French C203: The Learned Academies of Early Modern France, Italy and Spain (1500-1800): Knowledge, Sociability, Politics

Instructor: Professor Déborah Blocker

This course investigates the literary, artistic and intellectual importance of the major learned academies of early modern France, Italy and Spain (1500-1800), with an eye to their social and political impact.

Early modern academies were social institutions assembling a group of individuals united by a quest for knowledge, outside of a university setting. Some of these sodalities were large, public and mostly subservient to power. Others were small, private and secretly subversive. Thousands of academies developed throughout Western Europe during the early modern period and these institutions played a major role in the advent of modernity, in a variety of different ways.

It is for example within the academies of early modern France, Italy and Spain that many of the disciplines taught today on university campuses first came together as scholarly discourses (such as philology, linguistics, literary criticism, musicology, history, but also mathematics or physics). Meanwhile, the Universities remained conservative professional schools, restricted to the teaching of law, medicine and theology. It is also amid the academies and their extensive intellectual networks that many of today’s academic values were originally crafted (such as the call for a leisurely and disinterested quest for knowledge for its own sake, or the imperative to think rationally and critically, or the insistence on the importance of integrity, honesty and autonomy in intellectual activities). Last but not least, early modern academies were important social and political experiments in their own right. Because they frequently affirmed themselves to be central elements of the ‘Republic of Letters,’ these institutions have even been described as one of the institutional foundations of the liberal democratic ideal.

In this seminar, we examine the development of the academic movement in France, Italy and Spain over three centuries, while also questioning the ways in which historians have accounted for this complex phenomenon. Alongside these historiographical accounts, we read primary sources (academic statutes, academic orations and polemics, literary and scientific works, letters, etc.), paying special attention to the wide variety of academic institutions and practices. We also investigate the development of new discourses within the academies (from poetics to history and even physics), through a handful of case studies and comparisons. Finally, we question the socio-political foundations, as well as possible repercussions, of the early modern academic movement.

This course was designed to give students in the Romance Languages and Literatures (RLL) track a comparative sense of the social and intellectual history of France, Italy and Spain during the early modern period. It is however fully suitable for REMS students, especially those interested in early modern history, literature(s) and philosophy. Historians of early modern art, music or science will also find it beneficial.

Knowledge of at least one Romance language (French, Italian or Spanish) is preferable but not compulsory. English will be the main language of the secondary readings, but students in the RLL track will be expected to work through a variety of primary sources in French, Italian and/or Spanish. Specific reading arrangements can however be made for students not enrolled in the RLL track (REMS students, or other scholars of early modern culture). Please feel free contact the professor prior to the beginning of the semester at with any special requests or questions (

  • Elective Requirement: This course fulfills the elective requirement for the DE in REMS.