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Academies of Belles Lettres


ACADEMIES OF BELLES LETTRES Belgium.—Belgium has always been famous for its literary societies. The little town of Diest boasts that it possessed a society of poets in 13o2, and the Catherinists of Alost date from 1107. It is at least certain that numerous chambers of rhetoric (so academies were then called) existed in the first years of the rule of the house of Burgundy.


The French Academy (l'Academie francaise) was established by order of the king in the year 1635, but in its orig inal form existed four or five years earlier. About the year 1629 certain literary friends in Paris agreed to meet informally each week. The conversation turned mostly on literary topics; and when one of the number bad finished some literary work he read it to the rest. and they gave their opinions upon it. The fame of these meetings, though the members were bound to secrecy, reached the ears of Cardinal Richelieu, who promised his protec tion and offered to incorporate the society by letters patent. These were granted by the king on Jan. 29, 1635. The officers consisted of a director and a chancellor, chosen by lot, and a permanent secretary, chosen by vote. The director presided at the meetings, being considered as primes inter pares. The chancellor kept the seals and sealed all the official documents of the academy. The cardinal was ex officio protector.

The number of members was fixed at 4o, but it was not till 1639 that the full number was completed. Their first undertaking consisted of essays written by the members in rotation. Next, at the instance of Cardinal Richelieu, they undertook a criticism of Corneille's Cid, the most popular work of the day. It was a rule of the academy that no work could be criticized except at the author's request, but fear of incurring the cardinal's displeasure wrung from Corneille an unwilling consent. The critique of the academy was re-written several times before it met with the cardi nal's approbation. Af ter six months of elaboration it was pub lished under the title, Sentiments de l'academie francaise sur le Cid. This judgment did not satisfy Corneille, as a saying attrib uted to him on the occasion shows. "Horatius," he said, referring to his last play, "was condemned by the Duumviri, but he was absolved by the people." But the crowning labour of the academy, begun in 1639, was a dictionary of the French language. By the 26th article of their statutes they were pledged to compose a dic tionary, a grammar, a treatise on rhetoric and one on poetry. Jean Chapelain, one of the original members, drew up a plan for compiling the dictionary, which was to a great extent carried out. C. F. de Vaugelas was appointed editor-in-chief. The first edition of this dictionary appeared in 1694, the sixth and last in 1835, since when complements have been added.


The old Academie perished with other pre revolutionary academies in 1793, and it has little but the name in common with the present academy, a section of the institute. The object of the Convention in i795 was, as already stated, to rebuild all the institutions that the Revolution had shattered and to com bine them in an organic whole. The institute was at first composed of 184 members resident in Paris and an equal number living in other parts of France, with 24 foreign members, divided into three classes: (I) physical and mathematical science, (2) moral and political science, (3) literature and the fine arts. It held its first sitting on April 4, 1796. Napoleon as first consul suppressed the second class, as subversive of government, and reconstituted the other classes as follows: (t) as before, (2) French language and literature, (3) ancient history and literature, (4) fine arts. The class of moral and political science was restored on the proposal of M. Guizot in 1832, and the present institute consists of the five classes named above. Each class or academy has its own special jurisdiction and work, with special funds; but there is a general fund and a common library, which, with other common affairs, are managed by a committee of the institute—two chosen from each academy, with the secretaries.

The class of the institute which deals with the language and literature takes precedence, and is known as the Academie fran caise. There was at first no perpetual secretary, each secretary of sections presiding in turn. Shortly afterwards J. B. Suard was elected to the post, and ever since the history of the academy has been determined by the reigns of its successive perpetual secre taries. The secretary, to borrow an epigram of Sainte-Beuve, both reigns and governs. Among the best known in the i9th century were Suard, Francois Juste Raynouard, Francois Andrieux and Villemain. Under Raynouard the academy ran a tilt against the abbe Delille and his followers. Under Auger it did battle with romanticism, "a new literary schism." Auger did not live to see the election of Lamartine in 1829, and it needed ten more years for Victor Hugo after many vain assaults to enter by the breach. The academy is professedly non-political. It accepted and even welcomed in succession the empire, the restoration and the reign of Louis Philippe, and it tolerated the republic of 1848 ; but to the Second Empire it offered a passive resistance, and no politician of the Second Empire, whatever his gifts as an orator or a writer, obtained an armchair. The one seeming exception, Emile 011ivier, confirms the rule. He was elected on the eve of the Franco-Ger man War, but his discours de reception, a eulogy of the emperor, was deferred and never delivered. The institute has large vested funds in property, including the magnificent estate and library of Chantilly bequeathed to it by the duc d'Aumale. It awards various prizes, of which the most considerable are the Montyon prizes, each of 2o,000frs., one for the poor Frenchman who has per formed the most virtuous action during the year, and one for the French author who has published the book calculated to prove of most service to morality.

