French Language and Literature

views updated

French Language and Literature

The Renaissance period both transformed and renewed French literature. Centuries-old traditions of poetry, fiction, and drama gave way to new forms that lasted into the twenty-first century. The period produced some of the greatest literary works ever written in French, including François Rabelais's mock epics* Gargantua and Pantagruel and Michel de Montaigne's Essays.


The French language grew out of the common Latin tongue of ancient Rome. Over the course of the Middle Ages, it developed into a distinct language with many dialects. The two most important were the langue d'oïl of northern France and the langue d'oc of southern France. Because the area around Paris (in northern France) served as the political and intellectual center of the kingdom, the northern dialect came to dominate the language. Most people used this version of French, but scholars, the clergy, and members of the legal and medical professions also used Latin for many forms of communication.

The French language took a great step forward in 1539, when Francis I decreed that judicial documents must be written in French. This decree made French the official language of the kingdom, although it took some time to put it into practice. French continued to change throughout the Renaissance, enriched by hundreds of words adopted from other languages. As the language developed, French literature developed as well. Writers promoted the use of French, rather than Latin, in poetry and prose. They saw the French language as the key to building a truly great French culture, one that would rival the glory of the ancient world.


Modern scholars disagree as to the precise period of the Renaissance in France. Many use the term to refer to the years between the coronation of Francis I (1515) and the death of Louis XIII (1643). Others argue that the French Renaissance really began in the late 1400s, when the Italian writers Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio first began to have an influence on French literature. In either case, France's Renaissance began much later than Italy's, and as a result, it was shaped by very different forces.

Humanism and Religious Wars. While the Italian Renaissance focused on reviving classical* culture, the French Renaissance began mainly as a religious movement. France was a major center of theology*, and French thinkers had a stronger interest in recovering the texts of early Christianity than in the pagan* literature of ancient Greece and Rome.

Trends and ideas from northern Europe played a major role in the French Renaissance. The Dutch humanist* Desiderius Erasmus, who tried to return the church to its early Christian roots, inspired the first wave of French Renaissance writers. Clément Marot translated several pieces by Erasmus and composed allegorical* poems about the rebirth of pure Christianity. In addition, he translated nearly 50 psalms into French verse that ordinary people could sing as they worked. Erasmus's literary techniques also had a great influence on François Rabelais, who produced works of biting satire* attacking the Christianity of his day.

Religious reformer Martin Luther also had a strong influence on French writers, especially Margaret of Navarre. Her poems, plays, and other works combined elements of Luther's theology with the mysticism* of the late Middle Ages. Many of her pieces portrayed humble souls who were saved by the mystery of God's grace. Through Margaret, Luther's views influenced the circle of young writers she supported and promoted, which included the young John Calvin.

The Protestant Reformation* in France set off a bloody civil war between Protestants and Catholics. Many writers took sides in the religious conflict. The Catholic author Pierre de Ronsard attacked Protestant beliefs and practices, while the Protestant Henri Estienne mocked what he saw as the superstitions of the Catholic Church.

Classical Literature and Philosophy. By the time the French turned to the classics for inspiration, they had access to a great number of ancient Greek and Roman works that had not been available to earlier writers. New advances in printing made these literary works easier to find and read than ever before. French writers also had an advantage in trying to understand these works. Italian scholars had made great advances in the study of Greek in the previous 200 years, and many Greek scholars had moved to western Europe in the 1400s, bringing their learning and libraries with them. By the time of the French Renaissance, writers could study the Greek language or read Greek works in Latin translation.

These advances in classical studies had a decided influence on French writers. Rabelais, for example, knew enough Greek to lecture and write commentaries on the works of the ancient physicians Galen and Hippocrates. Poets of the mid-1500s, such as Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay, studied the works of ancient Greek and Roman poets, such as Virgil, Horace, Pindar, and Homer. Enthusiasm for these ancient writers inspired them to compose their own poetry in French. Many writers also admired the works of classical philosophers, such as Plato, Lucretius, and Seneca.

Italian Literature. French writers studied Italian literature to find new ways of writing in the vernacular*. French art and literary works of the late 1400s already show distinct Italian influences. In the 1530s, a major phase of Italian influence began in the city of Lyon, in southern France. A large number of Italians lived in Lyon, and many Italian books were published there. One of them, Petrarch's Canzoniere (Book of Songs), became the model for a new kind of French poetry. Clément Marot translated several poems from the Canzoniere and composed what may have been the first original sonnet in French. Maurice Scève published the first French "canzoniere" in direct imitation of Petrarch. The Italian sonnet replaced all French lyric* forms as the standard for love poetry. French poets composed collections of sonnets devoted to a single lady, just as Petrarch had done.

French writers also imitated other Italian works, such as the Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio and The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione. Orlando Furioso (Mad Roland), a long poem by Ludovico Ariosto, inspired French writers in a less direct way. It provided a stock of well-known characters, situations, and speeches that appeared in all forms of literature. Italian influences on French literature remained strong until the late 1500s, when writers turned against the Italian style—largely because of anti–Roman Catholic religious feelings.


Literature of the French Renaissance passed through four fairly distinct phases. Each new generation of writers developed its own set of ideas and styles. Many important works of this period are difficult to place within specific genres, or literary forms. Writers often created new forms by combining elements of various older traditions.

