In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section French Literature

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Synthetic Overviews
  • Guides to French Literature
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Historical and Cultural Background
  • Journals
  • Drama

Renaissance and Reformation French Literature
Andrea Frisch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0144


The French Renaissance, which in literary studies is more or less taken to span the 16th century, is considered to be a privileged moment in the emergence of a vernacular poetic literature in France. Echoing cultural impulses previously articulated by Italian poets such as Dante and Petrarch, and drawing on the humanist movement of the quattrocento, French poets and scholars, supported by François I (r. 1515–1547), consolidated a program for the enrichment of French vernacular culture through revived study of the Ancients. At the same time, overt religious controversy colored the whole of the 16th century in France, from the Affaire des Placards of 1534, the same year François Rabelais published his second novel, Gargantua, to the bloody civil wars that spanned the reigns of five kings in the second half of the century, when Pierre de Ronsard published his Sonnets pour Hélène, Robert Garnier his tragedies, and Michel de Montaigne his Essais. These violent conflicts attenuated French involvement in overseas exploration and colonization in the period, and had a significant impact on France’s cultural relations with its European neighbors, as Protestants became a conduit for numerous French-to-English translations in the second half of the century.

Introductory Works

Many introductions to the period are available in French, overwhelmingly directed at French university students preparing national exams. A volume that emphasizes the forward-looking aspects of the Renaissance is Ménager 1997. Recent contributions give more space to the period’s troubles, as does Lestringant, et al. 2000, an extremely comprehensive look at the century. Scholarship from outside the hexagon often has a more theoretical bent; O’Brien and Quainton 2000 introduces the period’s texts through literary theory (and vice versa), while Kenny 2008 uses the concept of “otherness” to address the main preoccupations of French Renaissance authors.

  • Kenny, Neil. An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century French Literature and Thought: Other Times, Other Places. London: Duckworth, 2008.

    An introduction to the major writers and events of 16th-century France using a consideration of the ways in which they were put into relation with a series of defining “others” (e.g., Antiquity, God, and the Americas).

  • Lestringant, Frank, Alexandre Tarrête, and Josiane Rieu, eds. Littérature française du XVIe siècle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000.

    This substantial, comprehensive volume offers a deep historical context for the literary production of the 16th century. Led by the expertise of Lestringant, the editors consider virtually every author and genre from the period, and the work is unusually strong on the Wars of Religion. Short bibliography; chronology; useful indices of authors and themes.

  • Ménager, Daniel. Introduction à la vie littéraire du XVIe siècle. Paris: Dunod, 1997.

    A history-of-ideas approach that offers sections on the writer and his context, humanism, philosophy, and forms of thought and art. Short bibliographies after each chapter.

  • O’Brien, John, and Malcolm Quainton, eds. Distant Voices Still Heard: Contemporary Readings of French Renaissance Literature. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

    Uses canonical Renaissance texts (Rabelais, Montaigne, Marguerite de Navarre, and Louise Labé) to showcase theoretical approaches (structuralism, feminism, and psychoanalysis). An introduction to the primary texts and the critical methods.

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