • Ability to read material written in earlier forms of the French language.
  • Ability to identify key literary conventions of the period (poetic and theatrical forms), and integrate this knowledge into interpretation of texts.
  • Ability to place texts in historical and intellectual context.
  • Ability to identify key interpretive issues raised by texts.
  • Grasp of the key historical and intellectual developments of the period, and ability to interpret texts with reference to these.
  • Ability to tie textual interpretation to close linguistic observation.
  • Ability to compare and contrast texts accurately and pertinently.
  • Ability to recognize and evaluate different approaches to texts, intellectual movements, schools of thought.


Prescribed texts for 2020/21

Rabelais, Pantagruel

Labé, Oeuvres complètes

Ronsard,  Discours des misères de ce temps

Montaigne, Essais, chapters 1, 31, III, 6 and III, 11

Pascal, Pensées

Molière, Le Tartuffe, Le Misanthrope, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

Racine, Bérénice, Britannicus, Andromaque

Lafayette, La Princesse de Clèves

Examination answers and Long Essays must be based on first-hand knowledge of the prescribed texts. Commentary passages in the exam will be taken from the prescribed texts. Lecturers may refer additionally to other material in their lectures, and students are encouraged to make use of such material in their Section A essays. In examinations up to and including 2013-14, the commentary passages were not taken from the prescribed texts, so past papers for that period are not a reliable guide to the current examination paper. The specimen paper is an accurate model, as are post 2015 examination paper.

Prescribed topic: 

Cultural Transformations

Preparatory reading: 

Kenny, N., An Introduction to Sixteenth-century French Literature and Thought: Other Times, Other Places (London, 2008)

Hammond, N, An Introduction to Seventeenth-century French Literature: Creative Tensions (London, 1997)

Kay, S., Cave, T., and Bowie, M., A Short History of French Literature (Oxford, 2003)


We strongly recommend that you read as many of the prescribed texts as possible before October.

Full reading list

The full reading list for Fr.4 is available here.


Teaching and learning: 

Teaching takes the form of 20 hours of lectures in tandem with 10 hours of supervision. Lectures in the Michaelmas term cover the sixteenth-century texts and context, and in the Lent Term, the seventeenth-century texts and context. In the Easter Term there are four commentary lectures.

Please see here for the Fr.4 Moodle site. 


The paper will be examined by final examination or by Long Essay. Long Essays must be based on the prescribed texts.

Students answer three questions, one each from Section A (general topic), Section B (prescribed texts) and Section C (commentary). Students are required to write on both centuries, but the choice as to how to do this is the student’s.

For an example of the current format of the exam paper, please see the specimen paper.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Tim Chesters