From Mother and Daughter: Poems, Dialogues, and Letters of Les Dames des Roches (The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe Series)

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Among the best-known and most prolific French women writers of the sixteenth century, Madeleine (1520–87) and Catherine (1542–87) des Roches were celebrated not only for their uncommonly strong mother-daughter bond but also for their bold assertion of poetic authority for women in the realm of belles lettres. The Dames des Roches excelled in a variety of genres, including poetry, Latin and Italian translations, correspondence, prose dialogues, pastoral drama, and tragicomedy; collected in From Mother and Daughter are selections from their celebrated oeuvre, suffused with an engaging and enduring feminist consciousness.
Madeleine and Catherine spent their entire lives in civil war–torn Poitiers, where a siege of the city, vandalism, and desecration of churches fueled their political and religious commentary. Members of an elite literary circle that would inspire salon culture during the next century, the Dames des Roches addressed the issues of the day, including the ravages of religious civil wars, the weak monarchy, education for women, marriage and the family, violence against women, and the status of women intellectuals. Through their collaborative engagement in shared public discourse, both mother and daughter were models of moral, political, and literary agency.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226723389
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2006
  • Series: The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne R. Larsen is professor of French at Hope College. She is the editor of a three-volume critical edition of the collected writings of Madeleine and Catherine des Roches.

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Read an Excerpt


Poems, Dialogues, and Letters of Les Dames des Roches

By Madeleine des Roches Catherine des Roches THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-72338-9

Chapter One


I prefer writing to spinning. -Madeleine des Roches, sonnet 8


Madeleine des Roches's dedicatory epistle to Les Œuvres is addressed Aux Dames (To the Ladies). Who were they? It is tempting to think that they constituted primarily Parisian upper gentry and court "doctes dames" (learned ladies). Two reasons would have impelled the Dames des Roches to address them. Les Œuvres appeared a year after the royal court's three-month sojourn in Poitiers, and publishing in the capital would have been a reminder of that fortunate occurrence. They would also have found a larger and more sympathetic audience in an environment where the phenomenon of the learned woman and women's participation in literary coteries were not exceptional. Madeleine's letter, however, appeals for the patronage of possibly two conjoined groups of imagined female readers. She addresses ladies whom she depicts as contemptuous of her "humbles vers" (humble verse) and to whomshe is indebted in friendship: "I have wanted, in this little work wherein I have depicted myself, to take the time to assure you of the true friendship which I have always felt for you, my ladies, that is, if some of you deign to read my humble verse." It is possible to identify these ladies as superior in status and erudition and as part of the Parisian audience whose criticism Des Roches forestalls. A second group consists of those who admonish their peers not to meddle in writing and publishing since "silence, the ornament of woman, can cover errors of the tongue and of understanding." These readers differ from the Parisian reader whose patronage Des Roches hopes to interest. A clue to their identity is offered in ode 3, also addressed "aux dames," where Madeleine criticizes women who disparage female intellectuals: "Some Satyr's tongue, / That loves to mock, / Will emphatically state: / Enough! All a woman needs to know is how / To spin and do her housework; / Such a woman is much more profitable" (ll. 25-30). Other women who derive importance from incessant quarreling or from clothes are summoned to more worthwhile occupations: "But there is something far more worthy / For the lady of Poitiers / Than the gallant garment: / Already she has made it her habit / To choose ink and pen / And to employ these learnedly" (ll. 43-48). Des Roches's inclusion of provincial female readers is a tactical ploy to herald those among them who, like her, are part of a new "docte echole" (learned school).

