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FR917 Reason and Revolution in 18th-century France


The years leading up to the French Revolution were marked by intense literary, political and social change in France. This module will explore those changes by taking some of the guiding principles of the Enlightenment and examining how writers used them in the final years of the ancien régime and the first years of the Revolution. The aim will be to evaluate the extent to which texts can reflect the attempts to wipe away old certainties and replace them with new ideas of harmony and progress but also to assess the limitations of Enlightened thought. The thematic approach to seminars will permit a broad exploration of the last decades of the ancien régime but also an engagement with issues such as tolerance and religious difference, class, gender, and the position of the individual in society.

The following list of topics is intended to set the overall structure of the module, but is adaptable according to the students’ interests.

Week 1: Freedom:

Montesquieu, Lettres persanes

Week 2: Society and the Individual:

Rousseau, Discours sur l’inégalité

Week 3: Progress:

Extracts from the Encyclopédie

Week 4: Religion:

Voltaire, Traité sur la tolérance

Week 5: Natural (wo)man and civilisation:

Mme de Graffigny, Lettres d'une péruvienne


Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Paul et Viriginie


Week 6: Virtue:

Marmontel, ‘La Femme comme il y en a peu’ ;

Mme Riccoboni, Lettres de Milady Juliette Catesby

Week 7: The Exotic:

Diderot, Supplément au voyage de Bougainville

Week 8: Transparency:

Fabre d’Eglantine, Le Philinte de Molière

Week 9: Revolution:

Rétif de la Bretonne, Les Nuits révolutionnaires;

André Chénier, selected poems

Week 10: The Individual and Society:

Constant, Adolphe