Final Public Oral Exam: Benjamin S. Bernard

Final Public Oral Examination
Event date: 
April 28, 2022 - 10:00am
Seminar Series: 
Final Public Oral Exam

Administering Morals in the French Enlightenment: Education, Sexuality, and Authority at the Parisian Collège, 1645-1763


David A. Bell, adviser
Anthony Grafton
Yair Mintzker
Gary Ferguson, University of Virginia

Location (Hybrid):

211 Dickinson (RSVP required) or Zoom


The seventeenth-century Parisian collège emanated moral authority. In these elite schools, boys studied humanities, rhetoric, and philosophy; the institution itself enforced moral discipline, and instructors taught ideas about mores. As a book historical study of seventeenth-century Jesuit regent and courtier René de Ceriziers illustrates, collège regents could influence court morals; in step with the society they served, they promoted a vision of ethics capacious enough to license forms of difference that aligned with the gender and sexual norms of their society. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, this balance tottered. From the highest levels of the absolutist state came attempts to reshape collège institutions, attempts which played out in city streets. For instance, a microhistory of the regent Nicolas Theru at the Collège Mazarin illustrates how instructors, drawing on their moral prerogatives, spurred the policing of sodomy in Paris in the 1720s.

As exclusive humanist reading practices proliferated and the city swelled apace, collèges began to contend with a critical public sphere. The notion that moral authority is imposed from above gave way to the Enlightenment sense that it arises in communities of fraternal equals: this shift also, paradoxically, emerged from the culture of collèges. Through the “Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns,” regents integrated novel insights about taste, historicity, and sexuality into curricula; their disciplines thus provided the language of virtue and nature through which writers developed critiques of the Old Regime. Moreover, collèges provided an institutional framework through which networks of young men could meet and engage in practices of sentimental Enlightenment sociability. A study of former Latin Quarter students who, in the late 1740s, formed an epistolary circle around future diplomat Pierre-Michel Hennin, illustrates the importance of the collège institution for incubating fraternal social and intellectual bonds.

This dissertation, an institutional history of the moral authority of Parisian collèges from 1645 to 1763, makes the methodological case for integrating early modern ethics with gender and sexuality. It does so by bringing together from a wide range of French archival repositories sources including printed treatises and textbooks, police archives, records of university administration, and epistolary correspondence.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Non-Princeton community members are asked to attend virtually using Zoom. Princeton in-person attendees are asked to submit the RSVP form prior to attending.