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Unit information: Identity and Conflict: The Poetics and Politics of French Renaissance Writing in 2016/17

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Unit name Identity and Conflict: The Poetics and Politics of French Renaissance Writing
Unit code FREN30012
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Tomlinson
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of French
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Identity and Conflict: The Poetics and Politics of French Renaissance Writing

Our aim in this cultural-historical course will be to consider how, from the mid to the late sixteenth century, French authors use their writing to explore questions of cultural and religious identity and authority. The Renaissance is a time of contrasts, upheavals, and extremes. Authors negotiate with voices from the past as they imitate or resist the legacy of classical antiquity. But they also use – and expand – the vernacular in a wealth of literary forms as they respond to contemporary inventions, discoveries, culture, and politics. This creativity is driven by the desire to define and assert a specifically French culture in the face of rival nations, the New World, and, increasingly and urgently, in response to the turmoil of the ferociously violent and divisive Wars of Religion. The writing that results is remarkable for its passionate commitment, its linguistic exuberance, and its generic innovation.

Our set texts include prose and poetry and cover a range of genres (polemical and epic verse, prose fiction, and the essay). After a historical introduction to the period, we will begin in the mid century, when the outbreak of civil war led the leading poet of his generation, Pierre de Ronsard, renowned for his writing on love, nature, and cosmology, to turn to the immediacy of current affairs and to use poetry as a virulent political weapon. Next, we will go back a decade to examine the darkly comic satire of François Rabelais, whose complex, fantastical, and provocative Quart Livre uses fiction to comment on yet at once escape from the dogmatic positions and political and religious controversies that were to escalate and produce outright conflict. Our third set text will be the generically innovative miscellany that is Michel de Montaigne’s Essais. Famous for its exploration of selfhood, Montaigne’s writing, in its engagement with past and present cultures, domestic and foreign, ancient and newly discovered, tells us much too about conceptions of community and otherness.

Although our focus will be this trio of prescribed authors, the intertextuality of writing in this period means that we will encounter numerous other writers and thinkers along the way, both from across Europe and across time.

Intended learning outcomes

Successful students will:

  • be knowledgable about a significant cultural, historical or linguistic subject related to the language they are studying;
  • will have advanced skills in the selection and synthesis of relevant material;
  • be able to evaluate and analyse relevant material from a significant body of source materials, usually in a foreign language, at an advanced level;
  • be able to respond to questions or problems by presenting their independent judgements in an appropriate style and at an advanced level of complexity;
  • be able to transfer these skills to other working environments, including postgraduate study

Teaching details

Two seminar hours per week across one teaching block

Assessment Details

3000 word essay 33% and 3 hour exam 67%

Reading and References

Neil Kenny, An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century French Literature and Thought: Other Times and Places (Duckworth)

It is important that you do your best to get hold of the editions listed below as this will make class work much more efficient. We will be using these texts a lot and so you may wish to buy your own copies to annotate, though there are some in the library. The primary texts will be supplemented by reading of complementary works (religious, political, contemporary and classical), selections from which will be distributed before and during the course.

Pierre de Ronsard, Discours: Derniers Vers (Garnier-Flammarion)

François Rabelais, Le Quart Livre (Garnier-Flammarion)

Michel de Montaigne, Essais, 3 vols (Garnier-Flammarion; in three paperback volumes)