Hélisenne de Crenne

Start Free Trial

M. J. Baker (essay date January 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Baker, M. J. “France's First Sentimental Novel and Novels of Chivalry.” Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance 36, no. 1 (January 1974): 33-45.

[In the following essay, Baker argues that Book 2 of Les Angoysses douloureuses is more clearly linked to Book 1 than most critics have assumed, and claims further that the work differs significantly from the novels of chivalry with which it has been categorized because of its focus on love and emphasis on character determining the outcome of events.]

France's first sentimental novel, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours (1538), and its author, best known as Hélisenne de Crenne, have received new critical attention in recent years.1 Jérôme Vercruysse has convincingly documented the identity of Hélisenne de Crenne as Marguerite de Briet, and has discovered a portrait of Hélisenne in the Bibliothèque royale de Bruxelles.2 And two editions of Book I of the Angoisses3 have appeared.4 But despite the renewed attention given to this early French novel, many of the older conclusions about it have been uncritically accepted, and have remained essentially unchanged since Gustave Reynier wrote his chapter on the Angoisses in Le Roman sentimental avant l'Astrée.5

One of these conclusions originating with Reynier is that in Book II of the Angoisses (the novel contains three books and an “Ample narration”) we are “en pleine chevalerie.”6 Writing a year later, Jean Plattard states:

ce ne sont que pérégrinations de chevaliers errants, tournois, rencontres de brigands, rites de chevalerie minutieusement rapportés—bref, tous les épisodes ordinaires de la littérature romanesque de chevalerie.7

In 1968, Jérôme Vercruysse writes in the introduction to his edition of Book I that in Books II and III

l'élément sentimental est combattu par les éléments chevaleresques et didactiques. Ce sont aussi les romans de chevalerie dont le succès est encore très vif au début du XVIe siècle qu'il faudrait mettre à contribution pour trouver des sources d'inspiration.8

Finally, Paule Demats agrees that Book II is “dans une bonne mesure un roman chevaleresque.”9 She correctly observes, however, that Quézinstra rather than Guénélic, Hélisenne's lover, is the chivalric hero of this book, but she neglects to consider the significance of this fact, implicitly accepting the traditional view.

In all the cases mentioned above, the superiority of Book I over II and III is either claimed or implied, with the chivalric aspects of II being suggested as one of the major defects of these later books. This point of view is succinctly expressed by Reynier, who judges the novel as a whole in this way:

Il a plu longtemps, et sans doute il aurait été lu plus longtemps encore si dans la suite quelque éditeur intelligent en avait détaché la partie sentimentale des développements chevaleresques et didactiques qui en avaient été d'abord les compléments peut-être utiles, mais qui plus tard parurent alourdir le roman, jetèrent sur toute l'œuvre une couleur d'ancienneté et dissimulèrent ce qu'elle contenait de sincère, de passionné, de vraiment moderne.

(p. 122)

The fact that only Book I has been published in modern editions betrays a fundamental prejudice against the rest of the novel, and reflects the view that Books II and III are essentially independent of Book I.

It is not my intention here to judge the superiority of one book over another, or to follow those students described by Eugène Vinaver who seek to rehabilitate a forgotten text by finding in it “something resembling their own artistic ideal.”10 If it can be shown that Book II differs significantly from novels of chivalry, as I think it can be, and that...

(This entire section contains 6507 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

it is more closely linked to Book I than has been generally supposed, this may give us greater insight into the direction the early French novel is taking.

It will be helpful at this point to summarize briefly all three books of the Angoisses and the “Ample narration,” even though I shall concern myself primarily with Book II. In Book I, Hélisenne, the narrator, recounts the story of her woes. Married too young to a man she hardly knew, she falls in love with a youth she sees out a window. This youth—Guénélic—is indiscreet, and gossips about his affair with her. She describes a series of encounters, an exchange of letters, and finally her husband's discovery of their love. Hélisenne's husband first threatens his wife with punishment, then actually strikes her, and as a last resort confines her in the remote chàteau de Cabasus. It is there that Hélisenne decides to write the story of her life, in the hope of encouraging other women to avoid sensual love. The influence of Boccaccio's Fiammetta on this first book has been noted.11

In Book II, Guénélic sets out with his faithful friend Quézinstra to find Hélisenne. This book also is narrated in the first person, but here it is Guénélic who speaks (Hélisenne reveals that she is writing his story for him). It is this book that provokes the comparison to novels of chivalry, for the two young men encounter villainous brigands, engage in tournaments, and become involved in other adventures reminiscent of novels of chivalry.

In the third book, Guénélic falls ill, discusses love with a learned man, then finally reaches the village near which Hélisenne is imprisoned. Guénélic and Quézinstra rescue Hélisenne, but soon after they overcome a band of attackers, Hélisenne dies of remorse for having allowed herself to entertain the thought of submitting to sensual love (she has never actually consummated her love). Guénélic dies of sympathic grief shortly thereafter.

The “Ample Narration” is an epilogue narrated by Quézinstra, who describes his trip to the underworld where he observes Minos' judgment of the lovers, and then their final reunion in the Elysian fields.12

Critics viewing Book II as a novel of chivalry have not indicated and discussed specific novels of chivalry which may fit the convention to which they refer. In order to evaluate the claim of influence, it is imperative to begin by describing relevant novels.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that Marguerite de Briet13 could have read some of those prose romances of chivalry so popular in the early sixteenth century in France. Jean Frappier has recently noted the special popularity of these novels at Lyon and Paris,14 and it is now generally believed that Marguerite de Briet spent a period of time in Paris with her husband.15 The Arthurian romances16 are of particular interest for the study of the Angoisses in that they as well as the Angoisses appealed to a feminine audience, and combined the description of knightly deeds with love stories. I shall limit my references to three of these novels, editions of which appeared close in time to the publication of the Angoisses, and which seem representative of the genre.17 These are Ysaie le Triste,18Meliadus de Leonnoys,19 and Perceforest.20

On reading these three sixteenth-century novels of chivalry, one is first struck by the lack of high ideal motivating the majority of the actions of the knights. A similar lack of high ideal has been observed by Cedric E. Pickford21 in fifteenth-century novels. In the following passage he contrasts chivalry as depicted in Arthurian prose novels to the actual state of chivalry at the time:

Le chevalier de la Table Ronde et le chevalier réel partent de nobles principes, défense des faibles, exaltation de la foi chrétienne, pour aboutir à un idéal égoïste de gloire militaire. La vie du chevalier devient une vie d'aventures, de ‘belles aventures,’ une série de luttes dont le seul avantage est pour le vainqueur la renommée de ses exploits. … La chevalerie du XVe siècle, chevalerie décadente, n'avait pas une conscience bien claire de son véritable idéal.

(p. 236-237)

But in the novels under consideration here, it is not only the egotistical aim of personal reknown to which a knight may aspire, but also the more private satisfaction of obtaining what he thinks is his due—even if that due is another man's wife! A prime example is furnished by Meladius in the novel by that name.

Meliadus courts the Queen of Scotland during her husband's absence. On his return, the suspicious King sequesters his wife in another castle. Meliadus decides to abduct the Queen, but he is not encouraged in this move by the Queen, who accepts the abduction only because “elle voyt bien appertement que priere ny vauldroit riens” (f. V3v). Meliadus undertakes the abduction primarily because he feels that since he loves the Queen, he must have her: “… si elle me hayt je l'ayme si cherement comme chevalier pourroit aymer, je ne voys mie si Dieu me ayde comment je m'en peusse souffrir, pourquoy je dis qu'il est mestier que je me mette en adventure pour la gaigner par force d'armes …” (f. V1r).

In their quest for personal reknown, these knights are often aided by powers outside themselves. In Ysaie le Triste, Ysaie is visited in his cradle by fairies who bring him a shield and a horse (f. vii.r), thus ensuring his success as a knight. Harban in Perceforest uses magical powers to steal a giant's head from another knight (Book II, f. lxxxiiir). In many cases, because of the aid of magic and enchantment, there is never any doubt that the knights in question will succeed.

Indeed, for the most part, the knights with whom we are to sympathize are able to cope successfully with any situation in which they find themselves. They can rescue damsels in distress, defeat scheming knights, all with apparent ease. They are rarely intimidated by their opponents.22 In this world in which men are destined to be heroes, even babyhood is no obstacle to heroism. Passelion, a two-year old child in Perceforest, neatly does away with a knight named Bruyant sans foy: “lors descoche sa sagette & fiert Bruyant parmy le gros du cueur de tel randon que la pointe apparut à l'autre costé” (Book IV, f. xlr). The many adventures in which these knights successfully engage themselves bear a similarity to each other, but rarely do they have an intrinsic relationship to each other within the separate novels. It would be difficult to argue that the principle of “entrelacement” was at work here.23

In all three novels there are love stories, but love seldom assumes much importance in the lives of the knights. The knights tend to view women as a prize. The story referred to above of Meliadus' abduction of the Queen of Scotland is one example. After Meliadus has triumphantly carried off the Queen, his first words to her are these: “Madame, je vous ay conquise, ce m'est advis venir vous convient se il vous plaist au royaume de leonnois” (f. V3v). Later in the story, the fact that the abduction took place on Arthur's land assumes more importance than any love on Meliadus' part that may have provoked the abduction. Never during the recitals of the many battles that ensue do we hear that they have been engaged in for the sake of the love between the Queen and Meliadus. The central problem is a political one.

Above all, these knights are knights first, lovers, second. Love is an encounter that seems to have little permanent effect on the knight. It is one more adventure that is part of the male experience. The love story of Alexandre and Sebille in Perceforest illustrates the secondary role assigned to love in the lives of the knights. Alexandre sleeps with Sebille and departs (Book I, f. xxxvv). When Alexandre is later informed that Sebille is pregnant, he does not wax sentimental, or express a desire to see her again. He does eventually rejoin her, but the reunion is brief, and Alexandre is eager to depart to meet new obligations he has incurred as a knight. The love that Alexandre bears Sebille, or that any other knight in these novels bears for a woman, does not get in the way of the exercise of knighthood.

Because love does not play a central role in the lives of the knights in these novels, long separations between lover and mistress are not generally viewed as a source of unhappiness. When Ysaie and his wife Marthe are reunited after about eighteen years, neither one thinks of this reunion as a release from tortures of absence. Love may be complicated at times, but it is never tragic. In Perceforest, the knight Gallafar searches diligently for a certain “pucelle aux deux dragons” whom he wishes to marry. He has one major setback when he is married to the wrong woman, through enchantment (Book V, f. liiiv). But what may start out as a tragedy does not end as one. Gallafar finds his true love despite his unfortunate marriage (Book VI, f. liir), and his wife is conveniently disposed of so that he can marry the woman of his choice.

Finally, illegitimate love in these novels is common and quite acceptable. Often, the woman is more aggressive than the man. In Ysaie le Triste, Marthe goes directly to the residence where Ysaie is staying, to say peremptorily: “Je vous prie faictes estaindre ceste torche” (f. xiiiv). Marc is engendered that night. After the birth of Marc, Marthe's father inquires about the paternity of the child. Marthe replies that Ysaie is the father, and the reaction to this piece of news is a joyful one:

Par saincte croix, fait le roy, se c'est du chevalier je ne fus oncques si joieulx … & Dieu me doint tant vivre que je le voye bon chevalier. Car s'il resemble son pere, ce sera la meilleur du monde.

(f. livv)

Correspondingly, when chastity is treated in these novels, which is rare, it is generally treated lightly. An excellent example occurs in Perceforest. A certain Morgon, who has spent two years at the court of Perceforest, asks permission to return home for a brief visit with his wife. He fears that two lustful knights may have seduced his wife and dishonored him. He need not have worried. During his absence, his wife has lured the knights into a tower and locked them up in it, condemning them to earn their keep, “l'ung filant et l'autre desvuydant bien & appertement” (Book IV, f. 1r). When the wondering husband goes to the tower to have a look at them, they think the chambermaid has come to collect their handiwork: “si dist l'ung d'eux, Damoiselle recevez nostre ouvrage & nous donner à manger” (ibid.). Their humiliation is complete. This anecdote, with its clever reversal, is in the spirit of the fabliau and tales in the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles. What is most important is the trick played, not the chastity of the wife.

Turning now to Book II of the Angoisses,24 we first note the statement of purpose for this second book announced by Hélisenne at the beginning of the “Epistre” preceding chapter one25:

Apres vous avoir exhibé (mes Dames benevoles) les vehementes passions que Amour venerienne peult es tendres & delicieux cueurs des amoureuses dames causer, il m'est prinse vouloir de vous narrer et reciter les calamités & extremes miseres, que par indiscretement aymer les jeunes hommes peuvent souffrir.

(f. AAlv)

This contrasts with introductory remarks in novels of chivalry.26 The author of Ysaie le Triste writes that his book will serve

tous jeunes princes desirans & ayans le cueur instigué à veoir choses nouvelles, touchant le noble faict des armes, par lequel on parvient à tout honneur et gloyre qui ne peult fuyr aulcunement, car ce sont les loyers et remunerations de vertu. … Ainsi montrera evidamment le chemin et sentier pour trouver la voye de vertu, sans laquelle jamais homme vivant et mortel ne peult parvenir à la perfection de bon, bruyt, et memoire d'estre renommé, prisé & exalté, et trouver place d'honneur mondain en ce monde present et eternelle gloire & immobile repos en l'aultre.

(f. a2r)

Reading of the achievements of the knights of yore, writes the author of Meliadius, will inspire young men to improve themselves (f. *iir). In Perceforest, the ideal is no different, The reader is told: “Suyvez les vestiges des nobles chevaliers qui par memoire de leurs glorieux gestes donnent l'esperon aux cueurs adspirans à honneur (Book I, f. *iiiv).

While it might be argued that all the adventures in the novels of chivalry do not point to virtue, honor, and reknown,27 it is soon clear that in the case of Guénélic we are indeed dealing with “calamités & extremes miseres.” And furthermore, among these “calamitéz” and “miseres” are the adventures that Guénélic must endure as a reluctant knight—precisely those kinds of adventures that knights in novels of chivalry seek out and thrive on.

The major events in Book II in which we see Guénélic's conduct as a knight are the encounter with the brigands in the woods, the tournament in Goranflos, and the episode of the besieged lady in Eliveba. During the course of these events, some curious differences between Guénélic and his companion Quézinstra come to light.

When Guénélic catches sight of the brigands in the woods, he reacts in this way: “Et ce voyant telle maniere de gens, je fuz commeu de quelque timeur” (f. BB3r). But Quézinstra is not intimidated: “Mon compagnon … par ung magnanime couraige, me commenca à exhorter, me disant que virillement nous convenoit deffendre” (f. BB3r-v). Guénélic does not take the initiative. For a time, he watches Quézinstra without joining in. Finally, he does acquit himself respectably, but he does not distinguish himself. It is Quézinstra's valor that is described in detail.

The difference between the two men is brought to the fore at some length in the Goranflos adventure. An impending three-day tournament is announced. The Duke of Goranflos decides to knight Quézinstra, and on second thought decides to knight Guénélic also—but mainly in the hope of cheering up his son, who has been wounded (f. DD6r). Quézinstra is joyful at the prospect of being knighted; Guénélic is not (ff. DD6r-DD7r).

In the actual tournament, it is Quézinstra's valor that draws cries of praise. The ladies in the audience wonder who he is, and admire his prowess (f. EE1v). No one wonders who Guénélic is. On the third day of the tournament, a lord wants to joust with Guénélic. A worried Quézinstra hurries to separate them, thereby suggesting that Guénélic is not sufficiently hardy to defend himself (f. EE5r).

Final illustration of Guénélic's unmartial behavior is found in the adventures encountered in Eliveba, where a noble lady is besieged by her rejected suitor. Quézinstra performs “incredibles prouesses” (f. GG5r) in defending the lady. But Guénélic, captured by the enemy, is hardly stoical. He groans and complains vociferously about the ruination of his love due to this imprisonment; in fact, so loudly does he complain that he is heard at some distance from his cell (f. GG6r). His capacity to withstand even the suggestion of torture is so slight that he faints dead away at the mere mention of it:

Tristes nouvelles me furent annoncées: car le gardyen de la prison en fureur cryant devers moy vint, & me dist: sors hors de ce lieu miserable creature, & viens recepvoir ton dernier supplice, auquel tu es condamné: car des la journée precedente par l'admiral & ses gens, fut consulté & deliberé d'imposer fin à ta vie … Ces parolles en si grand vehemence, mentrerent au cueur, pour l'apprehension de la mort, que en ma faculté ne fut de plus soubstenire mes debiles membres. Mais ainsy comme mort, en terre tombay.

(f. GG6rv)

But Guénélic does not die. He returns to the noble lady to present the enemy Admiral's proposal to decide the outcome of the war by single combat. The arrangement is approved, but the noble lady asks Quézinstra, not Guénélic, to represent her, even though the Admiral and his aides had assumed that Guénélic would be the combattant. In the eyes of those who know the two knights, Quézinstra is clearly the more valorous. Guénélic is not viewed as a knight of the first water.

Guénélic's conduct as a knight is far different from that conduct extolled in the novels of chivalry. If Quézinstra seems to resemble knights in the novels of chivalry,28 he is nevertheless always a minor character, one who is principally a foil, or contrast to Guénélic. Book II fails to be a conventional novel of chivalry on one count because the main focus of attention is not the incredible valor and prowess of Quézinstra, but rather the lack of these qualities in Guénélic.

