skip to content

FR8: Wondrous Forms in the Age of Montaigne

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

This course connects two dimensions of the Renaissance fascination with ‘form’: i) limit forms at the margins of human experience (e.g. heroes, prodigies, natural marvels, witches, tyrants, cannibals, monstrous births, impostors) and ii) the newly emerging literary forms of the period (e.g. emblem, sonnet, modular narrative, tragedy, essai). In Michaelmas Term these preoccupations are surveyed with reference to the Renaissance period (c. 1520-1610) as a whole; authors studied will include Clément Marot, François Rabelais, Maurice Scève, Marguerite de Navarre, Pernette du Guillet, Joachim Du Bellay, Jean de Léry, Agrippa d’Aubigné, and François de Rosset. Duly contextualised, this dual sense of the ‘wondrous form’ will then be developed in Lent and Easter Terms through a detailed study of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais (1580/88). ‘Je n’ay veu monstre et miracle au monde plus expres que moy-mesme’ [‘I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself’], Montaigne writes in ‘Des boyteux’ [‘On the lame’], his celebrated chapter on witchcraft. His Essais range over a bewildering variety of limit phenomena, perhaps none more so than the extravagant wondering/wandering of his own mind.

No prior knowledge of French Renaissance literature and thought is required to take this course, though it may be of special interest to those who have taken Fr.4 at Part IB. Upon completing Fr.8 students will have secured a good general knowledge of French Renaissance writing, along with an in-depth understanding of a major figure of world literature.



Topics covered in lectures and supervisions will include, in Michaelmas Term, the Renaissance confrontation with ancient wonders which – some thought – might never be surpassed (Rabelais, Du Bellay and others); the discovery of New World marvels (Jean de Léry); literary novelties (Clément Marot’s coq-à-l’âne, Maurice Scève’s emblems, Étienne Jodelle’s tragedies, Rémy Belleau’s Petites Inventions), including novel modes of storytelling (Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron); demonology and the French witch craze (François de Rosset); the ‘magic’ of tyranny (Étienne de la Boétie); and wonder, horror and religious violence (Agrippa d’Aubigné). In Lent Term a sustained study of selections from Montaigne’s Essais will revisit the questions explored in the first term, with a particular focus the essai form; monstrosity moral and literal; sorcery and scepticism; and prodigious imposture (the case of Martin Guerre) and changing conceptions of the self.


Primary Texts

Clément Marot, L’Adolescence Clementine [1532]

Maurice Scève, Délie [1544]

Pernette du Guillet, Rymes [1545]

François Rabelais, Le Quart Livre [1552]

Étienne de La Boétie, Discours de la servitude volontaire [1554?]

Marguerite de Navarre, Heptameron [1558] (selections)

Joachim Du Bellay, Les Antiquitez de Rome, Les Regrets [1558]

Jean de Léry, Histoire d’un voyage faict en la terre de Bresil [1578]

Michel de Montaigne, Essais [1580/88] (selection)

François de Rosset, Histoire memorables et tragiques [1609]

Agrippa d’Aubigné, Les Tragiques [1616] (selection)


Preparatory reading: 

FRANCE, Peter, ed., The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), articles ‘Humanism’, ‘Reformation’, ‘Renaissance’, and individual author entries.

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

KAY, S., T. CAVE, and M. BOWIE, A Short History of French Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2003), pp. 99-143

HOLT, M. (ed), Renaissance and Reformation France, 1500-1648 (Oxford: OUP, 2002)

KRAYE, J. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism (Cambridge: CUP, 1996)

RICKARD, P., A History of the French Language  (London: Routledge, 1989 [second ed.]), pp. 81-99


Introductory reading list

A more detailed introductory reading list can be found here. The full reading list for the course will appear on the Moodle course page for Fr.8.


Teaching and learning: 

The paper is taught through weekly lectures during Michaelmas and Lent Terms; two revision seminars in Easter Term; and 10 fortnightly supervisions throughout the year. Fr.8 will also have its own dedicated course page on Moodle.



The paper is assessed through a three-hour written paper in which candidates will answer TWO questions (one from Section A and Section B). Section A consists of broad questions to be answered using a range of texts studied in Michaelmas term; Section B is specific to Montaigne, and involves a choice of both commentary and essay questions. Alternatively, students can choose to submit an Optional Dissertation.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Tim Chesters