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Women of the French Renaissance in Search of Literary Community:

A Prolegomenon to Early Modern Womens Participation in Letters

Kirk D. Read
Bates College

It is now over fifteen years since Joan Kellys monumental query concerning the plight of
Early Modern European womens experience of the Renaissance. Though her essay Did women
have a Renaissance? has not enjoyed consistently laudatory reception, it is undeniable that her
question has provoked rich discussion among current literary historians. The seemingly endless
permutations of her title pay perpetual homage, if not to all the particulars of her research, at
least to its pioneering spirit of investigation of gender in the Renaissance. Did women have a
Revolution? . . . an Enlightenment? . . . Did men . . .?, Did madness . . .?, and so on.

Barbara Kiefer Lewalskis article on women as readers in the Renaissance displays most clearly
the indebtedness to the ensuing discussion of gender as a lens for historical investigation
provoked by Kelly:

Thanks to a decade or so of feminist and cultural studies focussed on gender and the social
construction of identity, we now know a good deal about how early modern society constructed
women within several discourseslaw, medicine, theology, courtiership, domestic advice.
(Kiefer Lewalski 792)

Literary historians have also, thanks to these new fields of inquiry, been led to examine how
women of letters themselves managed to construct their own discourses in order to establish a
public, intellectual life within a society often hostile to their aspirations.
Kelly presents a bleak assessment of womens participation in Early Modern European
culture. In her analysis, women were ignored or worse, victimized by societal advances of the
period. She posited that

See in particular Carol Thomas Neely, Recent Work in Renaissance Studies: Psychology,
Did Madness Have a Renaissance?, and Judith Browns 1987 review of Kellys collection
Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly, and David Herlihys article Did Women
Have a Renaissance? A Reconsideration.
events that further the historical development of men, liberating them from natural, social, or
ideological constraints, have quite different, even opposite, effects upon women . . . Women as a
group . . . experienced a contraction of social and personal options that men of their classes . . .
did not. (1920)

Kelly answered her titular question with a resounding No. That I shall suggest in this paper a
contrary assessment is not to refute out of hand Kellys facts nor all of her assumptions, but to
offer a renewed appreciation of womens participation in at least the literary aspect of sixteenth-
century French society. Women wrote. Women circulated manuscripts. Women argued in
literary salons that they themselves organized and directed. Women learned, wrote and taught
Latin. Women ran publishing houses upon the death of their spouses. Women published their
own writing under their own names.
Though New Historians of the last two decades have uncovered ample, compelling
evidenceperhaps more compelling than Kellysto illustrate the difficult conditions of public
womens lives, they have brought to light at the same time womens literary traces that suggest a
somewhat more hopeful story. The first step in Elaine Showalters gynocritical paradigm, the
resuscitation of womens texts, has been well served in this regard.
Though editions are slow
to appear, written works and anecdotal support are surfacing from the archives. Evelyne Berriot-
Salvadores Les Femmes dans la socit franaise de la Renaissance is invaluable in this regard,
given its broad-ranging investigation of women in a multitude of milieux and discourses and its
expansive bibliography. Thus, to believe that all the proscriptive doctrines regarding womens
public behaviorof which speech was perhaps the most transgressivewere heeded is, I would
suggest, to mistake some mens wishful thinking (and indeed, much resultant feminist
theorizing) for universal reality.
As comparativist Ann Rosalind Jones and Natalie Zemon
Davis among others have encouraged, we must be attentive to the ways in which women
employed invention and effort, to their tactics of subversion and reappropriation.
In her essay
from the collection The Ideology of Conduct, Jones asserts that

See Elaine Showalter, Towards a Feminist Poetics.
Indeed, there is an abundance of historical evidence to indicate that women often endured
great hardship and prejudice in public endeavors for reasons based strictly upon their sex.
Conduct books such as those penned by the humanist Juan Luis Vives betray a ceaseless
paranoia with womens speech, thought and social interaction. In The Education of a Christian
Woman, Vives warns: I pray thee, understand thine own goodness maid, . . . if thou shut up both
body and mind, and seal them with those seals that none can open (14). Body, mind and mouth,
it would appear, for publication, the public rendering of ones creative thoughts and insights was
a highly suspect activity for women to be undertaking. See also Foster Watson, Vives and the
Renascence Education of Women.
One might remember here the groundbreaking work in this area which is still instructive for
contemporary discussion, i.e. Natalie Zemon Daviss City Women and Religious Change and

