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Queen Mary French literature expert shines light on forgotten ‘battle of the school books’

France is a famously literary nation, but its ideas of literature are rooted in a little-known eighteenth-century history, according to a new book by Dr Gemma Tidman in Queen Mary’s School of Languages Linguistics and Film.

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Dr Tidman shines light on a little-known dispute that emerged in eighteenth-century France, when the expulsion of the Jesuits and the publication of Rousseau’s controversial novel ‘Emile’ sparked a debate around how public education could help produce the patriotic citizens France was felt to need.

Writers, politicians and teachers agreed that teaching pleasing, persuasive texts written by ‘great’ authors was key to this project – but they couldn’t agree on the texts or authors needed. And as they argued back and forth, one word kept coming up: not the word that had so far been used to refer to such texts, ‘belles-lettres’, but rather the word ‘littérature’.

In her first book, ‘The Emergence of Literature in Eighteenth-Century France: The Battle of the School Books’, Dr Tidman outlines the role of this overlooked debate on education reform in publicising modern ideas of literature in France. The book aims to change our understanding of the people, institutions and practices involved in making France the famously literary nation it is today.

In a study that spans some 300 years, Dr Tidman uses a unique blend of research methods to explore the sixteenth-century pre-histories of quarrels about education, and the afterlives of modern ideas of ‘littérature’ in nineteenth-century France.  

The book is one of the first studies to use social network analysis to map an early modern debate, and the open-access companion website offers interactive dynamic network visualisations of this debate as it evolved between 1762 and 1789. Dr Tidman also draws on new archival research to reveal that the Ecole royale militaire, founded by Louis XV in 1751, was one of the first institutions to teach something called ‘la littérature française’.

Commenting on the book’s publication, Dr Tidman said: “When I started working on this book, during my doctorate, I’d planned to study experiments in education in eighteenth-century France. But as I began digging into texts written by teachers and politicians, and then when I got to the archives of the Parisian military school, I realised I wasn’t quite getting what I’d expected…

“I thought I’d find innovative teaching methods, or perhaps a new emphasis on teaching maths and sciences rather than rhetoric and Latin – and I did find some of that, but what shocked me was the remarkable interest in teaching eloquent texts by modern French authors, increasingly referred to as ‘littérature’.

“In the military school archives, I found teachers employed to teach a subject called ‘la littérature française’ several years before other French public schools or institutions picked up on this new label for a subject. Literature in a military school education? Politicians recognising the humanities, and literature, as crucial for forming skilled citizens? I was a bit baffled!

“As an undergraduate I’d learned that, prior to the early nineteenth century, the word ‘literature’ usually referred to a quality someone could have – a kind of cultured erudition. I’d long been curious about how, when and why the word’s sense changed, and came to mean the sorts of things it does today: great texts, national canons, aesthetically pleasing works, or a school or university subject.

“I began to wonder, then, whether I might be able to use my research to answer this question that had puzzled me... albeit from a slightly unexpected angle! I found that this shift in meaning took place earlier than is typically thought – in the mid-1700s – and that, in France at least, the shift was propelled by a great debate about teaching reform and national identity.”

‘The Emergence of Literature in Eighteenth-Century France’ is published and sold by Liverpool University Press, with some parts of the book available free on their Manifold project site.

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