To what do we owe Guénélic's relative lack of heroism? In Book II, we find an early clue in Quézinstra's admonishment of Guénélic for lamenting his separation from Hélisenne and wishing for death:

Car cest appetit sensual, est une infirmité incurable, de laquelle nayssent oblivion de Dieu & de soymesmes, perdition de temps, diminution d'honneur, discordables contentions, emulations, envies, detractions, exilz, homicides, destruction de corps, & damnation de l'ame, & en la fin nul fruict n'en vient, comme presentement le povez congnoistre.

(f. AA8r)

During the stay at Goranflos, Quézinstra specifically links sensuality to pusillanimity, thereby providing an explanation for Guénélic's failure to perform as an outstanding knight. He critizes his friend's unenthusiastic reaction to the prospect of being knighted: “Cest amour sensuel aulcunes foys rend l'homme pusillanime” (f. DD5v). In the final chapter of Book II, we end on this theme, with a prince admonishing Guénélic:

Car vous debvez croyre que estant en ceste volupté jamais ne vous pourrez adjoindre à choses aulcunes vertueuses ne prouffitables: car pour le continuel soucy que vous avez de avoyr le fruition & joiyssance de la chose aymée, de vous sont expulsées toutes aultres cures & sollicitudes.

(f. 116r)

It is appropriate to mention here that this condemnation of sensual love provides an important thematic link between Book I and Book II.29 At the beginning of Book I, Hélisenne expresses the hope that other ladies will learn from her tale to avoid “les dangereux laqs d'amour” (f. Aiiv). This love is soon narrowed in definition to mean sensual love: Hélisenne describes sensuality's triumph over reason (f. A6v), her husband's condemnation of her “ardeur libidineuse” (f. B2r), her “appetit desordoné” (f. E8r), and his reference to her as a “femmes lascive” (f. B8v). In a long statement, of which I quote only a small portion, a monk disparages the sensual passion which blinds her to her duty to God and her husband:

Vous comme plus voluntaire que sage, voulez suyvre vostre sensualité, & plus tost de vous priver de vie, que de faillir à l'accomplissement de vostre voluptueux plaisir, & appetit desordonné, sans avoir regard à l'offense que vous faictes à Dieu, & à vostre mary, la crainte duquel debveroit estre suflisante pour retirer vostre cueur inveteré, & endurcy.

(f. D8r)

Thus, a main character who might seem extremely peculiar by the standards of the sixteenth century novels of chivalry is seen to be a natural choice when consideration is given to the general theme that is developed initially in Book I. Quézinstra, the knight who seems more traditional by the standards of sixteenth-century novels of chivalry, still does not conform to the image of the knight as we have found it in the three novels under consideration, principally because high ideal has motivated his conduct. Quézinstra is not inspired by a desire for personal glory or self-aggrandizement. The purity of his aim—service to the cause of virtue coupled with gratitude to God (f. EE7r) is made possible because his character has not been tainted by a sensual passion. Quézinstra's lack of interest in amorous diversions, a major trait distinguishing him from knights in the novels of chivalry, comes as no surprise; it is virtually dictated by the author's intention to decry the ill effects of love with respect to Guénélic.

At the beginning of this paper, I suggested that if significant differences between Book II of the Angoisses and novels of chivalry were to be found, we might gain greater insight into the direction the early French novel is taking. In reality, novels of chivalry have been left far behind. Reviewing the major differences pointed out between Book II of the Angoisses and novels of chivalry, one is inclined to share the suspicion expressed by Rosemund Tuve (who was writing with reference to Spenser's Faerie Queene) that the reputation of novels of chivalry for great influence is probably due to the fact that their forbidding length has discouraged people from actually reading them.30

In the novels of chivalry we have discussed, the exercise of knighthood is the central concern; love stories occasionally enter the narrative, momentarily diverting us. The subject of love, when it arises, is treated lightly. In contrast, Marguerite de Briet treats the subject of love seriously. There is no trace in the Angoisses of the casual attitude towards love such as that we find in the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles, or even in some of the tales of the Heptaméron. An important contribution of Marguerite de Briet is to give to sentimental fiction a consistently serious tone.

The society of the knights in the novels of chivalry, men for whom love is always of minor importance, is an entirely stable one. The protagonists are ever ready to serve and conquer. They are practically always equal to the task demanded of them. They know exactly what to do. They are not unhinged by love; if there is a villain to be killed, he is killed. The world in which these knights live and move is, for the most part, one in which the individual can be master of his fate.

But in Book II of the Angoisses, love is the central theme, and love results in the destruction of the orderly world of knighthood. We have as a main character Guénélic, who is a lover first, and a knight second. Guénélic can scarcely control his emotions, and he has trouble coping with the world in which knights normally move. Love has provided a source of conflict, heretowith missing in the novels of chivalry.31 Guénélic cannot quite live up to what is expected of him as a knight because he has fallen in love—and because his love is not that virtuous sort defined by Hélisenne as the ideal to which he should have aspired.32 The Angoisses anticipates the complications of later novels—La Princesse de Clèves furnishes a fine example—in which, because of conflict experienced by characters (I have Madame de Clèves in mind), the “right” conduct is not always obvious, or executed with ease.

The most important consequence of the new emphasis on and treatment of love, however, from the point of view of later evolution of technique, is the subordination of plot to characterization. References to sensual love in Book II are not simply decorative, as they sometimes are in other works of the period.33 The absence or presence of sensual love determines the success or failure of a relationship and of a man's conduct as a knight. A man's moral character—here defined in relation to his commitment to sensual love—now plays a significant role in the outcome of events. As a rule in the novels of chivalry, what the knights are like as moral individuals does not move them in any particular direction, or determine the point of the episodes in which they take part.

This new tendency in the Angoisses, in which character, to a great extent, determines the outcome of events,34 foreshadows later novels—La Princesse de Clèves is again a good example—in which the situation in which the characters find themselves, and the significance of it, depend on the characters themselves and what they are like as individuals. In the earlier novels, the “situation” generally exists before the characters arrive on the scene.

Given this subordination of plot to character, it is not surprising to find that Marguerite eschews reliance on magic and enchantment, so prevalent in the novels of chivalry. In addition, this attention to character is enhanced by the choice of first-person narrative for Book II as well as Book I. Not only does the action gain in immediacy with this point of view, but first person narration also enables the author to suggest motive with a greater appearance of authenticity. If Hélisenne were to have told Guénélic's story in the third person, after finishing her own story in the first person, the reader would have been skeptical of any attempt on her part to enter Guénélic's mind—and a passage such as that quoted in footnote 34 simply would not have been plausible.

In closing, I should like to stress that Book II is of interest to the study of the early development of the novel in France precisely because of its significant departures from novels of chivalry. Furthermore, because of its serious treatment of the nature and consequences of sensual love, Book II as well as Book I deserves to be included in the definition of the Angoisses as France's first sentimental novel.35


  1. For a detailed bibliography prior to 1968, consult Jérôme Vercruysse, “Hélisenne de Crenne; notes biographiques,” Studi Francesi (1967), xl, 77-81.

  2. Vercruysse, supra.

  3. I have modified the spelling to conform with current practice.

  4. Hélisenne de Crenne, Les Angoisses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours (Première partie), présentation par Jérôme Vercruysse (Paris, Minard, 1968), and Hélisenne de Crenne, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538) (Première partie), Paule Demats, editor (Paris, Les Belles-Lettres, 1968).

  5. Gustave Reynier, “Les Œuvres françaises: Les Angoisses douloureuses d'Hélisenne de Crenne,” Le Roman sentimental avant l'Astrée (Paris, Armand Colin, 1908), p. 99-122.

  6. Reynier, p. 120.

  7. Jean Plattard, L'Invention et la composition dans l'œuvre de Rabelais (Paris, Honoré Champion, 1908), p. 57.

  8. Vercruysse, “Introduction: Hélisenne de Crenne,” Les Angoisses …, p. 15.

  9. Demats, “Introduction,” Les Angoysses …, p. xxxi.

  10. Eugène Vinaver, The Rise of Romance (New York, Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 70.

  11. The extent of the influence is limited. See my article, “Fiammetta and the Angoysses douloureuses,” to appear, Symposium (1973).

  12. It should be pointed out that a similarity in general organization exists between the Angoisses and Jacobo Caviceo's Il Peregrino, translated into French in 1527 as Dialogue tres elegant intitulé le Peregrin (Paris, Nicolas Couteau pour Galliot du Pré). For example, both are divided into three books, the adventures starting in the second book. Agathes plays the role of faithful friend and counselor, just as does Quézinstra. Both Genèvre and Hélisenne are banished to locations unknown to their suitors, who assume the task of finding them. In both novels, there is a visit to the Underworld. And all four lovers die, but are finally reunited in the Elysian fields. Careful comparison will reveal that the two authors have a different treatment of and a different attitude towards the events that they report.

  13. For clarity, I shall refer to the author of the Angoisses as Marguerite de Briet, and to the narrator and character as Hélisenne de Crenne.

  14. Jean Frappier, “Les Romans de la Table Ronde et les lettres en France au XVIe siècle,” Romance Philology (1965), xix, 178-193.

  15. See Demats, p. ix.

  16. See the classification of Arthur Tilley, “The Prose Romances of Chivalry,” Studies in the Renaissance (Cambridge, England, The University Press, 1922), 12-15.

  17. I exempt Perceval, whose special mystical orientation puts it in a class by itself, and with which the Angoisses has nothing in common.

  18. Ysaie le Triste (Paris, Galliot du Pré, 1522).

  19. Meliadus de Leonnoys (Paris, Denis Janot, 1532).

  20. Perceforest (Paris, Galliot du Pré, 1528), 6 vols.

  21. Cedric Edward Pickford, L'Evolution du roman Arthurien en prose vers la fin du moyen âge (Paris, A. G. Nizet, 1959).

  22. In one instance, the author of Ysaie le Triste resolves the dilemma posed by the confrontation of two equally brave knights by having one of them (Marc, Ysaie's son) suddenly contract an illness. Marc yields to his opponent (his father), but he clarifies his submission: “Marc dist, sachez que je ne me rends point de cueur vaincu, mais maladie m'est sourprinse tel que ayder je ne me puis” (f. cxviiv).

  23. The principle of “entrelacement” operating in medieval romances was first suggested by Ferdinand Lot in his Etude sur le Lancelot en prose (Paris, Librairie ancienne Honoré Champion, 1918), chapter two. More recently this has been discussed by Eugène Vinaver in The Rise of Romance (New York, Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 68-98. Essentially, “entrelacement” occurs when the meaning of later episodes depends on what has happened in intervening episodes, even though the same characters may not be involved. What appear on the surface to be digressions are seen, in the final analysis, not to be digressions.

  24. Hélisenne de Crenne, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours: composees par ma dame Helisenne (N.p., 1538?).

  25. Hélisenne writes the “Epistre”; Guénélic takes over the narrative in chapter one.

  26. Later in the “Epistre,” Hélisenne seems momentarily to link her book to traditional justifications for novels of chivalry: “J'ay indubitablement foy que l'œuvre presente excitera (non seulement les gentilz hommes modernes) au marcial exercice: mais pour l'advenir stimulera la posterité future d'estre vrays imitateurs d'icelluy” (f. AA2r). But it becomes clear as one reads into Book II that the proper exercise of knighthood is contingent on the proper attitude towards love—and this is not a factor in the exercise of knighthood in novels of chivalry.

  27. Pickford (op. cit.) has observed that there is a disparity between stated purpose and actual content in the fifteenth-century Arthurian romances: “Il est notable que Caxton met en valeur le côté moral et didactique des romans qu'il imprime, sans que ceux-ci témoignent du même souci. Il en est de même dans les romans français. Les prologues qui leur sont ajoutés après coup suggèrent qu'un remaniement approfondi a eu lieu pour mieux faire ressortir l 'idéal chevaleresque” (p. 269).

  28. In some respects, Quézinstra's conduct is similar to that of the “Bon Chevalier mondain” appearing in ms. 112 described by Pickford (op. cit.). This hero is entirely committed to knighthood, and does not fall in love (p. 217-218). This is a type of knight I did not find in the three novels I considered.

  29. Book III also contains condemnations of sensual love—and this recurring theme unifies the novel as a whole. In the preamble to Book III, Hélisenne, who again briefly assumes the role of narrator, says: “A cesle heure plus fort suis provocquée à vous instiguer à la resistence contre vostre sensualité: qui est une bataille difficile à superer …” (f. AAA2r). Near the end of the book, on the point of death, Hélisenne urges Guénélic: “Si jusqu'à present d'une amour sensuel tu m'as aymée, desirant l'accomplissement de tes inutiles desirs, à ceste heure de telles vaynes pensées il te faut desister. Et davant que tu as aymé le corps, sois doresnavant amateur de l'ame par charitable dilection. Et donne telle correction à ta vie, que le venin de la concupiscence ne te prive de la possession de ceste divine heritaige qui nous est promise” (f. DDD5r).

  30. Rosemund Tuve, Allegorical Imagery. Some Medieval Books and Their Posterity (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1966), p. 371.

  31. It is perhaps of interest to remind the reader that a fine medieval example of the interference of love in the exercise of knightly duties is furnished by Chrétien de Troyes' Erec et Enide (Les Romans de Chrétien de Troyes … I, Erec et Enide, ed. Mario Roques, Paris, Champion, 1955). I quote below the famous description of Erec's defection:

    Mes tant l'ama Frec d'amors
    Que d'armes mes ne li chaloit,
    Ne a tornoiemant n'aloit,
    N'avoit mes soing de tornoiier;
    A sa fame aloit donoiier,
    De li fist s'amie et sa drue.
    Tot mist cuer et s'antandue
    An li acoler et beisier.

    (v. 2434-2441)

    The situation in Erec et Enide is different, however, from that in the Angoisses. Erec and Enide marry, and Erec's final goal is to be a good knight.

  32. See the second quotation in footnote 29.

  33. Wording for some of the attacks on sensual love comes from the French translation of Il Peregrino (supra). But in this Italian novel, sensual love is a decorative theme. The hero's success as a suitor and an adventurer in no way depends on a rejection of sensuality. And in no way does sensuality determine the outcome of events, or affect the significance of events. Neither Pérégrin or Genèvre is to blame for an ancient feud between the two families, or for false rumors spread about Pérégrin (which result in Genèvre's temporary rejection of Pérégrin. The theme of sensual love is also linked to a denunciation of women, becoming thereby more a criticism of the sex than of the sin. A canon by the name of Matthieu says to Pérégrin: “Tu ne dois croire que estant en ceste volupté jamais tu te puisses adjoindre à chose aucune vertueuse ne prouffitable … Toutes les passions en absence cesseront: mais en presence tant croistront qu'elles te conduyront à ceste extreme misere … laisses le cultivage de la concupiscence & entends à choses grandes & glorieuses … voys quelle vileté & scandale est de commettre & le corps, & l'ame à ung feminin empire: lequel est toujours de raison privé” (ff. II4v-JJ1r).

  34. It would be an oversimplification to say that abandonment to sensual love is the only aspect of Guénélic's character that affects outcome of event. Guénélic's indiscretion has also been a contributing factor in Hélisenne's banishment. Guénélic describes his early relationship with Hélisenne: “Desja deux foys avoit Phebus le zodiaque enluminé, depuis que m'estoye laissé superer par le fils de Venus, & pour ce, comme fastidié de tant de vaines sollicitudes, par impatience: Je commencay à increper ma dame, luy attribuant le vice d'ingratitude. Non obstant je continoye ma poursuyte, en sorte que par mon inconstance, je donnay manifeste demonstrance à son mary de la chose où je pretendoye. Quoy voyant sans dilation il la feit absenter, comme il est bien amplement exhibé au premier livre de ses angoisses” (ff. AA5v-AA6r).

  35. Gustave Reynier (op. cit.) dubbed the Angoisses France's first sentimental novel on the basis of Book I alone.

Anne R. Larsen (essay date 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Larsen, Anne R. “The Rhetoric of Self-Defense in Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours (Part One).” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 29, no. 3 (1982): 235-43.

[In the following essay, Larsen analyzes de Crenne's apologetic and combative intent in Les Angoysses douloureuses, exploring the author's portrayal of herself as a victim of love and her conception of writing as a self-justifying act.]

Recent criticism on Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours (1538), the first French sentimental novel, has centered on its structure. Against the view that it is without unity,1 several critics have sought to discern a dominant intention which explains the shifts in the narration and the subject-matter of its three parts. Thus Paule Demats in her edition of Les Angoysses, (Part One)2 has argued that Helisenne de Crenne3 wrote the first part in order to defend herself before her entourage or in a court of law against her husband's attacks and her lover's unworthiness; when it also assured her of her literary talent, she wrote a sequel (p. xxix). Donald Stone shows how Les Angoysses belongs to a tradition of didactic literature. He demonstrates that the novel is unified in its didactic intention and in its subject matter.4 There need be no incompatibility in these two accounts since the intent of self-defense has an implicit didactic character which is carried on into the sequel.

