The best books on the power, sex, and influence of women in early modern France

Kathleen Wellman Author Of Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France
By Kathleen Wellman

The Books I Picked & Why

Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

By Leonie Frieda

Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

Why this book?

Leonie Freida’s biography intended for popular audiences does not shirk from the complexities of Catherine’s life or the political and religious history of sixteenth-century France. One of the very few English-language biographies of Catherine de Medici, it is thorough, richly illustrated, and engagingly written and a welcome addition to the spate of recent works about royal women. Catherine de Medici was, after Elizabeth I of England, the most powerful woman of the sixteenth century.

Yet, she is known primarily through her Black Legend, created by Protestant polemicists in the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, which defined her as an evil mother, poisoner, and Machiavellian queen. The rich detail of Frieda’s biography allows readers to appreciate Catherine in greater complexity as a powerful woman acting to preserve the French monarchy.


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Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics, Panegyrics, Letters

By Catherine de Medicis, Leah L. Chang, Katherine Kong

Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics, Panegyrics, Letters

Why this book?

From her arrival as a fourteen-year-old bride to her death as queen mother fifty-five years later, Catherine de Medici was praised as a devoted wife and mother and able ruler but also condemned as a foreigner, a poisoner, and murderer of Protestants. This rare collection of primary sources translated into English allows readers to become familiar with the sources of such positive and negative assessments of this controversial queen. The letters included here, selected from her many volumes of correspondence, reveal her concerns as a mother and as a political figure.

Excerpts from Venetian ambassadors' gossipy reports bring to light principal figures of the French court--their character, their motives, and political interests. Other sources in the collection extravagantly praise the character and actions of the queen. The several polemical sources included in the collection offer a sharp contrast. The vehement charges leveled against Catherine allow readers to recognize and understand how her Black Legend came to dominate the conventional understanding of this powerful queen.


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Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen

By Dena Goodman, Thomas E. Kaiser

Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen

Why this book?

This collection of articles offers an intriguing approach to the topic of women, power, and sex by focusing on the many uses of Marie Antoinette. The essays, by prominent historians, art historians, and literary scholars, examine Marie Antoinette as a “site of history” where political and cultural contests occurred. The authors analyze pamphlets, archival materials, portraits, French Revolutionary pornography, and modern films to consider the central questions Marie Antoinette raised about her identity as a foreign queen, woman, wife, mother, and political figure.

She embodied the contradictions in old regime politics, culture, and gender identity and has been used subsequently to address political and gender issues to the present. Each essay offers a distinct, intriguing perspective on the reciprocal influence of this queen and the history of France. The collection reveals the wealth of purposes this queen served and the rich variety of interpretations she provoked.


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Minerva's French Sisters: Women of Science in Enlightenment France

By Nina Rattner Gelbart

Minerva's French Sisters: Women of Science in Enlightenment France

Why this book?

This book focuses on another group of influential women. They are six women of significant scientific accomplishment who have been almost entirely written out of history. Through painstaking research, Gelbart brings these women vividly to life. She reveals their extensive scientific work and significant accomplishments as well their influence on male scientists and intellectuals. She also notes the obstacles they faced and the sacrifices they made to do their work.

The reader walks with Gelbart through the streets of Paris as she gives her figures a rich personal and professional context in time and space. She illuminates the scientific context of the Enlightenment by bringing these women into our historical understanding of the period. Her empathic treatment exposes the difficulties faced by women who pursued science, many of which continue to plague twenty-first-century female scientists.


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Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789

By Julie Hardwick

Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789

Why this book?

This book brings to light the intimate relationships of ordinary young men and women as opposed to those of powerful, public women. While royal women endured contemporary surveillance of their sexuality, pregnancies, and childbirths, the intimate lives of ordinary women must be wrested from archival records. Harwick’s exploration of legal records concerning unmarried pregnant women reveals the various range of strategies they adopted as well as the extensive support, both emotional and financial, they received from their community—clergy, lawyers, midwives, parents, etc.—to the benefit of both mother and child. Such support may well have reduced child abandonment and infanticide.

Hardwick not only challenges the standard notion of a sexual double standard applied to the detriment of women but also documents the mobilization of an early modern city not to punish unmarried women who faced expected pregnancies but to offer sympathetic aid.


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