our words make worlds

From Myth-making to Blatant Falsehood in Francophone Writing and Culture

This online symposium, organised by Dr Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde and Dr Christophe Gagne, looked at the phenomenon of lying in Francophone writing and culture, exploring the subject through a multifaceted study of (mis)communication. It looked at the way in which mendacity is both a tool of cohesiveness for the community that embraces the lie but is also a means of excluding others and greatening division.

Guest speakers included:

  • Writer, John Donnelly
  • Laélia Véron, lecturer in Stylistics at the Université d’Orléans
  • Marion Brétéché, lecturer in History at the Université d’Orléans


Our event (through the Languages Acts and Worldmaking Small Grants Scheme) aimed to look at the phenomenon of lying and sought to explore the subject looking at it across a spectrum, from personal and collective myth-making to the explicit propagation of lies.

Originally scheduled for 20th March 2020 at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, our event was postponed owing to COVID-19 and the first lockdown. We decided to run the conference online and to host it on Microsoft teams in the following year. On 17 June 2021 our delegates joined us and the all-day event was a great success. Funding was used to support the technical organisation of the event.

Here is an outline of proceedings:

Introduction, 9:30-9:45 am

Proceedings began with introductory remarks by the conference’s organizers, Dr Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde and Dr Christophe Gagne. The timeliness of the event was in particular emphasized by both. Emilia and Christophe also situated the themes for discussion in context, pointing out how ‘fake news’ is not something radically new, and has in fact been a feature of Francophone literature and media for centuries. The bilingual conference, which included contributors from the UK, Ireland and France, was convened in order to explore this and other cognate phenomena from the medieval period to today.

Session 1, 9:45-10:30 am: Linguistic Perspectives

Dr Laélia Véron, from the Université d’Orléans, discussed myths that have arisen around the French language, drawing in particular on her recent book, Le français est à nous! Petit manuel d’émancipation linguistique, which she co-authored with Maria Candea. Dr Véron discussed the tension between prescriptive and descriptive accounts of language, before reflecting on the specifically French and Francophone context. Her remarks centred on questions of race as well as gender, and included a meditation on how fundamentally political institutions such as the Académie Française and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie both fix and challenge our conception of the French language and its future.

10:30-11, Coffee Break

Session 2, 11-12 pm: Medieval and Modern Mendacity

Dr Alice Hazard from King’s College London presented a paper entitled ‘Mistrust and Medieval Literature in the Digital Age’. Dr Hazard offered a compelling series of reflections on the phenomenology and materiality of reading medieval manuscripts in digital form, comparing the experience to that of a Lacanian void which we might desire to fill but cannot. Dr Hazard was especially attentive in her paper to questions of veracity, and queried whether some notion of ‘truth’ should in fact be our unquestionable desideratum in interpreting medieval texts in the first place.

Following Alice, Rebecca Courtier, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, presented a theoretically sophisticated paper on two texts, La Fille du comte de Ponthieu and Peau noire, masques blancs, medieval and modern respectively. In her remarks on representations of identity in La Fille du comte de Ponthieu and Fanon, Rebecca drew on a range of theoretical perspectives from gender and post-colonial studies, in particular from the work of Homi Bhabha and his concepts of hybridity, ambivalence and ‘in-betweeness’.

12-2 pm, Lunch

Session 3, 2-3 pm: Historical Perspectives

Dr Marion Brétéché from the Université d’Orléans and author of Les Compagnons de Mercure. Journalisme et politique dans l’Europe de Louis XIV offered a wide-ranging presentation on the status of truth in French language print media in Europe in the 18th century. This period, as Dr Brétéché emphasized, coincided with the massification of print media across Europe in the form of journals and pamphlets, and so offers a particularly interesting lens through which to explore how journalism understood itself at its inception. As Dr Brétéché made clear, the situating of facts within narratives – which by necessity implies a degree of fictionalization – was taken for granted in the period. As such, the very idea that one could access ‘facts’, which many understand to coincide with ‘truth’, in some unmediated form is dubious, and was not how most journalists understood their goal to be in this formative period.

2:45-3 pm, Coffee Break

Session 4, 3-3:30pm: Medieval and Modern Mendacity

Dr Luke Warde, a Postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, presented a paper entitled, ‘Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Trolling avant la lettre?’. This paper explored how the celebrated novelist and notorious pamphleteer, having fallen into disgrace on the back of his collaborationist activity during the Second World War, weaponized his own infamy in order to assure a legacy, however malign. Dr Warde compared Céline’s strategies to those of contemporary online ‘trolls’ and the variety of ‘humour’ on which they rely to propagate their reactionary, far-right political agenda. Once again, the speaker historicized a phenomenon that is understood to be radically new, showing that this in fact has well-known antecedents.

3:30-4:30 pm, Theatrical Perspectives: A Conversation with John Donnelly

The day’s proceedings came to a conclusion with a fascinating discussion between Dr Wilton-Godberfforde and the award-winning playwright, John Donnelly. Their discussion focused on Donnelly’s production of Molière’s Tartuffe. In particular, Donnelly emphasized the strking timeliness of the play, which was by no means obvious to him upon proposing to stage it. Dr Wilton-Godberfforde’s dialogue explored both the intricacies of Molière’s play in particular and how theatre interacts with questions of truth and lying more generally.

4:30-5pm, Conclusion

Dr Godberfforde and Dr Gagne recapitulated the day’s discussions and participants engaged in a lively exchange on the themes at issue. It is hoped that we will publish conference proceedings in the coming months and we are also looking to organize further research workshops on our topic.

Further information

This event was supported by the Language Acts and Worldmaking Small Grants scheme (in conjunction with The Open University and Churchill College, University of Cambridge).