Women in the French Renaissance

The subject of Woman in the French Renaissance, which I date from 1483 to 1594, is still not well understood or studied. It is a period during which royal women played a powerful role. These dates cover the period from the ascension of Charles VIII to the ascension of Henry IV. Others use somewhat different dates.

We associate the period of the Renaissance, a word first used in France by the historian Jules Michelet, with artistic and cultural “rebirth.” But it was more. Throughout Europe, a spirit of political, cultural, artistic and scientific exploration grew.

A Cultural Revolution in France

The wars that began in 1494 with the French military descent into Italy resulted in a cultural revolution in France. French artists, sculptors, architects and landscape gardeners applied new techniques and forms adopted originally from Italy. They transformed the fields of printing, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, the sciences and literature. The French court practised new and more graceful social codes, standards of etiquette and patterns of discourse because of contact with the sophisticated Italian courts.

The chateaux of the Loire valley are monuments to the impact on the architecture of the French renaissance. King Charles VIII, Louis XII and François I came back from their Italian wars awestruck by the luxurious living of their Italian counterparts. They brought Italian artisans with them. Soon they transformed their ancient castles into comfortable palaces.

So too were the gardens transformed. Symmetry and geometric planting beds, or parterres, characterized French Renaissance gardens. They featured plants in pots, gravel and sand paths, terraces, stairways and ramps. Moving water in the form of canals, cascades and monumental fountains added charm. Landscape architects created mystery and privacy, hard to find in the crowded palaces, through artificial grottos and labyrinths. Sculptors added statues of mythological figures. Gardens, designed to illustrate the Renaissance ideals of measure and proportion, became an extension of the chateaux they surrounded.

The New Learning

The French Renaissance spread “the new learning” with a Christian focus rather than the more eclectic humanism of Italy. This included the study of ancients, the Bible, the gospels and the Church fathers in their original languages. Ancient languages such as Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew became popular fields of study that had not existed previously. Teachers of these languages came from foreign lands, bringing new cultural inputs. This study brought with it a new historical and textual methods. The translation of recently discovered documents into modern [vernacular] languages created a demand for religious texts and literature in the native tongue of each country. This, along with criticism of clerical abuses, led to the Reformation.

Military and Technological Change

The Italian Wars from 1494 to 1559 also changed military and political practice.  In 1492 and 1493, Charles VIII of France signed treaties with Henry VII of England, Maximilian I of Habsburg, and Ferdinand II of Aragon respectively. Now that the French had driven England out of France, Charles VIII was ready to invade Italy. His campaign in 1494 began 62 years of war with the Hapsburgs until the French finally admitted their defeat in Italy.

Other areas of technological advance were measurement and travel. Overseas exploration led to the circumnavigation of the earth. The ‘discovery’ of the “New World” had an enormous impact on the French imagination after it conquered New France. Jean Cabot and Jacques Cartier arrived early and claimed much of what is now North America for France. As well, the French explored and gained territory in Africa.

The Changing Role of Women

Women’s role rose and declined during the Renaissance rather like a Bell curve. At first, very few women held a place at court and the queen’s court was small. With Duchess Anne de Beaujeu, the change began. Under Queen Anne, Duchess of Brittany, numbers exploded. Experts in the field, Caroline zum Kolk and Kathleen Wilson-Chevelier, provide details. Over the century, noble girls and women came to court where they learned the gracious arts. When they married and went to their new homes, they brought these skills and expectations with them.

It became expected that royal, noble and merchant girls and women would be educated to read, write, and cypher. Often. women were the literate members of families. As the reform movement grew stronger, so did the demand to read. Also, as upper-class men fought in the religious wars, women ran the household. Their skills and literacy contributed to the reform.

Women Writers

For centuries, French renaissance literature equalled Rabelais, Montesquieu, Marot and Ronsard. Recently the contribution of women poets and authors to French Renaissance literature is coming to light.

For centuries people equated French Renaissance literature with Rabelais, Ronsard, Montesquieu and a few more. Recently the contribution of women poets and writers is being recognized and their works are being discovered and studies. There is much to be learned from Colette Winn whose work has opened up the field.The works of some of these women are available digitized on the internet. A great site for classic books is the Digital Book Index. Charlotte Duplessis-Mornay‘s Memoirs are available, for example.  I will be posting about these women on this site.

