French literature

The Renaissance


XXth century

1 October 2020

XIXth century

1 October 2020

XVIIIth century

1 October 2020

XVIIth Century

1 October 2020


31 March 2021

Middle Ages

1 October 2020

In France, the Renaissance is generally considered to be the period from the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1492) to the death of Henri IV (1610).

What changes ? Let’s compare with the above. We can imagine a society where what is is not challenged by what could be. This society would be that of the Middle Ages. It is a society that is based on a set of very specific beliefs and customs.

Now, at the turn of the 15th century, all over Europe, people are beginning to say to themselves: we have always done this way; but why not do it differently?

In our societies based on innovation, it is hard to imagine, but at that time, breaking with custom often meant excluding oneself from the community. And this brings us to the drama of the Renaissance: the wars of religion . To do differently, or to believe differently, is to challenge the established order. Martin Luther’s criticisms gave rise to a new religious trend and to conflicts with the Catholic religion that will last until the eighteenth century.

Much more daring than their predecessors, the men and women of the Renaissance sought to expand their geographical and cultural horizons. The discovery of a new inhabited world shook up their brains. It was therefore also a time when culture finds new references, particularly in antiquity. Greek and Latin authors are rediscovered, translated or retranslated, discussed, commented on. In this violent era, a great wind of freedom and humanism blew.

Wether Catholic or Protestant, the Renaissance was Christian from beginning to end. But in a much more creative way than before.

“What do I know ?” (Montaigne) Social and religious structures transformed, and the way of learning and knowing changed. In Italy, Galileo laid the foundations of modern physics. Theology was no longer quite Queen of sciences and Aristotle not the definitive authority on all philosophical questions. In short, the Bible and the Greek philosopher were no longer enough to interpret the world.

During this period, there was a thirst for learning and a kind of tipsy knowledge, which is very apparent in Rabelais, for example. But to know is also to know oneself. And in a world that has been turned upside down, how do we understand our place in the world, how do we live?

This is the question that Montaigne asks himself. In this modern world that is beginning, existence has no instructions…

The french language in the Renaissance

The XVI ° century is decisive for the constitution of the French language. Two major facts.

  • First, French becomes the official language of legal acts (ordinance of Villers-Coterêts). Language is also gradually establishing itself in the writing of technical works.

  • On the other hand, like Erasmus or Rabelais, the century is riddled with great Latinists and Hellenists who will compose for French many words from a Greek or Latin origin

In other words, classical Latin enjoys great prestige but at the same time French is more and more essential, as evidenced by Deffence, and illustration of the French language, by Joachim du Bellay in 1549. It is necessary to defend and illustrate the French language, yes, but which one?

This is what sometimes destabilizes the reader of our time in the face of Renaissance texts: each author seems to have not only his own style, but also his own language, by assuming it (like Maurice Scève) or by pretending to apologize (Montaigne and his Gasconisms). In fact, writers seek to define a new standard not by concessions, but by exaggerating their position, their way of writing.

Often Renaissance writers set out to create words from a Greek or Latin origin by judging that the existing words are poorly constructed, from a false etymology, etc. . But sometimes the word replaced resists and therefore we now have duplicates: creating such déambuler (lat. Ambulare ) to replace se promener, resistant, libérer (lat. Liberare ) to replace délivrer, which resists, ausculter ( lat.auscultare ) to replace écouter, which will do better than resist!