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Unit information: Burning Books: Radicalism Before the Revolution in 2018/19

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Unit name Burning Books: Radicalism Before the Revolution
Unit code FREN20065
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
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


Popular understanding of radical thought in France tends to be dominated by the drama and violence of the French Revolution. But there is a rich history of radicalism and utopian thinking to be explored well before the iconic events of 1789, a history of censorship and conservatism that sees radical writers clash with authorities as they put their pens above the parapet to claim rights and freedoms long before the mantra of égalité, liberté, and fraternité.

The unit opens with an introduction to the cultures of censure and censorship in the early modern period, from the Italian preacher Savonarola’s 1497 ‘bonfire of the vanities’, which saw piles of books burned publicly, to the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, from the execution of the French printer Etienne Dolet for heresy to acts of correction that saw controversial passages in books covered over with pretty pictures.

We will then study a selection of works published in the centuries before the Revolution that were deemed so controversial as to be expurgated, banned and, in some cases, their authors forced to flee France and go into exile, or hunted down and put on trial. These works will take us to the heart of disputes over freedom of expression, gender exploitation, sexual orientation, political tyranny, inequality, and religious control. You will learn about the burning questions that drove thinkers and writers to risk their reputations and their lives by publishing boldly irreverent works and will discover how censure and censorship put in place to prevent religious heresy became embroiled with questions of taste and sexual licence. Developing your skills of close reading, you will investigate how writers dodged censure and censorship, whether through creative use of genre, the veil of satire and humour, or through playful modes of publishing. By the end of the unit you will have gained a nuanced understanding of the literary cultures of pre-Revolutionary France but will also have used the questions raised to reflect on the freedoms and restrictions faced in our own times.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit student will be able to;

1) demonstrate a nuanced understanding of how writers responded to the cultures of control censure and censorship in the early modern period in relation to France

2) demonstrate this understanding through an informed and creative analysis and synthesis of the characteristics of one of the set primary texts

3) work in small groups to case a filmed court trial that places one of the prescribed authors in the dock

4) identity, examine, synthesize and evaluate appropriate scholarship on early modern cultures of censure and censorship

5) generate, construct, express with clarity, and justify through use of evidence from primary and secondary texts nuanced arguments in the form of an essay, as appropriate to level H

6) compare and contrast early modern and modern cultures of censure and censorship, applying the implications of the knowledge acquired of unfamiliar cultures to known contexts

Teaching details

2 hour seminar/lecture

Assessment Details

Groupwork: research, write, perform, and make or record a film of a 20-minute court trial of one of the primary texts studied (40%) (ILO 1, 2, 3)

Individual assessment 2000-word essay (60%) (ILO 1, 4, 5, 6)

Reading and References

Primary Texts

Erasmus, In Praise of Folly (1511)

Rabelais, Pantagruel (1532)

Marguerite de Navarre, L’Heptaméron (written 1530s, published 1558) (selected stories)

Etienne de la Boétie, De la servitude volontaire (written c. 1549), published as Le Contr’un (1576)

[Théophile de Viau and others], Le Parnasse des poètes satyriques (1622)

Indicative Scholarship

Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)

J. M. Bujanda (ed.), Le contrôle des idées à la Renaissance (1996)

Konrad Eisenbichler and Nicholas Terpstra (eds), The Renaissance in the Streets, Schools, and Studies. Essays in Honor of Paul F. Grendler (2008)

Debora Shuger, Censorship and Cultural Sensibility: The Regulation of Language in Tudor-Stuart England (2006)

Roger Chartier and Henri-Jean Martin, Histoire de l’édition française, I: Le Livre conquérant (1989)

Paul F. Grendler, Culture and Censorship in Late Renaissance Italy and France (1981)

Gigliola Fragnito (ed.), Church, Censorship, and Culture in Early Modern Italy (2001)

Cécile Alduy (ed.), ‘Licences et censures poétiques. La littérature érotique et pornographique vernaculaire à la Renaissance’, Réforme Humanisme Renaissance, 69 (2009)

Guillaume Peureux, Hugh Roberts, and Lisa Wajeman (eds), Obscénités renaissantes (2011)

John D. Lyons and Mary B. McKinley, Critical Tales: New Studies of the Heptaméron and Early Modern Culture (1993)

Joan DeJean, The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France (2002)

Stéphane Van Damme, L’Epreuve libertine. Morale, soupçon et pouvoirs dans la France baroque (2008)

Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘Rabelais among the Censors’, Representations, Vol. 32 (Autumn 1990, 1-32