My aim is to analyze Helisenne's portrayal of herself as lover and writer. I shall use the argument of a self-defense to account for and illuminate certain aspects of her portrayal. To my knowledge, no critic has analyzed in Les Angoysses (Part One) Helisenne's apologetic intent. Tom Conley views Demats' literary-historical explanation of a self-defense as convincing but he claims that it has “little bearing on the reader in front of the text.”5 On the contrary I shall show that it enables the reader to understand several crucial aspects of Helisenne's self-portrayal. These aspects include: her depiction of herself as a victim of love; the distinction which she draws between herself and her lover Guenelic in the matter of the dissumulation of passion; and her conception of writing as a self-justifying act in Les Angoysses (Part One) as well as in Les Epistres familieres et invectives (1539) which gave Helisenne, in Demats' words, “l'occasion de reproduire et de compléter son roman” (p. xxxvii).6 This will enable us to better appreciate the way in which she has used literature as a tool for self-justification.

In her liminary poem, Helisenne warns her innocent and unknowing lisantes7 not to fall into Cupido's trap: to gaze upon him, even with virtuous intent, is dangerous for though he is blindfolded he can aim well. She concludes:

Soyez tousjours sur vostre garde
Car tel veult prendre, qui est pris.
Je vous serviray d'avantgarde
A mes despens, dommage et pris.

Her sketch of the lisantes focuses on their vulnerability due to their unpreparedness and lack of knowledge, characteristics which she implicitly suggests were also once hers. Now, through experience, she knows of love's misfortunes, from whence she derives the authority to teach her readers how best to avoid love. Knowledge of love's ways and miseries is essential if they are to have the necessary will-power with which to resist Eros from the very beginning.8 In her dedicatory letter to them, she counsels: “… en voyant comme j'ay esté surprinse, vous pourrez eviter les dangereulx laqs d'amours, en y resistant du commencement sans continuer en amoureuses pensées …” She reiterates this frequently in Part One (XII, 66; XXII, 110; XXVI, 6).

Thus, not to resist love from its inception renders one powerless to resist it thereafter and knowledge acquired while its prisoner is ineffectual. Helisenne demonstrates this at two different moments in the progression of her passion: at its onset, during her inner debat between reason and sensuality (II) when she knows nothing yet of Guenelic, and at the time of her discussion with a devout monk (XIV-XV) when she does not yet fully realize the extent of Guenelic's slanderous behavior. In both instances, reason and the monk personifying reason use intellectual and moral arguments to persuade her to abandon love. Even though she agrees with them in principle (II, 90; XIV, 100), she shows that such knowledge is of no avail. In the first instance, sensuality promises her more delights of the kind she has already tasted in gazing upon Guenelic, and in the second she stresses that she has lost her will-power to combat love even though she has begun to experience some of its miseries (XIV, 79). Even at the end, when she despairs of Guenelic (XXII) and has experienced the gamut of love's miseries, she states that the knowledge she has acquired can be of no help to her: “Helas, je n'en parle comme ignorante, mais comme celle qui a le tout experimenté, si ne reste plus que la mort. Mais ce nonobstant que je congnoisse toutes telles peines et tourmens, je ne m'en sçauroye desister, tant ma pensée, mon sens et liberal arbitre sont surpris, submis et asservis, par ce que du principe, sans gueres resister, me suis laissée aller, et facile est le vaincre qui ne resiste” (XXII, 105).

Central to Helisenne's apologia is, first, that she was ignorant and defenseless in combatting love; and second, that once she fell in love no amount of knowledge and experience of love's torments could aid her in regaining her will-power. She appeals here to the topos of love's fatality and great power which was familiar in the Italian and Spanish sentimental novels and the didactic literature of her time. Three of Alciati's emblems, for instance, dwell on the power of love;9 and in Corrozet's Hécatomgraphie, an emblem entitled “La Force d'amour” shows how one's vouloir is futile to combat love's wound: “Impossible est qu'on tire / Hors de son coeur le fer plain de martire.”10 From this Helisenne draws a crucial distinction: she is unable rather than unwilling to overcome love. Her frequent expressions to describe her state are: “il n'est en ma faculté de le [mon coeur] retirer” (IV, 144; same idea in XV, 102); and “ce nonobstante que congnoisse toutes ces choses, mon acerbe fortune m'a si fort lyée qu'il n'est en mon pouvoir ne faculté de me sçavoir en aulcune maniere delier” (XX, 246-48; same in XXII, 107). She asserts this in opposition to her husband who is convinced that her “vouloir luxurieux” is en cause and that all she needs to do is to counter her evil inclination and to will her freedom from love (IV, 89; V, 81).

Other topoi on which Helisenne draws to depict herself as a victim of Eros are love as a blinding force (III, 115; XXVI, 32) and love as a disease which destroys the soul and the body (she is often immobilized in bed or shut up for days in her room).

Having emphasized the fact that she is a victim of love, Helisenne concludes with this statement to her readers: “… si bien sçavez avec quelle force Amour m'a contraincte et parforcée, de nulle je ne seroys increpée …” (XXVIII, 6).

Dissimulation is a major theme in part one of Les Angoysses. It is developed in the characters of Helisenne and Guenelic but along two different levels of meaning. Two dictionaries of the period define the verb “dissimuler” as follows: Cotgrave: “to dissemble, counterfeit, play the hypocrite, pretend one thing and do another”;11Nicot: “C'est desguiser ou feindre ce qui est comme s'il n'estoit pas.”12 In both sources, dissimulation has the following synonyms: “simulation, fainctise, hypocrisie.” Fundamental to these definitions is the general notion of double-dealing or passing off as true what is not. More specifically, Cotgrave emphasizes the hypocrisy of an individual who claims to be one thing but acts in a contrary manner; Nicot underscores the concealing of truth in such a way that the individual feigns that a thing is not that which it is. Nicot in fact also treats “dissimuler” as a synonym of “cacher.” Under the verb “cacher” one reads: “cacher quelque chose & dissimuler: “Ferre obscure aliquid” (p. 96). “Dissimuler” then has a negative and a positive meaning depending on the context in which it is used. Both meanings are conveyed separately in didactic works of the period. In Jean Bouchet's Les Triomphes de la Noble et Amoureuse Dame (1536) for instance, the lady's “Ame” is tempted by “Concupiscence,” “Ambition,” and “Hypocrisie autrement dicte Simulation” who whispers in her ear that the “Prince de Volupté” is a model of discretion and secrecy.13 Pierre de la Primaudaye, in a section on “De la malice et cautelle” in his Academie françoise (1580), defines the property of the malicious man “d'estre tousjours accompagné d'hypocrisie & de dissimulation. Aussi a-il pour premier autheur & père Sathan, qui par sa subtilité & cautelle abusa de la simplicité de nostre premiere mere, a la ruïne de tout le gẽre humain.”14

Dissimulation when indicating hypocrisy is a vice. However, when it is associated with concealment on occasions where to speak entails harm and disgrace, it becomes a virtue, as in the following passage in Tahureau's Deux dialogues du Democritic (1565): “Il n'y a point de plus grande sagesse au monde, que de taire et bien dissimuler une verité laquelle estant decouverte a son autheur, aussi n'y a il point plus grande folie que d'en parler.”15

Helisenne has the latter meaning of dissimulation in mind when, in her eight Epistre familiere to a friend who refuses to marry the man chosen by her parents because she is in love with someone else, she urges her to “nier en apparence” her love so as to avoid her parents' anger (K5). In the following letter she is relieved to hear that her friend “[a] usé de telle vertu, que par nulle evidence lon n'a peu comprẽdre, cela a quoy tu aspires” and encourages her “de persister en dissimulation” (K6).

At the start of Les Angoysses I, Helisenne is convinced that she can conceal her nascent passion (II, 108). But the immediate aftermath is its involuntary disclosure: the first to perceive her love is none other than her husband who watches her at her window amourously gazing at Guenelic (III). Undaunted by this, she struggles continuously to mute it in her gaze (IV, 144) as well as in her words and deeds. Here is a sampling: she submits to her husband's love-making for “me convenoit user de dissimulation monstrant semblant de me vouloir reduyre et remettre es termes de raison, en quoy mon mary avoit esperance” (VI, 7); after seeing the monk “me convint dissimuler mon angoisseuse douleur soubz semblant de joyeuse face” (XV, 140); she even pretends to mock Guenelic when she is alone with her husband “pour complaire a mon mary, en dissimulant ingenieusement l'amour que je luy [Guenelic] portoye, affin qu'il me fust imparty plus de liberté que paravant” (XX, 32).

Helisenne's attempts at dissembling are a sign of her total devotion to Guenelic. She portrays herself continuously as the paragon of the true lover in her fidelity (XXVII, 20), ingenuity in seeking ways of meeting Guenelic in secret (XVIII, 113; XX, 211), courage and heroism. She asserts that no one has ever loved more deeply (XII, 70) or suffered more pain than she has (XIV, 109; XXIV, 17). She would rather die than be forced to give up her love for her amy (V, 40; XIII, 55).

In opposition to Helisenne, Guenelic embodies the figure of a dissimulator as defined by Cotgrave: “a counterfeiter of that which he is not, or means not.” The words which Helisenne applies most often to Guenelic's false promise are “simulation et fainctise.” The first time she uses these terms is after she has witnessed his public divulgence of their love (IV, 127). She laments inwardly that he probably courts her merely to boast of his conquest (IV, 139). Later, during their first conversation and in his subsequent letter, he speaks and acts in a contradictory manner. He swears to her a devoted and faithful service, discretion, and a deep concern not to arouse suspicions so as to protect her reputation (this after she has seen how indiscreet he is in three previous instances, IV, 125; VI, 94 and 131). However, non-courtly attitudes demands slip incongruously into his role playing; for example, he reveals unabashedly his cowardice or fear of her husband (“Ma dame, je crains merveilleusement monsieur vostre mary” [VIII, 27]), traits which she already suspected he had (VII, 14). And in his letter he requests urgently his recompense for his “fidele servitude,” arguing that she cannot be so cruel as to have him “[renoncer] à la nature” (IX, 41). In her response to him she alludes in passing to her latent misgivings concerning the sincerity of his words: (“si vostre lettre n'est par simulation ou fainctise composée” [X, 3]). It is only at the end of Part One when she despairs of Guenelic that she uses the term “simulation et fainctise” to mean that his love for her is feigned (XX, 242) and that in fact he never truly loved her (XXII, 48). She says to him: “… vous ne cessez de detracter et mal parler de moy, dont je prends grand admiration, veu et consideré que jamais en aulcune chose ne vous ay offensé. Cela me donne certaine evidence que l'amour que monstriez avoir en moy n'estoit que fainctise faulse et simulée” (XX, 239).

Thus, Helisenne's gradual realization of Guenelic's deceit, as I have shown, and the way in which she opposes herself to Guenelic, she as true and unswerving, he as a dissembler and slanderer, function implicitly in her self-defense. The thesis of an apologia accounts for and highlights these aspects of her portrayal.

Helisenne derives from her portrayal of Guenelic as a coward and slanderer two of the main arguments for the justification of her escrits. A third argument is that Part One of her novel serves as a book of conduct for “toutes honnestes Dames” (Epistre dedicative). She turns this to her own advantage particularly in the first Epistre invective when she uses it to attest to her innocence.

First, she opposes to Guenelic's cowardice her courage in pursuing the difficult task of disclosing for all to hear the truth of her afflictions. She tells her lisantes in her conclusion: “… ayant par plusieurs foys laissé et infesté la plume, l'affectueux desir que j'ay envers vous, mes nobles dames, a esté occasion que me suis evertuée de vous declarer le tout sans riens reserver” (XX-VIII, 8). She mentions frequently the emotional suffering which writing about her memories entails (she writes Part One in sequestration at Cabasus hoping that it will reach Guenelic so that he can find the courage to free her, XXVII). At one point she states that she must force herself to persevere for “pensant qu'il me seroit attribué à vice de pusillanimité, je me veulz efforcer de l'escripre” (XI, 141). She has referred to Guenelic's “pusillanimité” often enough (VII, VIII, XVII, XVIII) for us not to suspect that she is indirectly alluding to it again here to her own advantage.

In the same vein, she defends herself against the traditional reproach that silence benefits women. In her conclusion, she forestalls the criticism of certain “Dames timides” who may judge that her subject-matter, and implicitly her book, would have been “plus digne d'estre conservé en profonde silence” (XXVIII, 1). Likewise her Epistres invectives, which constitutes in the main a defense of the first part of Les Angoysses, is written specifically against adversaries who seek to reduce her to silence (N6; P5).

In her first Epistre invective to her husband (I), Helisenne also uses as a two-edged sword Guenelic's cowardice before her husband which is responsible in part for the lovers' not attaining “la jouissance.”16 The fact that she has not sinned in actual deed becomes the strongest argument in favor of her innocence: “ma clere innocence ne fut iamais maculee” (M9). She then contends that it was not her husband's surveillance that kept her from illicit love but her own “chaste vouloir tât en pensee que en effect” (M14) for everyone knows, she says, that nothing can prevent lovers from attaining the fruition of their desire.17 If she were lascivious, as is his claim she would have long since found a way of joining her lover: “amour & hardiesse m'eussent de leur faveur gratifiee” (M14). This is as much a covert attack on Guenelic's lack of “hardiesse” as it is an argument in her self-defense.

The second aspect of Helisenne's self-justification pertains to, in Les Angoysses, and echoes, in Les Epistres invectives, her portrayal of Guenelic as a pernicious liar. In her final lament against him in Les Angoyses I, she attacks him at length on possessing an evil tongue: “Regarde comme presentement ta pestifere langue, membre dyabolicque, dissipante de tous biens, consumatrice du monde, sans occasion s'efforce de denigrer et adnichiler ma bonne renommée! Bien seroit temps de fermer ta vergongneuse bouche et refrener ton impudicque et vitieuse langue” (XXII, 6). She blames him further for his cruelty (XX, 234; XXII, 15) and for being “scelere et maulvais” (XX, 144). The resemblance between Guenelic and the slanderers of the Epistres invectives is striking. The latter include her husband (I-III), a certain Elenot who condemns all women writers (IV), and the inhabitants of Icuoc (an anagram for Coucy near Crenne) who in Part Three of Les Angoysses had scoffed at Guenelic and Quezinstra (V). Helisenne criticizes her husband for his unwarranted cruelty (M10; M6) and for ruining her with false accusations which have been fed to him by “faulx detracteurs.” Of Elenot who thinks women should content themselves with “le filer” for they are incapable of writing good literature, let alone profiting from the study of “les bonnes lettres,” she laments that he is incapable of “le taire” since “il est manifeste que tu es naturellement adonné au destestable vice de detraction” (011). She attacks him several times for possessing a “venimeuse” and “serpentine langue”; and she threatens him with a fate similar to that of the legendary Midas who, asked to judge in a musical contest between Apollo and Pan, voted against Apollo and was punished with ass's ears. As in Corrozet's emblem entitled Calumnie (op. cit., p. 158), Helisenne associates Midas with the vice of slander.18 Lastly, in her letter to the citizens of Icuoc she seeks to publicize “ce que le detracter de vos venimeuses langues ne permet tenir caché” (P) and she calls for vengeance by invoking suffering for them and death.

Third, Helisenne employs the convention of her novel as a book of conduct in the service of her self-defense. While she formulates the exemplum topos in Les Angoysses essentially to emphasize her moral intention, she makes use of it in her first Epistre invective to her husband to prove her innocence:

Bien desireroys, que souuent tu t'occupasses, a penser comment en plusieurs lieux de mes compositions je deteste amour illicite, & auec affecteux desir ie prie les Dames de tousiours le viure pudique obseruer. Par ces remonstrances miennes, tout homme prudent & discret doibt croyre mon cueur estre pur & chaste: & pour estre tel, desire que tous autres en semblable sincerite se cosẽruent. Tu deurois rememorer une chose veritable, qui est, que depuis qu'une licẽciee & prostituee femme impudiquement a delaisse de chastete l'excellence, autre plus grãd desir elle n'a que faire les autres en semblable libidinosite succomber. Donc puis que ceste chose en la personne aprouue l'impudique affection, tu doibs croire que de toute lasciue cogitation, ie suis totalement alienee.


She then reinterprets an episode in Les Angoysses (V) which her husband had conveniently utilized as proof of her guilt: the confession she made to him of her love was untrue, she says, because it was forced upon her by his violence and her perverse fortune (M7). Although Helisenne was indeed coerced into confessing her passion, she never cast doubt on its veracity. The solution to this apparent contradiction lies in the intent of self-justification. In her epistre, Helisenne seeks to underscore above all her victimization which her husband, bent on revenge, refused to see. She accuses him of deliberately misreading her escrits in order to misrepresent her. Since he has no concrete proof of her guilt, he seeks it vainly in her work. She makes its clear to him that he is practicing a form of “lecture-calomnie”.19 Time and again she describes him as a “faulx detracteur” and as one who has abandoned all reason. Her final injunction to him is for a reasoned and fair reading: “Si auec pensee tu avois distinctement considere mes escriptz, tu muerois d'opinions, aumoins si ton ire n'estoit plus fondee en l'appetit de me persecuter qu'en la raison” (M8).

In conclusion, Helisenne's rhetoric of self-defense includes her dual aim to condemn illicit love and to gain her readers' sympathy and understanding of the misfortunes which have made her a victim of love. Like her predecessor Christine de Pisan, she is among the first French women authors to write literature with an apologetic and combative purpose.


