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MLN 118.4 (2003) 1105-1106

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Susan Broomhall. Women and the Book Trade in Sixteenth-Century France. Series: Women and gender in the early modern world. Aldershot, England and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2002. viii + 282 pages. ISBN 0 7546 0671 6.

While there are many scholarly studies on the illustrious women writers of sixteenth-century France, women such as Marguerite de Navarre and Louise Labé, a detailed examination of all aspects of female literary participation in this period is a welcome addition to both literary and gender studies, as well as to book trade history. Susan Broomhall's recent publication offers an in-depth analysis of women not only as authors, but also as readers, printers, editors, patrons, scribes, collectors, and translators. While previous studies of female writers have tended to concentrate on the content of women's writing, Broomhall sets herself the task of examining the context and conditions of female literary participation.

The strength of this study lies in its breadth. While admitting that the vast majority of the women who participated in literary and publishing activities belonged to a small literate minority, nevertheless Broomhall opens up this small community to show women of many different backgrounds, in many different roles. In fact, the title of the book, "women in the book trade," is a bit disingenuous; Broomhall treats all aspects of publication culture, not simply the commercial realm of the book trade here.

Even the notion of "France," included in the title is a broad one, considering the tendency in many historical studies of this period to focus on Paris and on the French dialect that was spoken there. Broomhall however carefully includes provincial centers of textual production; Lyons, Rouen, and Provence in particular, providing a more complete geographical, linguistic, and cultural picture of sixteenth-century France.

Breadth is also demonstrated in her inclusion of both manuscript and print culture during this period, a transitional time beginning with the [End Page 1105] introduction of printing in France in 1470 and extending until the end of the following century. Broomhall nicely incorporates manuscript production, circulation, and appropriation into her study of the print culture which was slowly superceding hand production during this period, effectively confuting the facile distinction between a private manuscript culture and a public print culture. The same "gendered traditions" exist in both, according to the evidence of this study.

Whatever the role a woman played in literary life—author, printer, translator, editor—and whatever her contribution—poetry, preface, conduct manual, political writing, translation—the most apt description of her place in textual culture is marginal. Broomhall includes interesting, but not surprising, statistics. Women's writings account for less than one percent of first editions printed in sixteenth-century France. And of this tiny percentage, more than half were editions of works not completely their own. This tiny percentage of textual production forms the archival background against which Broomhall writes. Her use of archival sources from the period is exceptional, and her wonderfully detailed appendix, where she lists "First or Significant Editions Containing Work by Women by Half-Decades, 1488-1599" is a valuable resource in and of itself. In addition though, her bibliography, including manuscript sources, primary printed sources, studies of individual women writers, microform sources, unpublished theses, and printed general sources is a veritable wealth of research resources.

One cannot escape the marginality though, and if the study falters in any respect it is in this restricted scope. While the archival sources are carefully quoted (and conveniently all translated into English), they represent such a tiny proportion of all sixteenth-century writing that one is left wondering about the other 99%. Perhaps a bit more context would have been helpful. What was the broader background against which this tiny minority of women were writing? What did their male contemporaries think of them and how did they view them? What were the visual images of women as authors or as participants in the book trade? What exactly was the historical development of the book trade and the book in the sixteenth century? While Broomhall...


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