Writing/Creating in the Feminine in Early Modern France:Recent Initiatives to Uncover the Past
In spring 1990, L'Esprit Créateur published a special issue by guest editor François Rigolot titled "Writing in the Feminine in the Renaissance / Écrire au féminin à la Renaissance." In his introductory essay, Rigolot describes how the prevailing critical interest in women's studies led scholars in the 1970s and 1980s to rediscover, edit, and interpret forgotten women writers, and to reread with new lenses the canonical works marked by femininity. Some three decades after this seminal issue, scholars of early modern French women continue to rediscover, edit, and interpret women's texts and productions, as well as contextualize them alongside canonical male works. But they are also probing new critical approaches. In 2017, at a colloquium in memory of Isidore Silver held at Washington University in St. Louis, scholars from the US and Canada addressed the present state of studies on early modern French women. Two overarching themes emerged from the papers and corresponding discussions, which contributors to the present issue pursue here.
The first of these themes involves how one can best evaluate and appreciate their singularity without projecting onto them an anachronistic ideology. What 'new' approaches can one adopt that respect their historicity, contexts, and poetics? Nancy Frelick uses the psychoanalytic concept of transference here, reminding us of the temptation all readers face to project their readerly desire(s) onto the text to reconstitute and appropriate it. She examines two interpretive readings of transference concerning the uncertain case of Louise Labé for whom few biographical data are extant, the first in Fernand Zamaron's Louise Labé, dame de franchise, and the second in Mireille Huchon's Louise Labé, une créature de papier.1 Zamaron, a retired police detective, reconstructs Labé's story by mixing fact and fantasy with a liberal dose of emotional involvement for a subject with whom he has quite literally fallen in love. Unaware of his romantic projections of transference, he attempts to rescue his love object from misogynistic detractors and mythologizers. While he seems reasonably historical in some of his assessments, his take is necessarily 'flawed' in his overlooking his own blind spots. Huchon's 'detective' investigation leads her, however, in the opposite direction. In her view, not [End Page 1] only were Labé and her contemporary Lyonnais peer, Pernette du Guillet, "straw women" whose historicity is not in question but about whom one could conjure up just about anything, but their writings were the product of a collaborative literary hoax by a group of Lyonnais male poets led by Maurice Scève. Unlike Zamaron who attempts to debunk the misogynistic claims of Labé's detractors, Huchon lends credence to them by adopting a rhetorical strategy of "overdetermination." Her erudition, argues Frelick, is a kind of smoke screen intended to distract readers from the paucity of evidence. Huchon's Labé is a "wax dummy fashioned by the phantasms of each era" minus the awareness of transference. Frelick leaves us with a well-posed question: "Is every reading equally valid?"
For Kendall Tarte, Huchon's very resistance to the biographical narrative of a woman writer's life and œuvre presents a new, refreshing, and unexplored opportunity to rethink the function of female authorship. What if we were to separate the historical figure from her production in order to reconceive authorial creative impulses in new contexts? Indeed, in a discusson of Labé, Leah Chang provocatively queries: "Does one have to be a writer in order to be an author?"2 Apparently not in the case of Labé and Hélisenne de Crenne whom Chang analyses as productions of printers interested primarily in the commercial novelty and effect of female authorial figures. This is less the case for Madeleine and Catherine des Roches, mère et fille, whom Tarte reexamines, asking how we can read them anew in the twenty-first century. As writers and salonnières who controlled their literary production by strategizing both their mother-daughter collaboration and Catherine's non-negotiable chastity and refusal to marry, the Des Roches boldly affirmed their authorial identity. But if examined outside the biographical narrative, which until recently was the dominant prism through which to examine their writings, one finds, argues Tarte, slippages and "tensions among text, body, and self" that lead to other fruitful readings. Tarte suggests that reading the Des Roches corpus in the light of early modern theories of the passions and physiognomy opens up new interpretations of their texts.