(b)y necessity, women writers acted out propitiatory obedience to expectations of women in
order to defend themselves against attacks for making public their still unusual and suspect
ambition to contribute to a culture still produced almost entirely by men. (40)

Here and elsewhere, Jones points to textual ways in which women manoeuvered within literary
conventions to comply with and at the same time subvert societal mandates for their behavior.
With this illuminating scholarship in mind, I suggest a step further, to see beyond text to
context. In addition to uncovering the textual tinkering, or bricolage as Jones terms it, we must
form some view of how women addressed the external conditions of their lives in order to find
the freedom and the leisure to indeed think about literary conventions in the first place. If studies
such as Joness lead us to important realizations about literary subversion in the service of
womens writing, I propose to use similar textual strategies to reveal evidence which pertains to
womens lives. It is my assertion that women carefully wove their texts not only to protect or
promote their works, but to project a sense of community as well which was equally important to
their literary livelihood. This paper seeks to search behind the veil of Joness propitiatory
obedience. As textual evidence will show, literary women, while demurring to concerns
regarding their publication, manoeuvered as well to present themselves and their works as
appealing and belonging to a specific female community. Just as Christine de Pizans City of
Ladies a century and a half before was built to protect her sisters, abandonnes, sans dfense,
comme un champs sans haie (42), so did women take part in such a constructive, literary
enterprise in search of communal, feminine identity and legitimation.
What is immediately striking about womens published writings in the French
Renaissance is the continual address to other women within the dedicatory and prefatory locus of
their works. Almost without exception their collections begin with epistles dedicated aux
dames, aux lectrices, toutes vertueuses femmes, or with letters which hailed certain
patronesses or female friends. Using specific examples of French Renaissance women writers, I
will discern three distinct female communities located within regional, familial, and religious
contexts which played an important role in the enabling and in the legitimation of these womens
works and lives.

* * *

several essays by Jones, Assimilation with a Difference: Renaissance Women Poets and
Literary Influence and Nets and Bridles: Early Modern Conduct Books and Sixteenth-Century
Womens Lyrics.
Margaret L. Kings book, Women of the Renaissance, divides her pan-European study in a
similar way: Women in the Family, Women and the Church, Women and High Culture; fittingly,
Catherine Stimpsons introduction invokes the Kelly legacy as well (ixxi).

Regional pride, summoned as a tactic of self-promotion, was commonly invoked by male
poets of the French Renaissance. The Pleiade poets works make constant reference to cherished
ancestral roots which lend quasi-mythological importance to their writings. One need not scan
much further than the title pages to learn of Ronsards attachment to the Vendme and the Loir
river, or of Du Bellays to the inspirational Loire. Women too used their provenance as an
avenue for recognition, witness Marie de Romieus repeated designation as the Vivaroise and
Madeleine and Catherine des Rochess constant rejoinder, de Poitiers. Perhaps the most
rigorously and consciously cultivated female regional community, however, is expressed in the
works of Pernette du Guillet and Louise Lab of Lyons.
Pernette du Guillets Rymes predate Louise Labs Oeuvres by ten years and can in many
ways be seen as laying the foundation of praise for Lyonnais women writers community. In this
posthumously published collection, Antoine du Moulin describes the glory of Pernette du Guillet
as linked to her citys heritage. The preface, Antoine du Moulin aux Dames Lyonnoizes,
appeals to Lyonss reputation as a thriving center of culture and trade (both intellectual and
mercantile) and makes a rare pitch for equal opportunity in letters:

que la memoire de vous puisse testifier la Posterit de la docilit et vivacit des bons espritz,
quen tous artz ce Climat Lyonnois a tousjours produict en tous sexes, voire assez plus
copieusement, que guere autre. (3, emphasis mine)