  1. Gustave Reynier, Le Roman sentimental avant l'Astrée (Paris: Colin, 1908), p. 122; Henri Coulet, Histoire du roman avant la Révolution (Paris: Colin, 1968), p. 105.

    Work on this paper was carried out under the direction of Professor Barbara C. Bowen and the support of a 1980 National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar. I wish to express my gratitude to both.

  2. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968). All quotations are from this excellent edition which reproduces the original version of 1538 (Paris: Denis Janot) with corrections of punctuation from a later edition by Langelier in 1543. Demats numbers the lines of the text in each chapter. For brevity's sake, I will refer to the chapter and only to the first line number of the passage I cite.

  3. Cf. Jérôme Vercruysse, “Helisenne de Crenne: notes biographiques,” Studi Francesi, 31 (genn.-apr. 1967), 77-81.

  4. “The Unity of Les Angoysses douloureuses,From Tales to Truth: Essays on French Fiction in the Sixteenth Century, Analecta Romanica 34 (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1973), 12-21.

  5. “‘Feminism’, Ecriture, and the Closed Room: The Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours,Symposium, 27, 1973, p. 324.

  6. All quotations are from Slatkine's facsimile edition (Genève, 1977) of Les Oeuvres de Madame Helisenne de Crenne with revisions by Claude Colet (Paris: Etienne Groulleau, 1560).

  7. Helisenne's dedication of her novel to female readers is not unique. She was probably influenced by Boccaccio's Fiammetta which, in its anonymous French translation of 1532 (Lyon: Claude Nourry), was her major source for Part One. Other women writers such as Louise Labé and Les Dames des Roches also dedicated their works to women.

  8. Helisenne draws on a topos familiar in Renaissance thought. In an article on “Fortune, Fate, and Chance,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, II (Scribner's, 1973), 225-236, Vincenzo Cioffari indicates that in Boccaccio's view the only way to forestall the action of Fortune is to have one's free will as well as one's reasoning power act prior to Fortune's intended course (p. 234). Similarly, Helisenne emphasizes that to resist love from its inception requires knowledge and foresight (II, 20), the use of reason (II, 67) and of free will (XII, 70; Ep. fam V, 16), and courage (Ep. fam V, 13).

  9. Livret des emblemes, trans. J. Le Fevre (Paris, 1536), B4v, K7v, L2v. See D. Stone for other parallels with emblem books of the same period (p. 16).

  10. (Paris: Denis Janot, 1540), ed. Ch. Oulmont (Paris: Champion, 1905), p. 59.

  11. A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (London, 1611), ed. University of South Carolina Press, 1950.

  12. Jean Nicot, Thresor de la langue francoyse (Paris: D. Douceur, 1606), p. 208.

  13. (Paris: A. Girault, 1536), f. 61.

  14. (Paris: G. Chaudiere, 1580), p. 59.

  15. (Paris: G. Buon, 1565), ed. F. Conscience (Paris, 1870), pp. 97-98.

  16. Helisenne may have consciously opposed Guenelic in his lack of ingenuity and unheroic behavior to Boccaccio's Pamphile who subtly befriends Fiammetta's husband so as to enjoy their liaison more freely. See XVIII, 11 and Demats' note 36. On the differences of intention between Les Angoysses I and Fiammetta, see M. J. Baker, “Fiammetta and the Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours,Symposium, 1973, 303-308. The text in Part One does not support M. J. Baker's claim that “the author's main intention does not seem to be to discredit Guenelic as a person, but rather to attack sensual love” (p. 305). This statement is more in keeping with Parts Two and Three, cf. Demats, pp. xxix-xxxii.

  17. In Les Angoysses, it is her husband's surveillance that prevents her from joining her lover. This is one of three instances where she uses dissimulatio in the rhetorical sense of irony (cf. Cicero, De Oratore II, LXVII, 269 and III, 203), that is saying one thing and meaning another. The other two are her cryptogram in Ep. Fam. XIII where she masks herself as a gentleman sending news of sequestered Helisenne to a friend (Guenelic); and the reversal at the end of her Songe philosophique (1541) when the lovesick Dame is cured while her indifferent lover is set on fire, cf. Demats, p. xxxii.

  18. In her Ep. inv IV, Helisenne takes sides in the “Querelle des femmes.” Demats suggests that this epistre was probably inspired by Erasmus' “Dialogus Abbatis et eruditae” in Clement Marot's translation (1535-36). Another possible influence could be that of a work entitled La Vraydisant advocate des Dames (Paris?, ca. 1520) attributed to Jean Marot (Montaiglon, Anciennes Poésies françaises, X (Paris, 1875), 225-268. In his preface the author attacks those who “ont entreprins … en desployant les dangereuses et tres persans allumelles de leurs serpentines et venimeuses langues, mesdire, villipender et vituperer l'honneur des Dames …” (p. 229). The speaker who is a woman holds forth on the behalf of all women against “Faulx detracteurs, a langues de lezars / Qui de mal dire scavez trop bien les ars” (p. 235). Allusions to the venomous tongue are abundant.

  19. The expression is Michel Charles' in his Rhétorique de la lecture (Paris: Seuil, 1977), p. 275. I am grateful to Dr. Cathleen M. Bauschatz at The University of Maine at Orono for drawing my attention to this concept.

Kittye Delle Robbins-Herring (essay date 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Robbins-Herring, Kittye Delle. “Hélisenne de Crenne: Champion of Women's Rights.” In Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, pp. 177-218. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, an introduction to a translation of excerpts from de Crenne's works, Robbins-Herring contends that de Crenne is a true Renaissance feminist and that her works—which are sometimes conventional, sometimes avant-garde, and which often theorize on morality and the nature of men and women—show her to be an early advocate for women's rights.]

Hélisenne de Crenne, the name that Marguerite Briet chose to use for herself as the author-heroine of Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, is more than a mask to protect an aristocratic lady from scandal. Revealing as much as concealing, it is a double metaphor for her relation to her book, wherein the romanesque prénom of Hélisenne, appropriate to epic and romance, is associated with the actual estate of Crenne or Crasnes, her husband's lands near Coucy. Her story itself likewise joins histoire vécue with literary reminiscence to recount the phases of an obsessive passion that even today has the power to shock the reader. Hélisenne's fictive autobiography seems to be based in large part on Marguerite's own experiences, shaped and colored in the telling (and quite probably in the original living) by prior literary tradition—art imitates life that imitates art.

Hélisenne/Marguerite must have fascinated sixteenth-century readers—as she continues to fascinate us—with this play of mirrors. She invites her public to guess her identity by planting a myriad of clues in the text of her pseudo-autobiography. She herself explores in her writing many of the contradictions involved in self-expression, both literary and amatory. Like that other, more famous Marguerite, the queen of Navarre (whom she knew at least by reputation), she is paradoxically typical and unique.

Her work is typical in that it incarnates much of characteristic Renaissance thought: the cult of antiquity with its enthusiasm for ornate discourse full of rare words and esoteric mythological references, the taste for melodrama often oddly mingled with philosophical debate, the contrast between colorful realistic details and austere moral maxims in the same narrative. Helen Waldstein and Suzanne Loriente, in their respective dissertations, find in Hélisenne the true spirit of a Renaissance feminist, champion of her sex in the Querelle des Femmes, eager to prove herself in the Republic of Letters.1

And yet, as Paule Demats points out, Hélisenne's story is unique and exemplary in the intensity of its feeling and in the living paradigm it provides of courtly love as erotic obsession in sixteenth-century France.2 Marguerite Briet, transforming her intimate journal into a novel of passion, creates herself as love's artist. She simultaneously illustrates the perils of immoderate desire—like one of Marguerite of Navarre's hapless heroines—and transcends those perils through her art. If, as she warns her lady readers, the price she has paid is great, she still has the satisfaction of getting her money's worth in emotion.

Research by Louise Loviot, Abel Lefranc, and more recently, V.-L. Saulnier has established the outline of Marguerite Briet's life from contemporary documents that supplement her own writings.3 The key passage identifying Marguerite with her pen name occurs in a Latin chronicle De Abbavilla. In translation, it reads as follows: “In May 1540 a very learned lady, born in Abbeville, named Marguerite Briet but known to the public as Hélisenne de Crenne, gained fame in French poetry in the noble city of Paris.” Hélisenne's works (a novel, a collection of letters, an allegorical treatise, and a translation of the first four books of the Aeneid) were all published in Paris in the years from 1538 to 1541, with editions of her collected Oeuvres appearing five times from 1543 through 1560. We may reasonably assume that she frequently visited the capital during these periods, especially as she possessed properties near the city and showed in her writing a lively appreciation for Paris as an intellectual center.

Marguerite and her husband, Philippe Fournel, seigneur de Crasnes, had a son, Pierre Fournel, who was a student at the University of Paris in 1548, when his father arranged for him to receive an allowance of fifty pounds tournois. Paule Demats concludes from this information that Marguerite was at least thirty-four years old in 1548 (assuming that she was no less than sixteen at her son's birth), but that she was probably a good bit older, as her sizable literary production implies “un assez long travail” during the 1530s and 1540s.4 Hélisenne, however, states that she herself was married to her husband at a very early age (shortly after her eleventh birthday); if Marguerite's experience parallels her heroine's here, she may have been younger than Demats thinks in 1548. At any rate, Marguerite Briet was probably born between 1500 and 1515, and the events of her extramarital love affair must have occurred in the half-dozen years preceding the 1538 publication of Les Angoysses, so that she would have been in her twenties or early thirties when she first met the handsome young man who was to inspire her passion. Still young enough to burn with appetit sensuel, yet a mature woman by Renaissance standards, with at least one child, and after years of reasonably contented married life (her husband, Hélisenne writes, had known how to win the affection of his child bride), Marguerite was suddenly struck by a blinding erotic obsession.

Hélisenne's story aligns her with a series of romantic heroines from Guinevere and Boccaccio's Fiammetta to Anna Karenina and beyond; like her real-life contemporary Louise Labé, she risks marriage, wealth, and social status, the loss of family and friends, for a fickle lover. The jouvenceau or adolescent whom she calls Guenelic is scarcely worth her sacrifices—his only merit, Demats notes acidly, is his physical beauty.5 In part 1 of the three-part novel, the most autobiographical section (parts 2 and 3 are more complimentary but less historical), Hélisenne paints a frequently unflattering portrait of her beloved; he is self-centered, tactless, even cruel, and his thoughtless boasting of his conquest endangers his mistress's reputation and her very life.

At the end of part 1 the author-heroine has been imprisoned by her jealously angry husband; in her isolation she turns to writing her life story in order to console herself, while hoping for eventual rescue by her lover. There is no evidence that the historical Guenelic ever saw his lady again, but it is likely that Marguerite Briet was indeed incarcerated by her husband for a time and that she began to write in prison (as did such celebrated writers as Malory and Charles d'Orléans). By 1552, if not earlier, she was living apart from Philippe Fournel and legally de luy sepparee quant aux biens—that is, separated from him and in control of her own property—as the text of a grant she made in that year specifies. She does not seem to have actually ended her marriage, perhaps because of social and economic pressures against such disunion. Marguerite, who belonged to a rich and important family in Picardy, was probably wealthier than her husband: in Les Angoysses, Hélisenne's husband threatens to leave her, adding scornfully that he does not want any of her property because he does not wish to profit from the possessions of “a lascivious woman.” In Le Songe (her allegorical dream dialogue), however, La Dame Amoureuse plans to purchase her husband's consent to a separation by dividing equally with him the lands which are by inheritance hers alone.

Saulnier believes that Marguerite and her husband must often have been on bad terms and informally parted, even before the legal separation.6 The bitter rancor against her husband and his sister that is evident in her works, particularly in Les Angoysses, suggests that publication must have occurred while she was away from him. For there are so many clues in the text to the identity of the pseudonymous heroine (including anagrams such as Icuoc for Coucy, Eliveba for Abbeville, Hennerc for Crenne) that family and friends could hardly have doubted how to read this roman à clef. Indeed, Les Angoysses places the first definitive break between the spouses at the point where a servant betrays Hélisenne by revealing her secret diary to her long suspicious husband. Nonetheless, there may have been efforts at reconciliation: in 1550 both Fournel and “damoiselle Marguerite de Briet sa femme” are the losers in a court case they had with a Parisian baker over money they owed him. Two years later, as the grant mentioned above makes clear, she was living on her own and able to reward one Christophe Le Manyer rather handsomely for unspecified “good and agreeable services.”

Hélisenne/Marguerite's literary success during these years, as shown by the rapid succession of editions, was a source of considerable satisfaction for her (see the “Fourth Invective Letter” …). Certain of the reasons for her popularity may be easily discerned: to begin with, Les Angoysses was the first novel of passion in French in the fashionable manner of Boccaccio and Juan de Flores. A public that enjoyed these authors' works in translation was already prepared to savor a French example of the genre.

By its tone and content, furthermore, Hélisenne's story renewed an older tradition long favored in France, the tragic love tale familiar from prose romances (much in vogue in the sixteenth century), contes, and poetry. The love complaint, on which Boccaccio also drew in writing the story of Fiammetta (in French, Flammette), appeared often in poetry that Marguerite Briet would probably have known, from Petrarch to Clément Marot and Maurice Scève. It furnishes the central, unifying theme in Jean Bouchet's book of poetry L'Amoureux transi sans espoir (1500) (The Bashful, Hopeless Lover) and Anthoine Prevost's romance in verse L'Amant desconforté (1530) (The Discomfited Lover). When the Elegia di madonna Fiammetta came out in French in 1532, its anonymous translator gave it the title Complainte des tristes amours de Flammette à son amy Pamphile (The Complaint of the Sad Loves of Flammette to Her Friend Pamphile).

Such predecessors provided models for Hélisenne when she decided to write her painful account, even though her own experiences required her to make many changes in plot and characterization and symbolic significance of the love story. Her real-life passion did not altogether fit the mold provided by fictional heroines, nor was her sorrow the same as that expressed by male lover-poets in their works. There are significant parallels, however, not entirely fortuitous, with a woman whose work Marguerite may not have known directly, but whose influence colored sixteenth-century debate over women's roles: Christine de Pizan.7 I am not thinking here of Christine's poems about her own life with her beloved husband, but rather of her portrayal of extramarital love as a trap which women should avoid if they value freedom and honor, and especially of the way she views the situation of the lady vis-à-vis the courtly lover: if the lady does not yield to her importunate lover she will lose him, yet if she does yield to him she loses her self-esteem and still loses his love in the end. Hélisenne/Marguerite seems to have been well aware of this no-win aspect of woman's position in the love triangle of lover, lady, and society. It is not so much her conventional morality or respect for social rules—despite Richard Berrong's thoughtful analysis of this side of her personality8—that makes Marguerite equate lovelessness with liberty and love with lack of reason, but rather her acute feeling that there is no sure way out of her dilemma except death or renunciation.

Through her writing Marguerite experiments with both of these alternatives (the latter especially in the conclusion to Le Songe), as well as searching for other solutions. In the process she enters the on-going debate on love and the proper relations between the sexes so essential to French thought at the time. After the ambiguous condemnation of her lover in part 1 of Les Angoysses, parts 2 and 3 may be seen as her effort to elevate Guenelic and initiate him into the mysteries of Platonic love, in preparation for his mystical union with the dying Hélisenne. She finds a piquant if somewhat awkward way to recount her death as Hélisenne: writing as Guenelic, she narrates his eventual return to her side and her death in his arms, followed by his own grieving death, as recounted by their mutual friend Quezinstra.

The wish fulfillment quality of this episode, its operatic tone, shows in the archetypal details—a hermit's funereal predictions, a forest setting, Hélisenne's lengthy dying speech to her repentant ami, his subsequent fit of melancholy, Quezinstra's “melliflues paroles” about fate, free will, and the lovers' sad ends. We as readers are listening to a Medieval romance or a libretto for Monteverdi, and the transparently fictive nature of this death keeps us from being surprised that Marguerite continued to publish as Hélisenne for years after the appearance of her death scene in print. Demats suggests that only through her imagined death could Marguerite reconcile literature and life, her idealized view of what love should be with her actual experience of what it had been.9 There is serious question as to how satisfactory this bizarre solution proved to be, for her and her readers alike, but its very melodramatic exaggeration and the ornate language she uses to tell about it are important factors in the early success of the book.

To sum up, the popularity of Les Angoysses was based on fashion (in genre, style, and sentiment), tradition (in theme and denouement), and, the third indispensable factor, reflection—the combination of introspection and observation that led Hélisenne to personalize her story, to examine with a critical eye both society's expectations and lovers' aspirations. Her critique is not as thoroughgoing as twentieth-century feminists might like, and she often gets tangled up in inconsistencies and contradictions, yet the attempt she makes is still intriguing, and we must admire the courage (along with a desire for revenge and a taste for notoriety!) that led her to bring her case as wronged wife and unhappy mistress before the jury of her peers, the lady readers to whom she dedicates her work.

