The Emergence of Literature

The Emergence of Literature in Eighteenth-Century France: The Battle of the School Books

My first book, published with Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool University Press, 2023), argues that the emergence of several key, modern ideas of ‘littérature’ in France (as ‘an aesthetically pleasing text’, ‘a national canon’, and ‘a discipline for study’) was propelled by an understudied debate about how to reform literary teaching in the early modern boys’ schools, the collèges.

This debate began in 1762, catalysed by the twin events that were the expulsion of the Jesuits (who ran over 30% of French collèges), and the publication of Rousseau’s controversial treatise-cum-novel, Émile, ou de l’éducation. In a matter of months, the Jesuit expulsion left tens of thousands of boys without teachers: if there was a single crisis in education in eighteenth-century France, this was it. Yet, with the Jesuits gone – their Latin curriculum and traditional methods of teaching ‘belles-lettres’ widely discredited – this crisis also presented an opportunity. Perhaps ‘ces risibles collèges’, as Rousseau branded them, might be reformed. But how? Parlementaires, teachers, gens de lettres, and journalists all had ideas, which they argued about over the course of over 200 texts, published between 1762 and 1789. What place should Latin occupy in the collège curriculum? What texts and authors were French ‘classics’? How should teachers be trained? And what classroom exercises could replace things like memorisation, dispute, and translation into Latin? These were the matters disputed during this overlooked quarrel. To bring it into view, and to underline the discursive form it was seen to have at the time, I call it the Querelle des collèges.

Volumes belonging to Batteux's 5th edition of the 'Principes de la littérature'
Batteux, Principes de la littérature, 5th edn (Paris, 1774)

But where does ‘littérature’ come in to this? Around the mid-eighteenth century, the meaning of the word ‘littérature’ began to shift away from ‘erudition’ (something one has) and towards ‘texts’ (something one reads), and specifically, ‘aesthetically pleasing texts’ and ‘a national canon’. Scholars have disagreed about the date that these changes happened; they’ve also offered different hypotheses as to what fuelled these changes. But little work has suggested why ‘nation’ became a key classifying criteria for ‘littérature’, around the mid-century. And no account has really explained how the word ‘littérature’, in these new senses, gained the traction – the publicity, the wide appeal – to slowly begin replacing ‘belles-lettres’ from the 1760s, as I show that it did. We’ve been missing a crucial piece of the puzzle that would help explain how, why, and under what pressures modern ideas of ‘littérature’ emerged. This missing piece, I argue, is the Querelle des collèges.

This crisis in boys’, public education sparked a major reconsideration of literary teaching practices, right down to the vocabulary used in classrooms and educational plans. ‘Littérature’ was just what pro-reform Querelleurs needed. Here was a word – and the new concepts attached to it – that allowed reformers to distance themselves from traditional collège methods of teaching ‘rhétorique’ and classical ‘belles-lettres’, and to instead promote the sort of literary culture they thought France’s future leaders needed to possess. Many Querelleurs defined ‘littérature’, then, as a canon of great, modern, French writers and their texts, which would inculcate patriotic values in the next generation of elite Frenchmen. This was a syllabus conceived to regenerate the nation after the defeats of the Seven Years’ War, and to get away from the Jesuits’ curriculum, seen as foreign, unpatriotic, and suspicious. Not all Querelleurs agreed, however, and they reclaimed the malleable word, ‘littérature’, using it to refer to the sorts of texts and authors they though the collèges should teach. But if ‘littérature’ served the Querelle, so the Querelle served ‘littérature’. For, through its 200+ texts that argued back and forth, the Querelle des collèges publicised the modern senses of the word ‘littérature’ that it repeatedly put into print.

The Parisian École militaire, founded in 1751 (Jebulon, Wikimedia CC licence)

This was not just about texts, though. While the Querelle failed to produce uniform changes to literary teaching in the collèges before 1789, it did have an impact on the teaching practices of an influential network of eighteenth-century schools: the royal military schools. Through new archival research, I uncover that these schools were among the first to teach something called ‘la littérature française’. In so doing, they played a key role in stabilising, legitimising, and transmitting modern ideas of ‘littérature’ to the next generation of ‘grands hommes’. The Querelle also influenced those who defined ‘littérature’ on the cusp of the nineteenth century, including Mercier, La Harpe, Staël, and the commission appointed by Napoléon to determine the literary curriculum of the first French lycées. These individuals, sometimes seen as the originators of modern, French ideas of ‘littérature’, were drawing on the words and ideas previously mobilised in the Querelle. Qu’est-ce que la littérature, alors? It’s a question with dozens of possible answers. But one answer, and the one this book proposes, is that ‘littérature’ is the by-product of an Ancien Régime debate about education.