More than simple praise, Du Moulins preface serves as incitement of other like-minded
Lyonnais women to join in what he envisions as a tradition of Letters.

les Cieux nous enviantz tel heur la nous ravirent, Dames Lyonnoises, pour vous laisser achever
ce quelle avoit si heureusement commenc: cest savoir de vous exerciter, comme elle . . .
[que] vous la puissiez si glorieusement ensuyvre. (4)

It is in response to this command, I would suggest, that Louise Lab establishes herself as
a woman writer worthy of publication de son vivant ten years later. Encouraged, perhaps, by the
fortuitous, alliterative qualities of her name, Louise Lab Lyonnoise finds ample opportunity
throughout her Oeuvres to associate herself with her notable, urban heritage. The Dames
Lyonnaises of Antoine du Moulin become a topos continuously referred to throughout the 1555
In Louise Labs dedicatory epistle A Mademoiselle Clmence de Bourges, Lyonnaise,
her girlhood companion is exalted in much the same manner as Pernette du Guillets
contemporaries, as she hopes to

vous inciter et faire venir envie en voyant ce mien euvre rude et mal bati, den mettre en lumiere
un autre qui soit mieux lim et de meilleure grace. (20)

Moving from paratext to text, we find several direct references to these women which
sustain this prospective Lyonnais female tradition. In the first elegy, Lab pleads Dames, qui les
lirez, / De mes regrets avec moy soupirez. If there is any doubt as to the identity of these
Dames, it is dispelled in the third elegys plea: Quand vous lirez, Dames Lionnoises, / Ces
miens escrits pleins damoureuses noises. Further on in this same poem, Lab names herself
within this group as she passes the narrative voice to Amour who says to her: Tu penses donq,
Lionnoise Dame, / Pouvoir fuir par ce moyen ma flame, paralleling the vocative emphasis of
her opening line. The frame of explicit references to the women is completed, logically, in the
final lines of her poetry: Ne reprenez, Dames, si jay aym: / Si jay senti mile torches
These direct invocations of the putative reader, and, I attest, of the potential, literary
community of Lyonnais women are enhanced by other, more subtle allusions which complement
her agenda. Most intriguing is the characterization of her love and of her poetry which she
describes in Elegy I. Apollo, friend to the Muses, finally inspires Lab to write. Chanter me
fait, she sings of the god,

non les bruians tonnerres
De Jupiter, ou les cruelles guerres,
Dont trouble Mars, quand il veut, lUnivers.
Il ma donn la lyre, qui les vers
Souloit chanter de lAmour Lesbienne.
Et ce coup pleurera de la mienne. (lines 1116)

This reference to the poet and most specifically to the site, of a powerful, womens poetic
community is telling. The newly rediscovered matriarch of Lesbos serves well this contemporary
desire for female literary companionship. Exclusively female, literary, passionate and protected,
the sorority of Sappho provides intriguing material for comparison and identification.

