France Literature – from 14th to 17th Century

Fourteenth and fifteenth centuries

According to FRANCISCOGARDENING, the poem seems to continue into the 14th century. the medieval tradition with G. de Machaut and his disciple E. Deschamps, to whom we owe one of the oldest French poetics (Le roman de Jean de Paris, an anonymous work of some value, the only author of any relief is A. de La Salle. Art de dictier, 1392), while the two major poets of the 15th century. are France Villon, a rich and disconcerting personality, author of the Petit Testament (1456) and the Grand Testament (1461), and Charles Duke of Orleans, a prisoner of the English for 25 years, author of Ballades et chansons, as well as 400 Rondeaux and 4 Complaintes. Prose has a new and much broader development than in previous centuries, above all through the work of historians, chroniclers and narrators; history and news, given the political situation, have a prominent place (J. Froissart, P. de Commynes).

The theater, especially religious, is particularly rich in the 14th century. and also in the 15th, during which the ‘mystery’ of the Passion (Le Mystère de la passion, by A. Gréban) unfolds in ever wider forms. The profane theater reawakens around the second half of the 15th century. (farcesmoralitéssotties) by various companies or festive youth societies (the Enfants sans souci, the Clercs de la Basoche). A masterpiece of the genre is the farce of Maître Pathelin (c. 1464), an anonymous work of the highest artistic value, one of the most important in French comic theater before Molière.

The sixteenth century

The Renaissance treasures the medieval tradition but, at the same time, gives life to every form of art with a new spirit. Italy, its civilization and its humanism are for France the starting point of a cultural revolution. The wars of Italy, started by Charles VIII in 1494, are the occasion for a meeting that will deepen especially with Francis I, fascinated by the Italian flourishing and whose court is frequented by poets and writers.

The deepening and enhancement of the concept of man is in any case the common denominator of a century crossed by great changes of which the humanists themselves reflect the moments of greater or lesser optimism: G. Budé, France Rabelais, who reflects in the his giants Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534) an unshakable faith in the abilities of man, M. de Montaigne, creator of the essai, who expresses the preoccupation with doubt and great questions about human nature (Essais, 1580). Other prose writers are B. des Périers, author of Cymbalum mundi (1537), pamphlet against the Catholic religion, Margaret of Navarre (Heptaméron, 1558-59) and Calvin with his Institution de la religion chrétienne (1541; lat. Ed. 1536).

In 16th century poetry. various seasons and currents can be distinguished. C. Marot is a hinge figure between the different strands of the first half of the century; the so-called école lyonnaise, with its representatives M. Scève, P. du Guillet and L. Labé, manifests the need for a difficult and refined art and is influenced by Neoplatonism and the Petrarchian tradition; the school of the Pléiade places at the center of its action the interest in language, an indispensable vehicle for a new poetry. J. du Bellay, author of the Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse belonged to the Pléiade (1549), which can be considered the school manifesto, J. Dorat, P. Ronsard, J.A. de Baïf, É. Jodelle, R. Belleau and P. de Thiard. The poetry of Pléiade with its new lyricism inaugurates the era of modern poetry, even if the reference to antiquity and a certain erudition weigh down much of the production.

With the beginning of the wars of religion (Vassy massacre, 1562), literary genres linked to current events and often motivated by partisan passion came into vogue: political speeches, pamphlets, chronicles and memoirs. Even the so-called Baroque poets are deeply marked by the wars of religion: G. du Bartas, the inflamed poem by A. d’Aubigné, the few sonnets and stanzas by J. de Sponde, the composite work Satire Ménippée (1593), comic-burlesque libellus. With P. Desportes, a courtier poet, a phase of impoverishment of the poetic vein begins.

The theater does not have the same development as poetry: the popular one of the Middle Ages disappears because the representations of the ‘mysteries’ are banned (1548), but five years later the French tragedy was born with La Cléopâtre captive by Jodelle. J. Grévin and R. Garnier gradually bring this new genre into focus, of which J. de La Taille formulates the first rules (1572).

The seventeenth century

The 17th century. opens in the name of ever greater rigor in literature. Poetry is the first victim of a century fighting against an ideal of art ‘useless’ and in favor of rigid rules of grammar and metric: France de Malherbe (1555-1628) is with his Consolation à Du Perier model of a poem that reacts violently not only against the Pléiade, but also against the Italianism, Petrarchism and the ‘lyricism’ of Ronsard and du Bellay. With him are sided France Maynard and H. de Racan (1589-1670). Among the opponents, poets such as M. Régnier, T. de Viau, H.-S. Cyrano de Bergerac, France Tristan l’Hermite.

The novel reflects the great variety of modules of a genre that over the course of the century gradually emerged from the Baroque complexity to find its modern form. The preciousness, the taste for artifice and disguise make the Astrée(1607-1628) by H. d’Urfé the undisputed progenitor of a pastoral trend, which is inspired by the atmosphere of living rooms and novels.

The theater, which in the second half of the century knows one of its most beautiful seasons, has great fortune even at the beginning. In 1637 P. Corneille represents the Cid which, in addition to being a huge success, provokes a famous quarrel because Corneille did not use the three units of classical theater (of time, place and action). In the following works, Corneille undertakes to observe those rules, up to the last one, Suréna (1674). Among his contemporaries, only J. de Rotrou deserves to be mentioned.

In the spiritual field, Jansenism, despite the papal condemnation (1642), exerts a profound influence: B. Pascal exalts moral rigor in the Provinciales (1656-1657) and sketches a defense of the Christian religion in the Pensées (1670).

The so-called grand siècle, the age of Louis XIV, should be placed, as far as literature is concerned, in a golden age (1660-80), in which all the components that had emerged in previous years converge and merge. The Fables by J. de La Fontaine, the comedies of Molière, the tragedies of J.-B. Racine, the satires and Epîtres by N. Boileau, the sermons and funeral orations by J.-B. Bossuet are works of great importance. The pomp and splendor of a society that revolves around the palace of Versailles favor the observation of morals and sentiments by moralists (Les Maximes, 1665, by France La Rochefoucauld ; i Caractères, 1688-1690, by J. de La Bruyère), by the memorialists (Cardinal de Retz, the Marquis Dangeau, again La Rochefoucauld) and by de Sévigné (1626-1696). Madame de La Fayette creates the best novel of the century with the Princesse de Clèves (1678) and paves the way for the analytical and psychological novel; A. Furetière (1620-1688) with the Roman bourgeois (1666) prelude to the novel of manners and ‘bourgeois’, together with P. Scarron and Cyrano de Bergerac.

The golden age gradually fades in the last years of the century, also due to the rapid change in the political situation after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). Racine writes the last two poems and the last two Christian tragedies, all the other figures disappear one after the other. Moralism regains the upper hand: Italian comedians are expelled from France (1697), free spirits and nonconformists are forced into exile (Saint-Évremond, P. Bayle). In this climate, the querelle des anciens et des modernes (➔ ancient and modern) broke out, putting an end to the ‘classical age’ and preparing the century of enlightenment.

France Literature - from 14th to 17th Century

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