From the outset, Madeleine des Roches positions herself in her published works in the querelle des femmes controversy, a plurivocal debate on the nature of the female sex. To the disapproval, hesitation, and even fear of intimidation of her imagined female readers, Madeleine responds in her prefatorial letter: "[le silence] peut bien empescher la honte, mais non pas accroistre l'honneur, aussi que le parler nous separe des animaux sans raison" (silence may well prevent shame but cannot increase honor, and ... speech distinguishes us from the reasonless beasts). She identifies with the third voice in this discursive tradition: women differ from men not because they are by nature inferior (the misogynist track), or because they are superior (the feminist angle), but because of long-ingrained cultural prejudices and practices. Since women possess reason, they are capable of moral and intellectual improvement; it follows that like men they should receive moral training and education in rhetoric, the sciences, and the arts to acquire virtue, honor, and a good reputation.

Madeleine des Roches's views on women's education are founded upon humanistic principles. Following Erasmus, she considered nature, education, and exercise as the three fundamentals in the training of men and women. In her dedicatory Epistle to My Daughter, she writes a poetic "mirror" or "institution" in which she briefly outlines the broad principles in the education of a daughter, her own. Taking Catherine as her exemplary model, she evokes first the humanist notion of the innate qualities inherited at birth. Catherine's heart, she states, is "ni ' la vertu" (naturally inclined to virtue); she resembles her mother in body and in the "gracious compatibility" of their minds. This leads Madeleine to emphasize yet another Erasmian principle that physical and moral resemblance must be cultivated through religious instruction as well as an education in bonae litterae (letters). Like Erasmus and Vives, Madeleine des Roches is concerned with the education of the Christian woman whose dominant trait is sagesse (propriety or decorum), an epithet that admirers consistently applied to Catherine. Instruction in belles lettres focuses above all on the acquisition of virtue: "It is not enough, however, to be wellborn; / Acquired knowledge makes us well-mannered ... / Letters can change the vice-ridden, / Letters can increase the courage of the virtuous." Catherine has demonstrated this amply by showing herself an exemplary daughter, offering "since childhood / Love, counsel, support, and obedience." As a reward for her services, her mother bestows upon her the rare "gift" of allowing her to devote herself to "la Muse et le divin sgavoir" (the Muse and divine learning), rare because such erudition was more appropriate for male professionals and for women of the aristocracy and /or of independent means. Ciceronian otium literatum (literary leisure), opposed to negotium (business), was the privilege of the male professional, before evolving in the Renaissance and seventeenth century into worldly leisure reserved for the aristocratic habituis of literary circles and salons. This prized otium probably is the reason that Catherine's output amounts to over two-thirds of the combined works of the two women. Then, in a syncretist linking of Erasmian virtue to Greco-Roman mythopoetics, Madeleine des Roches ends her epistle by invoking the literary immortality conferred upon such learning and virtuous conduct: "And may the Daemon, who began this work in you, / So well guide your thoughts and actions, / That posterity may know / How much honor you will have merited. / May you some day become immortal through your virtue. / It is thus that I have always wanted you to be." Des Roches's speaker connects humanist ideology with Pliiade poetics: she draws on the Greco-Roman concept of exegi monumentum (I have raised a monument), which Ronsard evokes for instance in his praise of Marguerite de France, the learned sister of Henry II: "Your mind is always taking pleasure / In the saintly studies of the Muse, / Who, despite the tomb, / Will render your name even more renowned." Madeleine's wish for her daughter is couched in terms strikingly similar to those of Ronsard for the king's sister. Madeleine furthermore taps into terminology particular to noble discourse. For the urban nobility, dedication, services rendered to another, educational achievement, and virtue constituted merit deserving recompense. Madeleine's pride in Catherine's achievements leads her to apply the rhetoric of class merit to the praise of her daughter.