For a thorough study of the rediscovery of Sappho in the sixteenth century, see Franois
Rigolots Louise Lab et la Redcouverte de Sappho.
Equally telling is the transformation of the Diana and Actaeon myth enacted in sonnet
XIX. Posing at first as the beleaguered male hunter, Jallois resvant comme fay maintefois, /
Sans y penser (compare Ovids Actaeon, wandering, far from certain), Lab then metamor-
phoses the myth itself, inscribing herself not as a threat to the nymphs attending to Diana, but
as an adherent. The narrators greeter calls out Nynfe estonnee, / Que ne tes tu vers Diane
tournee? . . . Quas tu trouv, o compagne, en ta voye? (lines 69). In like manner do we
witness Louise Lab and Antoine du Moulin in their respective epistles calling the dames
Lyonnaises into the fold, into a community of women writers, listeners, supporters. The hunt is
a particularly fitting metaphor for the oppression so forcefully remarked in Joan Kellys
pioneering essay; Labs transformation of this myth to speak of womens inclusion and survival
is, however, indicative of engagement, both literary and social, which works to more optimistic
ends. The set-upon nymph is nurtured, incorporated and given a forum for her grief which is,
ultimately, the narrators lyric lament.
Evidence of the realization of Labs dream of a Lyonnais womens community is as
illusive and uncertain as the individual biographies of the citys dames savantes. Compendium
sources such as Lacroix du Maine, Du Verdier, De Billon, Laporte and De Coste, however,
testify to the existence of a number of women taking part publicly in the literary life of their city.
It appears significant for our argument, that Billons Le fort inexpugnable de lhonneur du sexe
feminin begins the chapter which enumerates the learned ladies of the present (La Grosse Tour
dInvention, et Composition des Femmes) with la noble Vile de Lyon.
Of the cole
lyonnaise lineage, one must certainly recognize Pernette du Guillet as well as Jeanne, Claudine
and Sibylle Scve, purported sisters who were close relatives of Du Guillets destinataire,
Maurice Scve. (The exact kinship of these three women is sketchy at best: sources as recent as
Prouse and Berriot-Salvadore remain conflicted and imprecise.) Another contemporary,
Marguerite Du Bourg, is said to have been well-educated in all of the liberal arts, encouraging
her daughters, Claude and Marguerite, in intellectual pursuits, particularly mathematics. Jeanne
Gaillarde, Claude Peronne and Anne Tulonne are Lyonnais exemplars who receive mention in
Billon, the latter for la perfection de ses Myssives plus que Ciceroniannes (36).
Labs dedicatee, Clmence de Bourges, is consistently cited as highly cultivated in letters, if
unpublished. Finally, Marie de Pierre-Vive, before becoming a court favorite to Catherine de
Mdicis, made of her home in Lyons a temple de la science et de lesprit, entertaining such
luminaries as Marot, Dolet, Scve and Des Priers during the 1530s.

Billon claims that his plan is to suyvre lordre commenc de la Decoration de la Republique
Franoise, ou elles florissent pour sa reputation, comme Region de tout le monde, la ou Dame
Science ose pour le jourdhuy plus seurement poser ses piedz fugitiz, quoy quen dye quelque
autre nation, ou ja les bons Paintres luy ont fait des ayles aux piedz, aussi bien qua Vertu sa
maitresse (35).
See also Marie-Madeleine Fontaine, Un Coeur Mis en Gage: Pontus de Tyard, Marguerite
de Bourg et le Milieu Lyonnais Des Annes 1550.
Again, Evelyne Berriot-Salvadores Les Femmes dans la socit franaise de la Renaissance
is particularly useful in this regard. See, in particular, parts IV, A and B (Le type de la savante
The extent to which Louise Lab called out to this tradition of learned women in Lyons
already involved in writingeither as authors (Du Guillet), readers (De Bourges) or facilitators
(De Pierre-Vive)cannot be known. It is my thesis, however that these women and their
influence were not unknown to Lab and that they cannot be ignored. I appear decidedly more
optimistic in this way than Evelyne Berriot-Salvadore who answers the question at hand, Qui
seraient donc, ces `Dames Lyonnaises capables de recevoir la leon de la Belle Cordire?,
with the assertion that, of those women known to us through documentation, she could only have
known Claudine and Sibylle Scve and Clmence de Bourges (448). Berriot-Salvadore is
looking, however, for a relle mancipation des bourgeoises lyonnaises. Certainly, no new,
imaginary Orders of Lesbos were chartered with Louise Lab as their Sappho and her dedication
to Clmence de Bourges (Estant le tems venu!) as their manifesto. Such expectations appear
futile. The literary construction of community, however, seen in the context of Antoine Du
Moulins preface to Du Guillets Rymes and given the realities of learned womens reputation in
Lyons, is not negligible. As at least a textual haven for Labs literary project, the dames
lyonnoises as a communal, female referant, informed a strategy of self-presentation and
legitimation which was vitally important.