Faith Beasley questions the critical treatment of early modern salon culture, which reveals the fault line in scholarly assessments of these feminocentric social spaces. Far from being merely an "Oprah book club" attended by passive female consumers, seventeenth-century salons staged through collaborative networking innovative ways for women to contribute to knowledge in the Republic of Letters. Their primary vehicle, conversation, possessed "the same potential as the printed word." Thus, a critic should not limit herself to the biographical approach and/or the dated notion that conversation was [End Page 2] simply a tool of elite sociability, fleeting, superficial, and immaterial, or at best an influencer of printed culture. But how can conversation, by nature impermanent and volatile—verba volant, scripta manent (spoken words fly away, written words remain)—link salonnières and their guests to a knowledge-making function? How can salon conversation be seen not as an intellectually discursive dead end but on a par with conversation in the male academies of the period? Beasley argues that critics must "develop a methodology that reconstitutes conversations, instead of focusing on how the form influenced print culture." This she does by analyzing knowledge-producing conversation in the salon of Marguerite de la Sablière, particularly in connection with her mentor and tutor, the philosopher François Bernier. Bernier, who spent twelve years in India and regaled La Sablière's guests with tales of his Indian travels found in the writings of La Sablière's salon habitués such as Lafayette, La Fontaine, and Fontenelle.
Finally, Harriet Stone's study demonstrates the relevance of a pluridiciplinary approach to examining portraits of historical figures of the period. Her analysis of official portraits of Louis XIV and the royal family, including Louis XIV's mistresses, when juxtaposed with Dutch genre paintings of the same period, indicates the unsuspected powerful role of female figures. In the two French paintings she discusses, women function as focal points of uncertainty and, as such, disturb the illusion entertained by the French monarchy of the all-powerful Sun King. In Pierre Mignard's Madame de Montespan with her Children, Montespan is empowered as the king's principal mistress (at the time) and mother of his (bastard) children, but her position remains uncertain since her very function depends entirely on Louis's whims. In the anonymous painting of Louis XIV Receiving the Ambassador of the Shah of Persia, the women's "indecorous public behavior" signals cracks in the official discourse of representation of the monarchy and thus surreptitiously ushers in uncertainty. As the Northern realist tradition was introduced in France, the French elite became accustomed to look for those unsettling details in the images that informed their view of the world. In the dramatic erotic set-up of The Terrace by an anonymous Dutch painter, the courted woman, prim and proper in her buttoned-up dress, is at the point of making a decision whose direction, however, remains quite uncertain. As we see in the works examined here, female figures, in their apparent accessory role, played a major part in destabilizing the image of male authority incarnated by the king and disseminated through the monarchy propaganda.
The second theme emerging from the articles of this collection concerns the reconstruction of the history of women as historical and authorial agents. [End Page 3] Hervé Campangne interrogates the representations of women throughout history and the political motivations behind such representations. A work like François de Belleforest's Histoires tragiques (1582) appears to him as a fruitful source to begin such an investigation for three major reasons: first, the work enjoyed great popularity throughout Renaissance Europe; second, it was designed in large part for a female readership; and, finally, it uses history, or rather the representations of women throughout history, to address issues of importance at the time such as women's exercise of political power, as well as female adultery and its moral, social, and judicial implications. Campangne examines four specific cases from the Septiesme Tome of Belleforest's Histoires tragiques: the first one concerns the powerful legendary queen Boadicée who fought the Romans but killed herself when she lost hold of her kingdom; the next two address the question of female adultery and its consequences; and the last one features a young woman who commits suicide after she is forbidden to see the man she loves and is forced to marry another. With these stories, Campangne argues that Belleforest provides readers with models and especially counter models of female behavior and female eloquence that buttress his own personal views on female comportment and contribute to disseminating the conservative tridentine ideology that he defends.