Nowhere throughout her writings does the mother enjoin her daughter to marry. To the contrary, she bluntly critiques the unjust "laws of marriage," which robbed her of her own youthful literary aspirations (ode 1). Unlike Catherine, she published late in life (she was fifty-eight when Les Œuvres appeared) and wrote only poetry. Her worldview, that of her generation in fact, is pessimistic. The wars of religion, which ravaged the southwest of France and the region of Poitou in particular, fueled feelings of insecurity and distress. Madeleine comments frequently on the disorders of the civil wars (sonnets 15, 16, 20), her bouts of ill health when she was plagued with migraines (ode 4, sonnets 7, 8), numerous lawsuits (Epistle to My Daughter, sonnet 5), and the death of loved ones and friends (Epitaph for Her Husband, sonnet 36). She critiques the lack of equity, or fairness, toward women that led to their juridical incapacity and dependency: "As for my country, I am powerless; / Men have all the authority, / Against reason and against fairness." On the other hand, in her catalogue of women worthies (ode 3), she emphasizes the contributions to civilization of ancient female rulers, goddesses, and especially inventors of laws, such as Carmenta and Ceres. As Kendall Tarte has shown, she juxtaposes in ode 3 two communities of women, the actual historical community of ladies of Poitiers whom she challenges to a life of the mind, and a fictional literary community not unlike Christine de Pizan's ideal city. The latter models the building blocks of a civilized society founded upon the rule of law maintained by women, women's learning, and women's fame.

In the selected sonnets, Madeleine defends the Gallican principle "one faith, one law, one king" (sonnet 14), arguing for the strengthening of the monarchy, and showing her preference for Politiques thought. Her fierce opposition to the Huguenot warring armies is based on what she perceives as their attacks on the core values of the monarchy. In sonnet 15, she states: "It is not Byzantium, Spain, or Rome, / It is not Scotland, England, or Germany / Who have sacked us and caused us so much suffering. / It is the French mutineers who have done the damage, / Not worrying about injuring a young and just King, / After having polluted everything that is holy." She critiques Huguenot teachings, preachers, and iconoclastic military operations. Like Itienne Pasquier, however, who was uniformly polite in his letters to Protestant scholars, Madeleine was on friendly terms with Protestant humanists who were welcome at her salon. These included the philologist Joseph-Juste Scaliger, the physician Frangois de Saint-Vertunien, the lawyer Jean Boiceau de La Borderie, and the then young poet Agrippa d'Aubigni.

The sense of social disintegration that fueled the pessimism of so many at the time also gave rise to a new nationalism and patriotic awareness both politically and in the realm of literature. The latter is linked to the Pliiade school that in the 1550s engendered the drive toward the enrichment of the French language. Madeleine des Roches's strong nationalist commitments are evident in her bold critique of the anticipated marriage of Frangois d'Alengon (1554-84), Henri III's younger brother, to Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1570s (sonnet 11). Such a marriage with "barbarous England," she argues, is unsustainable for a defender of "the Holy Roman See" and traitorous to Gallican principles. Nationalist pride leads her to assert the notion of translatio studii et imperii (transferal of letters and dominion) as a way of proclaiming her belief in the superiority of French culture: "So shall France become the most learned of them all," she declares. "Just as our prince has overcome by arms / The Spanish, the English, and Roman men of arms, / So shall the French Toga take the first prize." Hence, like the humanist Guillaume Budi and Pliiade poets Joachim du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard, Madeleine evokes, in ode 2 of Les Secondes œuvres, the "Gallic Hercules" as a figure authorizing linguistic nationalism.

Finally, Madeleine ends her portion of the 1579 volume of Les Œuvres with two sonnets to her daughter. In the first, she laments the unjust burden on Catherine of helping her mother withstand the pressure of her lawsuit. In the second, she pleads with her to recover from an illness and thus spare her mother further anguish. She beseeches her "by [my] maternal love, / By the sweet milk drawn from [my] breast, / And [my] womb which bore you for nine months." The image of her nursing child now grown author daughter becomes a metaphor for her continual nurturance of Catherine's literary talent. In ending her contribution to their common volume with this image, Madeleine underscores the role of maternal sustenance in literary creation. She rescripts here what Kirk Read has called the "self-sufficient paradigm of literary sustenance and reproduction," coopted by French Renaissance male poets to empower their writing. Poets of the period used such feminine imagery to assert their control over textual reproduction while at the same time effacing women altogether from that process. Thus Ronsard for instance addresses his mentor Jean Dorat, expressing his gratitude at having been able "To suckle the savory milk / Of your fertile breast!" Madeleine reclaims the topos of the "nursing mother" to assert the primacy of female nurturance of women poets. Maternalized mentorship is affirmed continuously throughout the oeuvre of the Des Roches as they evoke mothers nurturing their daughters to assume control of their lives and writings.

