Georgette De Montenay: A Different Voice in Sixteenth-Century Emblematics

Article excerpt

The feminists of the querelle [des femmes] were reacting to changes they seemed to have no control over, or to a Puritan revolution that served mainly to confirm their subjection to men. Lacking a vision of social movement to change events, their concern lay with consciousness. By their pens, they could at least counteract the psychological consequences of what they felt was a recent, steady decline in the position of women.

Joan Kelley, "Early Feminist Theory and the

Qurelle des Femmes," in Women, History and Theory

GEORGETTE DE MONTENAY HAS BEEN the object of enduring scholarly interest, not only as the first woman author of an emblem book, but also as the creator of a new literary and artistic genre: the religious emblem. Most probably converted to Protestantism under the influence of Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre (to whose court she was attached after her marriage to Guyon de Gout, c. 1562),(1) de Montenay composed a series of one hundred militant Christian octets in the mid-1560s and closely supervised their illustration by a gifted Lyonnais etcher, Pierre Woeiriot, who was also of the reformed persuasion.(2) The Emblesmes ou devises chrestiennes were finally published in 1571 by a brother in religion, Jean Marcorelle, and were to have an immediate success.(3) So great were their popularity that, despite the destruction of most extant copies after the tragic events of the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre (August 1572), the Emblemes chrestiens were repeatedly republished and widely imitated throughout Protestant Europe and in all of the major European languages.(4)

Georgette de Montenay's merit and contemporary success lay, above all, in the felicitous merging of several literary and iconographic traditions. As a poet specializing in pious and meditative verse, she followed the example set by other well-educated and aristocratic women authors such as Marguerite de Navarre.(5) As an author of emblematic verse in the vernacular, she adopted (and transformed) a highly successful humanist literary tradition in order to convey a didactic Calvinist message in palatable form.(6) Finally, as an emblem author who directed the engraving of the metal plates destined to illustrate her moral and religious poems, de Montenay also drew heavily upon two well-known and widespread artistic traditions: emblematic allegory and Christian iconology.(7)

Her innovations, however, were not solely limited to areas of literary accomplishment or Protestant propaganda. What has hitherto escaped the notice of scholars is Georgette de Montenay's refusal to reproduce the misogynist ethic of the humanist emblem tradition, a tradition based primarily on the repetition of stock themes and motifs with only minor literary or iconographic variations.(8) And not only did she refuse the misogynist ethic of her predecessors, but she also proposed, in place of current canons of female conduct, a model of educated and spiritually superior womankind, as well as a more equitable vision of relations between the sexes. Unfortunately, despite both her lasting fame and the instant vogue of religious emblem imagery (which was to flourish throughout the following century(9)), de Montenay's aristocratic, spiritual, and enlightened lightened ideal of gender relations was destined to find no followers within the emblematic genre.


Georgette de Montenay's verse dedications to Jeanne d'Albret and to the reader are particularly revealing with respect to both the author's purpose and her consciousness of having ventured upon what was hitherto an exclusively male domain: the humanist recueil d'emblemes.(10) She begins, as do most women authors at this time, by carefully minimizing the "temerity" of her literary accomplishment. (11) However, rather than describing her poetic efforts as a casual pastime (as is often the case with her predecessors), she declares her authorship to have been a pious exercise most particularly suited to her sex insofar as it permitted her to flee "damned sloth," "qui de tout vice est la droite nourrice. …