Judging from the next two articles, women's texts never ceased to generate discussion about questions that remain still highly relevant today. Both Cynthia Skenazi and Cynthia Nazarian examine honor from a gendered perspective in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron. Historically, the concept of honor, according to Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process, reflected evolving standards of conduct during the sixteenth century; both the church and the court mandated that individuals more tightly control their impulses. How did this self-control work for men and for women? Skenazi focuses on four novellas, two on male honor and two on female honor, in order to show the differences in the figuration of honor for the sexes. Novella 36 features a betrayed husband who manages to save his public image and protect his family's honor by taking the law into his own hands and poisoning his adulterous wife. Novella 12 tells the story of a courtier who kills his lord to protect his sister's honor and the family's reputation. Novella 4 claims that self-restraint and circonspection are the best way for a woman to save her honor after an attempted rape. Novella 21 presents the story of a woman who, still unmarried at the age of 30 due to the queen's dislike of her and her father's neglect, takes her destiny into her own hands by marrying clandestinely a lower-class man while remaining chaste. Honor, in the protagonist's view, is not defined by men but by God alone who knows the human heart. Skenazi's subtle analysis of these [End Page 4] key stories brings to light several significant points: in early modern times, the concept of honor cannot be reduced to a single and invariable rule because, on the one hand, it is often associated with questions of ethics and personal integrity that go beyond public reputation and, on the other, it evolves with the ideals and code of conduct of the time. The pursuit of honor linked to social recognition played a major role in the fashioning of elite men and women; but whereas honor for men was defined in terms of lineage, the family name, and the male aristocratic ideal of combativeness, for women it meant essentially sexual respectability.
Cynthia Nazarian agrees that the Heptaméron presents differences between men's and women's honor, but she argues that fundamental similarities which blur gender distinctions also exist. The reasons for these are many: first, vengeance, traditionally associated with men's honor, may also motivate women; secondly, both sexes highly value their honor and are willing to take considerable risks to defend it. Thus, women such as the protagonists of novellas 2, 10, 23, 26, and 70 are led to heroic action usually reserved to men or led even to death to preserve their honor and avoid dishonor. Third, some women fight for their honor in a way that is indistinguishable from men's. One of the methods used by women, although more typical of men, is parrhēsia, bold or frank speech. Nazarian takes Rolandine, the protagonist of novella 21, as an example. Like Skenazi, she underlines the religious overtones of the tale, but proposes a different reading of Rolandine's heroic resistance to pressure from all sides. What Nazarian finds particularly striking is the protagonist's assertive speech to justify her position and defend her honor against the queen's furious accusation. Nazarian observes a similar strategy in novella 22, where Marie Heroet defends her honor boldly through frank speech. Despite early modern feminine ideals of silence, patience, and resignation, Marguerite de Navarre, in Nazarian's view, lays claim for honordriven women to the same power of public speech allowed to men. The fact that Marguerite de Navarre's gendered treatment of the concept of honor and its complexities still speaks to us today is hardly surprising. We live in a society in which public recognition is still both eagerly sought after by men and women alike and easily lost due to scandalous slander.
Anne Larsen addresses the pressing matter of recovering women's authorial and cultural productions and situating them in the socio-political, artistic, religious, and literary culture(s) of their time. Thus, she rediscovers the largely forgotten manuscript letters and salon of the Huguenot Marie Bruneau, Dame des Loges. Although her Parisian circle in the 1610s and 1620s preceded in reputation Mme de Rambouillet's and was attended by future academicians, [End Page 5] writers, royals, and transnationals, it was virtually erased from literary history. Larsen examines the ways in which Des Loges's salon was a relay between her Renaissance forebears—some of whom she may have personally frequented—and later seventeenth-century salonnières by analyzing an extensive manuscript letter on the honnête femme attributed to her. What makes this letter unique is that it is a remarkable instance of a female-authored text addressing the salonnière's pivotal role in shaping salon conversation and knowledge making.
