The French literary style called préciosité (French pronunciation: [pʁesjɔzite], preciousness) arose in the 17th century from the lively conversations and playful word games of les précieuses (French pronunciation: [le pʁesjøz]), the witty and educated intellectual ladies who frequented the salon of Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet; her Chambre bleue (the "blue room" of her hôtel particulier) offered a Parisian refuge from the dangerous political factionalism and coarse manners of the royal court during the minority of Louis XIV.

One of the central figures of the salon that gathered at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, Madeleine de Scudéry, wrote voluminous romance novels that embodied the refinements of preciosité; they were suffused with feminine elegance, exquisitely correct scruples of behavior, and courtly Platonic love that were hugely popular with female audiences, but scorned by most men. The "questions of love" that were debated in the précieuses' salons reflected the "courts of love" (fictional courts which judged lovers' behavior) that were a feature of medieval courtly love. Molière satirized the Précieuses in his comedy Les Précieuses ridicules (1659).

None of the ladies ever applied the term précieuse to herself or defined it.[1] Myriam Maître has found in préciosité not so much a listable series of characteristics "as an interplay of forces, a place of encounter and mutual ordering of certain of the tensions that extend through the century, the court and the field of literature".[2] In assessing the career of Philippe Quinault, which began at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, 1653, Patricia Howard noted, "For if in French theatre in the second half of the century, women's roles are preeminent, it was the précieux movement which made them so."[3]

In the Fronde, the bluestockings tended to be aligned with the superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, drawing the satire and ire of the aubignaciens, of the Cardinal de Retz's party.[4]

One préciosité parlor game, the retelling of fairy tales as if spontaneously (though the tales were in fact carefully prepared), was to have great effects.[5] Many of these fairy tales, in the préciosité style, were written, mostly notably by Madame d'Aulnoy. This fashion for fairy tales, and the writers themselves, were a notable influence later upon Charles Perrault,[6] and many other writers such as Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the author of the first known variant of Beauty and the Beast.[7] Authors altered the stories notably from the folk tradition; for example, they made every character at minimum a member of the gentry by birth.[8] The heroes and heroines of fairy tales written by the précieuses often appeared as shepherds and shepherdesses, in pastoral settings, but these figures were secretly royal or noble, and the simple setting did not cloud their innate nobility.[9]

The précieuses are also remembered through the filter of Molière's one-act satire,Les Précieuses ridicules (1659). This bitter comedy of manners brought Molière and his company to the attention of Parisians, after years of having to tour the provinces, and attracted the patronage of Louis XIV; it still plays well today. Les Précieuses ridicules permanently fixed the pejorative connotation of précieuse as "affected". In the play the two provincial young ladies reject the suitors proposed by their father as insufficiently refined, only to fall in love with the suitors' valets, who are in disguise as wits. In the provinces, the young ladies' Parisian pretensions were worth mockery, and in Paris, their puffed-up provincial naïveté and vanity were laughable. Thus Molière pleased all possible audiences.

The phenomenon of the précieuses in establishing French literary classicism was first revived by Louis Roederer in 1838. His Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la société polie en France, evoked an atmosphere of nostalgia for the douceur de vivre of the Ancien Régime and the aristocratic leisure of its authors, at least for the upper classes. Later, Roxane, a critical character in Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, is described as a précieuse.

René Bary (died in 1680) a French historiographer and rhetorician wrote La Rhétorique française où pour principale augmentation l'on trouve les secrets de nostre langue published in Paris in 1653 for the female audience of the précieuses.


  1. The first use of précieuse to denote a literary patron of formidable powers of taste and judgment dates to 1654, according to W. Zimmer, Di literarische Kritik am Preciösentum 1978:51, noted in Patricia Howard, "The Influence of the Précieuses on Content and Structure in Quinault's and Lully's Tragédies Lyriques" Acta Musicologica 63.1 (January 1991, pp. 57-72) p 58, note.
  2. "...Qu'un jeu de forces, un lieu d'affrontement et réglage mutuel de certaines des tensions qui traversent le siècle, la cour et le champ littéraire". Myriam Maître, Les Précieuses: naissance des femmes de lettres en France au XVIIe siècle (Paris:Champion) 1999:19.
  3. Howard 1991:58.
  4. Maître 1999: part I.
  5. Terri Windling, Les Contes des Fées: The Literary Fairy Tales of France
  6. Jack Zipes, When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition, pp. 38-42 ISBN 0-415-92151-1
  7. Terri Windling, Beauty and the Beast
  8. Paul Delarue, The Borzoi Book of French Folk-Tales, p xi, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York 1956
  9. Lewis Seifert, "The Marvelous in Context: The Place of the Contes de Fées in Late Seventeenth Century France", Jack Zipes, ed., The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm, pp. 920-1, ISBN 0-393-97636-X


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