Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

Origin and Foundations of the French Language

When the Romans became masters of Gaul, they imposed their language on that country, together with their religion, their laws their customs, and their culture. The low Latin, which thus became universal throughout Gaul, was not slow in undergoing a change while passing through Celtic and Frankish throats, and in showing traces of climate and of racial genius. From this transformation rose a new tongue, the Romance, which was destined to gradually evolve itself into the French. The glossaries of Reichenau and of Cassel contain many translations of Latin and Germanic words into Romance; they date from the eighth century. The earliest texts in our possession belong to the ninth century, and are more valuable from an archeological than from a literary standpoint. These are the formulas called "Les Serments de Strasbourg" (the oaths pronounced by the soldiers of Louis the German and of Charles the Bald, A.D. 842); the song or "Prose de Sainte Eulalie", an imitation of a Latin hymn of the Church (about 880); a portion of a "Homélie sur Jonas" discovered at Valenciennes, and written in a mixture of Latin and Romance, dating from the early part of the tenth century; "La Vie de Saint Léger", a bald narrative in verse, written in the latter part of the tenth century. The metamorphosis, under the action of influences now no longer traceable, of Low Latin into Romance did not proceed along the same lines everywhere in Gaul. From the Pyrenees to the Scheldt it varied with the varying localities, and gave rise to many dialects. These dialects may be grouped into two principal languages and which usually named for word used for an affirmative in each: the Romance language of oc in the South and the Romance language of oïl in the North. The oïl language comprised all the varieties of speech in use to the north of an imaginary line drawn from the estuary of the Girande to the Alps, passing through Limousin, Auvergne, and Dauphiny. In the twelfth century, the speech of the Ile-de-France began to take the lead over all the others, for the very good reason that it was the speech of the royal domain. Hereafter the French language possesses its form, and can give birth to a literature.

In the Middle Ages

Epic Poetry

In France, as everywhere else, literature began with poetry, and that epic. For many centuries this seems to have been the form natural to the French mind ; and the abundance of the output is striking proof of the breadth and power of the movement. To comprehend more clearly the great mass of epic works of this period, we distinguish three subject-matters, or three cycles: the French, or national cycle; the Breton cycle; the antique cycle.

The origin of the French cycle go back to the first age of Frankish domination. The Frankish chiefs all kept their singers, who celebrated their exploits in poems of heroic inspiration. These compositions, called cantilènes , were sung at the harp, either at their festivals, or at the head of the army before a battle. This spontaneous growth of epic poetry goes on until the tenth century; but after the tenth century, the inventive power of the poets -- the trouvères , as they are called -- is exhausted; they no longer compose new songs, but co-ordinate, above all amplify, and finally reduce to writing the songs left to them by their predecessors. By dint of this labour of arrangement and editing they compose the chansons de geste ("history songs", from the Latin gesta , "things done", "history"). Comparatively short, these chansons de geste are written in lines of six syllables which are made into couplets, or laisses , with assonances, or imperfect rhymes (such, as e.g., perde and superbe ). Like the old cantilènes , they were intended to be sung by the trouvère at feasts or in battle. They are all connected with real historical episodes which, however, are embellished, and often disfigured, with popular traditions and the fruits of the poet's own imagination. The most famous of these chansons de geste , the "Chanson de Roland", put into writing about the year 1080, and by an unknown author, is the chef d'oeuvre of this national epic poetry. It admirably reflects the society of the time. With its scenes of carnage, its loud clash of blades, its heroic barons who sacrifice their lives for the emperor and die after commending their souls to God, its miraculous intervention of angels who receive the soul of the brave warrior, the Chanson de Roland places vividly before the imagination the France of the eleventh century, warlike, violent, still barbarous, but thoroughly animated by an ardent faith. The "Chanson de Roland" is the most widely known of the chansons de geste , but a multitude of them are extant, and they all contain great beauties. While some of them, centering upon Charlemagne ("Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne", "Aimeri de Narbonne", "Girard de Viane", etc.), celebrate the union of France under the kingship and conflicts with external enemies, others are inspired by the struggles maintained by great feudal chiefs against the king ("Ogier le Danois", Renaud de Montauban ", "Gèrard de Roussillion"), by the wars of vassals among themselves, and by historical memories belonging particularly to this or that province ("Raoul de Cambrai", the "Geste des Lorains", "Auberi le Bourgoing"). The interesting element in all of them is, chiefly, their faithful portrayal of the feudal world, its virtues, and its asperities.

