T, TH 9-10:20 am
CC 228

Michael P. Breen (CC 235)
T. 2-3pm, W. 2-4pm or by appointment.
x 7322

Summary & Course Goals

In the middle of the fifteenth century, France faced enormous challenges and difficulties. More than a century of intermittent warfare between the French and English crowns (the Hundred Years War) had divided the country politically, weakened the monarchy considerably, engendered conflict among the kingdom’s great noble families, and devastated the economy and population. Little more than a half century later, by contrast, France had emerged as a leading European power—engaging in a protracted military and diplomatic conflict with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. The French court became one of the leading artistic and literary centers of Europe. The kingdom itself had expanded considerably with the annexations of Burgundy, Brittany, and Provence—regions with distinctive linguistic, cultural, and political traditions. Strong monarchs such as Louis XII, Francis I, and Henry II strengthened the monarchy and transformed royal administration and justice. The economy and population prospered, to the point that one early sixteenth-century Frenchman declared that even “the very hens know they are safe from violence.” French ships began to explore the newly-encountered lands of the Americas, particularly in modern-day Canada, Florida, and Brazil.

Beneath this aura of power, prosperity, and stability, however, lurked profound troubles. Calls for religious reform, inspired by Luther, Calvin and others, filtered into the lands of the “Most Christian King” and gained adherents in elite and popular circles, despite growing efforts to stifle them. Rivalries between noble factions remained endemic, and the threat of Habsburg hegemony continued to trouble the Valois kings. Military expenses sapped the economy and royal budget, prompting the crown to sell off many judicial and administrative positions. When Henry II was killed in a freak jousting accident in 1559, leaving behind four young sons as successors to the throne, these troubles became a full-blown crisis. For the next fifty years, France was torn apart by a series of religious civil wars and when the last Valois monarch was assassinated by a monk in 1589, leaving the Protestant Henry of Navarre as heir-apparent to the throne, the monarchy itself seemed on the verge of collapse.

In this course, we will examine the causes and consequences of this century of profound social, political, cultural, and religious transformation in France. At the same time, we will explore how these developments shaped French encounters with the larger world being explored by Europeans as well as the ways these encounters helped shape and transform French culture. By the end of the semester, you should have developed:


The following books are available at the bookstore and on 2-hour reserve at the library:

Additional readings are available on 2-hour reserve at the library or via internet. Readings on reserve are marked with an [R]. URLs for on-line readings are provided in the schedule of readings.

Required Assignments

Conference: Regular conference attendance and participation is expected. It goes without saying that you are expected to come to conference having done the reading for that day and prepared with questions, observations and/or ideas to discuss.

Special H1N1 Flu Proviso: Sixteenth-century France was no stranger to plagues and epidemics, a historical experience I am confident we would all like to avoid in this class and at Reed. If you think you may be coming down with something, do not come to conference. I understand that this goes against all Reedies’ instincts and normally, I do not encourage students to miss conference. In this case, however, consider the health implications for yourself, your classmates, me, and everyone we come in contact with. Better safe than sorry. And I’d prefer not to have to resort to early modern techniques of plague prevention, which can be rather unpleasant.

Whether for illness or for other reasons, if you must miss a conference, please try to let me know in advance.

First essay (due Fri. Sept. 25th @5pm): A 3-5 pg. essay on a topic to be distributed in advance. No additional reading or research will be required.

Second essay (due Tues. Oct. 27th @ 9am): A 5-7 pg. essay on a topic to be distributed in advance. No additional reading or research will be required.

Final essay (due Weds. Dec. 16 @ 5pm): A 12-15 pg. research essay on a topic to be chosen in consultation with me.

The Fine Print: Extensions may be granted at my discretion, but never on the day a paper is due (except in the case of serious emergencies). If you need additional time, you must contact me more than 24 hours before the paper is due, provide a reasonable explanation for your request and an alternate due date. I reserve the right to refuse any extension, so just getting in touch with me does not in itself guarantee an extension. I write fewer comments on late papers and will consider the extra time an advantage, so expectations will be raised accordingly.