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French Books and their European Readers, 1500-1700

We wish to acknowledge assistance from the Joanna Barker research strand of the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Durham.

Key investigators: Professor John O'Brien, Dr Patrick Gray, Dr Marc Schachter, Dr Adrian Green, Dr Tom Hamilton


This research strand, launched in 2015, comprises colleagues from Modern Languages, English and History including Professor John O’Brien, Dr Marc Schachter, Dr Patrick Gray, Dr Adrian Green and Dr Tom Hamilton. The results of its first round of collaborative activities in 2015-16 are as follows:

  • La première circulation de la ‘Servitude volontaire’ en France et au-delà, ed. John O’Brien and Marc Schachter (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2019). 462 pp. This volume involves a complete re-assessment, by a Durham-led team of scholars, of the manuscript and print traditions of the Servitude volontaire, an influential political treatise about tyranny by Montaigne’s friend and colleague, Estienne de La Boétie (1530-63). It comprises 8 chapters, of which 3 tackle the print tradition and 5 deal with recently discovered manuscripts of the Servitude volontaire, including one – now in the British Library – published and discussed here for the first time. The volume also contains transcriptions of the 5 manuscripts.
  • Law, Lawyers and Litigants in Early Modern England: Essays in Memory of Christopher W. Brooks, Adrian Green (Durham/History), Michael Lobban (LSE) and Joanne Begiato (Oxford Brooks) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 384 pp. This collection of 15 essays by prominent historians examines and builds on the scholarly legacy of the leading historian of early modern English law, society and politics, which put legal culture and legal consciousness at the centre of our understanding of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English society, and the English common law tradition.The volume also contains two hitherto unpublished essays by Christopher Brooks.
  • Shakespeare and Montaigne, ed. Patrick Gray (English) and Will Hamlyn (Washington State University), to be published by Edinburgh University Press c. 2020. This volume brings together 20 international scholars of English and French literature to re-examine the connections between two of the greatest writers of the European Renaissance.

Building on this base, new developments from 2017 onwards are as follows:

(a) French seditious and controversial literature in early modern Europe, involving John O’Brien, Marc Schachter and Tom Hamilton. This literature, usually anonymous, was written sometimes in French and sometimes in Latin by Francophone controversialists living either in France itself or abroad. Embodying themes such as tyrannicide, it travelled widely throughout Europe, informing new political contexts on its journey. This project will develop in at least two stages:

  • The first stage examines the circulation and use of such literature in France, England and Scotland in the period 1500-1600. The core research team has been extended by recruiting colleagues from abroad. Its findings will be published by Brepols.
  • At the second stage, the field of investigation will embrace Continental Europe (notably Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland and Italy). It will be supported by an AHRC Network Grant application (PI: Marc Schachter).

(b) Sir Anthony Benn, Essayes. John O’Brien will apply for a grant to transcribe and publish this manuscript, whose importance was first highlighted by the legal scholars Chris Brooks (History) and Wilfred Prest (Adelaide). Originally written c.1610-18, it displays the influence of Bacon and Montaigne. A potential publisher would be The Selden Society.

Research Questions

Early Modern Readers Reading

Early modern readers were voracious devourers of all sorts of texts, foreign language texts among them, notably French and Italian. The processes of reading foreign-language works in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries still require extensive investigation, from the marking up of texts for private study through to the processes of translation and imitation. Were foreign-language texts read differently from English-language texts or Latin works? If so, how and why? Were translations of French works into Latin or English a way of increasing their readership, publicising a foreign text or, more basically, providing a tool for those whose knowledge of European languages did not stretch very far? Did the understanding of French texts improve (or the opposite) in the period up to 1700?

Categories of Readers

In general, we can identify several categories of readers of French texts: the aristocracy and gentry; clerics; lawyers; doctors; academics; writers (where these are different from the other classes listed). Usually, specific individuals from these groups have been studied; they have rarely been investigated as groups. Yet their reactions to French literature are not all identical and specific approaches stand out. Clerical readers, for example, commonly pay close attention to particular texts and not only for their theological content – the political dimension of Continental texts is not lost on them. How did particular categories of readers derive the information they needed or found most interesting or useful? In what ways did they differ from each other and why?

The Reception of Texts

What prompted early modern European readers to collect particular works? Which texts, authors, or parts of texts did they focus on? A test-case here is Montaigne, who had become a European classic by the early seventeenth century. There is evidence that he was “received” along with other sets of texts; for example, he is often thought by early modern readers to exhibit Stoicism and so he is read alongside Seneca, Lipsius and Du Vair. How do such readings vary from country to country? Montaigne is discarded as a Stoic in France, for instance, much more quickly than he was in England or Germany. Why was this? Is it possible to set up a detailed typology of reception by country or is the pattern of reception too fluid and varied? What would such a typology or pattern tell us about how early modern readers classified the foreign writers they read?


Early modern libraries are still only partly understood, especially where these are in private hands or not easily accessible. There are some notable examples of both in the UK. One aim of this research strand is therefore to make some of these libraries more widely known (e.g. National Trust, Middle Temple, Episcopal) and to devise strategies for doing so. How did collections in these libraries evolve? Are they the product of a single individual and if so, with what aims? Did collections simply reflect individual taste or was there a larger purpose behind them? What do such collections tell us about the outlook of collectors? How far did they wish to connect with a European intelligentsia by collecting works deriving from their travels there or ordered in specially from booksellers or agents?


Durham Sedition Conference Programme PDF

Montaigne in Early Modern England and Scotland PDF

Pour Une Réévaluation De La Circulation Manuscrite Et Textuelle Du Discours De La Servitude Volontaire PDF