A.-M. Schmidt attributes both the succès de sentiment and the succès de scandale of her book to her boldness in daring to derive a novel from her personal marital misfortunes.10 We are touched as well as scandalized by her candor. Demats adds that the most important element in Hélisenne's achievement is her ability to use literature for her own purposes—to serve her resentments and her intimate hopes and, most of all, to savor the bitter pleasure of reliving and completing the drama of her love affair.11 The unique “irritating charm” that many readers find in Les Angoysses springs from a weakness that becomes a strength, a confession that becomes an accusation. And from a voyeurism that we are invited to share: Hélisenne's husband's vigilant jealousy—in her letters she calls him Argus, after the hundred-eyed giant of Greek mythology—is a motivating force to equal her own obsession. The lover himself, without quite being reduced to a Bel Indifférent, is less significant than the desire he arouses. We might almost call him a sex object in the modern sense of the term, were it not for Hélisenne's repeated attempts to invest their experience with transcendent meaning.

The conventional goal Marguerite sets for her work—to exhort others not to follow folle Amour, that is, Mad Love—should not be considered pure hypocrisy. It is true that the tellers of tales of doubtful morality traditionally claim to be moralists, yet in creating Hélisenne she is indeed presenting us with a cautionary fable, whatever else she is doing at the same time. For the effect on the reader of this woman's story of suffering differs in kind from that of more glamorous figures like Guinevere, Francesca da Rimini, or Juliet: we are moved to question the validity of romantic love as an intellectual concept and as a life-enhancing experience, even if we secretly envy the intensity of Hélisenne's desires. The unglamorous aspect of her obsession is not concealed by silence, nor is it as a rule transfigured by lyric beauty. Whereas many readers of Petrarch's or Louise Labé's poems would gladly embrace their pains if the poetry came with it, Hélisenne's literary skill is sufficient to serve her story but not to overwhelm it.

We cannot justly conclude, however, that Marguerite's writing questions courtly love simply because she lacks the literary power to create her own Vita Nuova. It might be fairer as well as more useful to see her concern with truth and illusion, appearance and reality, as deriving from an awareness of the décalage, the split, which frequently occurs between what she has read and what she has seen—a break that she sometimes explores and sometimes obscures. Her text oscillates between the petty and the poetic—and one irony is that she often writes best, with the most convincing vision and eloquence, when she is least involved with being eloquent.

Another, less expected irony is present as well: many a telling detail, many a gesture or image that strikes a twentieth-century reader as especially colorful or realistic can be traced to one of the stories she took as models. What she has read influences what she sees as well as what she says. Often it is impossible to tell whether a particular incident is based on her life or her model or both, so much do the literary and the literal intertwine. Does her first glimpse of Guenelic follow the pattern of Fiammetta's initial encounter with Pamfilo because Marguerite is adapting her account to her memory of Boccaccio's story, or did that memory perhaps lead her to experience the actual encounter in those terms? Such a question, though unanswerable, is worth posing: it reminds us to keep an eye out for both convergence and divergence when we compare Hélisenne's narrative with preceding ones. Her originality arises from a combination of imitation and innovation.

The convoluted high style that Marguerite prefers for certain episodes has its own irritating charm; even in her day critics disagreed about its worth. Hélisenne did not invent the rhetorical extravagance she calls the delectable stile poeticque—her schoolmasters are Jean Lemaire de Belges, Jacobo Caviceo, and Diego de San Pedro, among others—but she has been both praised and blamed for using it. In 1555 François de Billon published a book in defense of women called Le Fort inexpugnable de l'honneur du sexe féminin; one feature of his “fortress” is a listing of notable female authors. While not at the top of the list, Hélisenne figures there in an honorable position: “After that noble city of Lyon, Picardie receives no little honor from its daughter Hélisenne. Her compositions are so often in the hands of those French who delight in [se delectans de] prose that there is no need to say more about it.”12 Not everyone found her equally delightful.

Claude Colet, in his prefatory letter to the 1550 edition of Hélisenne's collected works, recalls a conversation with the two “gracieuses Damoyselles” who asked him to take on the project.13 The ladies were discussing with him the merits of various authors, and they included several vertueuses Dames among the French writers, putting in first place, naturally enough, “la tresillustre et incomparable Marguerite de France.” Hélisenne de Crenne was then mentioned. Her Angoysses and other works were too hard for the demoiselles to understand because there were so many obscure Latinate words in them; they asked the scholar to revise the texts for them and translate the rare words into more familiar terms. It is interesting to note that Colet expresses no qualms about the content of the books. Hélisenne's subject matter, especially in Le Songe, is “bien belle et d'edification à toutes gens qui ayment la Vertu” (“very beautiful and edifying to all who love Virtue”), but he is hesitant to redo the texts of a living author whose style may be deliberately chosen, he says, to be understood only by the learned. Nonetheless he is soon convinced that he should undertake the task, since the young ladies promise to arrange matters with Hélisenne for him. The 1551 edition of Hélisenne's Oeuvres carries the notation that it was revised by the author herself; this claim is probably incorrect, but Marguerite may well have given her permission to Colet to do the revisions for her.

Colet's insistence that Hélisenne's intentions in writing are “good, holy and praiseworthy if well understood” strikes a modern reader as rather disingenuous—but he had never heard of Freud, after all, and even the Calvinists of the day believed in the value of the cautionary tale. One of Hélisenne's own constant concerns is to present her story as edifying and herself as more victim than villainess. Amour excessif and reason or respectability battle for her psyche as, in religious terms, sin and salvation war for her soul. The latter conflict matters much less to her than the former: she fears social damnation more than spiritual. The same concern is shown in her Familiar and Invective Letters, when she allows her husband to accuse her of feigning virtue in order to avoid being “expelled from the society of ladies.” And the advice she gives in her “familiar letters” is almost always designed to show herself as a paragon of piety, filial devotion, and marital fidelity.14 Much of her curious appeal comes from this juxtaposition of cant and sincerity, her open revelation of her occasional duplicity—like a female Rousseau avant la lettre, she seems to expect us to forgive her because she has so frankly admitted her failings.

Her confession nonetheless failed to impress favorably some of her contemporaries, in style or content.15 The humanist Étienne Pasquier mistakenly believed that Rabelais had her in mind when the great satirist ridiculed the Latin jargon of the écolier Limousin, and Pasquier's error has inspired numerous pages of futile scholarly commentary over the years. Bernier's uncomplimentary assessment, however, has a certain truth to its sting: in his opinion “Elizaine de Crene, a Picarde, wrote various very extravagant works.” Pasquier, Bernier, and Colet all seem to think that Hélisenne's text is verbose and pretentiously pedantic, that her “redundance latinicome” is too much for readers to endure. Before passing judgment on her style, however, let us examine it in more detail.

Both Demats and Secor have analyzed the differences between the original and the revised versions of Les Angoysses.16 Their conclusions are similar: the newer edition simplifies the language of the text, not only replacing a number of Old French words (such as curre, engin) with more modern terms, but also and especially—as the young ladies had wished—substituting synonyms in common use for much of Hélisenne's erudite Latinate vocabulary. A few of these latter terms are neologisms, either invented by Hélisenne or borrowed from fellow authors of the time. Secor gives several examples of words unattested before Hélisenne: jubarité (joy), letification (enjoyment), and tediation (irritation, boredom, or fatigue).

Most of her learned language, however, is drawn from the traditional vocabulary of Medieval schools and courts, words she had learned from the works of the fifteenth-century poets known as the Grands Rhétoriqueurs as well as from treatises by early humanists and authors of manuals on writing.17 These words were current in scholarly circles when Hélisenne began to write; they may never have been widely known among the laity, particularly among those French who knew how to read in the vernacular but had little or no training in Latin. When Hélisenne employs a rare Latinate word, she often pairs it with a homelier term, easily understood by every reader—such as “joye et hilarité” (joy and jubilation), “exoculé ny aveuglé” (neither exoculated nor blinded), “scelerité et maulvaistié” (evil and wickedness). This doubling of synonyms from different registers is a stylistic trait frequently found in the French “high style” from the twelfth or thirteenth century on, but Hélisenne is perhaps excessively fond of the technique. She sometimes extends the list of synonyms to three, four, even five terms of varying degrees of familiarity.

Given the choice between a common and a learned term, Hélisenne prefers the learned: for “high-thundering” she uses “altitonant” rather than the ordinary “hault tonant”; for Creator she likes to use “Plasmateur.” Her tendency to go to extremes leads her at times to replace a fairly simple phrase in one of her sources with a string of abstruse words that shows off her own learning and seems designed to impress (and more, to intimidate?) her principal readers—the ladies and gentlemen of the gentry.18 Thus, in a description of the deeds of Hercules drawn from Le Grand Olympe she transforms “surmonté (tamed, has overcome) Cerberus, chien à trois testes (dog with three heads)” into “suppedité Cerberus, le chien tricipite,” where the basic meaning is unchanged but the tone is rendered perceptibly more abstract and difficult.

Some of Hélisenne's excesses may be attributed to the Renaissance spirit—like Rabelais or Marot she is intoxicated by the joys of sheer verbalization—and her desire to demonstrate her knowledge has many parallels among the poets and humanist scholars of the period. Like Maurice Scève, too, Hélisenne treasures the recondite term in itself, as if words were jewels. Hence her pleasure in using ociosité (“idleness,” related to “otiose”), caligineux (“caliginous, dark”), scaturie (“source”), aurigateur (“charioteer”), and other arcane words.

When Hélisenne began to compose Les Angoysses, literary discourse in France used Middle French, a specialized language or, in J. P. Houston's terms, a “stylistic complex … made of erudite vocabulary, complicated sentence structure, and varied forms, now medieval, now modern.”19 Hélisenne and her contemporaries wrote—with their individual variations—in Middle French's typical prose style, as had such respected predecessors as Christine de Pizan and Alain Chartier. This ceremonial, intricate, Latinizing eloquence, with paragraphs made up of long sentences arranged into short chapters like traditional philosophical treatises, with an emphasis on analysis and legal or scholastic terminology, yet full of striking images, conforms to the humanist ideal of the late Medieval and early Renaissance authors. It is a type of poetic prose René Sturel finds characteristic of the sixteenth century.20

Many of Hélisenne's readers must have enjoyed this fancy writing as much as she did, judging by the laudatory comments of François de Billon and the Abbeville chronicler cited above, as well as by the frequent republication of her words. Even Colet, in his revisions, spares many words and phrases that belong, he says, to the poetic style. So why was Hélisenne singled out for criticism by Pasquier and other similarly minded men?

Many modern scholars assert that she carries the verbal extravagance too far, indulges too much in “the bombast of amorous anguish,” is too diffuse, confused, contradictory, repetitious, and uneven.21 Thus they concur with the harsher critics of her day. Yet, if we carefully compare her prose with the writing of her peers, we find that she writes as well or better than many others. The occasional awkwardness and obscurity of her writing, the magpie fondness for rare words and rhetorical razzle-dazzle, the danger of getting lost in a maze of tangled or at least deeply embedded clauses—all of these seeming faults (familiar also in her contemporaries) are in Hélisenne's case redeemed and often transformed by the intensity of her expressed feeling and the close attention to changing mental and emotional states. Perhaps she gets into trouble because she is a woman writing with a unique combination of passion, erudition, and deliberate confrontation; because she is a well-schooled and frankly partisan champion of women's rights; because she openly expresses her desire for a fulfilled intellectual and erotic life.

Christine de Pizan's learned challenge to the male order is less explosive, defused by her stress on traditional female virtues like chastity and marital fidelity, as by the coolly dispassionate tone that characterizes much of her writing. Pernette du Guillet is herself both passionate and erudite, but her poetry, published only after her death, asserts her transcendence of the physical and poses little challenge to patriarchal society. Louise Labé comes closer to Hélisenne's position, but La Belle Cordelière, as her friends in Lyon called her, considers herself a special case, like the legendary heroine Bradamanta, not so much an advocate for all women's rights. Her vocabulary is also, in the main, simpler, less florid, less provocatively scholastic than Hélisenne's.

Hélisenne's conscious, even conspicuous, display of learning in a work of popular appeal directed (at least in large part) to a readership of women (who were usually less schooled than she) appears to have disconcerted a number of men and women, but for different reasons. The demoiselles who ask Colet's help do not so much criticize Hélisenne's style as they express genuine regret at not being able to understand it. Colet and other detractors show no inability to comprehend Hélisenne's texts—they simply dislike her use of Latinisms and archaic terms on aesthetic or misogynistic grounds. I speculate that, as these same learned men did not criticize their brother writers so severely for similar stylistic features, their anger may have largely sprung from consternation that a mere woman would so aggressively display her arcane learning. What would pass unnoticed in the work of Jean Lemaire de Belges is considered unforgivable in her texts. Perhaps the highly charged and personal nature of much of her writing further exasperated her male readers, especially what we would call today her emerging feminist consciousness.

Hélisenne herself seems to have feared a severe reception of her works, at least in certain quarters, and defends her content and style on several occasions, most notably in the “Fourth Invective Letter” and in the final chapter of part 1 of Les Angoysses, a letter addressed to her lady readers. In the latter instance she first of all counters the opinion of “certain timid ladies” that “immodest love” should be passed over in silence, then expresses her assurance that all ladies who read her book will forgive her candor: “If you know well with what force Love has constrained me, I will be blamed by none [feminine plural].” Her book, she asserts (as ever), will help others avoid the same failings she describes. Then, Hélisenne touches on her style and the book's reception: “I am quite sure that this little work of mine will seem crude and obscure in comparison to those you may have read, composed by orators and historians, who by the sublimity of their intellect write books no less jocund than difficult and arduous; but in this it must serve me as an excuse that our feminine nature is not as apt for learning as men naturally are.” She completes her modesty formula by stating that she is not even so presumptuous as to believe herself capable of equaling, much less bettering, the literary achievements of certain unnamed ladies—those who are gifted with such lofty minds that their compositions are most elegant in language. But whatever faults there are in her writing, she says, must be due to defects in her knowledge and not in her will, aspiration, and desire.

This lengthy apology, in which she eschews rivalry not only with learned men but also with other talented women, is an especially insistent development of a traditional opening or closing theme, the author's humble plea for the reader's benevolence. It shows the curious mixture of self-assurance and self-doubt we find elsewhere in her writing, intensified at the moment by her awareness of risking criticism by the publication of her “little work.” A learned woman was considered a fascinating anomaly by the men and women of the Renaissance and had to contend with possible attacks from her own sex as well as from the opposite sex. It was quite rare for women of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to be both wives and scholars (though this combination was somewhat more likely to occur in France than elsewhere): Margaret King has analyzed the situation of learned women in Renaissance Italy and found that they were forced to choose “marriage and full participation in social life [relinquishing their studies] … or abstention from marriage and withdrawal from the world.”22 Even a circumscribed life of chastity could not disarm all of their critics, and such celebrated women humanists as Costanza Varano, Cassandra Fedele, and Isotta Nogarola feel that they must apologize for being women with pretensions to learning—and sometimes for being women at all. Male humanists, on the other hand, praise these women lavishly or else condemn them bitterly. One anonymous pamphleteer, writing in Latin, goes so far as to assert that “an eloquent woman is never chaste; and the behavior of many learned women also confirms [this] truth.”23 Hélisenne must have encountered many men with attitudes like this Italian's, many who attacked her ability and her integrity. Such opposition seems to have first spurred her to further writing, in her letters and Le Songe, in order to defend herself and to express the views of a woman who could speak with unusual authority in both emotional and intellectual domains. It may also explain the relative brevity of her publishing career and the repeated denials that she ever reached the “fifth and ultimate degree” of love in her relationship with Guenelic. She may have decided that the public notice she once craved had begun to cost too much.

The male establishment's verdict on her is summed up by Bernier: she was a “precieuse et sçavante que son sçavoir avoit rendue folle,” that is, a “precious” or overly refined woman whose learning had made her mad.24 A century before Molière's satires against Les Précieuses ridicules and Les Femmes savantes, censorious male critics were mocking women who had a strong sense of self and refused to let men have all the words. Hélisenne herself never ceases to identify learning with sanity and self-worth; implicitly rejecting Bernier's condescending sarcasms, she finds her folly in love, not learning.

Les Angoysses, as the first native novel of passion in France, had many imitators. It points the way toward L'Astrée, the elegant pastoral novel so popular at the end of the sixteenth century, and Madame de Lafayette's classic psychological novel, La Princesse de Clèves, in the seventeenth century. Several scholars have found suggestive parallels between Les Angoysses and La Princesse, though there is no proof that Madame de Lafayette knew the work of her predecessor (she was familiar with the contes of Marguerite of Navarre).

The general reading public seems to have forgotten Hélisenne after the sixteenth century, and the scholars themselves reduced her to a hoax or a legend: La Monnoye, summing up the opinions of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scholarship, says that she never existed, that her romanesque name conceals some capricious author—in that he is correct!—who wrote a wholly made-up story in over-Latinate language.25 Apart from what Demats calls the “astonishing divagations” of misguided Rabelais specialists, the most intriguing development in early Hélisenne studies is the appearance in the nineteenth century of a romanticized biography by Hyacinthe Dusevel: he relies on vague reminiscences and active imaginations discovered in Hélisenne's home region of Picardy, where her memory seems to have survived into the eighteenth century, to elaborate a tale of Hélisenne's reception at court by Louise of Savoy.26 There, according to Dusevel, Hélisenne meets a handsome young knight whose death inspires her novel. Dusevel adds that the ladies of the gallant and frivolous court of François Premier never read Les Angoysses without shedding tears.

