French 281: Literature and Scholarship Among the Writing Practices of Early Modern Europe (1500 to 1900)

Instructor: Déborah Blocker

This seminar is an introduction to the cultures of the written word in early modern Europe. It is designed to help graduate students from a variety of humanistic disciplines (literary studies, European languages and area studies, history, rhetoric, philosophy, theology, art history, musicology, theater, and performance studies, etc.) familiarize themselves with the various contexts in which texts, manuscripts, archives, and books, were produced in Europe from 1500 to 1900. The seminar’s central research question is better understanding how, among a variety of writing practices ranging from letter writing and autobiographical productions to record keeping, report writing, pamphleteering, accounting, or note taking, two specialized types of writing practices congealed during early modernity—the ones we currently designate as “literature” and the ones we refer to as “scholarship.” After discussing both sociological and philosophical accounts of what “practices” are—and how they develop, spread, and endure—, as well as anthropological and historical perspectives on writing practices, the seminar examines how “literature” and “scholarship” began to take shape around a specific sets of writing skills, and progressively differentiated as career tracks and, subsequently, as professions. To do so, we investigate a number of case studies documented by both primary and secondary sources, focusing in particular on the following

1) how literary forms of writing interacted with domestic and private forms of writing (such as letter writing and autobiographical practices),

2) how scholarly productions specialized and/or attempted to reach beyond a learned audience, sometimes through processes of “literarization,” that is, by adopting “literary” forms and features,

3) how literary and learned writing practices were defined among other professionalized (or semi-professionalized) practices of the written word (including record keeping, administrative writing, archival practices, pamphleteering and what we now call “journalism”)

4) how the pressures of political and theological censorship affected the development of “literature” and “scholarship.”

The case studies investigated are taken from across Europe and examined comparatively—but special attention is given to the ways in which literary and scholarly writings were created and put into circulation in three European countries: France, Italy and England. Reading knowledge of either French or Italian is therefore desirable, though not a pre-requisite. This seminar takes place in the Bancroft Library, with the aim of systematically introducing students to printed and manuscript materials in the library’s collections. Each session will involve a theoretical/historical discussion centered on secondary readings and hands-on collaborative work in small groups on documents from the collections. On-line printed matter and manuscript materials are also mobilized, both inside and outside of class. Final projects for this seminar can take a variety of shapes, besides the traditional seminar paper, such as a minute examination of a document (printed or manuscript) housed in the Bancroft Library, or the creation of a syllabus which would introduce undergraduate students to some of the materials and/or problems studied in the seminar.

It satisfies the requirement for Critical Approaches and Methodology.