From the end of the twelfth century, the success of the chansons de geste is counterbalanced by that of the Romances of the Breton cycle. Here imagination roams at large, above all, that kind of imagination which we call fantasy. The marvellous plays an important part. Manners are less violent, more delicate. Love, almost absent from the chansons de geste , holds a great place and utters itself in a style at once respectful and exalted. We find everywhere the impress of a twofold mysticism, that of chivalry and of religion. In other words, if the chansons de geste bear the stamp of the Germanic spirit, the Breton romances are inspired by the Celtic. The central figure is that of King Arthur, a character borrowed from history, the incarnation of the independence of the Breton race. Around him are his companions, the knights of the Round Table and Merlin the wizard. The Breton romances were intended to be read, not to be sung; they were written, moreover, in prose. In course of time, Chrestien de Troyes, a poet rather facile and prolific than truly talented, put them into rhymed verse. Between 1160 and 1180 he wrote "Perceval le Gallois", "Le Chevalier au lion", "Lancelot en la charrette", "Cligès", "Eric et Enide". In these romances Launcelot is the type of l'amour courtois -- the "gentle love " which every knight must bear his lady.

As for the antique cycle, it is no more than a work of imitation. The clerics, observing the success of epic and narrative poetry, conceived the idea of throwing into the same form the traditions of antiquity. The "Roman d'Alexandre" and the "Roman de Troie", both written in the second half of the twelfth century, and amusing for their anachronisms and their baroque conceits, are, on the other hand, long, diffuse and mediocre.

Lyric Poetry

In these primitive periods of history the lines of division between various types of literature are not well defined. From the cantiléne there sprang in turn the lyric poetry of the North. In these rough-hewn romances, the poet relates four or five couplets of varied rhythm, but all ending with the same refrain, an adventure of war or of love ; they are called chansons de toile (spinning songs) or chansons de danse , because women sang them either as they spun and chatted or as they danced rondes . Love nearly always plays the chief part in them -- the love, successful or crossed, of a young girl for a beau chevalier , or perhaps a love crushed by the death of the beloved -- such are the themes of the principal chansons de toile that have come down to us, "Belle Bremboure", "Belle Idoine", "Belle Aiglantine", "Belle Doette". But it was in Provence that lyric verse was to reach its fullest development. Subtle, learned, and somewhat artificial, Provençal poetry had for its only theme love -- an idealized and quintessential love -- l'amour courtois . On this common theme, the troubadours embroidered variations of the utmost richness; the form which they employed, a very complex one, had given rise to manifold combinations of rhythms. The men of the North were dazzled when they came to know Provençal poetry. Strangely enough, it did not spread directly from province to province within the borders of France, but by way of the Orient, from the Holy Land, during the Crusades, where Southern and Northern lords met each other. Soon a whole group of poets of the oïl tongue in the North and East -- Conon de Béthune, Grace Brulé, Blondel de Nesles, and especially Thiébaut, Count of Champagne -- set to work to imitate the Provençal compositions.

Bourgeoise and Satirical Literature

The epic and the lyric were essentially aristocratic; they addressed themselves to an audience of barons that represented almost exclusively the manners and feelings of the upper classes in the feudal world. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, and after the liberation of the communes, the bourgeoisie makes its appearance, and from that moment dates the origin and rise of a bourgeois literature. It begins with the fabliaux , little tales told in line of eight syllables, pleasant stories intended only to amuse. The characters they introduce are people of humble or middling station -- tradesmen, artisans, and their women-folk -- who are put through all sorts of ridiculous adventures; their vices and oddities are ridiculed smartly and with some degree of malice -- too often, also with coarseness and indecency. These fabliaux are animated by the Gallic spirit of irony and banter, in contrast to the heroic or "gentle" ( courtois ), spirit which inspires the epic and lyric works. Bourgeoise and villagers find here a realistic picture of their existence and their manners, but freely caricatured so as to provoke laughter.

Combine the spirit of the fabliaux with memories of the chanson de geste , and we have the "Roman de Renart", a vast collection, formed early in the thirteenth century, of stories in verse thrown together without sequence or connection. This work which, it is believed, was proceeded by another now lost, contains 30,000 lines. Enlarged by successive editions, the "Roman de Renart" is the work not only of several authors, but of a whole country and a whole epoch. What gives it unity, in spite of the diversity and incongruity of the stories of which it is made up, is that in all parts, the same hero appears again and again -- Renart, the fox. The action round about Renart is carried on by many other characters, such as Ysengrin, the wolf, Noble, the lion, Chantecler, the cock, pseudo-animals that mingle with their bearing and instincts as animals traits and feelings borrowed from humanity. Under pretext of relating an intrigue bristling with complications, in which Ysengin and Renart are pitted against each other, the "Roman", a kind of parody of the chansons de geste , ridicules the nobles, feudal society, and feudal institutions.

