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French 3504

Literary History

« L’histoire littéraire ne se justifie que si elle donne aux lecteurs de nouveaux moyens de comprendre, de nouvelles raisons d’aimer les œuvres vivantes, celles qui, à travers les siècles, continuent d’éclairer, d’enchanter ou d’émouvoir. » (Antoine Adam, Histoire de la littérature française du XVIIe siècle, 1962 ; I, i)

"Literary history has no other justification than to give readers new ways of understanding, new reasons for falling in love with living works, those which, down through the centuries, continue to enlighten, enchant or move us."

Written in 1962, this provides a clear statement of how and why literary history is important, but offers little or no insight into exactly what literary history is. Almost certainly, this has something to do with the fact that Antoine Adam assumed that the term would be self-evident to his readers. Nowadays, this may not be so intuitively obvious! Literary history seeks to tease out the origin of texts from the cultural and historical matrix in which they are rooted. It does this by a variety of means: by relating texts to contemporary historical events and political, cultural, linguistic or social developments; by seeking to explain how texts are grounded in, develop and reflect earlier texts; by studying the evolution of literary trends and styles; by looking at the events of an author’s life. For example, it is very hard to make sense of Molière’s farce Les précieuses ridicules without knowing something about who the "Précieuses" were, why they were thought to be funny, and whether they existed at all, or whether Molière was simply taking advantage of a fad. Literary history can be especially useful in dealing with texts by long-dead authors, but even texts from our own time can be enlightened by it: it is very difficult to appreciate Albert Camus’ La peste (1947), Sartre’s trilogy of novels Les chemins de la liberté (1945-49), Claude Simon’s La Route des Flandres (1960) and Michel Tournier’s Le Roi des aulnes (1970) without at least some knowledge of how France experienced the Second World War.

Course Content

The works studied will depend on the instructor, and may be chosen from any period and genre (or more than one period and genre) of the literatures of French-speaking countries. The course will focus on these texts, using the basic concepts, principles and techniques of literary history as a tool for reading and understanding. French 3504 has recently focused on the court literature of the 12th and 13th centuries.


15 credit hours in French at the 2000 level or permission of the Head of the Department.


Will depend on the instructor; normally several literary works are assigned, supplemented by readings from texts in the university library.


Will depend on the instructor but will normally involve a combination of written and perhaps oral work during the term and a written final examination worth up to 50%.


Normally offered in alternate years.

Together with 3504

Students may wish to register for other introductory literature courses such as French 3500, 3501, 3502 or 3503; language courses (e.g. French 3100 or 3101); civilisation courses (e.g. 3650, 3651 or 3653); or linguistics courses (e.g. French 3302, 3310 or 3311).

After 3504

Students who have completed French 3504 may wish to register for other introductory courses such as French 3500, 3501, 3502 or 3503; they may also wish to continue with more advanced literature courses at the 4000 level (e.g. French 4610 through 4660).Two courses from the 3500-3504 group are the prerequisites for 4000-level literature courses.