A point of considerable interest is the degree in which, since its foundation, the French Academy has or has not represented the best literary life of France. It appears from an examination of the lists of members that a surprising number of authors of the highest excellence have, from one cause or another, escaped the honour of academic "immortality." When the academy was founded in 1634, the moment was not a very brilliant one in French letters. Among the 4o original members we find only ten who are remembered in literary history ; of these four may rea sonably be considered famous still—Balzac, Chapelain, Racan and Voiture. In that generation Scarron was never one of the 4o, nor do the names of Descartes, Malebranche or Pascal occur. The one astounding omission of the 17th century, however, is the name of Moliere, who was excluded by his profession as an actor ; but the academy has made the amende honorable by placing in the Salle des seances a bust of Moliere, with the inscription "Bien ne manque a sa gloire, it manquait a la notre." On the other hand, the French Academy was never more thoroughly representative of letters than when Boileau, Corneille, La Fontaine, Racine and Quinault were all members. Of the great theologians of that and the subsequent age, the academy included Bossuet, Flechier, Fenelon and Massillon, but not Bourdaloue. La Bruyere and Fon tenelle were among the 4o, but not Saint-Simon, whose claims as a man of letters were unknown to his contemporaries. Early in the 18th century almost every literary personage of eminence found his place naturally in the academy. The only exceptions of importance were Vauvenargues, who died too early for the honour, and two men of genius but of dubious social position, Le Sage and the abbe Prevost d'Exiles. The approach of the Revolution affected gravely the personnel of the academy. Montesquieu and Voltaire belonged to it, but not Rousseau or Beaumarchais. Of the Encyclopaedists, the French Academy opened its doors to D'Alem bert, Condorcet, Volney, Marmontel and La Harpe, but not to Diderot, Rollin, Condillac, Helvetius or the Baron d'Holbach. Apparently the claims of Turgot and of Quesnay did not appear to the academy sufficient, since neither was elected. In the transi tional period, when the social life of Paris was distracted and the French Academy provisionally closed, neither Andre Chenier nor Benjamin Constant nor Joseph de Maistre became a member. In the early years of the 19th century considerations of various kinds excluded from the ranks of the 4o the dissimilar names of Lamennais, Prud'hon, Comte and Beranger. Critics of the French Academy are fond of pointing out that neither Stendhal, nor Bal zac, nor Theophile Gautier, nor Flaubert, nor Zola penetrated into the Mazarine palace. It is not so often remembered that writers so academic as Thierry and Michelet and Quinet suffered the same exclusion. In later times neither Alphonse Daudet nor the brothers de Goncourt, nor Guy de Maupassant were members. Verlaine, although a poet of genius, was of the kind that no academy can ever be expected to recognize.

Concerning the influence of the French Academy on the lan guage and literature, the most opposite opinions have been ad vanced. Thus Matthew Arnold, in his Essay on the Literary In fluence of Academies, has pronounced a glowing panegyric on the French Academy as a high court of letters, and a rallying-point for educated opinion, as asserting the authority of a master in mat ters of tone and taste. To it he attributes in a great measure that thoroughness, that openness of mind, that absence of vulgarity which he finds everywhere in French literature; and to the want of a similar institution in England he traces that eccentricity, that provincial spirit, that coarseness which, as he thinks, are barely compensated by English genius. Thus, too, Renan, one of its most distinguished members, says that owing to the academy "one can say everything in the language of well-bred persons without being pedantic. Do not say they have done nothing, these obscure devotees of culture who spend their lives in investigating the cre dentials of words and weighing up syllables. They have produced a masterpiece—the French language." On the other hand, its in herent defects have been vigorously summed up by P. Lanfrey in his Histoire de Napoleon. The truth probably lies midway between the two extremes. Like all national institutions, the French Academy is a rather conservative body to which only people of a certain age and with well established reputations are elected. As a protest against such a state of things, the Academie Goncourt was founded by E. de Goncourt in 1896. It contains ten acad emicians whose principal function is to award an annual prize of 5,00o francs, preferably to a young novelist. None the less, since 189o, the Academie francaise may be said to have been fairly representative of the nation's culture. Among the critics may be cited, Brunetiere Lemaitre, Foguet; among the poets, Sully Prudhomme, Richepin, de Regnier, Valery ; among the novelists, Bourget, Anatole France, Loti, Prevost; among the dramatists, Hervieu, Curel, Rostand, Brieux ; among the histo rians, Masson, Vandal, Hanotaux, etc. ; among the philosophers, Boutroux and Bergson. Of the writers best known abroad who have not been elected members of the academy are Maeterlinck, Romain Rolland, Proust and Gide.