Didactic Poetry

Nobles and bourgeois, the two classes which, in the literature of the Middle Ages, speak with two accents so dissimilar, have one point of resemblance: the one class is as ignorant as the other. Only the clerics had any hold upon science -- the little science that those times possessed. It had long remained shut up in Latin books composed in imitation of ancient models, but, beginning in the thirteenth century, the clerics conceived the idea of bringing the contents of these works within the domain of the vulgar tongue. This was the origin of didactic literature, in which the most important work is "Roman de la Rose", an immense encyclopedic work produced by two authors with tendencies and mentalities in absolute mutual opposition, collaborating at an interval of forty years. The first 4000 lines of the "Roman de la Rose" were written about the year 1236 by Guillame de Lorris, a charming versifier endowed with every attractive quality. In the design of Guillame de Lorris, the work is another "Art of Love "; the author proposes to describe in it love and the effects of love, and to indicate the way of success for a lover. He personifies all the phases of love and varieties of love and the other sentiments which attend it, and makes them so many allegorical figures. Jealousy, Sadness, Reason, Fair Response ( Bel-Accueil ) -- such are the abstractions to which Lorris lends a tenuous embodiment. With Jean de Meung , who wrote the continuation of the "Roman de la Rose", about 1275, the inspiration changes completely. Love is not longer the only subject. In a number of prolix discourses, aggregating 22,000 lines in length, the latter author not only contrives to bring in a multitude of notions on physics and philosophy, but enters into a very severe criticism of contemporary social organization.

Prose and the Chroniclers

Prose separates itself from poetry but slowly; when the epic outpouring is exhausted history appears to takes its place. It is the great movement of the Crusades that gives the impulse. Villehardouin, in his "Histoire de la Conquête de Constantinople" (1207) relates the events which he witnessed as a participant in the Fourth Crusade ; he knows how to see and how to tell, with restraint and vigour, what he has seen and done. His chronicle is not, strictly speaking, history, but rather memoirs. Joinville attaches more importance to the moral element; the charm of his "Histoire de St. Louis" (1309) is in the bonhomie , at once frank and deliberate, with which he sets forth the king's virtues and recounts his "chevaleries".

The great representative of history in the Middle Ages is Froissart (1337-1410); in him we have to deal with a veritable writer. Just when the feudal world was entering upon its period of decadence, and the chivalry of France had been decimated at Crécy and Agincourt, feudalism and chivalry find in Froissart their most marvelous portrayer. His work, "Choniques de France, d'Angleterre, d'Espagne, de Bretagne, Gascogne, de Flandre et autres lieux" is the story of all the splendid feats of arms in the Hundred Years' War. Pitched battles, assaults, mere skirmishes, isolated raids, deeds of chivalric daring, single combats -- he describes them with picturesque effect and a distinction of style new in our literature. An aristocratic writer, he is above all attracted by the brilliant aspects of society -- wealth, gallantry, chivalry. He scorns the bourgeois and the common people, and considers it quite natural that they should pay the cost of war. In his work is nothing to recall the gloominess of the period; he has seen in it nothing but exploits and heroic adventure.

Froissart knew how to depict the outward semblance of an epoch. Philippe de Commynes, on the other hand, the historian of Louis XI, is a connoisseur of souls ; his viewpoint is from within. A minister of Louis XI and then of Charles VIII, he is versed in affairs. He is much given, moreover, to analysis of character and the unravelling of events which have a political bearing. He goes backs from effects to causes and is already rising to the conception of the general laws which govern history. One must not look for either brilliancy or relief in his style; but he has clearness, precision, solidity.

The Drama

The fifteenth century would make but a sorry figure in the history of French literature had it not been that in this epoch there developed and flourished a literary form which had been inchoate during the preceding centuries. Entirely original in foundation and style, that drama owes nothing to antiquity. It was the Church, the great power of those ages, which gave birth to it. For the masses in the Middle Ages, the Church was the home where, united in the same thoughts, and the same consoling hopes, they spent that part of their lives which was the best, and so the longest offices of the church were the most beloved by the people. Conformable with this feeling, the clergy interpolated in the offices representations of certain events in religious history. Such was the liturgical drama, which was presented more especially at the feasts of Christmas ("Les Pasteurs", "L'Epoux", "Les Prophetés") and Easter ("La Passion", "La Résurrection", "Les Pèlerins"). At first the liturgical drama was not more than a translation of Bible into action and dialogue, but little by little it changed as it developed. The text became longer, verse took the place of prose, the vernacular supplanted Latin. The drama at the same time was tending to make for itself an independent existence and to come forth from the Church.

