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July 10 Cardinal Richelieu and the French Academy


Its 1637 and we are in Paris where at Cardinal Richelieu's urging, King Louis XIII granted letters patent formally establishing a council to act as an official authority on the language and publish an official dictionary of French. This council would become the prestigious Académie Française, consisting of forty members, known as les immortelles "the immortals" . It would occupy a massively important place in French cultural identity and the influence of Richelieu would resound abroad too as he became foreign minister and the French dominated the Thirty Year War



The academy was established according to the letters patent granted by the King and registered at the Parlement in Paris on 10 July 1637. Once an immortal was elected, they would hold office for life, but could resign or be dismissed for misconduct. There has been a total of 732 ‘immortels’, of whom nine were women (the first, Marguerite Yourcenar, was elected in 1980). Three years later the first African was elected, the poet Léopold Sédar Senghor who was also the president of Senegal. Famous members include Voltaire; Victor Hugo; Alexandre Dumas, and Louis Pasteur. The essentially political nature of such a prestigious Academy meant that many notable French writers would surprisingly not become members including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Balzac, Descartes, Diderot, Flaubert, Molière, Marcel Proust, Jules Verne and Émile Zola. Realising this was a problem, the expression the "forty-first seat" was developed for deserving individuals who were never elected to the Académie, either because their candidacies were rejected or because they died before appropriate vacancies arose. Occasionaly members have been forced to resign, for instance Philippe Pétain, named Marshal of France after the Battle of Verdun of World War I, was elected to the Académie in 1931 and, after his governorship of Vichy France in World War II, was forced to resign his seat in 1945.

Cardinal Richelieu had been impressed by the Accademia della Crusca, which had been founded in Florence in 1582 and formalized the already dominant position of the Tuscan dialect of Florence as the model for Italian; the Florentine academy had published its Vocabolario in 1612. The original purpose of the French Academy was to maintain standards of literary taste and to establish the literary language. The influential Richelieu was also known as l'Éminence rouge, or "the Red Eminence", and was Foreign Secretary. In this role he was able to check the power of the Habsburg dynasty in Spain and Austria. His rise to power continued as six years later he was created a cardinal and Chief minister to Louis XIII of France. He sought to strengthen the power of the KIng by restraining the power of the nobility, and was relatively successful thus he transforming France into a strong, centralized state and ensure French dominance in the Thirty Years' War that was engulfing Europe. Ruthlessly pragmatic, he suppressed Protestants at home, but did not hesitate to make alliances with Protestant states like England and the Dutch Republic. The Academy has existed since today in 1637 to the present day except for an interruption during the era of the French Revolution (pod May 8) ,


One of the current concerns of the Academy is to prevent the Anglicization of the French language. For example, the Académie has recommended the avoidance of loanwords from modern English (such as walkman, computer, software and e-mail), in favour of neologisms, i.e. newly coined French words derived from existing ones (Walkman becomes baladeurin, computer …. ordinateur, software….. logiciel, and email courriel). The Perpetual Secretary of the Académie, is currently Hélène Carrère d'Encausse a French political historian of Georgian origin, specializing in Russian history. The Academy has many historians and writers on it but two current members are also Jean-Luc Marion a philosopher and theologian who is a former student of Jacques Derrida. He is known for his work, God Without Being, which is concerned predominantly with an analysis of idolatry. He was elected as an immortel by the Académie Française occupying seat 4, an office previously held by Cardinal Lustiger. Another immortal is Bishop Claude Jean Pierre Dagens who has written widely about the role of the Church in French society and its relationship with secularism