What could be considered a "foundation/fundamental" text in French?

By this I mean a text that would play a role equivalent to Tanakh for Hebrew, the works of Homer for Greek, or the Aeneid for Latin. That is such a text that one could learn a language by studying it (or build a language course around this text). Though admittedly, in none of these examples we deal with the modern variety of the language.

Of course this also assumes that the text is historically and culturally important, and is still widely read/studied today.

In response to comments:

  • I am not aware of the situation with Greek, but Latin and Hebrew have both generated a wide body of writings. Specifically: Latin continued to be used in Europe for more than a millennium, in some places well into the XXth century. French was certainly ahead of other "local" languages to substitute Latin as a written language - but even this took place about a thousand years after the Aeneid was written.

  • Perhaps to specify more clearly the linguistic criteria: I am talking about a work that showcases the language: in terms of its grammatical structure and vocabulary, subject matters addressed, the use of different registers, etc. Works like The Little Prince, as popular as they may be among language learners, hardly fit the bill. The works of Molière and La Chanson de Roland quite possibly do.

  • As another example, one could mention Luther's translation of the Bible, which is often credited with forging modern German to replace dozens of dialects. Even though admittedly not original in its content, it was certainly fundamental in terms of language.

Update There are actually courses teaching French through texts, like Le français par les textes. However, the texts used are low level and/or specially designed for pedagogical purposes, not showcasing the language in all its richness and complexity.

  • 4
    This is largely opinion-based. Ask 10 French teachers or academics and you'll get 10 different answers. I could answer "Tintin et le Lotus bleu" for what it's worth. Also, the works you mention are "fundamental" (even then, the word is debatable) in languages that have a limited corpus of known literature, nothing comparable with modern languages. Apr 3, 2023 at 7:32
  • @guillaume31 languages that have a limited corpus of known literature - this is perhaps true for the ancient Greek. Latin continued to be used as literary language in Europe for more than a millennium and in some places, like Germany, well into the XXth century. Hebrew writings might be restricted to a narrower audience, but they have continued uninterrupted for millennia as well (in the form of Mishna, Talmud and other rabbinical writings).
    – Roger V.
    Apr 3, 2023 at 7:56
  • @guillaume31 To get more technical: I doubt that Tintin (or the Little Prince - which is a very popular text for studying French) is really representative of the language as a whole - in terms of grammatical structures and vocabulary used, subject matters discussed, registers, etc.
    – Roger V.
    Apr 3, 2023 at 7:59
  • If anything, Aeneid is a fundamental of classical Latin, not the post-classical/"low" form that ensued. I think you do understand what I mean. You might find staples inside a narrow frame of reference - "classical Latin poetry", "French romanticism", "1940s American noir". The more recent/broader, the less likely you are to find consensus around one piece. Apr 3, 2023 at 8:13
  • 1
    It may be interesting, but probably not too suitable for a main site question, unless one can really find a good French-specific reason why there is or isn't one (set of) foundation text(s). But anyway, to throw my hat into the ring, I'll never stop praising Camus' La Peste for helping me to cross a threshold from "pretty good if slow" to "ready to take on anything" in my French reading. If you want "an equivalent to the Tanakh", though, consider La Bible de Jérusalem, given that French culture and language grew up saturated with that influence.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 3, 2023 at 11:31

4 Answers 4


There is no such thing as a fundamental text in French, as for any other living language.

The Odyssey may be considered fundamental for ancient Greek, but that's only because nowadays, with all the distance we have with this dead language, it reflects the way we see it. Back then, Greek-speakers already knew their Greek and didn't need a text to learn it. Same can be said for all the other examples you cited.

A play by Molière reflects a specific kind of literature. It isn't more or less fundamental than Le Petit Prince: Molière is more relevant if what matters to you is how the high society lived under the monarchy, but way less if you don't care about that.

On top of that, as any language evolves, any text you pick is doomed to become obsolete as a resource to understand modern speakers, as is becomes more and more dated. Take La Chanson de Roland for example: it sure is a classic, but it is approximately twice as distant from us as Shakespeare and his "thou art". Someone learning French through that wouldn't be able to hold a conversation with anyone alive.