In the fourteenth century there appeared "Les Miracles de Notre-Dame", a stage presentment of a marvelous event brought about by the intervention of the Blessed Virgin. Thus was the drama making its way toward its completer form, that of the mysteries. A mystery is the exposition in dialogue of an historical incident taken from Holy Scripture or from the lives of the saints. Mysteries may be grouped, according to their subjects, in three cycles: the Old Testament cycle ("Le Mystére du Viel Testament", in 50,000 lines), the New Testament cycle, ("La Passion", composed by Arnoul Greban and presented in 1450), the cycle of the saints ("Les Actes des Apôtres") by Arnoul and Simon Greban). Metrically, the mystery is written in lines of eight syllables; the lyric passages were supposed to be sung. A prologue serves the purpose of stating the theme and bespeaking silence of the audience. The piece itself is divided into days, each day occupying as many lines as could be recited at one séance , and the whole ends with an invitation to prayer : "Chatons Te Deum laudamus".

The dramatic system of the mysteries contains certain thoroughly characteristics elements. First of all, the constant recourse to the marvellous: God, the Blessed Virgin, and the Saints intervene in the action; later on abstract characters -- Justice and Peace, Truth, Mercy -- are added. Then the mingling of the tragic and the comic: side by side with scenes intended to excite deep emotion, the authors of mysteries present others which are mere buffoonery, and sometimes of the coarsest kind. This comic element is borrowed from scenes of modern life: for anachronism is rampant in the mysteries, contemporary questions are discussed, Christ and the saints are depicted as people of the fifteenth century. Lastly, not only does the action wander without restraint from place to place, but occasionally it goes on in several different places at the same time. If the conception was original and interesting, the execution of it, unfortunately, was very mediocre. The authors of mysteries were not artists; they knew nothing of character-drawing; their characters are all of a piece, without individual traits. Above all, the style is deplorable, and but seldom escapes platitude and solecism. The fifteenth was, as a whole, the great century of mysteries; they were then in perfect harmony with the ideas and sentiments of the period. In the next century, with the change in those ideas and sentiments, they were to enter upon their decadence and to disappear.

Did comedy too, in its turn, come forth from the Church ? Can we connect it with the burlesque offices of the "Feast of Fools" and the "Feast of the Ass"? -- Beyond doubt we cannot. But in the fourteenth century, joyous bands of comrades organized themselves for their own common amusement -- the "Basoche", a society of lawyers, and the "Sots" or the "Enfants sans souci". It was by these societies that comic pieces were composed and played throughout the fifteenth century. Farces, moralities, and follies ( soties ) were the kinds of compositions which they cultivated. The farce was a comic piece the aim of which was to amuse; although it did not issue all complete from the fabliau , the farce bore a strong analogy to that form, and, as the themes were identical, the farce was often nothing more than a fabliau in action. The best specimen of the type is "La Farce d'Avocat Pathelin" (1470) which presents a duel of wits between an advocate and a cloth-merchant, the one as thorough a rascal as the other. The morality, a comic piece with moral aims, is far inferior to the farce. Essentially pedantic, it constantly employs allegory, personifying the sentiments, defects, and good qualities of men, and sets them in opposition to each other on the stage. As for the folly (sotie), which may be called a dramatic pamphlet or squib, and belongs to the satiric drama, it was the special work of the "Enfants sans souci" and lasted but a short while.

The true literary distinction of the fifteenth century is to have given France a great poet -- not the elegant, cold, Charles d'Orléans, but that "child of poor and mean extraction" ( de povre et petite extrace ), that "mauvais garçon" who was François Villon. Insubordinate scholar, haunter of taverns, guilty of theft and even of assassinations, the marvel is that he should have been able to evoke his grave and lofty poetry from that life of infamy. His chief collection, "Le Grand Testament" (1489) is dominated by that thought of death which, for the first time in France, finds its expression in the "Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis". Thus did the Christian Middle Ages utter through Villon what had been their essential preoccupation.

The Renaissance and the Reformation

When the sixteenth century opens, literature in France may be regarded as exhausted and moribund. What had been lacking in the Middle Ages was the enthusiasm for form, the worship of art, combined with a language sufficiently supple and opulent. The Renaissance was about to bestow these gifts; it was to communicate the sense of beauty to the writers of that age by setting before them as models the great masterpieces of antiquity. Reversion to antiquity -- this is the characteristics which dominates all the literature of the sixteenth century. The movement did not attain its effect directly, but through Italy, and as a sequel to the wars of Charles VIII. "The first contact with Italy " says Brunetière, "was in truth a kind of revelation for us French. In the midst of the feudal barbarism of which the fifteenth century still bore the stamp, Italy presented the spectacle of an old civilization. She awed the foreigner by the ancient authority of her religion and all the pomp of wealth and of the arts. Add to this the allurement of her climate and her manners. Italy of the Renaissance, invaded, devastated, trampled under foot by the men of the North, suddenly, like the Greece of yore, took possession of the rude conquerors. They conceived the idea of another life, more free, more ornate -- in a word, more 'human' -- than that which they had been leading for five or six centuries; a confused feeling of the power of beauty twined itself into the souls of gendarmes and lansquenets , and it was then that the breath of the Renaissance, coming over the mountains with the armies of Charles VIII, of Louis XII, and of Francis I, completed in less than fifty years the dissipation of what little still survived of the medieval tradition."

