Nicole Estienne

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Entry by Cathy Yandell, 2003

Nicole Estienne, daughter of Charles Estienne, the third son of the renowned printer Henri (the first ) Estienne and Genevieve de Berly, was born into one of the most influential families in the printing world of the 16th century. It was in this learned circle of literature and of ancient languages and sciences, that her childhood unfolded happily as long as her father, who published many works, experienced success. Poor financial decisions eventually led to his bankruptcy; he was imprisoned for debt in the Châtelet in 1561, and died there in 1564. Nicole was first engaged to the poet Jacques Grevin who referred to her by the anagram «Sien en election» ["His by choice"] and celebrated her in his collection L'Olimpe (Paris, Robert Estienne, 1560), hence the nickname often given her by posterity, to the point that it is substituted for her first name (cf. the Opale Plus catalogue, BNF). The engagement was broken for unclear reasons, probably as a result of the financial setbacks of Nicole's father, or because of Jacques' conversion to Protestantism. In 1561, Nicole married Jean Liebault, doctor, regent of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris and author of scientific works.

Nicole Estienne wrote Le mépris d'amour and the Apologie ou Défense pour les femmes contre ceux qui les méprisent, both lost. In answer to the Stances du mariage by Philippe Desportes (1573), a work in the misogamist and misogynist tradition of the Quinze joyes du mariage, she formulated her own Stanzes (which remained in manuscript, see below, "Oeuvres"). For her, as for her "adversary", it was mostly an exercise in virtuosity according to the rhetorical theory of the Renaissance, which insisted on the science of reason and the art of persuasion. Nicole Estienne nevertheless defended her own sex vigorously.

Les Misères de la femme mariée, published at the earliest in 1587, seems at first glance to contradict her Stanzes which were written in favor of marriage. In fact, in both works the author defends the idea of marriage: "sacred alliance.../Full of all pleasure, of grace and sweetness", all the while criticizing the current practice of the institution. She condemns, notably, age disparity within couples, the intolerance of uncultured husbands who will not allow their wives to be educated, and the physical and psychological subjugation of married women, themes that for over a century had been developed by the "champions of women". It is impossible to prove that the work of Nicole Estienne is autobiographical as some critics have suggested. Since the complaints of this "married woman" were not directed at an individual, but against a group of tyrannical husbands, her argument goes beyond the context of personal claims and addresses the political and social realm. Besides the cultural and historical value of the Misères, the literary merit of the thirty five six line stanzas in alexandrine verse shows in the imaginative and poetic vocabulary.

Nicole Estienne also published a number of introductory poems in other poets' collections which demonstrate her participation in the activity of the literary world of her time. She often signed them "N.E.", followed by her anagram "I astonish the sky", clarifying in a sonnet that she astonishes "by patience / Which makes me like a stone, which resists / The fury of the waves and never is broken" (Misères et grandeur, see below, p.43). An anonymous author of a contemporary manuscript preserved at the French national library reports an anecdote relevant to this anagram of Nicole Estienne: "the story goes that, after much discussion about the meaning of this anagram, a malicious person asked her if the anagram didn't refer to the canopy of her bed" (ms. Dupuy 844, f.361r). The date of Nicole Estienne's death is uncertain. As she contributed to the collection of Baptiste Badere (see "Oeuvres"), we can surmise that she was still living in 1588. She died before the death of her husband in 1596.

An educated poet and a rhetorician who was a champion of her sex, Nicole Estienne shows through her works a subtle and intelligent spirit. Known in her time as a "highly accomplished" woman, she was nonetheless forgotten for several hundred years. Beginning in the 1930s a researcher rediscovered her and placed her "in the first rank of contemporary poetesses"(Lavaud, see below, p.350). Recently, literary critics have analyzed her major role in "the marriage quarrel" and recognized her courage as well as her virtuosity.


- 1573? : Stanzes du mariage par Madame Liebault, femme de médecin. Inédit. - 1587? : Les Misères de la femme mariée: où se peuvent voir les peines et tourmens qu'elle reçoit durant sa vie. Mis en forme de Stances, par Madame Liebaut. Paris, Pierre Menier, s.d. -- Éd. Ilana Zinguer, in Misères et grandeur des femmes au XVIe siècle. Genève, Slatkine, 1982, p.32-40. - 1573-1588+? : Poésies diverses. Deux sonnets figurent dans Ilana Zinguer, Misères et grandeur..., p.41-43. - 1584 : Un quatrain liminaire, in François Béroalde de Verville, Les Apprehensions Spirituelles, Poemes et autres Oeuvres Philosophiques, avec Les Recherches de la pierre philosophale. Paris, Timothee Joüan. - 1588 : Un sonnet liminaire, in Baptiste Badere, Devotes meditations chrestiennes, sur la Mort et Passion de nostre Seigneur Jésus Christ. Paris, Guyon Giffard.

Selected bibliography

- Berriot-Salvadore, Evelyne. «Evocation et représentation du mariage dans la poésie féminine», in M.T. Jones-Davies (dir.), Le Mariage au temps de la Renaissance. Paris, Klincksieck, 1993, p.215-216. - Lavaud, Jacques. «Quelques poésies oubliées de N. Estienne». Revue du seizième siècle, 18, 1931, p.341-351. - Reynolds-Cornell, Régine. «Les Misères de la femme mariée: Another Look at Nicole Liébault and a Few Questions about the Woes of the Married Woman». BHR, 64, 2002, p.37-54. - Yandell, Cathy. «Raconter le temps: la réflexivité dans Les Misères de la femme mariée de Nicole Estienne», in Jean-Philippe Beaulieu et Diane Desrosiers (dir.), Dans les miroirs de l'Ecriture: La réflexivité dans les textes des femmes écrivains sous l'Ancien Régime. Montréal, Université de Montréal, 1998, p.49-60. - Zinguer, Ilana. Misères et grandeur..., voir supra, «Oeuvres».

Selected bibliography of images

- Clouet, François. Madame Lyebaut (dessin). Bibliothèque Nationale (Estampes Na 22 rés boîte 15 no 7) -- in Lavaud et Zinguer (voir supra).


- «C'est une dame fort bien accomplie tant en gaillardise d'esprit que grâce de bien dire, à ce que j'en ai veu, devisant une fois avec elle.» (Antoine Du Verdier, La Bibliothèque, Lyon, B. Honorat, 1585). - «Son oeuvre est mince; du moins n'en subsiste-t-il presque rien, assez toutefois pour nous faire entrevoir une figure curieuse et un talent indiscutable [...]. Assez peu jolie (un crayon conservé à la Bibliothèque nationale nous le prouve, et elle l'avoue elle-même dans ses vers), Nicole Estienne comptait peut-être sur son talent poétique pour remédier aux imperfections de son visage et pour assurer à son nom une réputation qui le fît passer à la postérité.» (J. Lavaud, «Quelques poésies...», voir supra, p.341, 344). - «Avec ses Stanzes du mariage, [Nicole Estienne] montre d'abord sa virtuosité à l'égal de n'importe quel poète: strophe à strophe, terme à terme, elle suit Desportes pour le renverser. Pourtant, dans cette joute [... elle] veut aussi laisser entendre une parole féminine en transformant le combat misogame-philogame en opposition de genre masculin-féminin.» (E. Berriot-Salvadore, «Evocation et représentation...», voir supra, p.215-216).

Nicole Estienne
Spouses Jean Liébau(l)t
Also known as Olympe Liébault
Birth date Around 1542
Death After 1584
Biographical entries in old dictionaries
Dictionnaire Pierre-Joseph Boudier de Villemert
Dictionnaire Fortunée Briquet
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