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Unit information: Introduction to French Renaissance Culture in 2018/19

Please note: It is possible that the information shown for future academic years may change due to developments in the relevant academic field. Optional unit availability varies depending on both staffing and student choice.

Unit name Introduction to French Renaissance Culture
Unit code FREN20014
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


Conventionality and the Writing Self In modern culture, originality is highly prized, but this was far from always the case. This course introduces students to the culture of Renaissance France through encounters with poetry and prose from the 1540s through to the 1580s. Our central concern is to examine how writers who play key roles in the emergence of French vernacular literature adopt, appropriate, and adapt conventions and generic models from ancient and foreign cultures to produce powerful works that imitate but at once innovate. A recurrent question will be to ask what status the self – the writing ‘je’ – claims and gains in a culture in which writers made their mark not by aspiring to originality but by playing subtly but distinctively with inherited conventions.

The first half of the course will look at attitudes to love as manifest in one of the most popular and productive forms of literature in the period: the love lyric. We will consider how French writers respond to writing about love found in classical literature and philosophy (such as the Roman poet Horace and the Greek philosopher Plato) but also in earlier European writers, including the hugely influential Italian poet Petrarch, and, beyond the field of literature, in paintings – themselves in dialogue with classical literature – by leading artists of the Renaissance. We will focus on three poets: Joachim Du Bellay, author of the first sequence of love sonnets in French, Pierre de Ronsard – who writes with a sensuality largely not present in Petrarchism – and Louise Labé, a female poet who refused the role of the silent beloved and wrote radically and powerfully about female desire and its discontents.

We move in the second half of the course to the extraordinary Essais of Michel de Montaigne, a thinker who works with but at once departs from the legacy of a Renaissance education. A work brimming with quotations culled from the many authors – classical and modern – whom he had read, and influenced by classical and humanist prose miscellanies, the Essais ultimately leave behind the subject matter of their titles – be this death, liars, fathers, customs, sieges, cannibals, or prayers – to produce a work that can be seen as the first sustained exploration of the particularity and peculiarity of the self and which has been heralded as a key moment in the rise of ‘modernity’.

Although the texts we will study include works that modern readers would regard as literary, our prescribed works will take us into other domains (religion, philosophy, politics) and other cultures (Italian literature, Greek and Roman thought and literature). The course is at once historical and literary: you will learn how to read texts closely and attentively, through the lens of their historical and cultural context, but you will also practise and develop academic skills more broadly (critical reading, how to write formally without pomposity, analysis, and summary).

Intended learning outcomes

Successful students will:

  • be knowledgeable about a significant cultural, historical or linguistic subject related to the language they are studying;
  • be skilled 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 a high level;
  • be able to respond to questions or problems by presenting their independent judgements in an appropriate style and at an high level of complexity;
  • be able to transfer these skills to other working environments, including study at a foreign university and on work placements during the year abroad.

Teaching details

Teaching will be via a series of double seminars, which will combine lectures, group and class discussion.

Assessment Details

2000 word essay 50% and 2 hour exam 50%

Reading and References

We will be using the following set texts extensively and so it would be helpful to have your own editions to mark up and annotate though there are some library copies (those available via e-books such as the Kindle are not usually equipped with scholarly apparatus).

Two of the texts will be made available online: this is indicated below.

Joachim Du Bellay, L’Olive (this text will be made available on Blackboard)

Pierre de Ronsard, Amours (Garnier-Flammarion edition)

Louise Labé, Oeuvres poétiques (Gallimard, edited by F. Charpentier) or Oeuvres complètes (Flammarion, edited by F. Rigolot)

Michel de Montaigne, Essais (the set chapters will be made available online)