If the language very quickly undergoes the modification brought about by this new spirit, it is only little by little that the various forms of literature allow themselves to be penetrated by it. Such is the case with poetry. The principal poet of the earlier half of the sixteenth century, Clément Marot (1497-1544), belongs, by his inspiration, to both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Of the Middle Ages he has first of all his scholastic education and also an uncontrolled passion for allegories and for bizarre and complicated versification. In the best of his "Epîtres" he sacrifices to the worst of the faults held in honour by the fifteenth century: the taste for alliteration, for playing upon words, and for childish trick of rhyme. On another side the influence of the Renaissance reveals itself in his work in many imitations of the Latins, Virgil, Catullus, Ovid. The "Epîtres", his masterpiece are, besides, in a style of composition borrowed from the Latin. A court poet, attached to the personal suite of Margaurite de Valois, herself a humanist and a patroness of humanists, no man was more favorably situated for the effect of that influence. Marot is, in other respects, a very original poet; his "Epîtres" mark the appearance of a quality almost new in French literature -- wit. The art of saying things prettily, of telling a story cleverly, of winning pardon for his mockeries by mocking at himself, was Marot's.

Graeco-Latin imitation is really only an accidental feature of the work of Marot. With the poets who succeed him it becomes the very origin of their inspiration. For the poets who later formed the group called "La Pléiade", Joachim du Bellay furnished a programme in the "Deffence et Illustration de la langue française" (1549). To eschew the superannuated formulæ and the "condiments" ( épiceries ) of the Middle Ages, to imitate without reserve anything that has come down to us from antiquity, to enrich the language by every means practicable -- by borrowing from Greek, from Latin, from the vocabulary of the handicrafts -- these are the principles which this author lays down in his work. And these are the principles which the chief of the "Pléiade", Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85), applies. Ronsard's ambition is to exercise his wits in all the styles of composition in which the Greeks and Romans excelled. After their example he composed odes, an epic work (the "Franciade", in which he aspires to do for France what Virgil, with the Æneid, did for Rome ), and some eclogues. If he has utterly failed in his epic attempt, and if his abuse of erudition renders his odes very difficult to read, it must nevertheless be said that these works sparkle with beauties of the first order. Ronsard was not only, as was said long ago of him, the marvelous workmen of little pieces, of sonnets and tiny odes; in brilliancy of imagination, in the gift for inventing new rhymes, he is one of the greatest poets known to French literature. Side by side with him Du Bellay, in his "Regrets", inaugurated la poésie intime , the lyricism of confidences, and Jodelle gave to the world "Cléopâtre" (1552), the first, in point of date, of the tragedies imitated from the antique, thus opening the way for Robert Garnier and Montchrestien.

At the same time that the Renaissance was bringing us the feeling for art, the Reformation was giving currency to new ideas and tendencies. The two inspirations commingled rendered possible the work of the two masters of sixteenth-century prose, Rabelais and Montaigne. In that prodigious nursery tale, in which he scatters buffoneries and indecencies by the handful, it would be a mistake to think that the author of "Gargantua" hides a thought and a symbol under every line of text. All the same it is true that one must break the bone to find the "subtantific marrow". Rabelais has a hatred of the Middle Ages, of its scholasticism and its asceticism. For his part he does not mistrust human nature ; he believes it to be good, and wants people to follow its law, which is instinct. His ideal is the abbey of Thelema, where the rule runs: Do as you please (Fais ce que tu volundras). "Nature is my gentle guide" says Montaigne on his part. This is one of the ideas which circulate in his essays, the first book of which appeared in 1580. In this sort of disjointed confession, Montaigne speaks above all of himself, his life, his tastes, his habits, his favorite reading. As he goes along, he expounds his philosophy, which is a kind of skepticism, if you will, but applying exclusively to the things which belong to reason, for with Montaigne the Christian faith remains intact. What makes Montaigne an original writer, and makes his place in French literature one of capital importance, is his having been the first to introduce into that literature, by his minute study of his own Ego, that psychological and moral study of man which was to form the foundation of great works in the next century.

