Theses Doctoral

The Invention of Memoirs in Renaissance France

Virastau, Nicolae Alexandru

This dissertation investigates the emergence of the memoir genre in France. Commynes, the author generally regarded as the first memoirist, initially conceived his memoirs as a collection of personal notes to be used by Angelo Cato for a more elaborate history of Louis XI’s reign, but gradually came to consider it an independent, firsthand account. The second half of the sixteenth century witnessed the appearance of an unprecedented and closely-knit group of firsthand historical narratives, circulating in manuscript form or published as memoirs. These texts were responding to the standards set by a new Renaissance historiography, which sought to transform traditional history into a science with political applications. As the early modern paradigm of historiography based on firsthand narrative sources faded away in modern times, memoirs lost their historiographical status and became part of French literature. Most scholars deem Renaissance memoirs rudimentary forms of autobiography that only fully matured in the age of Louis XIV. It is within and against this teleological literary scholarship that my thesis is situated. By re-placing Renaissance memoirs within their original rhetorical context, I argue that the author’s quest for individual self-expression, which has been considered a defining characteristic of memoirs, is an anachronistic and retrospective projection. My dissertation shows that memoirs were originally a collective enterprise and that communal values prevailed in Renaissance self-memorialization. The first formal group of memoirs appeared in the wake of civil and religious wars that endangered traditional forms of social and political representation. Their authors addressed relatively new topics such as the court favorite, reason of state, and national unity. However, all the evidence suggests that their life-writings did not mark a watershed between medieval corporatism and Renaissance individualism, as has been previously thought.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Lefèvre, Sylvie
Force, Pierre
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 16, 2015