La puce de Madame Des-Roches
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La puce de Madame Des-Roches. ; Qui est vn recueil de diuers poëmes Grecs, Latins & François, / composez par plusieurs doctes personnages aux grans iours tenus à Poitiers l'an M.D.LXXIX.
A Paris : Pour Abel l'Angelier ... , 1582
ABOUT THIS EDITION: The publication of La Puce de Madame des-Roches spanned two years, 1582-1583. Most extant editions of the book have a 1583 title page. The copy in the Douglas Gordon Collection is from 1582. In their catalog of the editions of Abel L'Angelier and Françoise de Louvain, Jean Balsamo and Michel Simonin indicate only three copies of the 1582 printing available in other libraries (all in France), compared to eighteen copies from 1583 available in libraries in France, England, and the United States (Abel L'Angelier et Françoise de Louvain (1574-1620), Geneva: Droz, 2002).
La Puce de Madame des-Roches collects poems in French, Latin, and several other languages in praise of a flea that had perched on Catherine Des Roches's breast. In September 1579, a coalition of lawyers and judges from Paris traveled to Poitiers for the Grands Jours . These special court sessions were designed to alleviate courts that were overcrowded with cases from the ongoing civil wars, known as the Wars of Religion. One member of the delegation, the humanist lawyer Estienne Pasquier, promptly paid a visit to Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches. He had heard of the women, whose first book, Les Oeuvres, had been published in Paris the previous year. In a letter to his friend Pierre Pithou, Pasquier described their first meeting this way: as he and Catherine Des Roches talked, he noticed a flea on her breast. He proposed that they each write a poem praising the lucky insect. She agreed, and surprised him with the speed and quality of her response. Their two compositions launched a contest among the salon visitors.
Pasquier's letter and many of the flea poems circulated in manuscript. They were collected and published three years later, in 1582. La Puce de Madame des-Roches captures the jocular spirit of the salon. The poets favor witty wordplays and elaborate anagrams. Many of the poems by men depict the flea exploring Catherine's imagined body. By extension, the flea encomia also praise the female body. La Puce follows in the tradition of the blasons anatomiques, epigrammatic poems praising individual female body parts. Clément Marot introduced the first blason and launched a poetic competition in the 1530s. The flea contest recalls that earlier one, which Maurice Scève won with his blason of the eyebrow, “Le Sourcil.”
Two prefaces open the anthology and reveal the circumstances of the publication of the book. In the first, the compiler Jacques de Soudrai addresses his benefactor, named only as “Ant. de la P.” He presents the published volume as the fulfillment of a promise to this man, who had apparently enjoyed the poems that he had seen in manuscript. Sourdrai uses the typical strategy of humility to downplay his role, pointing out that he was not able to collect all of the poems. This expression of inadequacy also entices the reader with the suggestion that more flea poems may be published in the future.
The second preface, addressed to the reader, excerpts and revises Pasquier's letter, changing the first person “je” to the third person “il” and omitting all proper names. The voice is generally taken to be that of the printer Abel L'Angelier. The preface recounts the flea episode, then explains the composition of the first two poems. It stresses the similarities in the actions of Catherine Des Roches and Estienne Pasquier, who react simultaneously, almost in unison, to his suggestion that they compose poems on the flea. The end of the preface notes that the puce poets may be displeased to see the book, which L'Angelier apparently published without their permission.
After the prefaces and a series of liminary poems, the book opens with Catherine Des Roches's flea encomium. She deflects the bodily praise that characterizes the male-authored poems by inventing a mythological story. The flea had once been a nymph who was pursued, against her wishes, by the god of the forest, Pan. The goddess Diana transformed the nymph into a flea. It now continues to flee Pan's insistent pursuit. Des Roches's creation, a chaste flea, provides a striking contrast to the sexual advances that the insect makes in poems by Pasquier and others.
Estienne Pasquier's flea poem follows. The poet identifies the flea as his rival, and follows the drunken insect in an imaginary exploration of the female body. The catalog of female body parts recalls the blasons anatomiques. Pasquier imagines that he is the flea, and he depicts an erotic siege of Catherine's body.
La Puce offers a textual equivalent of the salon interactions. It groups poems by different authors, who “speak” to one another. A translation or imitation follows the original, for example, or a poem responds to a theme or idea from the preceding poem. Here a French translation follows Latin verses by Pasquier, who praises Catherine Des Roches. She responds with an epigram of the same length and rhyme scheme, a technique common to the genre of poetic response. Des Roches reprinted her responses from La Puce in the volume that she and her mother published the following year, Les Secondes oeuvres.
In a response to Latin verse by Claude Binet in which he praises Catherine Des Roches, she seems to deflect this praise. She depicts herself blushing because she is unworthy of his portrait. The poem illustrates the convention of humility—real or feigned—in response to praise. Des Roches refers to herself as “Rochette” and “ROCHE,” puns on the physical reference to rocks in the name “Des Roches.” Such wordplays are a poetic convention of this period and appear throughout La Puce.
The last third of the anthology is made up of poems on topics other than the flea. The title page to the section indicates that the subject of these poems is the Grands Jours, or that they were composed during the court sessions. They include several poems of varying length in Latin, a sonnet cycle in French by Odet de Turnèbe on the ruins at nearby Lusignan, and poems that remind the reader of the judicial context of their composition.
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