* * * *

I turn now to a second, more privately-defined female community which, nonetheless
serves the same ends of womens publication: the mother-daughter family unit. As a literary
strategy which reflects real life decisions concerning womens empowerment, the inscription of
these womens family bond into their work was quite savvy and, as evidenced in the following
example, quite successful.
Madeleine and Catherine des Roches provide the most compelling example of the ways
in which advertisement of the mother-daughter bond framed, facilitated and protected their
literary production.
Madeleine, twice widowed, lived with her daughter Catherine who chose

and caractrologie de lcrivaine) and the extensive index. Her discussion includes ample
treatment of Franois de Billons work, which can be compared with the combined compendium
source, Les Bibliothques Franoises de La Croix du Maine et de Du Verdier, ed. M. Rigoley de
Juvigny (Paris: Michel Lambert, 1772) whose entries are alphabetized by first name.
Further elaboration of this discussion was delivered orally at the Romance Languages
Annual Conference (Purdue University 9 Oct. 1993) and is in revision for inclusion in a lengthier
study elsewhere. My development of the dames lyonnaises topos was furthered by readings of
the Contes Amoureux of Jeanne Flore who speaks within a community of women from Lyons
with names as suggestive as Meduse, Salphionne and Sapho. Fictional though this setting may
be, I find it remarkable in its evocation of just the sort of interchange and support as is found in
the liminal and poetic works of Louise Lab.
Of interest as well in this model is Gabrielle de Coignard whose daughters praises in their
mothers posthumous Oeuvres chrestiennes (Tournon: J. Faure, 1595) speak to many of the same
legitimizing strategies present in the Des Roches mnage. The tantalizing, though undocumented
quite consciously never to marry in order to enjoy a more fruitful, unencumbered literary menage
with her mother. Beginning in the year of her second husbands death (perhaps not
inconsequentially), Madeleine, with her daughter, published three works: the Oeuvres of 1578
89, the Secondes Oeuvres of 1583 and the Missives of 1586. The husbandless, fatherless family
arrangement which allowed for such literary endeavors, did not go uncriticized, even by the
womens most fervent admirers. With reference to Catherines repeated denials of enamored and
eligible suitors, the family friend and noted humanist Estienne Pasquier remarks:

il ny a quune chose qui me dplaise . . . questant la fille belle en perfection tant de corps que
desprit . . . requise en mariage par une infinit de personnages dhonneur, toutes-fois elle met
toutes ces requestes sous pied; resolue de vivre & mourir avec sa mre. (from original text of
Pasquier fol. 192v)

Vivre, mourir, . . . crire is perhaps the more operative verb which Pasquier ignores.
Responsible only to each other and, as is obvious in their works, to each others learned lives,
Madeleine and Catherine des Roches define their family in a way which allows the rare opportu-
nity for a private and publici.e. publishedlife.

Madeleines first epistle to her daughter (Epistre ma Fille) is telling in this regard.
She begins:

Les anciens amateurs de savoir,
Disoient qu Dieu faut rendre le devoir,
Puis au pays, & le tiers au lignage
. . .
Au seigneur je porte reverence,
Pour mon pays, je nay point de puissance,
Les hommes ont toute lautorit,

scholarly pursuits of Marguerite Du Bourg and her daughters also beg investigation. Certain
examples from the French royalty appear pertinent yet rely less on literary, familial constructs
than on the privileges of nobility to enable their publication.
For biographical information concerning Madeleine and Catherine des Roches, see Anne
Larsens erudite and most welcome edition of their Oeuvres of 157879 (Geneva: Droz, 1993).
Contre raison & contre lequit:
Mais envers toy fille qui mes si proche,
Ce me seroit un grand blasme & reproche
De te conduire au sentier plus battu,
Veu que ton cueur est n la vertu. (81)

To the forces of God and Country, Madeleine is respectively perfunctory (Au seigneur je porte
reverence) and despairing (je nay point de puissance). It is to her lignage, however, which
she sees embodied entirely in her daughter, that she pays the most respect and attention.
Speaking in defiance of the male-ordered worldthe husbands and fathers to whom she and her
daughter are not alignedMadeleine promotes her own female enterprise.
Though Anne Larsen betrays a general optimism for the marital relationship between
Madeleine des Roches and her second husband, Franois Eboissard, the widows first ode speak
bitterly of the trials of wedlock:

Noz parens ont de loables coustumes,
Pour nous tollir lusage de raison,
De nous tenir closes dans la maison
Et nous donner le fuzeau pour la plume
. . .
Il faut soudain que nous changions loffice
Qui nous pouvoit quelque peu faonner
O les marys ne nous feront sonner
Que lobeir, le soing, & lavarice.

