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

Why am I passionate about this?

As a historian of early modern France and a professor at Southern Methodist University, I have taken students to Paris on a study abroad program for more than twenty summers. Students were invariably intrigued by the relationship of Henry II, Catherine de Medici, and Diane de Poitiers. The young prince married Catherine de Medici at the age of fourteen but the thirty-six-year-old Diane de Poitiers became his mistress when he was sixteen and remained so for the rest of his life. The complexities of that relationship and the significance of both women led me to conclude that the history of the Renaissance could be told through the lives of the queens and mistresses.

I wrote...

Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France

By Kathleen Wellman,

Book cover of Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France

What is my book about?

This book treats a series of intriguing, influential women from Agnès Sorel, designated as an official favorite in 1444 to the death in 1599 of Gabrielle d’Estrées, a mistress Henry IV had promised to marry. The queens and mistresses of the intervening years included, among others, Anne of Brittany who married two successive kings of France and remained duchess of Brittany, Catherine de Medici who was not simply queen when her husband reigned but also influential queen mother during her three sons’ reigns, and Diane de Poitiers who cast Henry II’s reign as a chivalric romance.

The queens and mistresses this book treats were significant to the politics of the period. They are, I contend, far more interesting and important than the much more familiar six wives of Henry VIII of England.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

Kathleen Wellman Why did I love 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.

By Leonie Frieda,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Catherine de Medici as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Catherine de Medici was half French, half Italian. Orphaned in infancy, she was the sole legitimate heiress to the Medici family fortune. Married at fourteen to the future Henri II of France, she was constantly humiliated by his influential mistress Diane de Poitiers. When her husband died as a result of a duelling accident in Paris - Leonie Frieda's magnificient, throat-grabbing opening chapter - Catherine was made queen regent during the short reign of her eldest son (married to Mary Queen of Scots and, like many of her children, he died young). When her second son became king she was…

Book cover of Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics, Panegyrics, Letters

Kathleen Wellman Why did I love 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.

By Catherine de Medicis, Leah L. Chang (translator), Katherine Kong (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Portraits of the Queen Mother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Catherine de Medicis was portrayed in her day as foreign usurper, loving queen and queen mother, patron of the arts, and Machiavellian murderer of Protestants. Leah L. Chang and Katherine Kong assemble a diverse array of scathing polemic and lofty praise, diplomatic reports, and Catherine's own letters, which together show how one extraordinary woman's rule intersected with early modern conceptions of gender, maternity, and power.

Book cover of Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen

Kathleen Wellman Why did I love 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.

By Dena Goodman (editor), Thomas E. Kaiser (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marie Antoinette as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marie-Antoinette is one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in all of French history. This volume explores the many struggles by various individuals and groups to put right Marie's identity, and it simultaneously links these struggles to larger destabilizations in social, political and gender systems in France.

Looking at how Marie was represented in politics, art, literature and journalism, the contributors to this volume reveal how crucial political and cultural contexts were enacted "on the body of the queen" and on the complex identity of Marie. Taken together, these essays suggest that it is precisely because she came to…

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

Kathleen Wellman Why did I love 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.

By Nina Rattner Gelbart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Minerva's French Sisters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating collective biography of six female scientists in eighteenth-century France, whose stories were largely written out of history

This book presents the stories of six intrepid Frenchwomen of science in the Enlightenment whose accomplishments-though celebrated in their lifetimes--have been generally omitted from subsequent studies of their period: mathematician and philosopher Elisabeth Ferrand, astronomer Nicole Reine Lepaute, field naturalist Jeanne Barret, garden botanist and illustrator Madeleine Francoise Basseporte, anatomist and inventor Marie-Marguerite Biheron, and chemist Genevieve d'Arconville. By adjusting our lens, we can find them.

In a society where science was not yet an established profession for men, much less…

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

Kathleen Wellman Why did I love 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.

By Julie Hardwick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sex in an Old Regime City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Our ideas about the long histories of young couples' relationships and women's efforts to manage their reproductive health are often premised on the notion of a powerful sexual double standard.

In Sex in an Old Regime City, Julie Hardwick offers a major reframing of the history of young people's intimacy. Based on legal records from the city of Lyon, Hardwick uncovers the relationships of young workers before marriage and after pregnancy occurred, even if marriage did not follow, and finds that communities treated these occurrences without stigmatizing or moralizing. She finds a hidden world of strategies young couples enacted when…

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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

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