The collection also includes texts that were part of the querelle des femmes, and a broad representation of the types of books written and published for women in the French Renaissance. 

Noteworthy among those is the French translation of the extremely influentual treatise by Juan Vives on the education of women (Gordon 1543 .V58), which makes recommendations for their education and upbringing that, although reflecting a sympathetic understanding of the realities of the female condition in life, remain completely in line with traditional views of women and their roles in society.  He acknowledges the traditions that (sensibly, in his view) long ago proscribed silence and relegated women to home and hearth:

Vous semble il, que ce soit sans cause, que les sages vous ayent oste ladministration du bien publique?  De prescher, de parler es eglises, excercer iudicatures?  Entendez que ce na este, que a clle fin, que nayes occasion de hanter, & parler es lieux publicques.  Vostre maison vous soit grande cite. (L2r-L2v)

Various popular emblem books in the Gordon Collection include visual and poetic forms of the same recommendations espoused by Vives with regard to women, particularly concerning the importance of chastity as the highest of female virtues, the association of her silence with virtue, and the insistence on the woman’s place at home.

Above all, preserving a young woman’s virginity was essential, both for her marriageability and social standing, as well as for her spiritual well-being.  Mary, mother of Christ, was the primary model recommended to all women, unmarried, married, or widowed, and for those destined for secular lives as well as the convent.  George de Esclavonie writes at length and eloquently on the topic to his young goddaughter who has taken the veil in Le chasteau de virginité (Gordon 1505 .E74).  The anonymous Cy commence une petite instruction & maniere de vivre pour une femme seculiere... (Gordon 1530 .P48) provides similar advice and practical instruction for a young woman’s spiritual practices in the secular world. The text offers its female readers the exemplary tale of a young wife, devoted to her husband and children, who proves even more dedicated to seeking a “parfaicte et vraye congnoissance de dieu,” to the point that she astonishes the “maistre en saincte theologie” who has never encountered such perfect devotion is his fifty years of wearing the ecclesiastical cloak.  Vives repeatedly emphasizes and illustrates how important it is for a woman to guard her virginity, asking her to consider that her chastity allows her to emulate Mary, as well as other pre-Christian models of “deesses exaltees de virginite,” Cibele, Diane, and Minerva.

Boccacio. Des Dames de Renom

Giovanni Boccacio. Des Dames de Renom

Gordon 1551 .B65

Translations into French of popular catalogues of exemplary women – the Opuscule de Plutarque, des vertueux et illustres faitz des anciennes Femmes… (Gordon 1546 .P58) and Boccacio’s Des Dames de Renom  (Gordon 1551 .B65) – offer a generally positive view of women, highlighting individual women who have shown courage, strength, intelligence, and virtue, often in the public sphere, although there remains an emphasis on chastity as women’s greatest virtue throughout these examples.

Le Fournier. La decoration

André Le Fournier. La decoration dhumaine nature, & aornement des dames

Gordon 1537 .L45

An ever-present and dangerous distraction from the recommended focus on women’s purity and chastity is the lure of make-up, jewelry, and beautiful clothes.  Vives explains that women are weak and prone to “les exces de luxure.”  He warns them of the dangers of this sort of vanity and advises each one to seek instead to ornament herself with virtue in the eyes of Jesus Christ and of her husband.

Another Gordon Collection volume, André Le Fournier’s La decoration dhumaine nature, & aornement des dames (Lyon : Françoys Juste, 1537) offers instruction in just the sort of “aornement” that Vives denounces.   Clearly there was a market for these recipes for how to darken or lighten one’s hair, whiten the teeth, or to – as one entry proclaims – “purifier & faire triumpher la face de la personne qu’elle semblera n’avoir que xv ans.”

Later in the century, Antoine Estienne published his Remonstrance charitable aux dames et damoyselles de France, sur leurs ornemens dissolus… (Gordon 1585 .E78), in which he calls for the women of France to give up their ostentatious, dishonest, and wicked vanity, to leave behind “l’habit du Paganisme, & prendre celuy de la femme pudique & Chrestienne.”

Along with offering moralizing admonitions to women to value spiritual purity above false ornaments, and recommendations that they be brought up to be silent and subservient to their parents and then obedient to their husband, many of these same books also provide advice to men.  Husbands must respect their wives for their virtue and their skill and devotion to the womanly arts of spinning and weaving, successful household management, and child rearing.  For the “mesnagerie” to prosper, both the husband and wife must fulfill their duties and must do so in harmony with one another, one of the points made in La mesnagerie de Xenophon (Gordon 1572 .X45), translated by Etienne de La Boëtie and edited by Montaigne (Paris : Federic Morel, 1572).

The household items most commonly used to evoke the domestic sphere of work by women were the “quenouille” (distaff) and the “fuseau” (spindle), used in spinning.  In his catalogue of “dames de renom,” (Gordon 1551 .B65), Boccacio explains that Eve, having been barred from Paradise along with Adam after the fall, “trouva la maniere se filer avec la quenouille, quand Adam eut commencé à labourer la terre,” and how she began to feel “tresgrandes douleurs en ses enfantemens” (p. 21-22)  Corrozet’s emblems (Gordon 1543 .C67) include the image of the Roman statue of Caia Cecilia, a model “femme pudique,” at the foot of which were laid a distaff and spindle, a sign of her domestic virtues.  Near these items is a bedroom slipper, to signify that her place was in the home, and not in public.  The verses accompanying the woodcut explain:

Car telle ymage assez faisoit entendre, / Que toute femme à vertu debvoit tendre:/ Qu’elle debvoit estre laborieuse, / Des faictz d’aultruy non pas trop curieuse / Et ne debvoit, sans grand’ cause, & raison / Aller en ville, & laisser sa maison.

Louise Labé’s preface calls on women to raise their spirits and minds (“esprits”) above their distaffs and spindles, asking that the world recognize them as equals “tant es afaires domestiques que publiques.” 

This recognition of the possibilities available through education and the call to women to use their intellect to write and to seek a more active role in public as well as in household affairs represents one side of the querelle des femmes, countering the voices of Vives and others who, following powerful patriarchal traditions, continued to relegate women to lives of silence in the domestic sphere/realm.

—Karen James, University of Virginia (2007)