The French Academy, a mythical institution

The French Academy, a mythical institution


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TheFrench Academy, mythical institution accredited by Richelieu aims to "fix" the French language. The surest way to make the language understood by all is by creating a Dictionary. The first edition of the dictionary was published in 1694. Initially composed of a small group of scholars, the French Academy very quickly saw its ranks grow with the election of statesmen, lawyers, doctors. and clergymen; the great majority of Academicians today are men of letters, but the Academy has gradually been able to open up to other forms of expression.

Creation of the French Academy

It all began in 1629, when a few people came together to form a discussion circle. Valentin Conrart, Advisor and Secretary to the King, offers his Parisian domicile to the 9 personalities of the group, serves as secretary and confidant of these personalities for 41 years, until his death. In March 1634, a first meeting report was signed and eight days later, this assembly took the name of the Académie Française. The members are called “academics”.

Cardinal Richelieu, concerned about his glory, takes these intellectuals under his protection, asks them to establish statutes, limits the number of people to forty, recruited according to their talent and not their birth. The letters patent are signed by Louis XIII at the end of January 1635 (the 25th or the 29th). In February 1636, the members became “academicians”, then finally in July 1637, Parliament registered the letters patent and the company of letters was officially created.

Meetings of the Académie Française

Until 1638, the meetings took place at the homes of those concerned: at Desmarests, Chapelain, Montmor, Gomberville, Habert de Cerisy, Boisrobert. A year later, Pierre Séguier Mortar President of Parliament, Keeper of the Seals welcomed academics to his mansion and became Protector of the Academy upon the death of Cardinal Richelieu. We find there Valentin Conrart, Jean Chapelain worthy successor of Malherbe, Le Sieur de Vaugelas grammarian who will work 15 years at the Dictionary, Olivier PATRU who inaugurated the tradition of thanks in September 1640.

Here is an extract from the Memoirs of Pélisson “in the year 1643 on February 16, after the death of Cardinal de Richelieu, the Chancellor sent word to the Company that he wished that in the future it would meet with him. ... And certainly when I consider the various retreats that this Company had, during nearly ten years, sometimes at one end of the city, sometimes at the other, until the time of this new protector: It seems to me that I see this Isle of Delos of the wandering Poets, and floating, until the birth of his Apollo. "

During Séguier's presidency, 39 elections took place and new elected representatives appeared: Pierre Corneille; Antoine Furetière; Jean Baptiste Colbert, founder of the Academy of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Sciences; Jacques Bénigne Bossuet bishop of Condom, tutor to the Dauphin, philosopher, historian; Charles Perrault brother of the architect Claude; the Duke of Coislin who is only sixteen and a half years old. A special visit took place in March 1658 in the person of Christine of Sweden.

The new buildings of the Académie Française

Cardinal Mazarin, on his death, entrusted Louis XIV with an income in order to found a college where 60 young nobles from the French provinces would receive free education: the College of the Four Nations. Le Vau is responsible for the construction of a building in an arc of a circle, "vis-à-vis the Louvre" as well as a chapel with an Italian-style dome: the famous Coupole, on the banks of the Seine, which was completed in 1680 by François d'Orbay.

In 1672, on the death of Chancellor Séguier, the Academy moved to the Louvre, in the rooms on the ground floor, and Louis XIV became its protector. Cardinal Mazarin's library is located in this college, it is the 1st library in France.

The new buildings completed, the students were received there between 1688 and 1792. But in August 1793, the Convention abolished the academies transforming the buildings into prison. Napoleon I, who had become emperor, installed the Academy in the Collège des Quatre-Nations in August 1806. The first public session took place on Germinal 15 of the year IV, welcoming 1500 spectators, thus marking the renaissance of Letters and the Arts in France. The statutes are deliberated at an extraordinary meeting in June 1816; the buildings took on their final appearance in 1839.

