Catherine Fradonnet

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Entry by Anne R. Larsen, 2004

Les Dames des Roches, mother and daughter, both grew up in a provincial bourgeois , humanist environment. Born in Poitiers, they died in the area on 30 November 1587, in the midst of the plague. According to their cousin Scévole Sainte-Marthe, they ‘wished nothing more passionately than to live and die together’ (Praise of illustrious men, see infra, f.341). Madeleine Neveu, who owed the name ‘des Roches’ to property belonging to her family, was born around 1520. We know very little about her education. In the words of Joseph Justus Scaliger, she was ‘the most learned person to know a language [Latin], who is in Europe’ (quoted by G. Diller, Dames des Roches, see infra, ‘bibliographic choice’, p.13). Around 1539, she married the barrister André Fradonnet. Of their three children born between 1540 and 1547, only Catherine survived infancy. Around 1550, Madeleine remarried to François Eboissard, Lord of The Villée, lawyer in the presidial court in Poitiers. After having assured a comfortable life for his wife and daughter, he died in 1558. Madeleine, who dedicated herself to the education of her daughter, very soon sparked in her ambitions of literary glory. Catherine mastered Latin and the Italian language. She translated several Latin texts, including two unpublished translations, the ‘symbols’ of Pythagoras and the ‘Rape of Proserpine’ by Claudian. During the years between 1560-1570, the Dames des Roches experienced legal difficulties, aggravated by the partial destruction of their properties during the civil wars. Around 1570, they founded a literary circle, following the example of the Parisian elites, and composed works whose subjects were related to various facts and events linked to this circle. During the visit of the Court to Poitiers, in the summer 1577, their desire to be better known led them to compose poems in honour of Henri III, Louise de Lorraine and Catherine de Medici. It was probably also at this time that Catherine composed her ‘Masquerade of the Amazons’ and ‘Song of the Amazons’, this myth being one of the favourite themes for entertainment at Court. Les Dames des Roches published these poems in the first edition of their works, with the Parisian bookseller Abel l’Angelier. This edition was quickly followed by a second, with the same texts and the addition of an harangue ‘To the King’ , six sonnets by Madeleine, as well as ‘An act of the tragicomedy of Tobit’, six sonnets and song written by Catherine. The reputation of the two scholars was confirmed vibrantly during the Grands Jours de Poitiers from September, 10th to December, 18th 1579, when the Parisian parliamentarians attended their salon. During a visit by Étienne Pasquier and Antoine Loisel, lawyers to the king, Pasquier glimpsed a flea on Catherine’s breast, and she suggested that they both write a poem in tribute to this flea. Their poems headed the famous collective work of La Puce de Madame des Roches [The Flea of Madame des Roches], published three years later in Paris and reprinted the following year. There followed two other volumes by the ladies from Poitou, Secondes oeuvres and Missives. Madeleine and Catherine des Roches encouraged women to write and especially to ‘[produce] a book’, in the words of Evelyne Berriot-Salvadore (‘The problematic history ...’, see below, p.13). They often reflected on the obstacles facing women who dared to publish. Thus, Madeleine des Roches replied to ladies who advised her the ‘silence, ornament of women [...] that it might well prevent shame, but not increase honour’ (Works, p.79-80) . So again, Catherine claims, through her vilified heroine Agnodice, women's right to intellectual ventures. Catherine’s poetics of love also revealed a new spirit of protest. In her love sonnets and her dialogue between Sincero and Charity (Oeuvres, p. 251-288), she expressed deep scepticism towards the arguments justifying the fulfilment of male desire. It is therefore not surprising that in real life, she, like Charity, rejected passion and marriage to devote herself to her writing. Enthusiastic followers of Ronsard, Dames des Roches experimented with all genres of poetry; they published dialogues, letters, a tragi-comedy, as well as translations. Favourite genres for Madeleine were hexa-, hepta- or octosyllabic odes, and sonnet in decasyllabics or in alexandrines; sobriety and regularity of form characterise her verses. Those by Catherine reveal a wide variety of genres that especially include the sonnet, song, dialogue and narrative poem. Mother and daughter were the first women to publish an authentic correspondence, although reworked, for publication. After a last edition of Oeuvres and Secondes Oeuvres published in Rouen in 1604, the writings of the Dames des Roches were more or less lost into oblivion. They have however been highly praised in historiographical works throughout the centuries for the strength of their union and for having retained the ‘modesty of their sex’. It is only recently that they have received special attention. They are often cited in current debates on the relationship between ‘female authors’ and literary creation in the Renaissance, as well as on the influence of their salon on the socio-cultural and literary history of France.

