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

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

The seventeenth century has a huge place in the French cultural imagination and is vital for the study of francophone literary history more generally, as so many later writers and theorists engage critically with the period. In Fr9, we study dramatists such as Corneille, Racine and Molière, whose intense portrayals of passion and comedic depictions of error remain a central part of the French educational curriculum. We examine intellectual developments that try to shatter previous ways of thinking: Descartes’s vigilant mindfulness, or Pascal’s depictions of an interstellar universe that extends from the infinitely great to the infinitely small, leaving human beings displaced and decentred. We look at the short, polished fragments and maxims of writers like La Rochefoucauld or La Bruyère, who want to hold a mirror up to the world around them, while contemporaries like La Fontaine and Perrault shift the formal focus onto fables and fairy tales, where human and non-human animals and worlds collide and the ‘moral of the story’ is never as simple as it seems.  Prolific writers such as Mme de Sévigné and Mme de Lafayette are interested in dissecting the patriarchal society they inhabit: what does it mean, they ask, to be defined as a mother or a daughter, and is it possible to challenge traditional models of authority while existing within them? Playful, collaborative forms of authorship emerging from female-dominated salons provide a whole new model for literary production at this time, even as the absolutist king Louis XIV controls and choreographs his every move against the extraordinary backdrop of Versailles. Meanwhile, satirists observe the supernatural aura surrounding king and church and state, and find the compelling subversive potential within… Throughout, reason and authority are submitted to the test of everyday experience, in all the different forms this takes. Whether we are recovering little-known voices from the past or reconsidering the canon, the better to question its history, the sights and sounds of Fr9 will stay with you throughout your studies in Part II and beyond. 



Section A of the written examination paper will consist of a comparative essay with a choice of topic: ‘Gender politics’ or ‘Soundscapes’. Section B will consist of an essay with a focus on the writings of individual authors, and in Section C you will be able to give a close. reading of a commentary passage

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

The full FR9 reading list is available on the FR9 Moodle site

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


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: 
Prof. Emma Gilby