In a general way the Reformation produced a profound impression on the writers of the sixteenth century, giving them a freedom of movement and of thought unknown to their predecessors of the Middle Ages . On the other hand, multiplying theological discussions, controversies, and fierce polemics between Catholics and Protestants -- dividing France into two parties -- it gave birth to a whole literature of conflict. We will confine ourselves to mention of Calvin and his "Institution de la religion chrétienne" (1541). As a theologian he need not concern us here; we need only say that, by the simplicity of his exposition, by the energy of his harsh and gloomy style, he effects an entrance into our literature for a whole range of subject-matters which had until then been reserved for Latin. Calvin was a teacher of the Reformation ; Agrippa d'Aubigné was its soldier, but one who had taken the pen in hand. It was after long service in the field that he had composed his "Tragiques", a versified work unlike any other, a medley of satire and epic. Here the author presence a picture of France devastated by wars of religion, and paints his adversaries in odious colors. Now and then hatred inspires him with fine utterances. After all these struggles and all this violence, the age could not but long for peace, and could not but hold all these excesses in horror. Such a spirit inspires the "Satire Ménipée" (1594), a work, part prose, part verse, which, with its irony, gives evidence that an epoch has come to an end, fatigued with its own struggles and ready for a great renovation.

The Seventeenth Century: the Classical Age

The seventeenth century is the most noteworthy epoch in the history of French literature. The circumstances of the age, it is true, are peculiarly favorable for literary development. France is once more the strongest factor in European statecraft; her political influence is supreme, thanks to the wonderful achievements of her arms and the brilliant achievements of her diplomacy. Conscious of her greatness, she ceases to be dependent on foreign literatures, and fashions new literary forms which she bids other countries to copy. The internal peace which she enjoys favors the disinterested study of art and literature, without the need of giving her literary creations a social or political tendency. Authors are patronized by society and the court. Intellectual conditions are especially favorable; the national mind, steeped in the learning and culture of the classics, has become sufficiently strengthened to emancipate itself from the yoke of servile imitation. The language, capable henceforth of giving adequate expression to every shade of thought, has become clearly conscious of its power and is exclusively French in syntax and vocabulary. Such are the circumstances, such the elements which combine to form the genesis of the classical literature of France. It does not, indeed, claim to have determined the extreme limits beyond which literary activity in France may not range; progress will continue throughout the ages to come. But in the works of that period may be seen the most complete and perfect presentation of the distinguishing qualities of the French race; the ideal counterpart, in miniature, of the most perfect form of French literature.

It is characterized, in the main, by a tendency which seeks the apotheosis of human reason in the realm of literary activity, and regards the expression of moral truth as the end of literary composition. Hence the fondness of the literature of the seventeenth century for general ideas and for sentiments that are common to mankind, and its success in those kinds of literature which are based on the general study of the human heart. It reached perfection in dramatic literature, in sacred eloquence and in the study of morals. Hence the contempt of the seventeenth century literature for all that is relative, individual and mutable; in lyric poetry, which appeals primarily to the individual sentiment, in the description of material phenomena, and the external manifestations of nature, it falls short of success.

For thorough understanding of the development of French literature in the seventeenth century, we must consider it in three periods: (1) from the year 1600 to 1659, the period of preparation; (2) 1659-1688, the Golden Age of classicism; (3) 1688-1715, the period of transition between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

First Period (1600-1659)

With the followers of Ronsard and those poets who immediately succeeded him a kind of lassitude has seized upon poetry at the end of the sixteenth century; impoverished and spiritless, it handled only trifling subjects. Besides, having been long subject to the artistic domination of Italy, and having owed allegiance to Spain also since the intervention of the Spaniards in the days of the League, poetry had become infected with mannerisms, and suffered a considerable lowering of tone. A reform was necessary, and Malherbe, whose "Odes" appear between the years 1600 and 1628, undertook it. From the first he repudiated the idea of servile imitation of ancient classical authors; discrimination should be shown in borrowing from their writings, and imitation should be restricted to features likely to strengthen the thought. On the other hand, if the language of the sixteenth century was copious, many of its terms were not of the purest; these Malherbe severely interdicted. With regard to prosody, he lays down the strictest rules. Malherbe's reform, therefore, aims at purifying the terminology of the language, and fixing set forms of prosody. Unluckily, it must be secured at a heavy price; subordinated unduly to inflexible rule, its movement impeded, lyric poetry is finally crushed out of life. Two centuries must elapse before it revives and shakes off the yoke of Malherbe. Nor was the rule of Malherbe established without resistance. Of the writers of that time, none were less disposed to submit to it than Mathurin Régnier (1579-1613), a poet who in many ways recalls the sixteenth century. His satires are one long protest against the theory so dear to Malherbe. An enemy to rule and constraint, Régnier again and again insists upon the absolute freedom of the poet; the poet must write as the spirit moves him; let every writer be what he is, is the only principle he accepts. A numerous group of poets shared Régnier's views, those known by the name of les Grotesques . Such are Saint-Armant, Théophile de Viau, the direct heirs of the Pléiade; and Scarron, whose poetry is the very incarnation of the burlesque form imported from Italy.