The point of her ode is spoken perhaps most clearly in her lament just two stanzas hence:

Il me suffit aux hommes faire voir
Combien leurs loix nous font de violence. (cf. Larsen 8590).

The promotion of Madeleine and Catherine des Rochess unmarried existence cannot
ignore public expectation and judgement. The society she bemoans as against all fairness and
reason, is one which finds womens public voice utterly improper. One of the most distinctive
aspects of the works is the liminal correspondence which Madeleine des Roches and her
daughter establisha series of epistles A Ma Mere or A Ma Fillewhich display for the
reader the mutual praise that these women hold for each others learning, compassion, and,
perhaps most importantly, virtue (see Figure at end of article). In these letters which precede the
mothers and daughters works in each of the three publications, a place is carved out where they
may publicly praise the familial dedication and support which serves to legitimize an otherwise
suspect arrangement which has eschewed traditional male authority and made its own claim to
female literary renown.
Catherines first dedicatory letter to her mother from the Oeuvres of 1578 serves well to
illustrate the tenor and the content of this abundant liminal matter which sets about describing
and defending their publication. Ma Mere, je say que vous ensuivant, je pourroy suivre un
exemple de vertu suivy de bien peu de personnes, she begins, setting herself quite properly in
deference to a maternal authorityhumbled, indebted, grateful. The insistence on the verb
suivre evoked three times in the first sentence establishes at once the idea of a descendance or
kinship in terms of Madeleines primacy, both biological and intellectual. Having established this
relationship of proper respect, Catherine becomes more polemical and defensive. Deflecting the
criticsand she suggests there are manywho would question her role as a writer, Catherine
provides a succession of if they, then I statements which chart her defense. Addressing
specifically the standard paranoia regarding the danger of womens unattended idleness, she

je ny ay jamais employ dheures, fors celles que les autres filles mettent visiter les
compaignies pour estre veues de leurs plus gentils serviteurs . . . encores quelles ayent bien la
puissance de se chanter elles mesmes.

Catherine rejects such social posturing and finds within her mothers home a more productive,
self-determined lifea point she underscores at the end of her epistle with poignant metaphor.
Speaking of her verse, she says to her mother, si vous en trouvez quelques uns qui soient assez
bien nez, avouez les sils vous plaist pour voz nepveux. The literary progeny born of this
mother-daughter union so elegantly and thoroughly illustrated and defended within their epistles
show the productiveness which this bond has allowed.
The suspected impropriety of the

See again Anne Larsens reading of this and suggested parallels in contemporaneous
literature (185). The term neveu, besides being a broad term for descendants which Ronsard
has translated as his poetic progeny, also plays undoubtedly on Madeleines eponymous maiden
idle, barren, unmarried life is dismissed in this letter which hails the productionand in fact
re-productionof a mother-daughter literary menage.
Madeleine herself reintroduces this text-progeny metaphor in the prefatory matter of their
final published work, Les Missives of 1586. Her Epistre ma Fille compares the anxiety yet
necessity of publication with the story of the lost children of Eve which she remembers from a
retelling in the eclogues of Baptista Spagnuoli Mantuanus. In the tale, God returns to Adam and
Eve to take a census, as it were, and to behold the progeny of the original procreators.
Embarrassed at what she fears will appear an indecent display of her procreative activity, Eve
initially hides two thirds of her children from view. God is quite happy with Eves work and
assigns the children positions of high standing in their nascent society. Now hopeful, Eve reveals
the second third who receive equally enthusiastic response, and a somewhat lower, yet honorable
status. By the time Eve returns with the last of her children, God has disappeared. Madeleine des
Rochess retelling of the story is closely allied with the phenomenon of publishing:

Et voicy la troisieme fois que ta force mencourage de parler en public, o je ne puis
mempescher destre saisie dun peu de crainte par lexemple de Mantuan (2)

Such are the fearsof rejection, of judgement, of scornthat Madeleine and Catherine des
Roches navigate in their lives and confront in their works.

