Books for the Girls?
Books for the Girls? Female Readers in Sixteenth-Century France
My paper will focus on what I am provisionally calling the emergence of the female reader in Renaissance France. The purpose of this paper is to encourage the conference to reflect on the wider issues raised by women reading as well as the specific context of sixteenth-century France. The presentation will sketch out the lines of enquiry I am currently pursuing as well as reporting on my findings following prolonged periods of primary research in Edinburgh library holdings and other large European collections.
What images of female readers circulated in sixteenth-century France? To what extent do these portrayals confirm or undermine our current understanding of the female condition in Renaissance Europe? How do female readers shed light on women’s participation in the book trades more generally? It is a commonplace in both the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries to assert that women were readers of romances and short prose narratives, but the reality of women’s reading practices is far more difficult to establish. The underlying thesis of my project is that women became increasingly visible as a ‘reading community’ during the course of the sixteenth century. This is evident from liminary pieces (dedications and prefaces) which played such an important part in the circulation of texts in the early modern period. My study seeks to understand what factors influenced the proliferation of references to women in these ‘printers’s ploys’. Is there evidence to suggest that printers made their texts appeal to women readers as a marketing strategy in order to encourage women to buy the books? Were women readers of French texts, in this sense, a ‘new market’ fuelled by the recent availability of works translated from Latin or Italian? Or was, as Helen Hackett has argued in her study of English Romance, the evocation of women in these prefaces sometimes an appeal to the voyeuristic male reader, indicating the racy content of the text? These issues of how ‘the text’ and ‘the book’ reflect and comment on each other are central to our understanding of readers in general, but are particularly germane to the female readership, where evidence of the reception of texts remains scant.