"How does a woman get into a history book?" queries Stephen Murphy, who contrasts the treatment of women in Jacques Auguste de Thou's Historiae sui temporis (History of His Own Times, 1603) and in Charlotte Duplessis-Mornay's Mémoires (1623). In male chronicles, only two sorts of women eventually make their way into history: powerful women, many of whom are shown to act 'badly,' like Catherine de' Medici and Diane de Poitiers, and are therefore qualified by de Thou as impotens (lacking in self-control) and strix (vampiric); and largely anonymous groups of women or female collectivities behaving heroically in times of war. In female-authored memoirs, on the other hand, women are authorized to enter history on their own terms, and the historical landscape is enlarged to include both the public and private spheres, "the household as well as the palace and the battlefield," writes Murphy. Mornay's memoirs indicate the fluidity of the borders between public and private, and however little she speaks directly about herself she is at once an actor in and a fashioner of the account of the life of her husband, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, and of her life at the very moment when the actions she relates are occurring.
Colette Winn's examination of various autobiographical accounts of escape found in Huguenot women's memoirs and correspondences around the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) leads to a similar question: How did such texts by little-known women overcome the test of time, while so many others are no longer extant? As Winn demonstrates, these women's writings convey far more than the congregational-based reports that most of these writings were intended to be when their authors, as fugitives, joined their new congregations located in the territories of what was then called "Le Refuge." Escape accounts by Huguenot women, claims Winn, tell the woman's view of (his)tory. Not only do they reveal specific gender differences regarding the opportunities and circumstances of their escape, the dangers they encountered on the way, the punishment inflicted on them when they were caught, and their integration in the Refuge, but they also reveal these women' self-discoveries as they put pen to paper. In putting their experiences [End Page 6] of exile into words, these women discovered that they held qualities that persons of their sex, they were told, were deprived of such as constancy, courage, and even physical endurance. Winn points out that with their newly-found self-awareness, they realized on the one hand that constraints within the patriarchal family limited both their freedom of conscience and their right as mothers to raise their children in their faith, and that on the other hand they could obtain greater power through uniting together as a group.
Henriette Goldwyn informs us about another group of women holding similar emancipatory potentialities: the little-known prophetic movement of illiterate women in southern France who, after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), summoned their co-religionists to resist their persecutors and persevere in their faith. She focuses her attention on one of the few whose name has not completely fallen into oblivion: the fifteen-year-old shepherdess Isabeau Vincent, who reached out to the newly converted, enjoining them to repent. The prophetic voice provided a unique discursive space for Huguenot women. However, few at the time approved of prophetic inspiration and of women's appropriation of the protestant minister's word. In addition, mostly illiterate and relying uniquely on an oral tradition, those women left no texts signed by their own hand. Today, only their names endure and some of their speeches, which exist in the form of eyewitness transcriptions and depositions.
It is this lack of written traces, Carla Zecher observes, that today renders almost impossible the recovery of certain women's cultural productions. Nevertheless, after digging relentlessly into historical archival records, Zecker explores largely unknown early modern French and Italian narratives of travel to the Middle East by providing compelling evidence of the performances in Ottoman and Persian residences of professional troupes of female musicians, dancers, and mimes known as çengî. By examining a wide spectrum of sources printed from 1553 to 1670, and reading comparatively works as diverse as Guillaume Postel's De la République des Turcs, Pietro della Valle's Les fameux voyages, Jean Antoine Du Loir's Voyages, Louis Deshayes de Courmenin's Voiage de Levant, and Gilles Fermanel's Le voyage d'Italie et du Levant, Zecher attempts to attain a more accurate picture of these women's performances. She is finally forced to recognize, however, that the descriptions the travelers provide of what they have heard and seen abroad is in reality informed by European perspectives of, and attitudes towards, women, public performance, and theatricality in the period before Orientalism.
There remains much to do. We hope that this special issue will stimulate new critical approaches to allow us a better understanding and appreciation of these early modern texts. The reconstruction of women's history and recovery [End Page 7] of their cultural and authorial productions is an ongoing project requiring us to engage constantly with the archives to discover new paths for interpreting and reinterpreting the past.
1. Fernand Zamaron, Louise Labé, dame de franchise (Paris: Nizet, 1968); Mireille Huchon, Louise Labé, une créature de papier (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2006).
2. Leah L. Chang, Into Print: The Production of Female Authorship in Early Modern France (Newark: U of Delaware P, 2006), 102.