Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance

Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance

Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance

Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance


Idle Pursuits examines transformations of leisure in the literature and culture of early modern France. It traces a trajectory beginning with the initial detachment of the idle condition from religious contemplation in the thirteenth century and culminating with the birth of the modern contemplative at the end of the Renaissance. How did writers define their idle pursuits? What made mastery of the art of idleness such a valuable asset? Idle Pursuits brings insights of social theory to bear on a literary corpus composed of masterpieces such as Le Roman de la Rose and Les Essais as well as less familiar texts including conduct books, romance, and personal letters. The concept of idleness provides a new frame for understanding Renaissance notions of social identity and its manipulation.


On juge un cheval, non seulement à le voir manier sur une car
riere, mais encore à le voir en repos à l’estable


Historians and literary critics have examined the nobility's military vocation, magistrates’ professional ethos, and women’s work in the domestic sphere. in contrast to this focus on occupation, the present study explores the “idle pursuits” available to these same noblemen, magistrates, and women. What was the status of time left over from “serious” occupations? and why did this time become the locus of virulent polemic, including debates for or against nobiliary idleness, for or against women’s right to leisure, as well as the more familiar debate for or against the superiority of the contemplative life over the active life? in short, what made idleness such a compelling notion for early modern writers, from Hélisenne de Crenne and Herberay des Essarts to Louise Labé, Ronsard, and Montaigne, to name only a few?

Renaissance preoccupations with idleness have generally been explained in terms of a nascent subjectivity. To be sure, idleness provided a fertile terrain for the development of homo interior. Yet its relationship to interiority should not obscure its social function: for during the Renaissance, idleness was also an instrument used to make a would-be interior disposition manifest to others. It served to produce the private, to make it public and visible. To “be idle” was to stage personal cultivation, noble status, or detachment. Only when “on display” could these qualities denote an ethical position or social posture: idleness had to be made conspicuous. the present study takes oisiveté to be as much an element of spectacle as of introspection, part of the quest to be known as well as to “know thy self.”

Idleness, then, belonged as much to the realm of social practices as to the intimacy of being. One has only to think of the courtier’s . . .

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