On Famous Women and the Androgyne

  • Marian Rothstein


The literary works considered in the previous chapter made explicit use of the androgyne for a variety of ends, charting the course of its reception and demonstrating its breadth and power. Implicit expressions of the plenitude of the androgyne are also a means of justifying a woman’s choice to act in ways that might otherwise be transgressive. These can be found at work in the many compendia of brief biographies of famous women, which, following in the wake of Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, became a popular genre in the first few decades of the sixteenth century. Starting with Boccaccio, the genre makes claims to provide historical portraits of real women as well as providing moral lessons. Once again, the hierarchal implications of gender color the effects of this. While the ideal male prince was expected to perform functions gendered female, that is to protect and nurture his subjects, biological females, even sovereign queens, might require justification when they ventured beyond the borders of chastity, silence, and obedience that denote a virtuous woman’s behavior; functional gender and androgyne descriptions provide such justifications. As we will see, these biographies regularly show women displaying virtuous behaviors gendered male, described in language largely reserved for men, unwittingly continuing the tradition of Greek tragedy noted in chapter 2. This allows a substantive change in horizon of possibilities, all the more interesting to observe in the context of the exemplarity inherent in collections of brief lives of exceptional people, a genre, moreover, paradoxically marked by a distrust of women that on occasion rose to outright misogyny.


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  1. 1.
    Marie Delcourt, “Le Complexe de Diane dans l’hagiographie chrétienne,” Revue de l’histoire des religions 153 (1958): p.31. She notes that while one finds many cases of saintly females spending their lives in male disguise, sometimes buried with masculine names although dressing the corpse would have revealed their secret, the reverse is not found, men found no refuge in cross-dressing.Google Scholar
  2. See Jean Céard, “Listes de femmes savantes au XVIe siècle,” in Femmes Savantes, Savoirs des Femmes: du crépuscule de la Renaissance à l’aube des Lumières. Actes du colloque de Chantilly, septembre 1995, ed. Colette Nativel (Geneva: Droz, 1999), pp.85–94. Céard discusses Baptiste Fulgose (originally Italian, but published in Latin translation from 1508), Coelius Rhodiginus (Antiquae Lectiones, chap. 33), and Barthélemy Chasseneuz (Catalogus gloriae mundi, 1528). Chasseneuz insists that both sexes are made in the image of God, and that woman was formed from man rather than mud, an argument made famous by Cornelius Agrippa’s De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus declamatio (1509, pub. 1529). Chasseneux’s lists include women rulers, such as Artémisia, Sémiramis, Cléopatra, Zénobia, followed by Joan of Arc and virgin martyrs (p.90).Google Scholar
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    Over 100 manuscripts survive in Latin, and there were printed editions between 1473 and 1551. A second French translation was printed by Vérard in 1493 (La Louenge et vertu des nobles et clers dames), dedicated to Queen Anne de Bretagne, although none of the three vellum presentation copies Vérard prepared seems to have been given to her: one went to the King of France, one to the King of England, and one to an unknown recipient. Its woodcuts do include a portrait of the queen, amusingly later reused as Semiramis and Juno. See Cynthia J. Brown, “La mise en œuvre et la mise en page des recueils traitant des femmes célèbres à la fin du Moyen Âge” in Le Recueil au Moyen Age, la fin du Moyen Age, ed. Tania Van Hemelryck and Stefania Marzano (Tournout: Brepols, 2010), pp. 34–35.Google Scholar
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  5. Richard Cooper, “Le Cercle de Lucantonio Ridolfi,” in L’émergence littéraire des femmes à Lyon à la Renaissance 1520–1560, ed. Michèle Clément and Janine Incardona (Saint-Etienne: Publications de l’Université de St-Etienne, 2008), pp. 29–50.Google Scholar
  6. 24.
    Evelyne Berriot-Salvadore, Les Femmes dans la société française de la Renaissance (Geneva: Droz, 1990), p.346. She gives no further details.Google Scholar
  7. 25.
    Giovanni Boccaccio, Famous Women, ed. and trans. Virginia Brown (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001) pp. xv–xvi. Brown’s introduction to her translation of De mulieribus claris makes the choice of dedicatee seem to be a consequence of the circumstances in which Boccaccio found himself in 1362: the dedication explains that the work is not worthy of the Queen, so he is dedicating it to a lesser lady. This is not especially flattering. In passing, one might note that Billon’s Fort Inexpugnable, dedicated to a list of contemporary noblewomen, has a clearly inscribed masculine reader: “Ainsi lecteur [.. .] si tu es amy ou serviteur de princesse ou dame aucune, entre hardiment” (François de Billon, Le Fort inexpugnable de l’honneur du sexe femenin [New York: Johnson Reprint Corp.], p.A4v). Bouchet’s Jugement, dedicated to Anne de Laval and written in memory of Louise de Savoie, inscribes Fortune in the introductory section of the work, presenting an androgyne Louise in terms oft repeated in the genre: “je sceu tant bien son cas entretenir/Que je l’ay faicte aux honneurs parvenir/Non seulement femenins, mais virilles” (Bouchet, Œuvres complètes, p. 128, ll.899–90 1).Google Scholar
  8. 26.
    Symphorien Champier, La Nef des dames vertueuses, ed. Judy Kem (Paris: Champion, 2007) p. 57.Google Scholar
  9. 27.
    See Juan Luis Vives, De Institutione Feminae christianae, ed. and trans. Charles Fantazzi (Leiden: Brill, 1996).Google Scholar
  10. 29.
    Erasmus uses the word to praise Thomas More’s daughter, Margaret Roper. See Jean-Claude Margolin, “Margaret More Roper, un modèle érasmien de ‘virago,’” in La Femme à la Renaissance (Lodz: Acta universitatis lodziensis, 1985), pp. 106–17.Google Scholar
  11. Claude La Charité, “Marie de Romieu et l’écriture androgyne,” Sextant 17/18 (2002): 222. For Camille de Morel, see chapter 2 above.Google Scholar

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© Marian Rothstein 2015

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  • Marian Rothstein

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