The Emergence of Literature in Eighteenth-Century France

The Battle of the School Books

by Gemma Tidman

The emergence of literature in eighteenth-century France changes our understanding of when, how and why modern ideas of literature emerged in France. Using a unique blend of literary and digital methods, it argues that it was in the mid eighteenth century, rather than the nineteenth (as many have claimed), that the word ‘littérature’ first came to refer to a canon of classics, an aesthetically pleasing text, and a subject that could be studied in schools. These ideas, the book shows, were propelled by a forgotten quarrel about how to reform literary teaching in the Ancien Régime boys’ collèges.

Stretching back to the sixteenth century and forward to the nineteenth, the book explores the pre-histories of the modern ideas of ‘littérature’ that were propelled by this debate, as well as their afterlives in works by La Harpe and Staël, and in teaching practices in the Imperial lycées. One of the first studies to use social network analysis to map an early modern debate, the book shows that Rousseau was not straightforwardly ‘the’ central actor in eig teenth-century debates about education. And it draws on new archival research to reveal that the Ecole royale militaire (founded by Louis XV in 1751) was one of the first institutions to teach something called ‘la littérature française’.

Ultimately, by intertwining the histories of education, quarrels and intellectual networks, this book tells a new story about how France became the famously literary nation it is today.

Cover image: Detail from Joseph Beaume, 'Le Maître d’école endormi' (1831). Oil on canvas (817x680mm). N°inventaire 1979/00940.001. © Réseau Canopé – Le Musée national de l’Éducation


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  • container title
    The Emergence of Literature in Eighteenth-Century France: The Battle of the School Books
  • isbn
  • publisher
    Liverpool University Press
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  • restrictions
    All rights reserved
  • rights
    World English language rights held by Liverpool University Press.
  • rights holder
    Liverpool University Press
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  • series title
    Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment