It was an essential feature of the European Renaissance to praise recent discoveries and achievements as a means to assert the independence of modern culture from the institutions and wisdom inherited from Classical (Greek and Roman) authorities. From the first years of the sixteenth century, one of the major reasonings used to this end by the most eminent humanists (François Rabelais, Girolamo Cardano, Jean Bodin, Louis LeRoy, Tommaso Campanella, Francis Bacon, etc.) was that of the "Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times" – the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass – which together allowed the Moderns to communicate, exert power, and travel at distances never imagined by the Ancients. When the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns later arose in France, the "Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times" would almost invariably be adduced as evidence of the Moderns' superiority.
The debate became known as 'a quarrel' after the frequently made pun on Charles Perrault's title Parallel of the Ancients and the Moderns, the French word 'querelle' being substituted for 'parallele'.
On one side of the debate were the Ancients (Anciens), led by Boileau. The Ancients supported the merits of the ancient authors, and contended that a writer could do no better than imitate them. On the other side were the Moderns (Modernes), who opened fire first with Perrault's Le siècle de Louis le Grand ("The Century of Louis the Great," 1687), in which he supported the merits of the authors of the century of Louis XIV and expressed the Moderns' stance in a nutshell:
Fontenelle quickly followed with his Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688), in which he took the Modern side, pressing the argument that modern scholarship allowed modern man to surpass the ancients in knowledge.