Malherbe would perhaps have been unable to combat this opposition, had not two other forces come to his assistance in checking the flood of license that was spreading with Régnier and his associates. The first of these was the culture of French society. The rise of a cultured class, and of its life of refinement, which took place during the end of the reign of Henry IV, is one of the striking facts of the first half of the seventeenth century. A new institution, the salon , presided over by women, now makes its appearance; here men of the world meet literary men to discuss serious questions with women, The salon will prove of service to writers, though sometimes a hindrance or a lure to false paths, and the next two centuries of literature will show evidence of its influence. The first salon was that of the Marquise de Rambouillet; for more than twenty years people of superior intellect and culture were wont to gather there. By exacting from its guests refinement and elegant manners it contributed to chasten the language and to strip it of all low and grotesque words. It is in the salon that the over-refinement called preciosity budded and bloomed. However, the influence of the Précieuses was perhaps more harmless than some would have us believe. They have enriched the language with many clever expressions; they have helped to develop the taste for precision and subtilty in psychological analysis. They favoured also, though in an indirect way, that study of the human heart which was the grand theme of seventeenth century literature.

Authority also, as represented by Richelieu, enrolled itself in the crusade of reform and added its sanction to the new disciplinary laws. Under the patronage of the great minister, and by his inspiration, the French academy was founded in the year 1635. In virtue of its origin and its aims, the academy exerted officially the same influence as the salon . It watched over the purity of the language and over its regular development. One of its members, Vaguelas, the great grammarian of that age, contributed in an especial way toward this object. If the new ideal found its expression in poetry, prose was also soon to share in the advantages of the reform. Balzac, in his "Lettres" (1624), created French prose. He is said to have furnished the rules of French prose composition; in fact it is his chief merit to have taught his own age, along with the art of composition, what the greatest minds of the sixteenth century -- Rabelais and Montaigne -- had not known: the rhythm, the flow, and the harmony of the period. In this way, he has fashioned the magnificent form, which the great prose writers of the last half of the seventeenth century will find at their disposal when they seek to give outward shape to the sublime conceptions of their minds.

At the same time, Voiture, one of the habitués of the Hôtel de Rambouillet, gave to French prose its raciness, is vigour, and its ease of movement. Balzac and Voiture, of the great writers of the time, are masters of styles of the seventeenth century, but Descartes, whose "Discours de la Méthod" appeared in 1673, has left his mark deeply stamped on French classical literature. This could not be otherwise; the principles which gained distinction for him were the same as those invoked for the literary reform. But reason, whose sovereign authority Descartes proclaimed and whose power he demonstrated, was the same reason whose absolutism Malherbe sought to establish in literature. The abstract tone, the surety of inference proceeding directly to the solution of one or two questions clearly laid down, permitting no chance thoughts to lead it away from the straight line, the determination to take up only one subject, mastering it completely, to simplify everything, to see in man only and abstract soul, without a body, and in this soul not the phenomena, but the substance -- these are at the same time Cartesian principles and literary peculiarities of the seventeenth century.

The craving for order and uniformity which made itself felt in every branch of literature seized the theatrical world and achieved the masterpieces of the classic drama. In 1629, Jean Mairet produced his "Sophonisbe", in which the unities are for the first time observed -- unity of action, unity of time, unity of place. The plot turns on one incident which is tragic witjout a trace of the comic element, the action does not extend beyond one day, and there is no change of scene. The framework of classical trahegy was created ; what was needed was a writer of genius to fill in the structure. Corneille was this man in the merveille of "Le Cid", he gave to the French stage its first masterpiece. Lofty sentiments, strong dialogie, a brilliant style, and rapid action, not exceeding twenty-four hours were all combined in this play. While its subject was taken from modern history, Corneille, after the famous controversy on "Le Cid", stirred up by his jealous rivals, returned to subjects taken from Roman history for this later pieces, which date from 1640 to 1643, namely, "Horace", "Cinna", and "Polyeucte". In these the plot becomes more and more complicated; the poet prefers perpelexing and anomolous situations, and looks for variety and strangeness of incident to the neglect of the sentiments and the passions. the noble simplicity and serene beuaty which characterized his great works are replaced by the riddles of "Héraclius" and the extravagances of "Attila".