(translated by Julie Robertson )


1578 : Histoire et Amours pastoralles de Daphnis et de Chloé escrite premierement en grec par Longus et maintenant mise en françois. Ensemble un debat judiciel de Folie et d'Amour, fait par dame L.L.L.[Loyse Labé Lyonnoise].Plus quelques vers françois, lesquels ne sont pas moins plaisans que recreatifs, par M.D.R., Poictevine [Madame des Roches], Paris, Jean Parent (These verses are in fact l' ‘Hymne de l'Eau à la Roine’ [‘Hymn to the Queen’s water’] by Catherine des Roches). - 1578 : Les Oeuvres de Mes-dames des Roches de Poetiers, Mere et Fille, Paris, Abel L'Angelier. - 1579 : Les Oeuvres de Mes-dames des Roches de Poetiers, Mere et Fille. Seconde edition, corrigée et augmentée de la Tragi-comedie de Tobie et autres oeuvres poétiques, Paris, Abel L'Angelier -- Les Oeuvres, ed. Anne R. Larsen. Genève, Droz, 1993. - 1579 : Eleven poems by dames Des Roches, in La Puce de Madame des Roches. Qui est un recueil de divers poemes Grecs, Latins et François, composez par plusieurs doctes personnages aux Grands Jours tenus à Poitiers l'an M. D. LXXIX, Paris, Abel L'Angelier, 1582. - 1581-1582 : Deux dialogues: le premier traicte de Placide et Severe, le deuxiesme traicte d'Iris et Pasithée, in Les Secondes oeuvres..., see infra. - 1583 : Les Secondes oeuvres de Mes-dames des Roches de Poictiers, Mere et Fille, Poictiers, Nicolas Courtoys ( including nine poems from the previous collection) -- Les Oeuvres, ed. Anne R. Larsen, Genève, Droz, 1998. - 1586 : Les Missives de Mes-dames des Roches de Poitiers, Mere et Fille, avec le Ravissement de Proserpine prins du Latin de Clodian. Et autres imitations et meslanges poëtiques. Paris, Abel L'Angelier -- Les Missives, ed. Anne R. Larsen, Genève, Droz, 1999.

Selected bibliography

Berriot-Salvadore, Evelyne. Les Femmes dans la société française de la Renaissance. Genève, Droz, 1990, p.455-463. - Id. ‘La Problématique histoire des textes féminins’, in Jean-Philippe Beaulieu and Hannah Fournier (eds.), Femmes et textes sous l'Ancien Régime: ouverture en kaléidoscope, Atlantis, 19, 1993, p.8-15. - Diller, George. Les Dames des Roches. Étude sur la vie littéraire à Poitiers dans la deuxième moitié du XVIe siècle. Paris, Droz, 1936. - Larsen, Anne R. ‘La réfléxivité dans les dialogues de Catherine des Roches (1583)’, in Jean-Philippe Beaulieu and Diane Desrosiers-Bonin (eds.), Dans les miroirs de l'Écriture. La réfléxivité dans les textes des femmes écrivains sous l'Ancien Régime. Montréal, Université de Montréal, 1998, p.61-71. - Yandell, Cathy. Carpe Corpus. Time and Gender in Early Modern France. Newark, University of Delaware Press, 2000, p.175-211.

Selected bibliography of images

Anonymous. Les Dames des Roches (18th-century engraving). Bibliothèque Nationale (Estampes collection Laruelle, t.106). - Anonymous. Catherine des Roches (18th-century engraving). Bibliothèque Nationale (Estampes collection Laruelle, t.106).


- «Magdeleine Neveu, Dames DES ROCHES, en Poictou, mère de Catherine des Roches, toutes deux si doctes et si sçavantes, que la France peut se vanter les ayant engendrées, d'avoir produit en elles les deux perles de tout le Poictou, qui est une région abondante en toutes choses, et sur-tout en personnes d'esprit, entre lesquelles celles-ci doivent obtenir le premier rang pour leur sçavoir.» (François de La Croix du Maine et Antoine du Verdier, Les Bibliothèques [1584,1585], Paris, Saillant et Nyon, 1772, t. II, p.71).
- (à propos de Catherine des Roches) «Je ne vis jamais esprit si prompt ny si rassis que le sien. C'est une Dame qui ne manque point de response: et neantmoins il ne sort d'elle aucun propos qui ne soit digne d'une sage fille. Brief, je vous pleuvis sa maison pour une vraye escole d'honneur [...].» (Étienne Pasquier, Les Lettres, Paris, Abel l'Angelier, 1586, f.192v).
- (à propos de Madeleine des Roches) «Ce nom est de si grande réputation non seulement en France mais encore par toute l'Europe polie qu'il semble porter son Eloge avec lui-même si bien qu'en le proférant ce n'est pas tant proférer un nom vertueux que le nom de la même vertu» (Guillaume Colletet, Vies des poetes François [v.1650], BNF, ms NAF 3073, f.383).
- «[...] En effect la maison de ces deux illustres Dames estoit à Poitiers, une academie d'honneur, où se trouvoient tous les jours plusieurs excellents hommes, et où tous ceux qui faisoient profession des belles lettres estoient reçeus avec caresse, et avecque joye. Et l'on peut dire en verité, que pas un n'y estoit introduict, pour docte et pour poly qu'il fust, qu'il n'en sortist avec plus de doctrine et plus de politesse.» (Scévole de Sainte Marthe, Eloges des Hommes illustres, Paris, Antoine de Sommaville, 1644, p.340).

Catherine Fradonnet
Also known as Dame Desroches
Birth date 1542
Death 1587
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire Fortunée Briquet
Dictionnaire Hilarion de Coste
Dictionnaire Charles de Mouhy
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