Madeleine & Catherine Des Roches
Madeleine Des Roches (ca. 1520-1587) and
Catherine Des Roches (1542-1587)
Madeleine Neveu and her daughter Catherine Fradonnet, the "Dames Des Roches," enjoyed renown in late sixteenth-century France as authors and as the hosts of a popular humanist salon in their hometown of Poitiers. Madeleine Des Roches (the surname comes from landholdings) was twice widowed. She was responsible for the humanist education of Catherine, her only surviving child. The daughter staunchly refused to marry, preferring to remain with her mother. Contemporary references to the women, on the title pages of their books and in works by fellow writers, emphasize their specific circumstances. They were from Poitiers, and they were mother and daughter: “Madeleine et Catherine Des Roches de Poitiers, mère et fille."
As this designation suggests, the familial bond and the regional context were crucial to the Des Roches’ success. The women lived alone together for nearly a decade between the 1578 death of Madeleine’s second husband, François Eboissard, and their own death of the plague, in 1587. The freedom from many of the traditional duties of wives likely made it easier for the Des Roches to write. After contributing individual poems to books by several contemporaries, the women began publishing collections of their works in 1578. They actively sought fame through publication. Their poetry and prose treat topics ranging from their personal relationship to the general situation of women. The Des Roches show both realities and possibilities of sixteenth-century life to contemporary readers, who included women. Poitiers also provides subject matter. Inspirations include the city’s physical details and contemporary historical events, especially the strife and devastation of the Wars of Religion.
One episode in particular, the 1579 court sessions called Grands Jours, offered a special opportunity for the Des Roches to increase their renown. During their stay in Poitiers, the visiting Parisian lawyers and judges frequented the Des Roches’ salon. One result was a colorful story that the humanist lawyer Estienne Pasquier told after first meeting Catherine Des Roches. He says that when he saw a flea on her breast, he proposed that they each write poems to praise the insect. A contest among many of the salon participants ensued. La Puce de madame des-Roches presents the collected poems. The encounter between Pasquier and Des Roches entered into the popular mythology surrounding Catherine and her mother. Another event, their death of the plague, apparently on the same day in 1587, was also repeated by their biographers. These stories, whether strictly factual or not, added to the dramatic portrait of the mother and daughter and, along with their writing, helped ensure their place in history.
Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches published three extensive volumes of collected works, Les Oeuvres (1578, 1579), Les Secondes oeuvres (1583), and Les Missives (1586). Each book presents their works separately, in two clearly delineated sections. The mother and daughter address each other in liminary prose epistles that open their respective sections.
All three volumes contain poems of varied form and subject matter. Les Missives, which includes letters, is notable for being the first private correspondence by women to be published in France. Catherine Des Roches worked with several other literary forms, including the dialogue, which was a popular genre in the sixteenth century, and adaptation-translations of Biblical stories and classical texts. The most ambitious of these is Le Ravissement de Proserpine, Catherine’s version of De raptu Proserpinae by the Latin author Claudian, which appears in Les Missives. In addition to the three joint mother-daughter publications, the anthology La Puce de Madame des-Roches (1582) contains poetry by a number of participants in the Poitiers salon, including just two women, Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches.
Further reading (recent editions and references):
Des Roches, Madeleine and Catherine. Les Oeuvres. Ed. Anne R. Larsen. Geneva: Droz, 1993. [The introduction to this volume offers the most complete information on the Des Roches’ lives and works.]
Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Contentious Readings: Urban Humanism and Gender Difference in La Puce de Madame Des-Roches (1582).” Renaissance Quarterly 48 (1995): 109-128.
Larsen, Anne R. "The French Humanist Scholars: Les Dames des Roches." Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Ed. Katharina M. Wilson. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1987. 232-59. [A general introduction to the Des Roches in English, with translations of several important pieces.]
Tarte, Kendall B. Writing Places: Sixteenth-Century City Culture and the Des Roches Salon. Newark: University of Delaware P, 2007.
Materials on this page were generously contributed by Kendall Tarte, Wake Forest University (2004).