Principal figures of early French history include Clovis I (466?–511), the first important monarch of the Merovingian line, who sought to unite the Franks; Charles Martel ("the Hammer," 689?–741), leader of the Franks against the Saracens in 732; his grandson Charlemagne (742–814), the greatest of the Carolingians, crowned emperor of the West on 25 December 800; and William II, Duke of Normandy (1027–87), later William I of England ("the Conqueror," r.1066–87). Important roles in theology and church history were played by St. Martin of Tours(b. Pannonia, 316?–97), bishop of Tours and founder of the monastery of Marmoutier, now considered the patron saint of France; the philosopher Pierre Abélard (1079–1142), traditionally regarded as a founder of the University of Paris but equally famous for his tragic romantic involvement with his pupil Héloise (d.1164); and St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090?–1153), leader of the Cistercian monastic order, preacher (1146) of the Second Crusade (1147–49), and guiding spirit of the Knights Templars. The first great writer of Arthurian romances was Chrétien de Troyes (fl.1150?).
The exploits of famous 14th-century Frenchmen were recorded by the chronicler Jean Froissart (1333?–1401). Early warrior-heroes of renown were Bertrand du Guesclin (1320–80) and Pierre du Terrail, seigneur de Bayard (1474?–1524). Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc, 1412–31) was the first to have a vision of France as a single nation; she died a martyr and became a saint and a national heroine. Guillaume de Machaut (1300?–1377) was a key literary and musical figure. François Villon (1431–63?) was first in the line of great French poets. Jacques Coeur (1395–1456) was the greatest financier of his time. Masters of the Burgundian school of composers were Guillaume Dufay (1400?–1474), Gilles Binchois (1400?–1467), Jan Ockeghem (1430?–95), and Josquin des Prez (1450?–1521). Jean Fouquet (1415?–80) and Jean Clouet (1485–1541) were among the finest painters of the period. The flag of France was first planted in the New World by Jacques Cartier (1491–1557), who was followed by the founder of New France in Canada, Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635).
The era of Louis XIV ("le Roi Soleil," or "the Sun King," 1638–1715) was in many respects the golden age of France. Great soldiers—Henri de La Tour d'Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne (1611–75), François Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Louvois (1639–91), and Louis II de Bourbon, prince de Condé, called the Grand Condé (1621–86)—led French armies to conquests on many battlefields. Great statesmen, such as the cardinals Armand Jean du Plessis, duc de Richelieu (1585–1642), and Jules Mazarin (1602–61), managed French diplomacy and created the French Academy. Great administrators, such as Maximilien de Bethune, duc de Sully (1560–1641), and Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–83), established financial policies. Noted explorers in the New World were Jacques Marquette (1637–75), Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle (1643–87), and Louis Jolliet (1645–1700). Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–87), Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634–1704), and François Couperin (1668–1733) were the leading composers. Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), and Philippe de Champaigne (1602–74) were the outstanding painters. In literature, the great sermons and moralizing writings of Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, bishop of Meaux (1627–1704), and François Fénelon (1651–1715); the dramas of Pierre Corneille (1606–84), Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622–73), and Jean Racine (1639–99); the poetry of Jean de La Fontaine (1621–95) and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711); the maxims of François, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–80), and Jean de La Bruyère (1645–96); the fairy tales of Charles Perrault (1628–1703); the satirical fantasies of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619–55); and the witty letters of Madame de Sévigné (1626–96) made this a great age for France. Two leading French philosophers and mathematicians of the period, René Descartes (1596–1650) and Blaise Pascal (1623–62), left their mark on the whole of European thought. Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) was a philosopher and physicist; Pierre de Fermat (1601–55) was a noted mathematician. Modern French literature began during the 16th century, with François Rabelais (1490?–1553), Joachim du Bellay (1522–60), Pierre de Ronsard (1525–85), and Michel de Montaigne (1533–92). Ambroise Paré (1510–90) was the first surgeon, and Jacques Cujas (1522–90) the first of the great French jurists. Among other figures in the great controversy between Catholics and Protestants, Claude, duc de Guise (1496–1550), and Queen Catherine de Médicis (Caterina de'Medici, b.Florence, 1519–89) should be mentioned on the Catholic side, and Admiral Gaspard de Coligny (1519–72), a brilliant military leader, on the Protestant side. Two famous kings were Francis I (1494–1547) and Henry IV (Henry of Navarre, 1553–1610); the latter proclaimed the Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting religious freedom to his Protestant subjects. The poetic prophecies of the astrologer Nostradamus (Michel de Notredame, 1503–66) are still widely read today.
