Books and Women


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Renaissance women who pursued an intellectual life or chose to write faced powerful obstacles from longstanding traditional views regarding the inferior and imperfect nature of the female. Having inherited beliefs established in Greek philosophy and medicine, codified in Roman law, and reinforced by medieval interpretations and teachings of the Bible, Renaissance society by and large viewed women as inherently irrational, flighty, and deceitful creatures, prone to melancholy, and incapable of controlling their passions. Women were therefore typically excluded from any civic activity and advised against going out in public.  Their place was in the home, tending to domestic matters, giving birth, and raising children.  Certain women of royalty played important political roles in Renaissance Europe, but their actions were closely scrutinized and often suspect based on their gender.

In the late Middle Ages, Christine de Pizan, French writer of Italian descent and the first woman in the West to make a living by her pen, launched a new inquiry into the nature of women with her defense of the female sex in the form of an ideal community of virtuous, learned, and sometimes powerful women, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405). Renaissance Humanism, although led by men who tended to accept the traditional misogynistic views of women, contributed to a new spirit of inquiry and willingness to reconsider and reevaluate the nature of women, their education, and their roles in society. The debate about female nature, education, and the appropriate role(s) of women in private and public spheres continued over the next few centuries.  The volley of texts for and against education for women, and defending or denying her mental capacities, spiritual qualities, and moral nature came to be known in the French Renaissance as the querelle des femmes.

Societal constraints and lack of education made it difficult for women to take up the pen and even more so to publish their work.  The fluorishing debate in the Renaissance about the nature of women, however, created an opening through which a minority of well-born women managed to write and publish, as well as to act as patrons of poets and artists.  The preface to Louise Labé’s Oeuvres (Gordon 1556 .L25) reflects this new attitude and sense of educational and literary opportunity for women, calling on "les femmes de s'apliquer aux sciences et disciplines." Euuvres de Louïze Labé Lionnoize, Reuues & corrigees par ladite Dame (Lyon : Jean de Tournes, 1556)

Montenay. Emblemes

Georgette de Montenay. Emblemes, ou, Deuises chrestiennes, frontispiece

Gordon 1571 .M65

The Gordon Collection includes works by five important women writers of the French Renaissance: Louise Labé, Marguerite de Navarre, Georgette de Montenay, and Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches (mother and daughter).