* * * *

Having described first the community-defining strategies of a woman vis--vis her citys
sisters and then looked into the more private sphere of the mother-daughter unit as source of
communal inspiration and support, I will turn to a third locus of female literary companionship
which is even more sequestered and exclusive: the convent.
It was common practice for women of sufficient means to be sent to convents where they
learned to read and write and to develop an appreciation of literature both sacred and secular.
Indeed, it is assumed that it was at the Couvent de la Dserte in Lyons that Louise Lab met her
longtime friend, dame de Lyons, Clmence de Bourges. That Louise Lab could expect of
Clmence de Bourges a work which was mieux lim et de meilleure grace assumes equivalent
literacy and familiarity with the world of letters in which she published. Though it is certain that
much of the fruit of this labor, penned within convent walls, was devotional and circulated
within the religious community, published evidence of these womens literary lives does exist.
The works of Anne de Marquets, Sister at the royal convent of Poissy, will serve here to
illustrate the benefits of the choice of convent life for the scholastically-minded woman. Again, it
is an exclusively female-defined community which can be seen as occasioning and supporting
Renaissance womens interest in writing.
The convent of Poissy was founded in the late thirteenth century by Philip IV and from its
beginning was defined in ways favorable to scholarly pursuits. As part of the original charter of
this Dominican convent, Philip IV sent friars on extended book-hunting expeditions, copying and
commissioning works for the Sisters library. Christine de Pizan gives testimony to the grandeur
of this place of worship and learning during the century after its founding: in the Dit de Poissy
she describes a visit to her daughter there, thriving in Poissys Utopian enclosure and Christine
herself is depicted in manuscript illuminations, studying and writing in the ornate library which
served as her final retreat.
By the time of Anne de Marquets, Poissy had enjoyed the governance of several royal
abbesses and counted upwards of 100 to 120 young charges in its convent school. Due to its
close proximity to Paris and the royal retreat at Saint Germain-en-Laye, Poissy saw an unusual
amount of intellectual and politico-religious traffic. It is conjectured that the humanist Henri
Estienne may well have been her preceptor. Anne de Marquets herself served as preceptor to
Marguerite de Valois, to whom she later offered (by commission) her translations of Marc-
Antonio Flaminios Latin spiritual verse. By that time (1568), De Marquets had already gained
some public renown because of the publication of her Sonets, prires et devises in honor of the
colloquium at Poissy (1562), a meeting of Protestant and Catholic church leaders called by
Catherine de Medici in an attempt to stem the tide of religious war.
It is Anne de Marquetss final work, the posthumous Sonets spirituels (1605) which
illustrate most convincingly, perhaps, the prominence and purpose of her life of teaching and
writing at Poissy. The liminal elogia to De Marquets include poems from the Pleiade cornerstone
Pierre de Ronsard and from his mentor, Hellenist Jean Dorat. In addition, several of her Sister
colleagues wrote works in her honor, testifying to Anne de Marquetss erudite tutelage and
witnessing her legacy.
The text itself consists of a poetic cycle of 480 sonnets which treat various moments of
the Catholic Christian year in chronological order. The collection, based on the medieval
tradition of the Books of Hours, is highly influenced by prescriptive passages from the Divine
Office and readings from the Gospels and Epistles contained in the Dominican Missal and
Breviary. The book is therefore inspirational and instructive. In the sonnets, De Marquetss
pupils learn of all of the major events of the Bible in detail, with particular attention given to
illustrious women. The Sonets Spirituels serve in this way as a compendium of spiritual, female
ancestry which in no small way exemplifies De Marquetss conventual community.