During the 18th century, France again was in the vanguard in many fields. Étienne François, duc de Choiseul (1719–85), and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727–81) were among the leading statesmen of the monarchy. Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689–1755), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (b.Switzerland, 1712–78) left their mark on philosophy. Denis Diderot (1713–84) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717–83) created the Great Encyclopedia ( Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Artes et des Métiers ). Baron Paul Henri Thiery d'Holbach (1723–89) was another philosopher. Jeanne Antoinette Poisson Le Normant d'Etoiles, marquise de Pompadour (1721–64), is best known among the women who influenced royal decisions during the reign of Louis XV (1710–74). French explorers carried the flag of France around the world, among them Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729–1811) and Jean La Pérouse (1741–88). French art was dominated by the painters Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699–1779), François Boucher (1703–70), and Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806) and by the sculptor Jean Houdon (1741–1828). Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) was the foremost composer. French science was advanced by Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–88), zoologist and founder of the Paris Museum, and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–94), the great chemist. In literature, the towering figure of Voltaire (François Marie Arouet, 1694–1778) and the brilliant dramatist Pierre Beaumarchais (1732–99) stand beside the greatest writer on gastronomy, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826).
The rule of Louis XVI (1754–93) and his queen, Marie Antoinette (1755–93), and the social order they represented, ended with the French Revolution. Outstanding figures of the Revolution included Jean-Paul Marat (1743–93), Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, comte de Mirabeau (1749–91), Maximilien Marie Isidore Robespierre (1758–94), and Georges Jacques Danton (1759–94). Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) rose to prominence as a military leader in the Revolution and subsequently became emperor of France. Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), was a brilliant figure in French as well as in American affairs. This was also the period of the eminent painter Jacques Louis David (1748–1825) and of the famed woman of letters Madame Germaine de Staël (Anne Louise Germaine Necker, baronne de Staël-Holstein, 1766–1817).
During the 19th century, French science, literature, and arts all but dominated the European scene. Among the leading figures were Louis Jacques Mendé Daguerre (1789–1851), inventor of photography, and Claude Bernard (1813–78), the great physiologist. Other pioneers of science included Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) and Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) in zoology and paleontology, Pierre Laplace (1749–1827) in geology, André Marie Ampère (1775–1836), Dominique François Arago (1786–1853), and Jean Bernard Léon Foucault (1819–68) in physics, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778–1850) in chemistry, Camille Flammarion (1842–1925) in astronomy, and Louis Pasteur (1822–95) in chemistry and bacteriology. Louis Braille (1809–52) invented the method of writing books for the blind that bears his name. Auguste (Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier) Comte (1798–1857) was an influential philosopher. Literary figures included the poets Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine (1790–1869), Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863), Alfred de Musset (1810–57), Charles Baudelaire (1821–67), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98), Paul Verlaine (1844–96), and Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91); the fiction writers François René Chateaubriand (1768–1848), Stendhal (Marie Henri Beyle, 1783–1842), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), Victor Marie Hugo (1802–85), Alexandre Dumas the elder (1802–70) and his son, Alexandre Dumas the younger (1824–95), Prosper Merimée (1803–70), George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin, baronne Dudevant, 1804–76), Théophile Gautier (1811–72), Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), the Goncourt brothers (Edmond, 1822–96, and Jules, 1830–70), Jules Verne (1828–1905), Alphonse Daudet (1840–97), Emile Zola (1840–1902), and Guy de Maupassant (1850–93); and the historians and critics François Guizot (1787–1874), Jules Michelet (1798–1874), Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804–69), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59), Ernest Renan (1823–92), and Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828–93). Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754–1838), Joseph Fouché (1763–1820), Adolphe Thiers (1797–1877), and Léon Gambetta (1838–82) were leading statesmen. Louis Hector Berlioz (1803–69) was the greatest figure in 19th-century French music. Other figures were Charles François Gounod (1818–93), composer of Faust , Belgian-born César Auguste Franck (1822–90), and Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921). Georges Bizet (1838–75) is renowned for his opera Carmen, and Jacques Lévy Offenbach (1819–80) for his immensely popular operettas.
In painting, the 19th century produced Jean August Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix (1789–1863), Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875), Honoré Daumier (1808–79), and Gustave Courbet (1819–77), and the impressionists and postimpressionists Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Édouard Manet (1832–83), Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Claude Monet (1840–1926), Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Georges Seurat (1859–91), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901). Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) was the foremost sculptor; Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904) created the Statue of Liberty. The actresses Rachel (Elisa Félix, 1821–58) and Sarah Bernhardt (Rosine Bernard, 1844–1923) dominated French theater.