The Immortals and their Armchairs

From 9 members at the start, they increase to 40 members, not replaced in the event of death according to the law of 1792. Since its foundation, 719 members have been received: poets, novelists, theater artists, philosophers, doctors, scientists, art critics, soldiers, statesmen, men of the Church, all having illustrated in one way or another the French language. They became "Immortals" in reference to the seal given to the Academy by Cardinal Richelieu, the motto being "To immortality". No one can resign from this foundation, exclusions can be pronounced, but they have been rare.

Thanks to Cardinal d'Estrées, they are seated in armchairs. The academician Charles Pinot Duclos recounted “in the old days there was only one armchair in the Academy, which was the director’s place. All the other academicians, whatever rank they were, had only chairs. Cardinal d'Estrées, having become very infirm, sought a softening of his condition by attending our assemblies: we often see those whom age, disgrace, or disgust with greatness force to renounce, come among us. to be consoled or disillusioned. The cardinal asked that he be allowed to have a seat more convenient than a chair. It was reported to King Louis XIV, who, foreseeing the consequences of such a distinction, ordered the intendant of the furniture repository to have forty armchairs carried to the Academy, and thereby confirmed, and forever, the academic equality. The company could not expect less from a king who wanted to declare himself the protector ”.

Alongside the forty armchairs, there is a special case that of the “41st armchair”. The writer Arsène Houssaye reserved it in 1855 for writers and other famous people, never having been able to join this institution, either because they never applied, or because they were rejected or for premature death. We can thus mention Descartes, Molière, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Rousseau, Diderot, Beaumarchais, Balzac, Dumas père, Flaubert, Stendhal, Maupassant, Baudelaire, Zola, Daudet.

Few of the illustrious people refused a wheelchair. Marcel Aimé declined this proposal in a humoristic tone "I am very grateful to you for having thought of me for the Quai Conti (...). With much emotion, I respond to your "wink" which makes me very proud. Still, I have to tell you that I don't feel like the makings of an academician. As a writer, I have always lived very alone, away from my colleagues but not at all out of pride, quite the contrary, rather out of timidity and indolence too. What would become of me if I was in a group of forty writers? I would lose my mind and for sure I would not be able to read my speech. So you would make a poor acquisition ”.

Certain elections were important for the Academy: Marguerite Yourcenar was the first woman appointed to the French Academy; in October 1999, Hélène Carrère d´Encausse was elected Perpetual Secretary. At the meeting of November 20, 2008, Ms. Simone Weil was elected to the chair of the deceased Mr. Pierre Messmer, but she did not take her place until March 18, 2010.

The Academicians' outfit

With a view to uniformity, the academicians officially requested the wearing of a simple and decent costume in September 1800. The Habit Vert was created in January 1803, it is "French in black cloth, embroidered with olive foliage. in aurora silk, a silk belt, the color of the embroidery with the fringes of the coat. Such decided the Consuls of the Republic, on 29 Nivôse, year IX.

Accompanying the green suit, the sword compulsory at the start (members of the Academy being part of the King's House) becomes free. It wears a gold and silver handle. It disappeared during the Revolution when the Academicians then carried a cane decorated with Minerva and reappeared under the Empire and the Restoration.

During the 19th century, the sword took on a new meaning: it became the emblem of official state bodies (army, embassies, consuls, admirals, governors, prefects). This is how the students of some major schools wear the sword.

The cocked hat completes the attire of the Academicians, being the standard 18th century headgear.

The French Academy, often derided but always recognized, plunges its roots into the depths of the national imagination, indissolubly intertwined with the fundamentally French myths of the beautiful language and "literary power". Each year, she awards a grand prix du roman, and has recently opposed the adoption of inclusive writing.

For further

- The French Academy through letters: From 1635 to the present day by Philippe de Flers. Gallimard, 2010.

- History of L'Academie Francaise ..., by Paul Pellisson. Nabu press, 2012.

- "The French Academy" by Jean-Pol Caput, 1986


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