Contentious Readings: Urban Humanism and Gender Difference in 'La Puce De Madame Des-Roches (1582).'

By Jones, Ann Rosalind | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Contentious Readings: Urban Humanism and Gender Difference in 'La Puce De Madame Des-Roches (1582).'


Jones, Ann Rosalind, Renaissance Quarterly


Recent research into early modern social groups in which women gained access to literary language has focused on the coteries in which they learned to perform alongside men, improvising poems later printed in books.(1) The typical coterie in Italy, through which women such as Veronica Franco made their way into print, was the humanist academy centered around a court or a group of urban noblemen, such as the Venier academy in Venice. In sixteenth-century France such groups took two forms: the provincial salon attended by professional men - humanist lawyers, diplomats, doctors, publishers - as in Lyon and Poitiers, and the aristocratic salons linked to the court. One mark of the class difference between patrician academy and bourgeois salon was their different methods of textual production: both kinds of group committed their exchanges to paper, but courtly salons in France produced manuscript albums rather than printed books. In France such handwritten albums were assembled for the salon organized by the Villeroys (he the Secretary of State to Henri III), which met in a chateau on the Seine, and for the salon maintained by the Duc and Duchesse de Retz at the Hotel de Dampierre in Paris.(2)

In the provincial city of Poitiers, however, a bourgeois salon run by a mother-daughter pair, Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches, produced an anthology of poems and prose by various hands that was published for the first time in Paris in 1582, again in 1583, and a third time in 1610, this time in the collected early works of one of its contributors, the humanist lawyer Etienne Pasquier. The anthology, originally entitled La Puce de Madame Des-Roches, records a literary contest in the form of epigrams improvised on a limited but stimulating - indeed, a piquant - topic: a flea that Pasquier claimed to have seen on Catherine Des Roches's breast. A poem by Catherine opens the collection, followed immediately by Pasquier's "La Puce." This pair leads on to over sixty texts by more than a dozen hands, composed in Greek, Latin, Italian and Spanish, as well as French. Most of the writers were hommes de robe, Parliamentary lawyers who had come down from Paris to preside over extra court sessions called "Les Grands Jours de Poitiers" in 1579. The printed anthology preserves poems that had been read out loud in the Des Roches' house, as well as texts by other writers who took up the topic after hearing about the exchange in Poitiers or returning to Paris. In a prefatory letter Jacques de Sourdray, a lawyer of Poitiers, dedicates the poems to a fellow townsman who has asked to see them because rumor has reached him of the witty merriment at the Des Roches' salon. Indeed, a kind of poetic contagion seems to have been invading Poitiers; Sourdray explains that "Seigneur Ant. de P., Gentilhomme Poictevin" and his guests have also composed poems on the topic of a flea. And when Abel Langelier first published the collection in Paris three years after Les Grands Jours, he admitted he was doing so without the permission of many of its participants - obviously hoping to profit from widening interest in the contest.

This instance of group composition has significance for a range of questions now being raised about authorship and reading in early modern Europe. La Puce is a collaborative text, but also an intensely competitive and contradictory one. It records the spontaneous oral language-work of the salon at the same time that it reveals its contributors' desire for scripted fame, the humanists' ambition that their writing circulate among contemporary scholars and be preserved for posterity. But Pasquier also set up a less rarified reception for the collection by adding French translations of most of the Greek and Latin texts. And the collection closes with a text drawn from outside the salon circuit, a satire of a braggart soldier entitled "Au Capitaine Bourgoin," evidence that the publisher shared Pasquier's hopes that the earlier poems would be read as amusing drollery as well as "doctes inventions. …

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