In 20th-century political and military affairs, important parts were played by Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929), Henri Philippe Pétain (1856–1951), Raymond Poincaré (1860–1934), Léon Blum (1872–1950), Jean Monnet (1888–1979), Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970), Pierre Mendès-France (1907–82), François Maurice Marie Mitterrand (1916–96), and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (b.1926). Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize include Frédéric Passy (1822–1912) in 1901, Benjamin Constant (1852–1924) in 1909, Léon Victor Auguste (1851–1925) in 1920, Aristide Briand (1862–1932) in 1926, Ferdinand Buisson (1841–1932) in 1927, and René Cassin (1887–1976) in 1968. Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), musician, philosopher, physician, and humanist, a native of Alsace, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. Famous scientists include the mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré (1854–1912); the physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852–1908), a Nobel laureate in physics in 1903; chemist and physicist Pierre Curie (1859–1906); his wife, Polish-born Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867–1934), who shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for physics with her husband and Becquerel and won a Nobel Prize again, for chemistry, in 1911; their daughter Irène Joliot-Curie (1897–1956) and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie (Jean-Frédéric Joliot, 1900–1958), who shared the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1935; Jean-Baptiste Perrin (1870–1942), Nobel Prize winner for physics in 1926; the physiologist Alexis Carrel (1873–1944); and Louis de Broglie (1892–1987), who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1929. Other Nobel Prize winners for physics include Charles Édouard Guillaume (1861–1938) in 1920, Alfred Kastler (1902–84) in 1966, and Louis Eugène Néel (1904–2000) in 1970; for chemistry, Henri Moissan (1852–1907) in 1906, Victor Grignard (1871–1935) in 1912, and Paul Sabatier (1854–1941) in 1912. Also, in physiology or medicine: in 1907, Charles Louis Alphonse Laveran (1845–1922); in 1913, Charles Robert Richet (1850–1935); in 1928, Charles Jules Henri Nicolle (1866–1936); in 1965, François Jacob (b.1920), André Lwoff (1902–94), and Jacques Monod (1910–76); and in 1980, Jean-Baptiste Gabriel Dausset (b.1916). The philosopher Henri Bergson (1859–1941) received the 1927 Nobel Prize for literature. Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was a founder of modern sociology. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), a Jesuit, was both a prominent paleontologist and an influential theologian. Claude Lévi-Strauss (b.Belgium, 1908) is a noted anthropologist, and Fernand Braudel (1902–85) was an important historian.
Honored writers include Sully-Prudhomme (René François Armand, 1839–1907), winner of the first Nobel Prize for literature in 1901; Frédéric Mistral (1830–1914), Nobel Prize winner in 1904; Edmond Rostand (1868–1918); Anatole France (Jacques Anatole Thibaut, 1844–1924), Nobel Prize winner in 1921; Romain Rolland (1866–1944), Nobel Prize winner in 1915; André Paul Guillaume Gide (1869–1951), a 1947 nobel laureate; Marcel Proust (1871–1922); Paul Valéry (1871–1945); Colette (Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine Colette, 1873–1954); Roger Martin du Gard (1881–1958), Nobel Prize winner in 1937; Jean Giraudoux (1882–1944); François Mauriac (1885–1970), 1952 Nobel Prize winner; Jean Cocteau (1889–1963); Louis Aragon (1897–1982); André Malraux (1901–76); Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), who received the 1964 Nobel Prize; Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir (1908–86); Simone Weil (1909–43); Jean Genet (1910–86); Jean Anouilh (1910–87); Albert Camus (1913–60), Nobel Prize winner in 1957; Claude Simon (b.1913), a 1985 Nobel laureate; Marguerite Duras (1914–96); and Roland Barthes (1915–80). Romanian-born Eugene Ionesco (1912–94) and Irish-born Samuel Beckett (1906–89) spent their working lives in France. Significant composers include Gabriel Urbain Fauré (1845–1924), Claude Achille Debussy (1862–1918), Erik Satie (1866–1925), Albert Roussel (1869–1937), Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), Olivier Messiaen (1908–92), and composer-conductor Pierre Boulez (b.1925). The sculptor Aristide Maillol (1861–1944) and the painters Henri Matisse (1869–1954), Georges Rouault (1871–1958), Georges Braque (1882–1963), Spanish-born Pablo Picasso (1881–1974), Russian-born Marc Chagall (1887–1985), and Jean Dubuffet (1901–85) are world famous.
Of international renown are actor-singers Maurice Chevalier (1888–1972), Yves Montand (Ivo Livi, 1921–91), and Charles Aznavour (b.1924); actor-director Jacques Tati (Jacques Tatischeff, 1907–82); actors Charles Boyer (1899–1978), Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant (b.1930), and Jean-Paul Belmondo(b.1933); actresses Simone Signoret (Simone Kaminker, 1921–85) and Jeanne Moreau (b.1928); singer Edith Piaf (1915–63); master of mime Marcel Marceau (b.1923); and directors Georges Méliès (1861–1938), Abel Gance (1889–1981), Jean Renoir (1894–1979), Robert Bresson (1901–99), René Clément (1913–96), Eric Rohmer (Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer, b.1920), Alain Resnais(b.1922), Jean-Luc Godard (b.1930), Louis Malle (1932–95), and François Truffaut (1932–84). One of the most recognizable Frenchmen in the world was oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910–97), who popularized undersea exploration with popular documentary films and books.