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The Shock of the Ancient

Literature and History in Early Modern France

The cultural battle known as the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns served as a sly cover for more deeply opposed views about the value of literature and the arts. One of the most public controversies of early modern Europe, the Quarrel has most often been depicted as pitting antiquarian conservatives against the insurgent critics of established authority. The Shock of the Ancient turns the canonical vision of those events on its head by demonstrating how the defenders of Greek literature—rather than clinging to an outmoded tradition—celebrated the radically different practices of the ancient world.

At a time when the constraints of decorum and the politics of French absolutism quashed the expression of cultural differences, the ancient world presented a disturbing face of otherness. Larry F. Norman explores how the authoritative status of ancient Greek texts allowed them to justify literary depictions of the scandalous. The Shock of the Ancient surveys the diverse array of aesthetic models presented in these ancient works and considers how they both helped to undermine the rigid codes of neoclassicism and paved the way for the innovative philosophies of the Enlightenment. Broadly appealing to students of European literature, art history, and philosophy, this book is an important contribution to early modern literary and cultural debates.

296 pages | 2 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Ancient Studies

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Romance Languages


The Shock of the Ancient is one of the most intelligent and interesting works on seventeenth-century literature that I have read in the past few years. Well-researched, thought-provoking, and very engaging, Larry F. Norman’s book makes a clear point and makes it compellingly: that the French classical period was far more aware of questions relating to its own historicism than we moderns tend to believe and that the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns indeed reflected a protomodern sensibility of self and otherness. Readable and accessible, The Shock of the Ancient will appeal to scholars and students alike.”

Richard E. Goodkin, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“Witty, free of jargon, and filled with an encyclopedic knowledge of sources, as well as an up-to-date view of recent literary and cultural debates, this book will shed vivid new light on this important historical controversy.”

John D. Lyons, University of Virginia

“Larry Norman’s account of the cultural debate known as the querelle des ancients et des modernes is revisionist and lean, yet detailed and with depth. . . . Doing away with a whole range of cherished stereotypes and teleologies, Norman explores the tactics of this debate, combining smart synopsis with in-depth knowledge of a wide range of materials. . . . Norman’s fresh road map is an excellent one.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

“Rich, learned, and nuanced.”


“This study of literary transformations recovers a neoclassical world that had been lost to us, obscured, ironically, by the consequences of a later quarrel—the Romantics’ debate with neoclassicism. Norman makes evident what the Romantics made us forget: just how scandalous those ancients were.”

Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature

“Solidly structured and agreeably written, Larry Norman’s book turns all the evidence into a beneficial, even provocative, read, as much for specialists of the seventeenth century and the reception of Antiquity as for those interested in literary history.”


“Luminously written and argued, The Shock of the Ancient is the work of that too-rare being, a literary scholar who writes always to inform rather than simply to impress. . . . The single best, most nuanced account now available of what was at stake in the Quarrel, the one with which all students of the period (and of the origins of modernity in literature) should start.”

Reviews in History

“Norman approaches the quarrel like an archaeologist who spots a museum object most visitors would only accord a passing approbatory glance, immediately recognizing its true value, seizing it and scraping away at the surface to reveal its most interesting and valuable features to his fellow museum-goers. Experts in the field, students, and even those with a casual interest in the early modern French period will find his work accessible and appealing.”

French Review

Table of Contents


Introduction: Experiencing Antiquity

PART 1 Historical Sensibility
1 Whose Ancients and Moderns?
2 Asserting Modernity
3 Splintered Paths of Progress
4 Antiquity without Authority

PART 2 The Shock
5 Why the Scandal?
6 Modernity and Monarchy
7 The Pagan Menace
8 Morality and Sociability
9 The Ancients Respond

PART 3 Aesthetics: The Geometric and the Sublime
10 Philosophy’s Turn
11 The Ineffable Effect

Conclusion: After the Quarrel



Modern Language Association: MLA Scaglione Prize for French and Francophone Studies

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