Along with such charming, though undocumented, romantic fantasies, the nineteenth century sees a rebirth of serious interest in the historical Hélisenne and an effort to place her achievements in context. In 1840, in the first significant scholarly study of her writing, J. M. Guichard sees Hélisenne as the link between Christine de Pizan in the fourteenth century and Madame de Staël in the eighteenth. The author of Les Angoysses deserves to take her place among “the courageous and inspired women, worthy of our respect, who have in every era given luster to French literature.”27 Guichard appreciates the poetry and drama of Hélisenne's account of her violent and disordered passion. He sees her as the most complete practitioner of the intimate novel.

At the turn of the twentieth century several scholars, most notably Gustave Reynier and Henriette Charasson, begin to trace Hélisenne's role as creator of the sentimental novel or novel of passion, as well as her contribution to the development of modern psychology and the literary analysis of feelings.28 In 1929 L. M. Richardson, in The Forerunners of Feminism in French Literature of the Renaissance from Christine de Pisan to Marie de Gournay, accords an honorable place to Hélisenne.29 Richardson takes special note of Hélisenne's Familiar and Invective Letters and considers her the only Frenchwoman to champion her sex in the early sixteenth century. These concerns will predominate in subsequent scholarship, along with an increasing interest in her style and the exciting rediscovery of the historical Marguerite Briet behind Hélisenne de Crenne.

In recent years Hélisenne has benefited from the new vogue of the Renaissance among many scholars and general readers, as from the continuing growth of feminist criticism, with its reassessing of the literary canon. Since the 1950s there have been at least five doctoral dissertations devoted to her work, a dozen or more articles and other studies treating her books, and a series of new editions. Part 1 of Les Angoysses has attracted the most attention, with two critical editions published in France, but there is also Secor's critical edition of the whole novel (available from University Microfilms) and a Slatkine reprint of the 1551 complete Oeuvres, as well as the translation of her letters by Mustacchi and Archambault.

In choosing selections to translate for this volume I have favored part 1, the most famous and most striking example of her writing, and within part 1 itself I thought best to concentrate on the initial half-dozen chapters, as they recount her early life and the beginnings of her tragic love affair. Almost all of Hélisenne's key themes and concerns are introduced in these six chapters, and the obsessive quality of her passion is already made abundantly clear, as are the reactions of her husband and her new love interest to her predicament. While it is painful to have to omit some wonderful episodes that occur later in the story, the summary that I provide of the rest of the novel should give a quick overview of the text as a whole and place the excerpted chapters in context. I have also translated the prefatory poem “Hélisenne aux Lisantes” (“Hélisenne to Her Lady Readers”), the only verse we have by her—which is interesting both as a succinct statement of her views and as a proof of her skill at handling the fashionable dizain or ten-line form, plus the dedicatory letter she addresses to “all honorable ladies,” setting forth in more detail her intentions in composing her book. In addition to these selections from Les Angoysses I have translated major portions of the “Fourth Invective Letter” from Hélisenne's collected letters, an essay in epistolary form in which she offers a spirited defense of women's right to write literature. This essay is one of a series in which she attacks the misogynistic attitudes shown by, among others, her husband and a self-appointed censor named Elenot. It is to Elenot, at least ostensibly, that she writes the “Fourth Letter,” though the text makes clear that she expects a wider audience as well. The letter reiterates many of the concerns of Les Angoysses in a different framework and allows us to see a new dimension of Hélisenne's role as champion of women's causes.

In all the passages I have translated I have sought to preserve as much as possible of the period flavor of Hélisenne's style, without trying to outdo John Lyly's Euphues. Where feasible I have used words of the same or similar registers as the originals, that is, words of the same level and category, from concrete to abstract, familiar to abstruse, simple to complex. I have also reproduced, in many cases, the loose, meandering construction she uses in most of her sentences, for I believe its very diffuseness is an essential aspect of her thought patterns. Where she is not systematic, I have not tried to regularize her—thus, for example, as she refers to the classical gods sometimes by their Greek names, sometimes by the Roman equivalents, and elsewhere merely by an allusion to a myth about them, so does my translation. I have added a word in brackets or a note to the translation where needed for comprehension, but I did not want to otherwise disturb the guessing game she likes to play with her readers. I have, however, abbreviated the text in a few places where her tendency to diffuseness and repetition seemed likely to tire a modern reader—though I have certainly left in enough repetition to give a good idea of that element of her style! It is in part by the recurrence of phrases such as “a singular pleasure,” “shameless glances,” “true possessor of my heart,” or “amorous folly” that her story gains its enigmatic power. The repetition of terms, images, and situations, together with the frequent lists of synonyms, translates the lady's obsession and her unending but largely fruitless efforts to deal with it.

Les Angoysses douloureuses is a long and elaborate novel, though not so long or complicated as some of the chivalric romances popular in Hélisenne's day. Demats's edition of part 1 alone runs nearly one hundred pages, while Secor's edition of the whole text in his dissertation takes more than four hundred typed pages. The three parts are roughly equivalent in size, with part 2 somewhat longer than part 1, and part 3 somewhat shorter. They vary considerably, however, in focus, and there is evidence in the text that the three sections were written and may well have been published or at least circulated in manuscript separately (though no such partial editions have been found).

The dedicatory epistle or letter that precedes part 1 is paralleled by similar prefaces within the other two parts—another letter in part 2 and a preamble in part 3. While the three prefaces share many themes, they differ in tone and even intended audience, shifting from an exclusively female to a male or mixed audience. The character of Guenelic also alters for the better, as we have said, and Hélisenne even reminds the readers in part 2 of episodes in part 1, so that she can reinterpret them in less disparaging ways. Scholars speculate as to why she did not go back and change the earlier version, whatever her composition methods, before the novel was published in full form. It might be that this repetition with variation allowed her to have her literary cake and eat it too—she presents both views and leaves it up to us to make sense of them.

Part 1 has twenty-eight chapters, more than either of the others, but its chapters are usually briefer; several are only one or two pages long and treat a single episode. In tone part 1 often resembles a diary or journal—this intimacy is largely lost in the later, less autobiographical sections, yet they too offer fresh insights into Hélisenne's ideas and interests, as filtered through her male narrators. Part 2, chapter 12, “The state and liberality of a reigning princess,” is especially intriguing in this regard. It has a double purpose, to portray Hélisenne's ideal female monarch and to pay a playfully exaggerated compliment to her relative Jeanne Briet.30 The “very beautiful city” of Eliveba where the magnificent princess holds her court is none other than Hélisenne's own beloved Abbeville, transported by the author into exotic Asia Minor, near Troy. The mock-heroic tone that frequently colors the tales of chivalric derring-do in parts 2 and 3 sets Les Angoysses off from its conventional models and tempers our reading of Guenelic's slow evolution from selfish boy to perfect lover.

Hélisenne's ironies and sly mockeries do not keep her, nonetheless, from showing a genuine interest in Neoplatonism and Stoicism and the potential these philosophies might have for resolving the conflicts between appearance and reality, reason and sensuality, law and liberty, that trouble her. Throughout Les Angoysses she vacillates between two idealized self-images, Hélisenne the inamorata and Hélisenne the lady of honor and wisdom. In part 3 she manages to fuse them into a single, splendid, if equivocal, image in her death scene. It is the crowning irony of the work that Quezinstra, perfect knight and ideal friend, who consistently urges Guenelic to renounce his immoderate desires, becomes a hermit near the lovers' tomb. Thus he finally honors them as saints, martyrs to the very love he has disdained. And the apotheosis of Hélisenne's “little book,” which both Pallas Athena and Venus wish to claim, asserts the enduring value of her work in an amusing fashion. Demats points out that her book serves as a new apple of discord similar to the one that led to the Trojan War.31 Here the outcome is peaceful—the publication of Hélisenne's book, by Jupiter's order, in Paris, the city favored by both goddesses.

Les Angoysses begins with the prefatory poem and letter already mentioned. In part 1 Hélisenne tells the story of her life and all the suffering she has endured for Guenelic. Chapter 1 recounts her noble birth, childhood, and the early years of her marriage. Chapters 2-6 show her sudden surprise by love, her young suitor's attentions, and her husband's growing jealousy. Chapters 7-10 tell of the first exchanges of words and then letters between the lovers. Hélisenne advises Guenelic to give up his dangerous passion, yet she also encourages him. In chapter 11 her husband discovers and reads the love letters (she has kept a copy of her own missive). In fury he slaps her and orders her to remain in her chamber. Later, when Hélisenne once more gazes too ardently at Guenelic in church, her husband beats her brutally as soon as they return home. In chapter 12 Hélisenne tries unsuccessfully to kill herself with a knife. Chapters 13-15 recount her reluctant visit to a monk and the preacher's failure to reform her. As these chapter headings show, the result is a foregone conclusion: “Holy admonitions do not make a woman stung by love wish to desist,” “The heart of a woman obstinate in love is impossible to change.” Chapters 16-18 tell of the strategems the lovers employ to arrange meetings, their “amorous colloquies,” and the husband's continuing abuse of his rebellious wife. Chapters 19-20 center on the lover's reproaches—he is angry that Hélisenne has not rewarded his love service. She calls him by name for the first time and finally admits to him that she would like to gratify his desire. Yet concern for her reputation and doubts of his constancy deter her. He grows more and more insolent and demanding. She dreams of his embraces, but the dream turns into a nightmare. Chapters 21-22 deal with gossip, Hélisenne's declining health, and her “piteous exclamation” against Guenelic and the love from which she cannot free herself. A servant informs her husband that Hélisenne has written down an account of her love affair. In a rage the husband kicks down the door to her room, reads the tale of her (in his words) “unbridled lasciviousness,” and decides to kill her before she can consummate her sinful desires and dishonor them both. But the servants intervene. He decides to send her away instead. Chapters 23-27 describe her sad departure, her regrets, her imprisonment in a tower with only two demoiselles for company, and her bittersweet reflections on her fate. The last chapter of part 1 is a final plea for understanding from the “very dear and honored ladies” who will read her book. She excuses herself for speaking without reserve and defends her style as well as her subject matter, closing with a prayer that God will grant the ladies all the virtues necessary to live free of inconvenient passions.

Part 2 recounts the adventures of Guenelic and Quezinstra searching for Hélisenne. Her introductory letter asserts two goals, to warn young men of the perils of passion and to stimulate them to knightly deeds. In chapters 1-2 Guenelic himself says he wishes to teach other young men the virtues of true love, and admits his own past indiscretions, before retelling the story of the love affair from his point of view, emphasizing his anguishes. Hélisenne seems to invite us to enjoy the spectacle of Guenelic's suffering—as a fitting counterpart to her own miseries—even as we are expected to sympathize with him. In chapter 3, having learned that Hélisenne has been imprisoned, but not where, he leaves with Quezinstra to find and rescue her. The two young men pretend to be going on a pilgrimage—throughout parts 2 and 3 Guenelic will show a discretion as extreme as his earlier indiscretions. The two friends encounter and defeat brigands on their way to Sirap (Paris), where they spend some time, in chapter 4, before a visit to Gorenflos, the rich duchy that is Hélisenne's fantasy version of a family property with the same name. The next chapters describe the travelers' experiences in Gorenflos: long discussions about love, a terrifying dream in which Guenelic sees Hélisenne dying, a consultation with an astrologer who predicts that Guenelic will see her again in two years, the knighting of the two companions, a series of tournaments where Quezinstra in particular shines (and outshines Guenelic), and, in chapter 11, an aristocratic wedding ceremony they witness that intensifies Guenelic's longing for his lady love. After a rapid tour of the Mediterranean in which they visit the island of Cythera, North Africa, Cyprus, Syria, and other famous spots, most notably Troy, they arrive in Eliveba.

Chapters 12-14 tell of the princess of Eliveba, her elegant court, and the besieging of her city by a suitor whose proposal of marriage she has rejected. As we might expect, both young visitors take her side in the ensuing war, and once again Quezinstra's prowess is extraordinary—he eventually wins a single combat that decides the conflict. Guenelic, meanwhile, is brave but unlucky—captured in battle he narrowly escapes death. In chapter 15 the two companion knights receive the grateful princess's gifts and depart on a new round of visits, to Rhodes, Athens, Thebes, and other distant localities. They assist a prince in putting down a rebellion among his subjects. Though he would like to keep them at his court they insist on leaving—to the prince's admonitions against love Guenelic responds with praise of loyal love service.

Part 3, chapters 1-2, continues their voyages and eventually brings them to Italy, where Guenelic falls ill but recovers. They visit a hermit who advises them to resist sensuality. Guenelic maintains that love makes us virtuous (here Hélisenne repeats at length the well-known doctrine of courtly love that the true lover is ennobled by his love and thus avoids all the deadly sins).32 The hermit predicts that Guenelic will find his lady, yet will not have the good fortune to enjoy her love in peace. In chapter 3 Guenelic at last discovers her whereabouts, and chapters 4-7 describe his efforts to contact Hélisenne, the lovers' nocturnal conversation through a barred window of her tower, and the plan for her escape that she devises and the two young men carry out—with disastrous results, for Hélisenne is soon struck with a mysterious and fatal malady. Before leaving the castle, however, she has had the satisfaction of sending word to her husband that, if he wants a wife, he should get himself one (since she is his no longer). Chapters 8-12 present a lovingly detailed account of Hélisenne's repentance, her final advice to her lover to purify his passion of all carnal taint and prepare for the reunion of their souls in the next world, her death, Guenelic's grief and his death, and the appearance of the god Mercury who not only conducts the lovers' souls to Minos (who sends them to the Elysian Fields) but takes Quezinstra on a guided tour of the infernal regions. With a touch of malice Hélisenne has Mercury specify that Venus is sending one of the Furies to torment the cruel sister-in-law who had been her jailer. Quezinstra arranges honorable burial for the lovers' bodies and has written on their tombs their sad history, then builds a small chapel and a hermitage nearby, where he will finish out his days in solitude. Mercury carries to heaven the small white-silk package containing Hélisenne's book—there Venus and Pallas Athena dispute possession of the book, until Jupiter sends it down to Paris to be published and thereby perpetuate the memory of these two and their amorous anguishes.

Les Angoysses was indeed published in Paris, as Jupiter and Hélisenne wished, and it has secured her—despite periods of eclipse—a place in literature, the perpetual memory of humanity, as she so ardently desired. Together with her letters, Le Songe, and the translation from the Aeneid,Les Angoysses preserves the record of a lively energetic, and amazingly determined woman whose voice reaches us clearly across the centuries. Her work has for us the double appeal of gossip and philosophy, diary and poetry, autobiographical realism in emotion, gesture, and concrete detail along with bold theorizing on morality and the nature of women and men. Often conventional or even conservative, yet equally often avant-garde, passionate in her loving and her learning, advocate of more fulfilled lives for all women, starting with herself, Hélisenne is a woman of the Renaissance who speaks powerfully to our times.


  1. Helen Waldstein, “Hélisenne de Crenne: A Woman of the Renaissance”; Suzanne Marie-Marguerite Loriente, “L'Esthétique des Angoysses Douloureuses Qui Procedent d'Amours d'Hélisenne de Crenne.”

  2. Paule Demats, ed., Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538), p. xxxvi.

  3. Louis Loviot, “Hélisenne de Crenne”; Abel Lefranc, “A propos d'Hélisenne de Crenne”; V.-L. Saulnier, “Quelques nouveautés sur Hélisenne de Crenne.”

  4. Demats, ed., p. viii.

  5. Ibid., p. x.

  6. Saulnier, p. 461, n. 1.

  7. On Christine de Pizan's attitudes to courtly love, see Liliane Dulac, “Christine de Pisan et le Malheur des Vrais Amans”; Charity Cannon Willard, “A New Look at Christine de Pizan's Epistre au Dieu d'Amours”; and Willard, Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works, pp. 87-89, 150-53.

  8. Richard M. Berrong, “Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoisses Douleureuses Qui Procèdent D'Amours.

  9. Demats, ed., p. xxxiii.

  10. A.-M. Schmidt, in Histoire des Littératures, 3:201-2, cited in Demats, ed., p. xxxv.

  11. Demats, ed., pp. xxxv-xxxvi.

  12. François de Billon, Le fort inexpugnable de l'honneur du sexe féminin.

  13. “Lettre de Claude Colet,” included in Hélisenne de Crenne's Oeuvres (Paris, 1550); reprinted in Demats, ed., pp. 102-3.

  14. For a translation of Hélisenne's letters into colloquial English, plus an interesting analysis of the development of her ideas and writing style, see Marianna M. Mustacchi and Paul J. Archambault, trans. and eds., A Renaissance Woman: Hélisenne's Personal and Invective Letters.

  15. Étienne Pasquier, Lettres; on Bernier, see Demats, ed., p. vi.

  16. Harry R. Secor, Jr., ed., “Hélisenne de Crenne: Les Angoysses Douloureuses Qui Procedent D'Amours (1538): A Critical Edition Based on the Original Text with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary,” pp. c-cii; Demats, ed., p. xxxv.