Of the German literary academies the most cele brated was Die Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft (the Fruitful Soci ety), established at Weimar in 1617. Five princes were among the original members. The object was to purify the mother tongue. The German academies copied those of Italy in their quaint titles and petty ceremonials, and exercised little permanent influence on the language or literature of the country. Other note worthy modern societies are the Berlinsche Gesellschaft fur Deutsche Sprache, the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft, and the Goethe Gesellschaf t.


Italy in the I 6th century was remarkable for the num ber of its literary academies. Tiraboschi, in his History of Italian Literature, has given a list of 171; and Jarkius, in his Specimen Historiae Academiarum Conditarum, enumerates nearly 700. Many of these, with a sort of Socratic irony, gave themselves ludi crous names, or names expressive of ignorance. Such were the Lunatici of Naples, the Estravaganti, the Fulminales, the Trapes sati, the Drowsy, the Sleepers, the Anxious, the Confused, the Unstable, the Fantastic, the Transformed, the Ethereal. "The first academies of Italy chiefly directed their attention to classical literature. . . . It was not till the writings of Bembo furnished a new code of criticism in the Italian language that they began to study it with the same minuteness as modern Latin" (Hallam, Int. to Lit. of Europe). The Italian nobility, excluded as they mostly were from politics, and living in cities, found in literature a consolation and a career. Such academies were oligarchical in their constitution ; they encouraged culture, but tended to hamper genius and extinguish originality. Far the most celebrated was the Accademia della Crusca or Furfuratorum; that is, of bran, or of the sifted, founded in 1582. The title was borrowed from a pre vious society at Perugia, the Accademia degli Scossi, of the well shaken. Its device was a sieve; its principal object the purification of the language. Its great work was the V ocabulario della Crusca, printed at Venice in 1612. It was composed avowedly on Tuscan principles, and regarded the 14th century as the Augustan period of the language. Paul Beni assailed it in his Anti-Crusca, and this exclusive Tuscan purism has disappeared in subsequent editions. The Accademia della Crusca is now incorporated with two older societies—the Accademia degli Apatici (the Impartials) and the Florentina.

Among the numerous other literary academies of Italy we may mention the Academy of Naples, founded about 144o by Alphonso, the king ; the Academy of Florence, founded 1540, to illustrate and perfect the Tuscan tongue, especially by the close study of Pe trarch; the Intronati of Siena, 1525; the Infiammati of Padua, 1534; the Rozzi of Siena, suppressed by Cosimo, 1568. In 1690 the Accademia degli Arcadi was founded at Rome, for the purpose of reviving the study of poetry, by Crescimbeni, the author of a history of Italian poetry. Its members came to its meetings masked and dressed like Arcadian shepherds. Within ten years from its establishment the number of academicians was 600. The Royal Academy of Savoy was founded in 1719, and made a royal academy by Charles Albert in 1848. Its emblem was a gold orange-tree full of flowers and fruit ; its motto "Flores fructusque perennes," the same as that of the famous Florimentane Academy, founded at Annecy by St. Francis de Sales. It published valuable memoirs on the history and antiquities of Savoy. Mention should also be made of the Society Dantesca Italiana.


The Real Academia Espanola at Madrid held its first meeting in July 1713, in the palace of its founder, the duke d'Es calona. In 1714 the king granted them the royal confirmation and protection. The number of its members was limited to 24; the duke d'Escalona was chosen director for life, but his successors were elected yearly, and the secretary for life. Their object, as marked out by the royal declaration, was to cultivate and im prove the national language. They were to begin with choosing carefully such words and phrases as have been used by the best Spanish writers; noting the low, barbarous or obsolete ones ; and composing a dictionary wherein these might be distinguished from the former. Another important Spanish Academy is the Real Academia de la Historia at Madrid.

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