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  • Renée de France's and Clément Marot's Voyages:Political Exile to Spiritual Liberation
  • Kelly Digby Peebles (bio)

After spending most of her adult life far from home in Ferrara, Italy, Renée de France returned in 1560 to spend her dowager years at her château in Montargis. There, in the relative freedom of widowhood, she welcomed Calvinist pastors, harbored religious refugees, and corresponded frequently with her daughter, Anne d'Este. In an extant minute of her spiritual Testament, written in 1573, she remembers her departure from France in startlingly poignant detail.1 She laments: "[je] fus conduite en pleurs et larmes hors du royaulme de ma nation" (Rodocanachi 545). Speaking here in the passive voice, the implicit first-person pronoun is more an object than a subject, emphasizing that the agent of this action is external and that her enforced voyage, experienced at the age of seventeen, still surfaces as an emotionally fraught memory. Renée's marriage to Hercule d'Este, son of Duke Alphonse of Ferrara, was prescribed by King François I, sealed on 28 June 1528, and soon followed by the journey to her father-in-law's court.2 While she acknowledges in her Testament "la grande affection et obeissance" of her subjects in the duchy where she spent her married life and raised her children, she also clearly states her decision to return to France, for she writes: "en l'absence de mes fils demeurée veuve, je laissais le ledit pays à mon fils aîné en paix" (546). Renée leaves France "en pleurs et larmes," yet she returns "en paix." Her emotional reaction to each journey differs strikingly, suggesting that Hercule's death offered Renée a long-awaited opportunity to leave Ferrara, where, [End Page 33] according to reformed pastor Jean Calvin, she had endured an excessively long and oppressive exile.3

In her Testament, Renée de France specifies two central and interlinking paths of her life itinerary: her family ties to the French crown and her faith as a believer in the reformed religion.4 In medieval and early modern France, political policy-making, nation-building, and defensive strategies governed the contours of a royal woman's life. Renée was the daughter of Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne, and her status as a fille de France made her a valuable commodity for facilitating the crown's political agenda and carrying on its lineage, as well as linking it intimately with that of her husband. She grew into adulthood at a time when early proponents of church reform had strong connections to the French court, and her devotion as an evangelical Christian made her a valuable patron for facilitating the spread of the gospel (l'évangile) and cultivating kinship among believers, as well as occasionally offering refugees safety from persecution. Having lost both her parents by the age of four and her only sister, Queen Claude de France, at fourteen, Renée likely looked to the king's sister, Marguerite de Navarre for companionship and guidance (Webb 31, Jourda 1:152). And it was Marguerite, as Jonathan Reid explains, who became a veritable figurehead of the evangelical network, known for her sponsorship and patronage of theologians and intellectuals who favored internal reform of the Catholic church (Reid 36-37). Marguerite and Renée shared both a familial kinship, referring to one another in their correspondence as "ma seur," and a spiritual one, relying on the constancy of their faith in times of turmoil. They in fact called on one another for assistance, notably during the aftermath of the 1534 Affaire des Placards, when Renée offered temporary refuge to court poet Clément Marot as he fled religious persecution (Knecht 466, Mayer 27-31). Marot composed a series of poems during his stay at Renée's court, many of which he dedicated to her.5 Those poems, and the two women's letters, testify to Renée's and Marguerite's mutual knowledge of their continued sisterly affection and evangelical beliefs.

This essay considers two moments in Renée's life resulting in a voyage de femme, the first enforced, the second willfully...