  17. John Porter Houston, The Traditions of French Prose Style: A Rhetorical Study, pp. 3-32, 34-44; Mustacchi, pp. 8-13.

  18. On Hélisenne's use of Latinisms, see Secor, ed., pp. lxxx-lxxxiv, xc.

  19. Houston, p. 3.

  20. René Sturel, “La Prose poétique au XVIe siècle.”

  21. See especially Houston, pp. 146-47.

  22. Margaret L. King, “Book-Lined Cells: Women and Humanism in the Early Italian Renaissance.”

  23. Ibid., p. 77.

  24. Demats, ed., p. vi.

  25. La Monnoye, cited by La Croix du Maine.

  26. Hyacinthe Dusevel, Biographie des hommes célèbres du département de la Somme.

  27. J.-M. Guichard, “Hélisenne de Crenne.”

  28. Gustave Reynier, Le roman sentimental avant l'Astrée; Henriette Charasson, “Les origines de la sentimentalité moderne: d'Hélisenne de Crenne à Jean de Tinan.”

  29. L. M. Richardson, The Forerunners of Feminism in French Literature of the Renaissance from Christine de Pisan to Marie de Gournay, pp. 75-76.

  30. On Jeanne Briet, see Demats, ed., p. vii.

  31. Ibid., p. xxiii.

  32. Hélisenne borrows mainly from chapter 5 of Anthoine de La Sale's Petit Jehan de Saintré, in which the lady teaches Saintré “many good things and salutary doctrines, touching on how one should flee the seven deadly sins.” Compare Secor, ed., p. 459.


Primary Works

Crenne, Hélisenne de. Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours: Contenantz troys parties, Composees par Dame Hélisenne: Laquelle exhorte toutes personnes a ne suyvre folle Amour. Paris, 1538. Reprint, with the addition of “Hélisenne aux lisantes.” Lyon, 1539? Reprint of Lyon edition. Paris, 1541.

Demats, Paule, ed. Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538), Première partie. Paris, 1968.

Mustacchi, Marianna M., and Paul J. Archambault, trans. and eds. A Renaissance Woman: Hélisenne's Personal and Invective Letters. Syracuse, New York, 1986.

Secor, Harry R., Jr., ed., “Hélisenne de Crenne: Les Angoysses Douloureuses Qui Procedent D'Amours (1538): A Critical Edition Based on the Original Text with Introduction, Notes, and Glossary.” Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1957.

Related Works

Berrong, Richard M. “Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoisses Douleureuses Qui Procèdent D'Amours: The Secularization of Reason.” The USF Language Quarterly 22, nos. 1-2 (Fall-Winter 1983): 20-22.

Billon, François de. Le fort inexpugnable de l'honneur du sexe feminin, folios 35b-36a. Paris, 1555.

Charasson, Henriette. “Les origines de la sentimentalité moderne: de Hélisenne de Crenne à Jean de Tinan.” Mercure de France 86 (1910), 193-216.

Coulet, Henri. Le roman jusqu'à la Révolution. Vol. 1, pp. 104-6. Paris, 1967.

Dulac, Liliane. “Christine de Pisan et le Malheur des Vrais Amans.” In Mélanges de Langue et de Littérature Médiévales Offerts à Pierre Le Gentil, pp. 223-33. Paris, 1973.

Dusevel, Hyacinthe. Biographie des hommes célèbres du département de la Somme. Vol. 1, pp. 209-11. Amiens, 1837.

Guichard, J.-M. “Hélisenne de Crenne.” Revue du XIXe siècle 2d ser., 8 (1840): 276-84.

Houston, John Porter. The Traditions of French Prose Style: A Rhetorical Study. Baton Rouge, 1981.

King, Margaret L. “Book-Lined Cells: Women and Humanism in the Early Italian Renaissance.” In Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, ed. Patricia H. Labalme, pp. 66-90, esp. pp. 68-69. New York, 1984.

La Monnoye. Cited by François La Croix du Maine, in Bibliothèque Françoise. Vol. 1, p. 362. Paris, 1772.

Lafranc, Abel. “A propos d'Hélisenne de Crenne.” Revue des Livres Anciens. 2 (1917): 376-77.

Loriente, Suzanne Marie-Marguerite. “L'Esthétique des Angoysses Douloureuses Qui Procedent d'Amours d'Hélisenne de Crenne.” Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 1982.

Loviot, Louis. “Hélisenne de Crenne.” Revue des Livres Anciens 2 (1917): 137-45.

Pasquier, Étienne. Lettres, folios 52b-53a. Paris, 1586.

Reynier, Gustave. Le roman sentimental avant l'Astrée, pp. 99-122, 205-6. Paris, 1908.

Richardson, L. M. The Forerunners of Feminism in French Literature of the Renaissance from Christine de Pisan to Marie de Gournay. Baltimore, 1929.

Saulnier, V.-L. “Quelques nouveautés sur Hélisenne de Crenne.” Bulletin de l'Association Guillaume Budé, 4th ser., no. 4 (1964): 459-63.

Schmidt, A.-M. In Histoire des Littératures. Vol. 3, pp. 201-2. Paris, 1963.

Sturel, René. “La Prose poétique au XVIe siècle.” In Mélanges offerts par ses amis et ses élèves à M. Gustave Lanson, pp. 47-60. Paris, 1922.

Waldstein, Helen. “Hélisenne de Crenne: A Woman of the Renaissance.” Ph.D. diss., Wayne State University, 1965.

Willard, Charity Cannon. Christine de Pizan: Her Life and Works. New York, 1984.

———. “A New Look at Christine de Pizan's Epistre au Dieu d'Amours.” In Secunda Miscellanea di Studi e Ricerche sul Quattrocento Francese, comp. Franco Simone and ed. Jonathan Beck and Gianni Mombello, pp. 73-92. Chambéry-Torino, 1981.

Jean-Philippe Beaulieu (essay date fall 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Beaulieu, Jean-Philippe. “Erudition and Aphasia in Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours.L'Esprit Créateur 29, no. 3 (fall 1989): 36-42.

[In the following essay, Beaulieu argues that in Les Angoysses douloureuses de Crenne employs an often speechless protagonist who is at the same time the erudite and articulate narrator, and in doing so is able to report the limitations imposed on women as well as overcome them.]

The first French novel written by a woman, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, composed by Marguerite Briet and published for the first time in 1538 under the nom de plume of Hélisenne de Crenne, displays a potentially interesting textual phenomenon: in the first part of the novel, the narrator and the heroine are identified as one and the same person. In the narrative, Hélisenne places herself both as the speaking persona (le sujet parlant) and the subject matter of writing (l'objet d'écriture), telling in the first person of the unfortunate experiences she had when she became involved in an adulterous relationship. In this early novel often described as autobiographical,1 the first third of the narrative superimposes two textual identities which have very different verbal characteristics: as a narrator, Hélisenne does prove to be erudite while as a character she is episodically aphasiac, that is, speechless. It is this dissociation narrator/heroine—corresponding to the opposition erudition/aphasia—that will be presented here as the textual transposition of the contradictions experienced by a French woman of the early sixteenth century, as far as access to social expression is concerned. In such a perspective, the contrast between the character's speechlessness and the narrator's mastery of language illustrates the near impossibility for an educated woman of that time to make herself heard on social matters: therefore, the narrator has recourse to writing by way of compensation for an insolvable conflictual situation in the character's vécu. Examination of the text shows that this kind of conflict is repeatedly resolved in such compensatory self-expression.

As a narrator, Hélisenne's purpose is to inform her women readers—the book is indeed dedicated to women—about her personal experience which proves, she claims, that it is preferable to avoid “l'amour sensuel,” source of psychological, marital and social difficulties. In the first part of Les Angoysses, Hélisenne explains the different steps of a personal and dramatic love affair which she presents for the edification of the reader and especially so that the “honnestes Dames” will avoid “toute vaine et impudicque amour.”2 During this narrative, Hélisenne shows her considerable erudition, on the one hand, in the many intertextual references and, on the other, in the rhetorical and stylistic devices that she uses.

Intertextuality is the functional dimension through which the text is articulated and characterized in relation to previous texts. This dimension is rather important in the first part of Les Angoysses where the influence of identifiable Italian and French texts is manifest. After having studied the nature and importance of these influences, Paule Demats asserts: “La part de l'imitation dans Les Angoysses apparaît donc considérable […]” (Demats, p. xxiii). The imitation alluded to is La Complainte des tristes amours de Flamette by Boccaccio, Le Pérégrin by Caviceo,3 to which we must add Les Illustrations de Gaule et Singularitez de Troie by Lemaire de Belges, Jehan de Saintré and even Le Roman de la Rose (Demats, p. xx). The influence of these works, however, is felt more on the level of expression than that of the action. For Hélisenne mainly uses mythological examples, images and quotations for the most part from the sources that have just been mentioned, and she borrows very few elements pertaining to their narrative and didactic organization (Demats, p. xxiii). The literal borrowings from the French translations of Boccaccio and Caviceo, respectively published in 1532 and 1527, are numerous. In fact, Demats identified more than 250 quotations of different length coming from the writings of the two Italians, Lemaire de Belges, Ovid and Virgil (Demats, pp. 104-24). This impressive number of borrowings implies the meticulous work of inserting the quoted sentences in the appropriate original contexts. Such a combination of new material and literary influences on the narrative expression level can be interpreted in several ways: one could simply reproach the author for plagiarizing; some others could see a relatively normal phenomenon for that time, although perhaps more pronounced in Hélisenne than in others. However, one could also explain this phenomenon by positing the necessity for the woman narrator, Hélisenne, to make use of pre-existing texts by well-known male writers in order to constitute a text, thus expressing new contents with older, already canonized means. The intertextuality would therefore be the justified product of a démarche scripturaire féminine, the first step of which would be imitation of male texts. Whether this reading or another is adopted is, however, of little significance when we consider the matter of literary borrowings in Hélisenne; one must acknowledge that the latter gives extensive evidence of having read widely and that the intertextual references are cleverly incorporated in her own creation, the articulations of the segments of different origins being not felt in the reading. Hélisenne thus asserts her knowledge of important literary sources and shows her mastery of the writing in her creative manipulation of borrowings.

In her dissertation on the stylistic aspects of the works of Hélisenne/Briet, Diane Wood argues that the stylistic questions in Les Angoysses prevail over the plot movement, that is, that the frequent use of rhetorical devices to embellish the narrative discourse results in interruption of the action.4 Although it attaches too much importance to the aesthetic dimension of the link énoncé/énonciation, this comment gives credit to the poetic prose which indeed characterizes Hélisenne's novel and is particularly valid for the first part of the work where the action plays a minor part in the story which is largely given over to the expression and analysis of the character's vécu intime. This interesting and original narrative situation creates a text which we could describe at the same time as realistic, psychological and poetic respectively because of its scenery, its content and its form. As for the latter, there is no doubt that for Hélisenne, the didactic intention at the origin of the narration of her vécu as a character must be achieved by means of an “écriture aornée,” which allies persuasion and beauty. This confusion between poetics and rhetoric is, according to Irene Bergal, typical of the first half of the XVIth century and present in treatises such as Le Grand et vrai art de pleine rhétorique (1521) by Pierre Fabri.5 Even though no one can absolutely claim that Marguerite Briet read the rhetorician's manual, “her text does show more than a passing acquaintance with the techniques described in his work” (Bergal, p. 39). From the very first lines of her narrative, Hélisenne uses the device called “interpretation” which consists in amplifying with other terms what could be briefly said:

Au temps que la déesse Cibele despouilla son glacial et gelide habit, et vestit sa verdoyante robbe tapissée de diverses couleurs, je fuz procrée de noblesse, et fuz cause à ma naissance de reduyre en grande joye et lyesse mes plus prochains parens […].

(p. 5)

We can also identify many other rhetorical devices such as “la declamation en apostrophe,” which accentuates the emotional tone of the narration; “la circunlocution,” “c'est quand le terme est deshonnete que l'en ne l'ose nommer,” says Fabri (Bergal, p. 40); “la prosopopea,” when there are speaking objects (Bergal, p. 41); and “la redupplication,” which consists in saying the same thing twice. The following is an example of this technique, one frequently used by Hélisenne: “Combien qu'il soit croyable et concessible, que par enucléer et declarer les Angoisses & douleurs souffertes, elles se peuvent mitiguer et temperer […]” (Bergal, p. 42). The female narrator's stylistic preoccupation thus emphasizes her adherence to the contemporary conception of what was considered artistic writing.

In the past, critics such as Giraud and Jung have considered the presence of the rhetorical devices too intrusive to say that the author of Les Angoysses used them subtly or skilfully.6 One might attribute this point of view to a prejudice towards women writers, for male authors of the same period did not hesitate at all in using similar rhetoric ostensibly. Such aesthetic evaluations, which tend to judge the woman more severely than a comparable male writer, are better left unmade. Hélisenne, like others, merely shows her erudition when becoming part of the literary world. Her text turns out to be a lieu de parole féminine where the use of learned language reveals the access by a woman to the knowledge and mastery of writing, means of expression reserved for men. Despite the affected modesty which is part of the Latin rhetorical tradition (Bergal, p. 34), the narrator of Les Angoysses imposes on the reader a vécu—her own—which she expresses with the conviction of truth by means of a studied language.

Most people who have shown interest in Hélisenne/Briet consider the first part of Les Angoysses to be a texte diégétique of an autobiographical nature, which means that the responsibility for the narration is assumed by the same person on two axes, a present one and a past one. The axis of the past is composed by the retrospective reminiscences of the character's (Hélisenne's) marital experiences, while the second axis consists of the presentation of these reminiscences. It is interesting to note that rhetorical amplification is mainly perceptible on the axis of the present.7 The conventional pursuit of effect is on the other hand reduced to its simplest expression on the axis of the past, that of the character's vécu. The first part of Les Angoysses is thus characterized by a stylistic discrimination which follows the pattern of the dissociation of raconté/vécu, by contrasting the narrator's rich expressive activity with the heroine's aphasia. When faced with an unsatisfying married life and a compromising love affair, Hélisenne, trapped, becomes episodically aphasiac. In battling with a husband who beats her and a lover who is only trying to take advantage of her, Hélisenne loses the capability of expressing herself and becomes the silent witness of her own drama.

Speechlessness, recurring throughout the first part of Les Angoysses, occurs on the occasions where Hélisenne is in presence of men exercising authority over her: a monk, the representative of morality, to whom she must confess her misdeeds (pp. 59-61), and especially her husband, the representative of the social forces which work to suppress the passionate love that might occur outside of marriage. An example of this phenomenon of aphasia is when Hélisenne, after having been insulted and struck by her husband, has nothing to say in her own defence when she regains consciousness: “Et quand je fuz revenue de pasmoison, toute palle et descoulourée, je commencay à regarder autour de moy sans dire mot; car à l'occasion des griefves et insuperables douleurs interieures, la parole m'estoit forclose […]” (p. 51). The intensity with which she experienced oppression at that moment is felt in the presence of the narrator who is forced to cease writing as she remembers these events. The same pattern happens again, with more or less intensity, a dozen times in the first part of Les Angoysses. It is, with a few exceptions, the husband who is the direct cause of Hélisenne's aphasic troubles. Moreover, the heroine's universe is progressively more and more limited by her husband until she is put into prison, an action which is symbolic of the wife's complete alienation, and which happens at the end of the first third of the novel. Trapped in a world of men whose expectations do not tally with hers, Hélisenne, during her aphasic attacks, indirectly indicates through a negative form of expression the enslavement to the desire of the Other, the Other of which she is the object.

Public life, which is the realm of the Other, offers very little satisfaction and makes Hélisenne withdraw, after every aphasic period, to her room, the place of intimacy where she can gather her forces: “Et tout subit apres […] me retiray en ma chambre où j'estoys plus volontiers seule qu'accompaignée pour plus solitairement continuer en mes fantasieuses pensées. Et, en telle solicitude, je me delectoye à lire les lettres de mon amy.”8 In addition, this room is the textual site where the character and the narrator come together. In her room, Hélisenne writes the story of her misadventures, a story which becomes, due to the strange fate explained at the end of the novel, the text that the reader has before her/his very eyes. The latter has therefore the opportunity of seeing Hélisenne write in her room what she/he reads in the novel entitled Les Angoysses. At this precise moment in the text, the heroine and the narrator become one through the act of writing, which is the character's principal means of self-affirmation, since it allows her to reveal indirectly what she is unable to express in her everyday life. The cathartic nature of these moments of writing is brought to the fore in the following extract, where it is suggested that the human being can regain his or her mental stability through the process of literary creation: “Les anxietez et tristesse des miserables, comme je peulx penser et conjecturer, se diminuent quand on les peult declarer à quelque sien amy fidele.”9 Psychological relief, as described in this passage and one of the above-mentioned quotations, seems to be one of the essential purposes of the narrative sequences not originally meant to be read, but the content of which comes to be revealed to the reader through the coincidence of the moments of writing of the character and the printed text which constitutes the entire novel.

In connection with this subject, it would seem that, if the axes of the present and the past come to join episodically, it is with the aim of better indicating the difference between the public character's speechlessness and the necessity to express her vécu. Thus it is in this contrast which lies the implicit didactic elements of Les Angoysses: as we have just seen, Hélisenne is aphasiac in her conflictual relations with men, that is, that she is weighed down by social constraint, violence and psychological distress, whereby she is deprived of the most important of human and social means of expression: speaking. It is acknowledged most of the time that appropriating the right to speak corresponds to seizing power. Hélisenne's silent behavior with men symbolizes the women's non-accessibility to the most valuable social means of expression.

