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"Making a book is a craft, like making a clock; it needs more than native wit to be an author."

Jean de La Bruyère (1645-96), French writer, moralist.


A third of the way into the 16th century, François Rabelais, in one of the great comic works of world literature, gave pointed expression to the feeling of rebirth then being experienced by the European intellectual community. In Gargantua (1534) his giant hero reports to his son Pantagruel on the amazing intellectual progress that has occurred in the course of just one generation thanks to the revival of the literature and thought of antiquity. This was primarily due to the popularization of printed books, which encouraged the translation of ancient texts and the development of precise critical methods. Behind the rollicking carnival-like story, the incoherence, the coarse humor, and the symbolic exaggerations of Gargantua and the associated Pantagruel volumes (1532, 1556; Eng. trans. of Rabelais's Works, 1653-94) hid an immense learning and understanding of the problems faced by Rabelais' contemporaries.

Out of such sources, likely and unlikely, a new ideal of humankind in relation to God and life, known as humanism, was being forged. In religion this found expression in Protestantism, whose chief voice in France, during the years it competed with Catholicism, was the great Genevan reformer John Calvin. Calvin explained his complex doctrines in a simple style in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541; Eng. trans., 1813), which conquered for the French language the ability to discuss religious subjects that had previously been reserved for Latin.

Humanism was perhaps best exemplified by Michel de Montaigne, who in the second half of the 16th century invented a genre, the familiar ESSAY, that proved ideally suited both as a showcase for his learning and urbanity and as a forum for the critical exploration of personality and ideas. Although inspired by an enormous number of quotations, his Essays (1580, 1588; Eng. trans., 1603) are nevertheless profoundly original and together constitute one of the most honest and ingratiating self-examinations ever conducted in a literary work. With them Montaigne found a mode of expression that would be imitated, if not surpassed, by scores of writers in innumerable countries from the 17th to the 20th century.

French prose was not alone in feeling the winds of change. The break with the past was even more pronounced in poetry. New forms like the sonnet imported from Italy, as well as Greek and Latin odes, all enjoyed popularity. But French poets were also interested in making of their native language a more supple instrument. In 1549, Joachim du Bellay wrote a nationalistic manifesto calling for the enrichment of the French language to insure its parity with ancient tongues. His poetic works are delicate, melancholy, and sensitive. The prince of Renaissance poets, however, was Pierre de Ronsard, the uncontested leader of the constellation of poets called the PLEIADE. With the lyric sonnets, light odes, and political verse of his later career, he helped to free French poetry from the pedantry of the past.

Jean Boorsch.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996.

Introduction to French Literature || The Middle Ages

The French Renaissance || The Triumph of Classicism

The French Enlightenment

19th Century || 20th Century


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