Undoubtedly, the works of Molière will have to be chosen, according to the prevailing way of thinking. The French know French as the tongue of Molière for several reasons; in particular he has been able to master several registers of the language.

Et "sa grande invention, c'est sa capacité à faire parler les personnages selon leur condition. Les gens du monde, les pédants à l'intérieur des gens du monde, le paysan, le médecin. Avec des mots, des tons, des accents différents".

(English: His great invention has been his capacity to stage his characters faithfully according to their cdondition, people in high society, pedants in this high society, and then the peasants, the doctors, all of them expressing themselves in their natural language, that is using words, tones and accents particular to their vernacular.)

La portée de l'œuvre de Molière

L'admiration devient plus vive encore si l'on songe à l'infinie variété des caractères que Molière a dû peindre dans ses comédies. On y trouve, sauf de bien rares exceptions, tout ce qui peut jouer un rôle dans la famille ou dans la société, maris, femmes, pères, mères, beaux-pères et belles-mères, tuteurs, fils et filles, frères et soeurs, valets et servantes, créanciers, fournisseurs, précepteurs et professeurs, médecins et apothicaires, notaires et exempts, marquis, bourgeois, paysans, mendiants même; il n'y manque guère, chose curieuse, que les juges, les avocats et les plaideurs. Et chacun des personnages qu'il introduit sur la scène est peint de manière à ne jamais ressembler au voisin, chacun d'eux a sa marque distinctive, son cachet particulier, en un mot, son caractère.

  • Could you expand about the use of several registers? When writing my question I had doubts about Molière - I had always thought him known for his mastery of French, but limited to "easy/entertaining literature". (No offense intended - I equally wouldn't call Pushkin a philosopher or scientist, even though he plays the role of Molière for Russian and is referred to in the same way: "the father of modern Russian" or "the language of Pushkin".)
    – Roger V.
    Apr 2, 2023 at 5:49
  • 1
    @RogerVadim I've joined to my answer a quote that is an extract from the reference, and a discussion about the value of his works.
    – LPH
    Apr 2, 2023 at 10:04

À mon humble avis, je dirais : La Chanson de Roland ; Le Testament de François Villon ; Les Fables de La Fontaine.


You seem to be asking for a bedrock piece, a well-crafted keystone, and a classroom favorite (for first or 2d language learners?) at the same time.

I believe these are subtly but really different aspects that no single literary work completely fulfills. On the other hand, taking a modern language and its millions of books as a frame of reference also doesn't make the task easier.

Splitting the Q into more focused ones or narrowing its scope down to a specific period or genre would provide more actionable answers - even though probably still opinion based.

  • My remark about building a language course around a text referred to such works as Reading course in Homeric Greek or various courses on Biblical Hebrew - the text is rich enough to represent a language / the language is worth studying in its entirety to understand the text. I didn't mean it to be a study of modern language.
    – Roger V.
    Apr 3, 2023 at 9:11
  • Note how my objective is just the opposite of the reasons why various easy (the Little Prince) or graded texts (Alex Leroc) are used for studying modern French : limited vocabulary and not too complex structures, and therefore accessible to learners.
    – Roger V.
    Apr 3, 2023 at 9:18
  • There's a fundamental flaw in your parallel. Most people learn Latin or ancient Greek precisely to be able to read historical texts. Most people learn French to communicate in French. Apr 3, 2023 at 9:50
  • Perhaps you are right. This is related to my quest of deepening understanding of modern language via studying an old one (see this thread), but Latin seems a bit too far for giving insights into French (beyond etymology.)
    – Roger V.
    Apr 3, 2023 at 10:08
  • 1
    @RogerVadim Considering your comment above I would suggest le Serment de Strasbourg (1st text to be considered to be in "French"). La Séquence de Sainte Eulalie (1st literary text in French). We could add La chanson de Roland and Le Roman de la Rose which were written in vernacular (for all transcripts in modern French can easily be found). I can't write an answer because I consider "foundation"& "fundamental" as different characteristics. I would never say that works by Molière are fundamental in French literature.
    – None
    May 8, 2023 at 19:12

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