Old Forms, New Ideas. The first generation included Clément Marot, Margaret of Navarre, and François Rabelais. These writers borrowed the forms and customs of medieval* literature, but used them to express anti-medieval ideas and beliefs. Marot's earliest poems are allegories in the tradition of the Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a long French poem about courtly love. Margaret of Navarre wrote several plays similar in style and form to medieval farces*, but with a new emphasis on religious themes. She also copied the short, humorous, and often obscene stories of the Middle Ages in her Cent Nouvelles (One Hundred Stories). However, this collection of tales also reflects the influence of Boccaccio's Decameron, leading some scholars to call it the Heptameron. The work represents the finest body of short stories from the French Renaissance.

Rabelais was perhaps the most groundbreaking writer of this generation. In his long narrative* Pantagruel, he borrowed from the tradition of the medieval epic, but at the same time moved far beyond it. The result was an entirely new form of heroic fiction more in tune with the author's humanist views. Combining humor with impressive scholarship, Rabelais recounted the adventures of giant heroes who are saved from a life of ignorance and brutality by a humanist education. They eventually save the world from the flawed political, religious, and scholarly ideas of the Middle Ages. In later sections, Rabelais broke away from the epic tradition completely to explore the limits of human knowledge and the idea of the abuse of power.

The Pléiade. In the mid-1500s, a group of poets known as the Pléiade (a name based on Greek mythology) set out to make a clean break from the literary traditions of the Middle Ages. They systematically rejected all forms and customs of the French literary tradition and sought to return to ancient Greek and Latin models. Their aim was to sweep away all traces of the Middle Ages, which they saw as a period of ignorance, and raise the French language and culture to the heights reached by ancient Greece and Rome.

Joachim du Bellay expressed this ambitious goal in his Defense and Illustration of the French Language. He saw this work as the most important turning point in the history of French literature. Along with the Defense, du Bellay published a collection of odes* modeled on those of Horace. Pierre de Ronsard, a close associate of du Bellay, published a longer collection of poems that re-created the structure and style of Pindar's odes. Étienne Jodelle, another member of the Pléiade, attempted to revive the forms of classical drama with his tragedy Cleopatra in Prison and his comedy Eugène.

Classicism in Decline. The next generation of French writers came to find classical forms and styles too limiting. They also saw the glory of the ancient world as an unimportant idea in a country increasingly torn by religious wars. On August 24, 1572, religious tensions in France burst out in a wave of killings that came to be known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. This tragedy inspired a new generation of writers to create violent, intense, and passionate works with a focus on the inner life of the mind. They began combining different types of literary forms, creating works that do not fall into familiar categories. Their works led in the Baroque* period in literature.

Michel de Montaigne was perhaps the most important writer of this period. Although he admired the classical poems of du Bellay and Ronsard, he chose to write in a manner that was decidedly anticlassical in form, style, and purpose. His Essays are essentially exercises in which he tests his own judgment on a variety of topics. Through these tests, Montaigne revealed his own personality and his new vision of reality as uncertain and ever changing. Another great writer of this period was the poet Agrippa d'Aubigné. A student of classical literature, he kept some of the lyric forms created by the Pléiade, but he broke away from their style and filled his work with gruesome images of war, martyrdom, and destruction.

The End of the Renaissance in France. In the first decades of the 1600s, French writers continued the literary experiments of the previous generation, but in a different way. They returned to familiar literary forms and created new ones to express both the passions of the soul and the workings of the mind. Theater became the most popular form of literature during this period. Playwrights mixed genres to produce new types of drama, such as tragicomedy and the pastoral* play.

The so-called libertine* poets revived the poetic tradition with their spirited verses about the pleasures of the tavern and the brothel*, the wretchedness of poverty, and the sources of poetic inspiration. They used forms first invented by the Pléiade but also drew on the works of earlier writers, such as Marot. When this generation of poets died out, lyric poetry effectively ended in France for more than a century.

In the area of prose, autobiographies became popular. Perhaps the greatest of these was Discourse on Method by the noted scientist and philosopher René Descartes. The book traced the author's intellectual development and described his method of inquiry in a style that reflected the Essays of Montaigne. Montaigne's work also inspired author Charles Sorel, who drew on a great variety of literary forms to create the first authentic novel in French. In addition to Montaigne, his sources included French nouvelles (short stories), libertine poetry, and the Spanish picaresque novel (a story about the adventures of a rogue or rascal).

(See alsoClassical Scholarship; Drama, French; Literature; Philosophy; Poetry; Printing and Publishing; Wars of Religion. )

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* allegorical

referring to a literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

* mysticism

belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine

* Protestant Reformation

religious movement that began in the 1500s as a protest against certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church and eventually led to the establishment of a variety of Protestant churches

* vernacular

native language or dialect of a region or country

* lyric

refers to a type of verse that expresses feelings and thoughts rather than telling a story

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* farce

light dramatic piece that features broad comedy, improbable situations, stereotyped characters, and exaggerated physical action

* narrative


* ode

poem with a lofty style and complex structure

* Baroque

artistic style of the 1600s characterized by movement, drama, and grandness of scale

The Lady from Lyon

Louise Labé (ca. 1520–1566) was the most important female poet of the French Renaissance. She belonged to a group of notable poets from the city of Lyon, sometimes called the École de Lyon, or Lyon School. Labé composed sonnets and long elegies, poems that express sorrow for one who has died. She also wrote dialogues, employing a form of debate used by philosophers since ancient times. One notable example is her Debate Between Folly and Love, a witty moral tale.

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life

* libertine

one who rejects or ignores moral standards

* brothel

house of prostitution

About this article

French Language and Literature

Updated About content Print Article