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"Monstrueuse guerre!" Literature and Warfare in Late Sixteenth-Century France


The end of the French Renaissance was marked by a period of violent civil conflict, often referred to as the Wars of Religion, which lasted from 1562 to 1598. While substantial work has been done on structures of violence during this period, literary scholarship has yet to engage fully with the implications of war in the development of literary discourse. Moving beyond readings in which war is relevant only as context, I recuperate both major and minor texts of this period as a corpus that offers a sustained reflection on the problem of how to represent violence in language. Because representing war requires writers to grapple with how to use language to represent violence inflicted on physical bodies, formal literary choices become part of a broader cultural discourse of how to think about and judge war. Looking at four different genres--essays, tragedy, epic, and memoir--my analysis highlights how, in the closing decades of the sixteenth century, literary form develops in part as a discursive response to a larger problem of how to represent war. Montaigne's Essais offers a hermeneutic of war based upon the assumption that choices about representation are also ethical choices. In humanist tragedy, language becomes an expressive vehicle for shaping our understanding of virtue, heroism, and community in the context of warfare. D'Aubigné's Les Tragiques reinvigorates epic and recuperates its potential for critiquing the excesses of warfare, while Monluc's Commentaires gives voice to a new kind of war hero who is neither glorified nor martyred but who epitomizes the professional. By exploring the diverse characteristics of war writing during this period, I contribute to our understanding of the complex relationship between the activity of war and related literary production, which can be traced and studied comparatively over different periods and literary traditions to help us better understand how we shape and are shaped by our experience with war.

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