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French 171A: A Concept in French Cultural History — Religious Fanaticism, Toleration, and “Laïcité” in France from the Wars of Religion to the Terrorist Attacks of 2015


Agrippa d’Aubigné, Les Tragiques (book 1 only : “Les Misères”), Voltaire Le Fanatisme of Mahomet le prophète, and Traité sur la Tolérance (excerpts), Henri Pena-Ruiz, Qu’est-ce que la laïcité ? (Paris, Gallimard, coll. Folio actuel, 2003) et Denis Crouzet et Jean Marie Le Gall, Au péril des guerres de religion (Paris, PUF, 2015).

Course Description:

When, in the course of 2015, Islamist terrorist attacks hit Paris twice, the French immediately contextualized what was happening to them within a century-long history. For instance, historians, soon echoed by the mainstream media, started asking whether the country was experiencing a return to the wars of religion that had plagued France in the second half of the 16th century. Simultaneously, Voltaire’s Traité sur la Tolérance (1763), which critiques religious fanaticism and advocates for the tolerance of Protestantism, was suddenly propelled to the top of the nation’s best-sellers lists, selling 185,000 copies in 2015 alone (in comparison with 11,500 copies the previous year). This course investigates the cultural lens through which the French tried to make sense of the attacks of 2015, by engaging in the historical exploration of three tightly intertwined concepts in French history: religious fanaticism, toleration, and laicity. To do so, the class focuses on five formative historical moments in French culture: the wars of religion (and in particular the massacre of the Saint-Barthelemy, in 1572), the Edict of Nantes (1598) and its revocation (1685), the Enlightenment’s embracing of religious toleration (centered on a study of Voltaire’s position), the Revolution (which gave birth both to Terror and the concept of laicity) and the separation of Church and State (1905). We will be reading literary works (such as excerpts of D’Aubigné’s poem Les Tragiques, and Voltaire’s play Le Fanatisme de Mahomet le prophète, alongside his Traité sur la Tolérance) in parallel with historical writings (by Denis Crouzet, Janine Garrison, Sophie Wahnich, Rita Hermon-Belot) and philosophical essays (Catherine Kintzler, Henri Pena-Ruiz). The goal is to gain a better understanding both of France’s complex historical relationship to religion and of the reasons why this relationship might make this country a central ideological target for Islamic terrorism today.


French 102 or consent of instructor.

Additional information:

This course satisfies one “Culture” or one “Elective” requirement in the French major. Course also satisfies one Historical Period Requirement in French Major.  Satisfies College of Letters and Science breadth in Social and Behavioral Sciences or Historical Studies. Priority enrollment for declared French majors.

Section times and locations in the Schedule of Classes