Women who Ruled France during the French Renaissance 

Only men could reign in France. Yet, during this period, three queen mothers, two queens and two kings’ sisters played influenced political and cultural roles. Duchess Anne de Beaujeu, Duchess Louise of Savoy and Queen Catherine de Medici all ruled. Their impact defines the early modern era in France.

Charles VIII came to the throne in 1483 at 13. His older sister, Duchess Anne de Beaujeu, his unofficial guardian ruled as Regent of France. Under her guidance, France conquered Brittany and Charles married Duchess Anne of Brittany. 

Duchess Anne was powerful in her own right, the last duchess of that independent duchy. She struggled valiantly to keep Brittany independent. When her husband, King Charles, died, she married his successor, King Louis XII. No longer a conquered sacrifice, she made a much better marriage contract. Louise had great respect for her. Therefore, In her second marriage, she influenced her husband in religion, the arts and politics. However, in the thing that mattered most to her, Brittany, she could not affect his decisions.

Reform & Marguerite de Navarre

At King Louis’s insistence, their daughter, Claude, married François and became Queen of France. Their younger daughter, Renée, married the Duke of Ferrara. After the Duke’s death, she returned to France. Like her aunt, Queen Marguerite of Navarre, she played an active role in the French reformation.

After King Louis died, King François I became king. He trusted his mother, Duchess Louise de Savoie, to advise him. She acted as regent for King François twice. In 1529 in Cambrai, she negotiated the Ladies Peace with Regent Marguerite of the Netherlands.

Queen Marguerite de Navarre, King François’s sister, is famous for her writing. Her brother involved her in his politics and saved her from persecution for her support for early reformers. Her daughter, Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre, later became the leader of the Protestant reform movement. She was mother of King Henry IV.

The moody King Henry II allowed only one woman to influence him, his mistress Diane de Poitiers. He made her Duchess d’Étampes. People mocked him because she was twenty years older than he. During his reign, Duchess Diane played a huge role in French politics. She ruled his nursery as Gouvernante to his children, much to his wife’s secret rage.

Widowed Catherine de Medici’s Revenge

Widowed Queen Catherine took her revenge on his mistress when Henri died. She dismissed Diane and repossessed the Chateau de Chenonceaux. Then Queen Catherine ruled as Regent for King Charles IX. She used her maids of honour, her “Flying Squadron,” as spies who worked through charm. Her part in St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre shadows her reputation. This dire event occurred during her daughter, Marguerite de Valois‘s wedding to the future King Henri IV. 

Three of Queen Catherine’s daughters played significant parts in the events of the day. La Reine Margot married Huguenot Henry of Navarre. Known for her staunch Catholicism, she hated him. They divorced. But not before she rebelled against her brother King Henri III. So, she lived imprisoned for 19 years.

Elizabeth de France married King Philip II of Spain to heal the rift between the two countries. Pretty and popular at the Spanish court, she disappointed her mother with her new loyalties. Unfortunately for all, she died young in childbirth, leaving behind two young daughters.

Catherine de Medici’s third daughter Claude married the Duke de Lorraine. Thus, Catherine strengthened the bonds between Lorraine and France. Claude de Lorraine proved popular in her duchy.

Women in the French Renaissance: Selected Books and Articles

Fanny Cosandey, La Reine de France. Symbole et pouvoir, XVe-XVIIIe siècle, Paris, (Gallimard, Collection, Bibliothèque des histoires, 2000) 

Pauline Matarasso, Queen’s Mate: Three Women of Power in France on the Eve of the Renaissance (Ashgate Publishing Company, Vt., 2001)

Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: England, France & England. Ed. Diane Robin, Anne R. Larsen, Carole Levin (ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2007)

Kathleen Wellman, Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France. (Yale University Press, 2013).

Jane Stevenson, “Women and Latin in Renaissance France” in Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century Ed. Jane Stevenson (Oxford University Press, 2005)

Colette H. Winn, ed. Teaching French Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Options for Teaching 31. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2011.

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