In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section France in the 16th Century

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • France’s Rulers
  • The Nobility
  • Agrarian Life and the Rural Economy
  • The Clergy and Religious Life
  • Private Life and the Family
  • Education and Print Culture
  • Humanism and Humanistic Scholarship
  • History, Law, and Philosophy
  • Nature, Natural Philosophy, and Science
  • Art and Architecture
  • Cultures, Popular and Elite
  • France Overseas

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Renaissance and Reformation France in the 16th Century
Barbara B. Diefendorf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0020


Traditionally envisioned as the dawning of a new age characterized by the rebirth of classical learning and the arts, the Renaissance is often said to have been transported into France from Italy during the last decades of the 15th century and to have reached its peak there during the reign of King Francis I (ruled 1515–1547), after which it quickly faded as the darkening clouds of religious dissent and civil war extinguished its optimistic spirit. Putting a terminal date to the French Renaissance is nevertheless not easy. The skepticism expressed in Montaigne’s essays, first published in 1580, suggests that the coming of war did not so much bring an end to Renaissance creativity as to change its tone. Renaissance culture in France must thus be viewed within the broader context of the kingdom’s social, economic, and political history between the late 15th and early 17th centuries. That is what this entry attempts to do. For more detailed discussion of religious issues and the Wars of Religion in France, see the Oxford Bibliographies article “The Reformation and Wars of Religion in France.”

General Overviews

There are a number of good introductory surveys of France in the Renaissance, each with a slightly different chronological scope and focus. Potter 1995 begins with the reign of Louis XI (ruled 1461–1483) and France’s recovery from the Hundred Years’ War and stops short of the Wars of Religion. Jouanna 2009 also focuses on the first half of the century. By contrast, Jouanna 2012 begins with Charles VIII (ruled 1483–1498), so as to open the French Renaissance with Charles’s invasion of Italy, and ends with Henry IV’s achievement of peace after decades of religious strife. Knecht 2001 takes the same starting point but continues through Henry IV’s assassination in 1610. Baumgartner 1995 uses roughly the same chronology but adopts a three-part thematic structure, instead of integrating events into a continuous narrative. Holt 2002 also adopts a thematic approach and carries the story to the mid-17th century. Scholars doing research on 16th-century France still find Salmon 1975 an important interpretive overview, but it is difficult reading and does not make the best introduction to the field.

  • Baumgartner, Frederic J. France in the Sixteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995.

    An introductory survey, organized in three parts chronologically. Part 1 (1484–1530) covers the early Renaissance, Part 2 (1530–1562) the period leading up to the Wars of Religion; and Part 3 (1562–1614) the wars themselves. Each part has chapters on the monarchy, the church, the nobility, the people, justice, and culture.

  • Holt, Mack P.. Renaissance and Reformation France, 1500–1648. The Short Oxford History of France. Edited by William Doyle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A topical and thematic approach to the subject with essays by six American historians of early modern France; covers the state, social groups, rural and urban economies, gender and family, religion and religious conflicts.

  • Jouanna, Arlette. La France de la Renaissance. Paris: Perrin, 2009.

    Gives good coverage to Renaissance humanism and culture, the evolution of the French monarchy, the Italian wars, and efforts to reform the French church in the first half of the 16th century.

  • Jouanna, Arlette. La France du XVIe siècle, 1483–1598. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2012.

    DOI: 10.3917/puf.jouan.2012.01

    A comprehensive introductory text by a noted French specialist on the 16th century. Thoroughly grounded in both French and Anglo-American scholarship and, at nearly 700 pages, offering more detailed coverage than is available in other general works. First published 1996.

  • Knecht, Robert Jean. The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483–1610. 2d ed. London: Blackwell, 2001.

    A sound and readable narrative introduction to France in the “long sixteenth century,” especially strong on political history. The bibliographical essay is an excellent guide to further reading.

  • Potter, David. A History of France, 1460–1560: The Emergence of a Nation State. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-23848-4

    A good introductory text, focusing on the development of monarchical authority and state institutions; argues that a recognizable national identity developed by the late 15th century despite continued regional diversity.

  • Salmon, John H. M. Society in Crisis: France in the Sixteenth Century. London: Ernest Benn, 1975.

    Reflecting social history approaches dominant at the time it was written, the book begins with description and analysis of French social structures and political and religious institutions and then moves on to blend narrative and analysis in its account of the Wars of Religion. Not an easy read, but still considered an important interpretive account.

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