The following is a partial list of women cited by De Marquets in the Sonets Spirituels which
give testimony to the range of female precedent from which she draws: Calebs daughter (96),
Sara and Agar (113), Anne (130), the daughters of Zion (139), Eve (159), Rebecca (160), Judith
(348), Saint Anne (353), Deborah (356), Susanne (360), Elizabeth (374), Mary, sister of Aaron
(381), the wife of Tobias (398), Naomi and the Sunamite (401), Esther (405), Rebecca and
Rachel (426), Abigail (437), Vasthi (456), and Ruth (469). Numerous other anonymous heroines
mentioned in groups or as individuals populate this text as well.
Sonnet 381 is particularly revealing both in terms of this compendium strategy and as
presentation of Anne de Marquetss career as a conflation of religious and literary commitments.
The sonnet speaks of a joyous female tradition of lyric, devotional praise-making:

Marie qui fut soeur dAaron & de Moyse,
Voyant que Dieu avoit, sauvant le peuple sien,
Submerg Pharaon & lost Egyptien,
Un cantique chanta, de joye estant surprise:

Et Marie aujourdhuy que Christ pour mere a prise,
Voyant que Dieu sauvant tout le peuple Chrestien,
Ta destruict, Sathan & lexercite tien,
Un cantique a chant de saincte ardeur esprise.

Plusieurs femmes suyvoient la premiere Marie,
Chantans & loans Dieu par gracieux accords;
Maintes Vierges aussi la seconde ont suivie,

Se dedians Dieu & desprit & de corps,
Pour chanter nuict & jour, comme au ciel font les Anges,
Et de coeur & de voix du grand Dieu les loanges. (my emphasis)

The poem provides a microcosmic view of the way in which her recording of female,
biblical ancestry works with her young readers. In the sonnet we see demonstrated a conscious
change of register from description in the quatrains to prescription in the tercets: just as Mary,
the mother of Christ, had a foremother in the example of Mary, the sister of Aaron and Moses,
so do De Marquetss contemporaries have both of these models to look back on. Their avowed
roles as mirrors of the Virgin Mary make this call to praise all but imperative. If there is any
question as to the identity of these Plusieurs femmes(l. 9), it is quickly answered with the
Maintes Vierges who dedicate their lives to poetry in the service of God and the Virgin Mary.
De Marquets shows her charges a religious, Biblical, female precedent for the study in
which she instructs them. The example of the two Marys songs bespeaks a tradition of
spontaneous, prophetic incantations; De Marquetss conventual audience, however, is too
familiar with their teachers commitment to writing to be able to translate these cantiques in
their personal lives as anything but a scholarly, literary act. These potential singers of religious
piety are called to both Christ and devotional study. De Marquets furnishes her pupils with the
female, lyric tradition from which they may draw strength and nourishment in their own sacred,
scholastic endeavor.

* * * *

I suggest that all three of the communities which I have commented in this discussion,
however well established, represented challenges to the male-dominated family system. Louise
Labs textual cterie of dames lyonnoises, Madeleine and Catherine des Rochess mother-
daughter household, and Anne de Marquetss Sisterhood are all communities which aim at
reconstituting the needs and roles of a family into a strictly female universe. Distanced, though
certainly not entirely, from direct male intervention in their daily literary lives, these women
were able to write. As Historyand in particular Womens History of this periodwill have it,
we read what we must assume to be the exceptional womenthose who publishedto speak for
what we might now conjecture was a much larger population: women writing in salons and in
pairs similar to the Des Rocheses; writing in the homes of prosperous humanist printer-fathers in
Lyons; writing to the glory of God in countless convents across France. It is my assertion that
there were arrangements to be made for womens active and productive participation in writing
and that many pragmatic women made these arrangements consciously and to great effect. Yes, I
would contend, there were women who, by their own invention and effort, sacrifice and bravery,
had a Renaissance.

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Reproduction of the title pages and epistles in the entire work of Madeleine and Catherine des