FREN4114 - Old Worlds, New Worlds: Humanism and Travel Writing

Value: 0.5 course units
Dr Thibaut Maus de Rolley
Teaching structure:
1 assessed essay of 3000 words and a two-hour desk examination.

Module Description:

In the Renaissance, Europeans discover a New World (America), rediscover a lost world (Antiquity), and, following the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), set to explore, by way of fiction, alternative worlds and societies. The purpose of this module on sixteenth-century travel writing will be to examine this threefold dialogue between old and new worlds – l’ici et l’ailleurs – which lies at the core of Renaissance Humanism. 

We will read Jacques Cartier's account of his 1535-6 exploration of Canada and 'discovery' of Hochelaga [Montreal] (Brief récit, 1545); Jean de Léry's Histoire d'un voyage faict en la Terre du Bresil (1578), an extraordinary text that recounts the author's stay in Brazil amongst the Tupinamba, in 1557-58; Montaigne's 'Des Cannibales' and 'Des Coches', a meditation on the lessons to be learned from this expansion of the European world.  We will then study Rabelais' tales of imaginary voyages, and in particular that of the initiatory and allegorical quest of the giant Pantagruel, from island to island, told in the fourth volume of his Chronicles (Le Quart Livre, 1552).

We will examine the rhetorics common to both fictional and non-fictional travel writing, aiming in particular to understand the interactions between geographical knowledge and fiction in the Renaissance: to what extent is Renaissance fiction influenced by travellers’s accounts and the new image of the world they offer? And how does fiction, in return, shape the traveller’s perception of the worlds he encounters? This module will also offer the opportunity to explore key notions of early modern literature and thought: humanism, utopia, primitivism, cultural relativism, wonder, experience, curiosity.

Preparatory Reading and Set Texts:

  • Jacques Cartier, Relations, ed. Michel Bideaux (Montréal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1986): read the ‘Seconde relation’ (that of the 1535-6 voyage). A 1843 edition of the text with (slightly) modernized spelling can be easily found and downloaded on Gallica ( or Google Books: Jacques Cartier, Voyages de découverte au Canada entre les années 1534 et 1542 (Quebec, 1843; reed. Paris, Anthropos, 1968). Again, read the ‘Second voyage’. You can also find on Gallica a copy of the original 1545 edition: Brief recit, & succincte narration, de la navigation faicte es ysles de Canada, Paris, 1545.
  • Jean de Léry, Histoire d’un voyage faict en la Terre du Bresil, ed. Frank Lestringant (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, coll. ‘Bibliothèque classique’, 1994).
  • Michel de Montaigne, Essais, I, 31 (‘Des Cannibales’) and III, 6 (‘Des Coches’), ed. Emmanuel Naya, Delphine Reguig-Naya and Alexandre Tarrête (Paris: Gallimard, coll. ‘Folio’, 2009). Or any other good modern critical edition. The text of the Essais is also available online.
  • François Rabelais, Le Quart Livre, ed. Guy Demerson (Paris: Editions du Seuil, coll. ‘Points’, 1997) [original text and very helpful ‘translation’ in modern French]. Or: François Rabelais, Le Quart Livre, ed. Mireille Huchon (Paris: Gallimard, coll. ‘Folio’, 2002).

Further reading will be provided in class.