* * *


If the well-chiseled marble, or the colors of a paintbrush employed by a skilled hand, acquaint us with not only the physical beauty but the manners and traits of those they depict, it is my opinion that the word, true image of the soul, and the fleeting voice recorded by the pen onto paper, give a certain indication not only of the richness of the mind and of its acquired or natural capacities but of the natural integrity of those who speak or write. For this reason, I have wanted, in this little work wherein I have depicted myself, to take the time to assure you of the true friendship which I have always felt for you, my ladies, that is, if some of you deign to read my humble verse. And if, out of greater charity for me, you advise me that silence, the ornament of woman, can cover errors of the tongue and of understanding, I will answer you that silence may well prevent shame but cannot increase honor, and that speech distinguishes us from the reasonless beasts. At least I count on your courtesy, that if you do not judge me worthy of esteem, you will not think that I should be greatly reprehended, for if the value of my writings is not great, neither is their length. Therefore, you will find me somewhat worthy of excuse; but I had better end my letter near its beginning for fear that by boring you on account of its length, I contradict myself and your wishes, and I must then apologize for my excuse. Adieu, Mesdames.


Si le marbre bien tailli, ou les couleurs du pinceau employi d'une docte main, nous ont fait congnoistre, non la seule beauti du corps, mais encores les moeurs et complexions de ceux qu'ils ont representez, j'ay pensi que la parolle, vraye image de l'ame, et la voix fuyante arrestie par la plume sur le papier, donnoit un certain indice, non seullement de la richesse de l'esprit et de ses sens acquis ou naturels, mais de l'integriti naofve de ceux qui parlent ou escrivent Pour ceste cause, j'ay voulu en ce petit tableau oy je me suis depeinte, arrester ma parolle, pour vous asseurer de l'amitii entiere que j'ay tousjours portie ' vous (Mesdames) si aucunes de vous daignez lire mes humbles vers. Et si, m'estant plus charitables, vous m'advisez que le silence, ornement de la femme, peut couvrir les fautes de la langue et de l'entendement, je respondray qu'il peut bien empescher la honte, mais non pas accroistre l'honneur, aussi que le parler nous separe des animaux sans raison. Au fort j'espere de voz courtoisies que si vous ne me jugez digne d'estime, vous ne penserez pas que je merite grande reprehension, pource que si c'est peu de mes escrits pour la valeur, aussi n'est-ce point beaucoup pour la longueur. Ainsi vous me trouverez aucunement excusable; mais il vaut mieux que je trouve la fin de mon epistre assez pres du commencement, de crainte que vous ennuiant pour sa longueur, elle contredise ' moy-mesme et ' vostre disir, de sorte qu'il me fallust chercher excuse ' mon excuse. Adieu mes Dames.


Excerpted from FROM MOTHER AND DAUGHTER by Madeleine des Roches Catherine des Roches Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Series Editors' Introduction
Volume Editor's Introduction
Volume Editor's Bibliography
Note on Translation
I. Selected Poems of Madeleine des Roches from Les Euvres (1579)
II. Selected Poems of Catherine des Roches from Les Euvres (1579)
III. Selected Poems of Madeleine des Roches and Catherine des Roches from Les Secondes Euvres (1583)
IV. Selected Letters of Madeleine des Roches and Catherine des Roches from Les Missives (1586)
Series Editors' Bibliography

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