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FR9: Reason, experience, and authority: French literature, thought, and history, 1594-1700

This paper is available for 2021-22.

The period covered by this paper corresponds to France's emergence as the greatest and most culturally influential power in Europe. Its chronological starting-point is the effective end of the Wars of Religion; it ends in 1700 with Louis XIV still at the height of his power, before the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) put an end to France's European hegemony. It covers the central literary, cultural, and intellectual processes of the period: the flowering of theatre (tragedy and comedy), in a relationship of creative tension with dramatic theory; developments in prose fiction and in poetry; the challenge to scholasticism of new philosophies, especially Cartesianism; the increasing cultural prominence of women; the religious controversies associated with Jansenism; the stirrings of dissent from moral, religious, and political authority. Whether in exploring, or depicting, human nature, or in evaluating the productions of art, seventeenth-century writers, both male and female, weighed the claims of different approaches to the search for knowledge: the acceptance of traditional forms of authority, especially religious; reliance on the free operation of the reason; submitting both tradition and reason to the test of experience.


Section A of the written examination paper will consist of a comparative essay on one of the following general topics: ‘Gender politics’ or ‘Soundscapes’. Section B will consist of an essay with a narrower focus on the writings of individual authors. Lectures generally cover the drama of Corneille, Molière and Racine; the thought of Descartes and ‘moraliste’ writers such as La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère and La Fontaine; the letters of Mme de Sévigné; and the prose narrative of the seventeenth century, with an emphasis on Mme de Lafayette.  

Preparatory reading: 

N. Hammond, Creative Tensions: An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century French literature (London: Duckworth, 1997), in paperback.

A. Adam, Histoire de la littérature française au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Albin Michel, 1997, first published 1951-2), 3 volumes in paperback.

W. Burgwinkle, N. Hammond and E. Wilson (eds.), The Cambridge History of French Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), pp. 253-350.

S. Kay, T. Cave and M. Bowie, A Short History of French Literature (OUP, 2003), pp. 97-193.

R. Briggs, Early Modern France 1560-1715 (Oxford: OUP, 1997).


Full reading list

Please see the full reading list for Fr.9 here.

Teaching and learning: 

Teaching will take the form of lectures and supervisions, with students being expected to receive ten supervisions and twenty lectures in the course of the year. 

For the Fr.9 Moodle site, please see here. The password can be collected from the paper coordinator.


Assessment will be by examination, either a three-hour written paper or an optional dissertation. The examination paper will consist of three sections: a comparative essay on one of the general topics listed; an essay with a narrower focus on the writings of individual authors; and a linguistic commentary on a passage of text.

A specimen exam paper can be found here.

Course Contacts: 
Dr Emma Gilby (Michaelmas Term 2021)
Professor Michael Moriarty (Lent Term 2022 & Easter Term 2022)