Born to Write: Literary Families and Social Hierarchy in Early Modern France

ISBN : 9780198852391

Neil Kenny
432 Pages
156 x 234 mm
Pub date
Feb 2020
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It is easy to forget how deeply embedded in social hierarchy was the literature and learning that has come down to us from the early modern European world. From fiction to philosophy, from poetry to history, works of all kinds emerged from and through the social hierarchy that was a fundamental fact of everyday life. Paying attention to it changes how we might understand and interpret the works themselves, whether canonical and familiar or largely forgotten. But a second, related fact is much overlooked too: works also often emanated from families, not just from individuals.

Families were driving forces in the production-that is, in the composing, editing, translating, or publishing-of countless works. Relatives collaborated with each other, edited each other, or continued the unfinished works of deceased family members; some imitated or were inspired by the works of long-dead relatives. The reason why this second fact (about families) is connected to the first (about social hierarchy) is that families were in the period a basic social medium through which social status was claimed, maintained, threatened, or lost. So producing literary works was one of the many ways in which families claimed their place in the social world. The process was however often fraught, difficult, or disappointing. If families created works as a form of socio-cultural legacy that might continue to benefit their future members, not all members benefited equally; women sometimes produced or claimed the legacy for themselves, but they were often sidelined from it. Relatives sometimes disagreed bitterly about family history, identity (not least religious), and so about the picture of themselves and their family that they wished to project more widely in society through their written works, whether printed or manuscript. So although family was a fundamental social medium out of which so many works emerged, that process could be conflictual as well as harmonious. The intertwined role of family and social hierarchy within literary production is explored in this book through the case of France, from the late fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth century. Some families are studied here in detail, such as that of the most widely read French poet of the age, Clement Marot. But the extent of this phenomenon is quantified too: some two hundred families are identified as each containing more than one literary producer, and in the case of one family an extraordinary twenty-seven.



Part I. Introduction

1 Hierarchy and heredity

2 Why this time and place?

3 Inheritance under the law

4 Transmission beyond legal inheritance: socio-cultural legacy

5 Other collectivities

6 Family literature

7 The family function

Part II. Family Literature: A Social Survey

8 Family literature: extent and social profile

9 Works shaped by family

10 Not going to plan

11 Conclusions

Part III. Promoting Family Literature

12 Families and the emergence of literary history

13 La Croix du Maine's Bibliotheque (1584)

14 Scevole de Sainte-Marthe's Elogia (1598-1630)

15 Conclusions

Part IV. The Marot Family

16 Introducing the Marots

17 The extent and the limits of a family's ascent through poetry

18 Moulding social hierarchy by communicating experience of it: Clement Marot's poetry

19 Conclusions

Part V. The Brouart-Vatable-Beroald-Verville Family

20 Two deaths in the family: 1526, 1626

21 From barber-surgeon's son to professor: Matthieu Beroald

22 From professor's son to 'Francois Beroalde, escuyer, sieur de Verville, docteur en medicine'

23 Conclusions


Appendix: Families with more than one literary producer

About the author: 

Neil Kenny is Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and Professor of French at the University of Oxford, having previously taught at the University of Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London. His work has long focused on early modern French literature, culture, and thought, within a wider European context. More recently, the focus has been on the relation of literate culture to social hierarchy. He is also interested in language policy in the UK and is Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy.

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