Corneille's "Polyeucte" shows traces of the controversies on Divine Grace which at that time agitated the minds of men. Jansenism profoundly influenced the entire literature of the seventeenth century, giving rise, first and foremost, to one of its prose masterpieces, the "Lettes provinciales" (1656-67) of Pascal. In these the author champions the cause of his friends of Port-Royal against the Jesuits. They display all of the qualities which it had taken sixty years of progress in literature to develop: clearness of exposition, beauty of form, elegance and distinction of style, a subtle wit, graceful irony, and geniality. Divested of all dull learning and all dialectic formalism, it placed within the reach of every serious mind the deepest theological questions. As far removed form the vigorous rhetorical of Balzac as from the studied wit of Voiture, it embodied in prose the greatest effort to reach perfection that we meet with in the early part of the seventeenth century.

Second Period (1659-88); the Great Epoch

Towards 1660 all the literary characteristics which we have seen gradually developing in the previous sixty years have taken definite form. This is now reinforced by the influence of the court. After the short-lived trouble of France, one man embodies all the destinies of France : the king, Louis XIV, young, victorious, at the zenith of his glory. In literature, as in his government, the king will successfully carry out his taste for regularity, for harmony, and for nobility. The influence of his strong personality will check the tendencies toward the caprice, eccentricity, and imaginative waywardness that characterized the preceding period.

Henceforth nothing is appreciated in literature but what is reasonable, natural, and harmoniously proportionate, and what depicts the universal in man. Then follow in succession all those masterpieces which realise this idea, upheld by Boileau, the great law giver of classicism. Beginning in 1660, Boileau gave to the world his "Satires", his "Epistles", in which he shows himself a marvelous critic, unerring in his estimate of contemporary writers, and his "Art poétique" (1674), a literary code which held sway for more than a century. Seek the truth, be guided by reason, imitate nature -- these are the principles which Boileau never ceases to enjoin, and which his friends, Molière, Racine, La Fontaine, put into practice.

Molière, who, since 1653, had been playing in the provinces his first comedy, "L'Etourdi", produced the "Précieuses Ridicules" at Paris, in 1659, and until his death (1673) continued to produce play after play. To paint human life and to delineate character are the aims which Molière proposes to himself. Even his farces are full of points drawn from observation and study. In his great comedies it is clear that he rejects everything which is not based on a study of the heart. Molière is not concerned with plot and dénounement; each incident stands on its own merits ; for him a comedy is but a succession of scenes whose aim is to place a character in the full light of day. Each of his characters is an exhaustive study of some particular failing or the comprehensive presentment of a whole type in a single physiognomy. Some of his best types are not characteristic of any one period -- the hypocrite, the miser, the coquette. It is Molière's undying merit that we cannot observe in our experience any of these characteristics without being reminded of some of Molière's originals.

In 1667, Racine, after his first attempts, the "Thébaïde" and "Alexandre", reproduced his "Andromaque", which achieved a success no less marked than that of the "Cid"; after that, scarcely a year passed without the production of a new work. After bringing out the "Phêdre" in 1677, Racine withdrew from the stage, partly from a desire for rest and partly on account of religious scruples. The only dramas produced by him in this last period were "Esther" (1689) and "Athalie" (1691). His tragedies were a reaction against the heroic and romantic drama which had prevailed during the first part of the century. He places on the stage the representation of reality; his plays have their source in reason rather than in imagination. The result is a loss of apparent grandeur, on the one hand, but also, on the other hand, an increased moral range and a wider psychology. Again, instead of the complicated action of which Corneille is so fond, Racine substitutes "a simple action, burdened with little incident, which, as it gradually advances towards its end, is sustained only by the interests, the sentiments, and the emotions of the characters" (preface to "Bérénice"). It is, accordingly, the study of character and emotion that we must look for in Racine. In "Britannicus" and "Athalie" he has painted the passion of ambition ; but it is love which dominates his tragedies. The vigour, the vehemence, with which Racine has analysed this passion show what a degree of audacity may coexist with that classic genius of which he himself is the best example.

In some points of detail, La Fontaine, whose "Fables" began to appear in 1668, differs from the other great classics. He has a weakness for the old authors of the sixteenth century and even for those of the Middle Ages, for the words and phrases of a bygone time, and certain popular expressions. But he is an utter classic in the correctness and appropriateness of expression, in the nice attention to details of composition displayed in his "Fables" (a charming genre which he himself created ), and in the added perfection of nature as he paints it. The winged grace with which he skims over every theme, his talent for giving life and interest to the actors in his fables, his consummate skill in handling verse -- all these qualities make him one of the great writers of the seventeenth century.

In this second period of the seventeenth century, all forms of literature bear their fine flower. In his "Maxims" (1665), the Duke de la Rochefoucald displays a profound knowledge of


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Philippians 1:1-11
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 111:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
1 Alleluia! I give thanks to Yahweh with all my ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 14:1-6
1 Now it happened that on a Sabbath day he had gone ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 31st, 2014 Image

St. Wolfgang
October 31: Wolfgang (d. 994) + Bishop and reformer. Born in Swabia, ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter