The (Literary) World at
War, or, What Can Happen
When Women Go Public
The most significant phenomenon of the fin de siècle that marks the transition between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century was an intellectual war. The conflict began in France, where it was known as the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. In slightly different guises it quickly spread all over Europe. In England, for example, the controversy was referred to as the Battle of the Books. In France it heated up rapidly in 1687, continuing by fits and starts until well into the eighteenth century. Ancients and Moderns were still at each other's throats in 1716.
On the surface, the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns seems for the most part a pedantic, ivory tower dispute. For some thirty years scholars devoted dozens of lengthy tomes to questions such as whether ancient authors were superior to their modern counterparts, whether personal judgment could be used as a measure of literary value, and whether Homer had really existed. Some of these issues, of course, had the potential for vast, long-term consequences. This is perhaps clearest with regard to the controversy over ancient versus modem authors. In this case scholarly dispute was eventually responsible for the initial broad use of modem (French) authors in the classroom, the original pedagogical canon of French literature, and the first histories and manuals of French literature.
While the war was being waged, however, combatants could hardly have foreseen that they were fighting over such significant stakes. This is why, as I studied the works traditionally considered the principal markers of the quarrel's existence, I was often surprised by the intense animosity evident in so many of them. I found myself wondering if there were not more at stake behind these overheated attacks and defenses, whether their authors were not driven by concerns somehow more personally urgent or troubling than whether French schoolboys should be taught Virgil or