French literature

First of all, it was the end, or almost the end, of the wars of religion in France. Thanks to the Edict of Nantes , people no longer kill each other’s cousins. The war continued until the middle of the century, especially in central Europe and the German states, where it had dramatic consequences .

In France, royal authority is felt heavily by the nobles, who were either marginalized in the countryside or controlled at the court in Versailles.

The peasants were, as usual, burdened with taxes and had almost no rights, even though they represented 90% of the population. The literature of the time almost entirely ignores them, except for La Fontaine, in his fable Death and the Woodman, for example.

But as a cultural, political and military power, France is the leader in Europe, and is aware of it. The whole of the West aligned itself with its fashion, tastes and customs. Descartes gave new impetus to philosophy, French became the language of diplomacy. Little Versailles were created all over Europe.

But this power cannot be exercised without control. After a drunken, daring, uninhibited Renaissance, the seventeenth century stood out for its tendency to correct, prohibit, condemn and cut nature to size in carefully planned gardens. Society put a lot of energy into distinguishing between what is appropriate and what is not, good taste and bad taste. In short, it was a century of refinement

This refinement can be funny, like the social comedy that amuses La Bruyère and Molière. But the autors of the century may have a darker mind. What if all this excitement was really just a way of making us forget the horror of death ?

Seventeenth-century writers can be striking, like Pascal or La Rochefoucauld, and play on a very intense chiaroscuro , like this painting by Trophime Bigot.

This strange and contrasting light often surrounds the lives of the great figures of the century. Louis XIV, Racine, Pascal, Rancé, and even La Fontaine, after having led the high life, women, parties, good food, end up renouncing pleasures, putting out the lamps, move away from men, and getting closer to God.

The french language in the 17th century

The seventeenth century is a rigorous century, all about control and constraints. So French gained in rigor but losing in semantic richness. Whereas the Renaissance was all abundance and excess, the seventeenth century was more concerned with fixing usage and pruning a vocabulary deemed too abundant. The creation of the Académie Française was part of this regulatory movement.

With their means of expression increasingly restricted, the authors  developed the search for the right word and the musicality of their language.

To this effort corresponds an ideal of clarity and elegance which seems to the authors of the century (rightly or wrongly) to be the specific genius of the French language. And towards the end of the century the general opinion was that it would never be possible to do better, that the language had reached its peak (this self-satisfaction is also characteristic of the reign of Louis XIV). And in a way, this is true, if we refer to this ideal of clarity and elegance that was the norm at the time. But is not the desire to be absolutely clear in  expression, also an assumption that nothing is fundamentally obscure and confused in man? Isn’t that a bit naive ? (or optimisc!) Romanticism would much later take the French language into these mists and troubled feelings that the 17th century refused to consider.