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  • Creatures of Paper and Confessions of the Flesh:Reading Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches in the 21st Century
  • Kendall B. Tarte

The writings and lives of Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches invite us to consider the mother and daughter together, as a pair. On the title pages of each of their joint collections of poetry and prose—Les œuvres (1578), Les secondes œuvres (1583), and Les missives (1586)—the women prominently announce their filial relationship and their provincial location: "Mes-Dames Des Roches de Poetiers, Mere et Fille."1 Each title page sets the stage for the book that will follow: the texts of Madeleine and Catherine are presented in clearly delineated sections, each of which opens with a dedicatory epistle to the other—"A ma fille," "A ma mere." Starting on the title page and continuing through the book's organization and much of its subject matter, the Des Roches' self-presentation underscores above all the mother-daughter bond. This image of their closeness also characterizes portraits of the two women by their contemporaries, and it undoubtedly informs modern scholarship on them as well.

Over the past forty years, more than fifty scholarly articles, book chapters, and bio-bibliographical notices have been published on Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches.2 The earliest of these publications were part of a wave of scholarship on French sixteenth-century women writers that began in the 1980s. During this period, scholars celebrated the rediscovery of women writers, many of whose works were being examined for the first time in many years; they responded to the provocative question that Joan Kelly had posed in 1977—"Did women have a Renaissance?"—with an emphatic "yes."3 In particular, the 1987 landmark anthology edited by Katharina Wilson, Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, presented biographical sketches and excerpts translated into English of the work of twenty-five European women writers, including the Des Roches, and brought their work to a wide and eager audience of readers, both scholars and students.4 Scholarship on the Des Roches from this period concentrated in particular on the mother-daughter dynamic. In the 1990s, Anne Larsen published the first modern editions of each of the Des Roches' three books; these publications opened the way for a variety of new approaches.5 Since then, the lives and writing of Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches have attracted the attention of scholars interested in the status [End Page 23] of women in the sixteenth century, Renaissance women's literary production, specific genres such as the dialogue and published letters, the milieus of the French provincial city and of the emerging literary salon, the Wars of Religion, and women's involvement in the book trade. As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, and the fifth decade of sustained scholarly work on Renaissance women writers, and on the Des Roches in particular, it is fitting to pause and reflect on past work and consider future possibilities.

What are the most productive avenues for reading the Des Roches in the twenty-first century? This article seeks to answer this question. It uses as its point of departure the two works of scholarship alluded to in the title, "Creatures of Paper and Confessions of the Flesh." In 2006, Mireille Huchon's book Louise Labé: Une créature de papier unsettled the international community of scholars of French Renaissance literature with its controversial claim, while Nora Martin Peterson's recent monograph, Involuntary Confessions of the Flesh in Early Modern France, introduces a new approach to texts that foreground the relationship between the body and the self.6 Neither of these books treats the Des Roches, but each offers some productive possibilities for rethinking their works in the twenty-first century. This article will follow some of the ideas that Huchon's and Peterson's books bring out, to see what they suggest for Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches in particular, and for the ongoing study of early modern women writers more broadly. I discuss each of these works in turn, along with examples of applications to the works of the Des Roches. The aim is to explore new possibilities for future work...


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