The aphasic state is an ambiguous one, since it is both imposed and accepted at the same time. Aphasia is experienced by Hélisenne as the reaction to an oppressive situation for which she tries to compensate by the écriture in the story of the novel. This process of writing is however hidden, for the husband forbids it; the latter also burns Hélisenne's manuscripts when he finds them: “Je ne trouvay moyen plus convenable que de reduire en ma memoire la piteuse complaincte que paravant j'avoye de ma main escripte, laquelle mon mary avoit bruslée par l'impetuosité de son yre” (p. 139). Clearly seen as a means of compensation in the story, the narration of the love misadventures definitely becomes positive when it reaches the reader in its integral and final version. As a narrator, Hélisenne allows herself to speak, proving the erudition which was emphasized above. By being aware of her abilities and borrowing from other texts what she needs, the author of Les Angoysses creates a skilful work, innovative in some aspects, conformist in others. The contrast between the narrator's expressive activity and the heroine's silence continues to intrigue the reader, and underlines the contradictions inherent in the existence of a French woman of the early XVIth century, especially with regard to the means of expression available to her. One did not only need to know how to read and to write in order to be heard on the public scene. Even though she is erudite, Hélisenne seems to have very little power of action and expression in relation to her environment. She therefore represents, as a character, a typical example of women's role which consisted of being a silent companion. With respect to this situation, Les Angoysses reflects the dynamics of a society which excluded the female sex from most of the important spheres of public life. Hélisenne's aphasia appears in this light as a form of illiteracy in the figurative sense, and the contrast of this illiteracy with the narrator's mastery of language becomes a claim for the woman's right to speak. The writing of Les Angoysses, although it is an indirect, compensating means of expression, allows the reader to hear a woman's voice striving to make us see the extent of her marital and social alienation. Marguerite Briet's text proves to be both a report of a situation and an effort to overcome the imposed limitations. This is one of the interesting aspects of this writing forgotten for a long time and then discredited. Only a few dimensions of the polysemic richness of this work can be revealed in a short study, but even these give rise to very promising reflections concerning our knowledge of woman's experience in the XVIth century.


  1. Paule Demats, Introduction, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (First Part) by Hélisenne de Crenne (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968), p. x.

  2. Hélisenne de Crenne (Pseudonym of Marguerite Briet), Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, ed. Harry R. Secor, Diss. Yale University 1967, p. 3.

  3. M. J. Baker, “Fiammetta and the Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours,” Symposium, 27 (1973): 303, 307.

  4. Diane Wood, “Literary Devices and Rhetorical Techniques in the Works of Hélisenne de Crenne,” Diss. Wisconsin-Madison 1975, p. 41.

  5. Irene M. Bergal, “Hélisenne de Crenne, a Sixteenth Century French Novelist,” Diss. University of Minnesota 1966, p. 36.

  6. Yves Giraud, Marc-René Jung, La Renaissance (1480-1548) (Paris: Arthaud, 1972), p. 169.

  7. Richard L. Frautschi, “Narrative Voice in Les Angoysses douloureuses I: The ‘Axe Présent,’” French Forum, 1 (1976): 209-16.

  8. Hélisenne de Crenne, p. 45. See also Tom Conley, “Feminism, Ecriture and the Closed Room: The Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours,” Symposium, 27 (1973): 326.

  9. Hélisenne de Crenne, p. 3; Jean-Philippe Beaulieu, “La Dualité structurelle des Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours,” Revue Frontenac, 2 (1984): 4.

Barbara Ching (essay date 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Ching, Barbara. “French Feminist Theory, Literary History, and Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses.French Literature Series 16 (1989): 17-26.

[In the following essay, Ching maintains that in Les Angoysses douloureuses de Crenne writes of her imprisonment in the female body that is used by men to make her an object, but then uses that status to express her subjectivity.]

The despairing claim of Luce Irigaray that “any theory of the ‘subject’ has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine’” (133) raises the despairing question of the status and history of her own discourse (Felman 4). If women are categorically and eternally excluded from subjectivity, and therefore excluded from male discourse, speaking only in the name of the man—father or husband—who controls them, we have to wonder who Luce Irigaray is and how she came to write all this feminist theory.

Fortunately these are not the unanswerable questions critics of Irigaray make them out to be; they arise because Irigaray fails to theorize and historicize her own practice. Put quite simply, she re-appropriated those so-called “masculine” theories of the subject: she turned male language to her own use. Paradoxically, this practice, I would like to argue, is theorized and put into a historical framework by Monique Wittig, Irigaray's apparent opponent in the debates that have divided French feminists. While Wittig acknowledges women's speculum-like proclivity for “parrot speech,” she also insists that a woman, by saying “I,” “reappropriates language as a whole” and becomes a subject “for herself” (“Gender” 66). This blossoming of woman's subjectivity is in fact a result of her consciousness of her oppression, her consciousness of men's power over her (“One” 52). The point is not that women seeking freedom from patriarchal structures begin speaking and writing in a newly formed language of their own, in a “parler femme” or “écriture féminine”; rather, they seize the language that surrounds them and speak it from their own standpoint. Thus, Wittig discusses her appropriation of a line from Scève's Délie that allows Catherine Legrand, the main character of her L'Opoponax, to say “I” (“Gender” 72). Thus, Irigaray's discussions, heavily imbedded with quotation, or sometimes nothing but quotation, of Freud, of Plotinus, of Plato, of Marx, build a devastating feminist context for writing about, or even for repeating, but with a vengeance, the very words of these particular representatives of patriarchal discourse.1

Women have always done this; however, this continuity, their history, has been rendered invisible. Their manifestations of subjectivity have in fact “always been appropriated by the masculine”; thus Irigaray writes as a woman, apparently (but only apparently) with neither a history nor a theory to call her own. Even Simone de Beauvoir, whose personal autobiography has been so important for the feminist tradition, claims that she wrote without feminist predecessors: “when I started, I could think of nobody as a model” (Blair 242). Again it is Wittig who offers the possibility of a history of this constant feminist appropriation and reappropriation of discourse: she calls it the “Trojan Horse”—her image for the history of feminist literary forms, for the tradition of encroachment upon patriarchal discourse, an image created in distinct opposition to “écriture féminine” (“Trojan” 46). Trojan Horses look familiar, unthreatening, and conciliatory, but they are actually new literary forms, “always produced,” she reminds us, “in hostile territory,” and operating “as a war machine upon the context of [their] epoch” (45). They turn language to the expression of women's subjectivity.

Thus, almost in spite of itself, French feminist theory leads us to a feminist literary history. To test this model I turn to an obvious expression of subjectivity, one of the earliest examples of autobiography in French, to what Simone de Beauvoir said she lacked, to what Irigaray claims has always been the province of the masculine, part I of Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538), disguised, true to the form of a Trojan Horse, as a sentimental medieval romance. Parts two and three are a traditional story of chaste love and chivalry. Municipal and legal documents of the time, however, indicate that much of part I is factual.

Hélisenne de Crenne appears to be the builder and giver of several “Trojan Horses” in France's literary history. Unfortunately, apart from the information her own writings contain, little is known about her. A Picarde, born between 1510 and 1520, her maiden name was Marguerite de Briet. Hélisenne, an unusual name,2 was apparently chosen by Marguerite herself, in an interesting and rare act of self-assertion, to be both her pen name and the name of her autobiographical character in Les Angoysses, her first published work. Hélisenne thus not only creates a new form of saying “I”; she also names herself. In fact, she is the only French writer of the sixteenth century that I know of to use a “nom de plume.” In addition, what is particularly interesting about this pseudonym is that it at once allows Hélisenne creative authority without rendering her invisible: the name, pointing the curious to her home at Crasnes (her husband's estate), is relatively transparent. In 1539, continuing her autobiographical project and formal innovations, she published Les Epistres familieres et invectives; these letters repeat the story told in part one of Les Angoysses and go on to describe the publication of that book, and her husband's reaction to it. They also defend woman's role as writer and intellectual. While invective letters were a familiar form, Hélisenne's, again true to Wittig's notion of the Trojan Horse, contained something new: according to their American translators, in them “Hélisenne attempts what had perhaps never been attempted before in French literature, the progressive construction of a story through letters, without the use of connective materials” (Mustacchi 5). Hélisenne's last publication was her prose translation and annotation of the first four books of the Aeneid (1541). This work appears to be the first unabridged French prose translation.3

Les Angoysses was Hélisenne's most successful work, going through eight printings between 1538 and the last one in 1560. The plot is a common one of adulterous seduction and betrayal, yet it also lays bare the building of one of Wittig's Trojan Horses: Hélisenne exposes and counteracts male power as she creates her own discourse from it. The book opens with Hélisenne, a bored and very young married woman (she claims to have been wed at age eleven), urging her husband to plan a trip to the city; once there she immediately falls in love with an attractive young man (Guenelic). Subsequently she spends most of her time gazing at him, either from her window or in public places such as church or the courtroom. Her husband is enraged by this behavior but his anger only serves to force Hélisenne into secrecy: she meets clandestinely with her lover, exchanges letters with him, and most of all, continues to look at him. When her husband discovers that the liaison has continued to flourish, his anger turns to violence. In the meantime, rumor-mongers have defamed Guenelic to Hélisenne and Hélisenne to Guenelic. Disillusioned and heartbroken, she is taken to one of her husband's castles where she is kept prisoner in a tower; there she decides to write her story.

From the start it is clear that Hélisenne knows she has built a Trojan Horse within the walls of her husband's territory: the work insists upon an unusual degree of feminist consciousness. In an age when both literary production and consumption were almost exclusively the domain of elite men, Hélisenne's title page reveals that her book is dedicated “aux lisantes,” to women readers. Even when considered in the light of the few women writers of her time, Hélisenne's dedication is an unusual act: Pernette du Guillet wrote her Rymes (1545) for Maurice Scève, and although Louise Labé dedicated her Euvres (1555) to a woman, the dedication is to an individual, to Clemence de Bourges. Marguerite de Navarre, too, dedicated the works published in her lifetime to individuals. Only Hélisenne dedicates her work to women as a group. She insists upon this feminine audience throughout the book by continuously addressing her women readers. The title page is followed by “l'epistre dedicative de Dame Hélisenne à toutes honnestes dames” and exhortations to “trescheres dames” (1, 15), “mes dames” (5, 81), etc. are scattered throughout the chapters. Furthermore, her voice is not merely a mirror of male discourse: she reshapes the available discursive forms both to tell her own story and to make it a woman's story. Although she is writing autobiography, she does not solely stress the uniqueness of her personal experience; she also constantly reminds her “lisantes” that what happened to her could happen to any other woman. Within the framework of her own historical situation and experience, Hélisenne knows she is describing and critiquing the fate of women in her society.

As Wittig points out, giving form to this knowledge constitutes both consciousness of oppression and a revolutionary, subjective response to it. Thus, even while constituting herself as a subject of discourse, Hélisenne sees herself as a woman, man's oppressed other; she does not—indeed in a non-fictional life story of a married woman she cannot—refuse the role. In fact, she proudly and lengthily describes herself, particularly in the early chapters, almost purely as an object of male desire. She gives no indication of what she actually looks like; rather she stresses that men liked to look at her. As she makes clear in the first chapter, her body is the attraction; at least that is what men say:

… ma personne croissoit, et premier que pervinse au treiziesme an de mon aage, j'estoye de forme elegante, et de tout si bien proportionnée que j'excedoye toutes aultres femmes en beaulté de corps; et si j'eusse esté aussi accomplye en beaulté de visage, je m'eusse hardiment osé nommer des plus belles de France. Quand me trouvoye en quelque lieu remply de grand multitude de gens, plusieurs venoient entour moy pour me regarder comme par admiration, disans tous en general: «Voyez là le plus beau corps que je veis jamais». Puis après, en me regardant au visaige, disoient: «Elle est belle, mais il n'est à accomparer au corps.»


This passage reveals the near anonymity with which Hélisenne is viewed: the male gaze constitutes her as a blank object of desire, a female body. Furthermore, this gaze surrounds her (in French “entour”—and recall that she is locked in her husband's “tour” at the end) to such an extent that before she becomes a writer its presence seems to be the most salient, most noteworthy feature of her existence. She boasts that from an early age “princes et grans seigneurs” went out of their way to look at her (3). Another long passage describes a similar occurrence in the city she and her husband move to:

En la compaignée de mes damoyselles, je cheminoie lentement … tout le monde jectoit son regard sur moy, en disant les ungs aux aultres: «Voyez là la creature excedant et oultrepassant toutes aultres en formosité de corps». Et après qu'ilz m'avoient regardée, ilz alloient appeller les aultres, les faisant saillir de leurs domiciles affin qu'ilz me veissent. C'estoit une chose admirable de veoir le peuple qui s'assembloit entour moy; et quand je fuz parvenue jusques au temple, plusieurs jeunes hommes venoyent en circuit tout à l'entour de moy.


Again the emphasis is on Hélisenne as female body, surrounded, indeed trapped, by the male gaze.5

Returning the desiring gaze is Hélisenne's first step away from this subjection and toward subjectivity.6 On the first day in the city, Guenelic, like many men, falls in love with her upon seeing her. However, he is the only man to whom she ever wanted to return the gaze:

… je veis ung jeune homme … Après l'avoir plus que trop regardé, retiray ma veue; mais par force estoye contraincte retourner mes yeulx vers luy. Il me regardoit aussi, dont j'estoys fort contente; mais je prenoye admiration, en moymesmes, de me trouver ainsi subjecte à regarder ce jeune homme, ce que d'aultres jamais ne m'estoit advenu. J'avoys accoustumé de prendre et captiver les hommes, et ne me faisoye que rire d'eulx; mais moymesmes miserablement je fuz prise.


Her heightened self-consciousness gives her insight into this mechanism of male power, a mechanism that she then attempts to turn to her own use. However, as the passage indicates, Hélisenne's enjoyable feelings of power in expressing her own desire, her subjectivity, are paradoxically accompanied by a sense of subjection: “je fuz prise.” Indeed, when Hélisenne's husband becomes aware of the affair, he resorts to beatings and punishments in order to tighten his hold on her. In spite of these brutal attacks, Hélisenne retains her newly acquired self-determination. Hélisenne and Guenelic continue conducting their love affair almost entirely through long sessions of this mutual gazing for a great deal of the book.

Hélisenne's refusal to break off the affair drives her once benign husband to beat her on several further occasions. However, the greater the exertion of his power, the greater the newly freed power that responds to it. Once Hélisenne is forced to give up the gaze directed at her beloved, she looks instead at her state of submission: thus the total subjugation to which her husband's brutality attempts to reduce her repeatedly incites her to writing, to what Monique Wittig calls “a direct exercise of power” (“Trojan” 48). The dedicatory letter establishes the links between the weakness (effeminacy) of her body, man's control over it, and her subsequent act of self-determination through writing, particularly through writing for women. Addressing “mes nobles dames” and “trescheres dames,” she describes her impotence, mentioning specifically “ma main tremblante” and “ma debile main.” The thought of communicating this weakness to her readers, however, allows her to fortify herself (“reprendre mes forces”) for the writer's task (1). Many times the fury of her husband reduces her to both speechlessness and bodily weakness (9, 13, 18, 33, 34, 87). She thereby comes to the realization that her body, so desired by men, is actually an “infelice prison corporele” under their control (18). The beatings, which begin in chapter eleven, highlight Hélisenne's bodily imprisonment at the same time that they inspire the text that we are reading. After her husband's first attack, the image of the weak and trembling hand recurs. She notes that

par si grand fureur et impetuosité me donna si grand coup qu'au cheoir je me rompiz deux dentz, dont de l'extreme douleur je fuz longue espace sans monstrer signe d'esperit vital. Et quand je fuz revenue de pasmoison, toute palle et descoulourée, je commençay à regarder autour moy sans dire mot, car, à l'occasion des griefves et insuperables douleurs interieures, la parolle m'estoit forclose; mais peu après grand multitude de souspirs vuydoient de mon estomach, et m'intervint diverses et merveilleuses fantasies si cruelles et ignominieuses que la recente memoire rend ma main debile et tremblante, en sorte que par plusieurs foys y laissay et infestay la plume; mais pensant qu'il me seroit attribué à vice de pusillanimité, je me veulx efforcer de l'escripre.


When her husband finds her writings he is so furious that he tries to kill her (82-83). Later we learn that he also burned these writings (94).

Each time Hélisenne's husband attempts to assert his power by appropriating the evidence of her subjectivity, she counters him by regaining it. When his murder attempt fails, he decides to imprison her in his castle tower. The all-encompassing male gaze is replaced by the all-encompassing phallic tower; thus Hélisenne's (woman's) enslaved relationship to man is rendered ever more clear as the narrative proceeds. Ironically, the tower serves as an ideal vantage point: once locked in the tower, reliving her memories, Hélisenne relives the empowering knowledge of her oppression as a woman. She again experiences the painful sensations of her “corps vaincu, les membres debiles”; again these sensations lead her to “donnay commencement à l'oeuvre presente” which is a reworking of the text her husband had burned (94). In effect, then, Hélisenne's writing in captivity, the book we are reading, product of the subjugation of her weak and trembling female body, overthrows, for at least the time of reading and writing, her husband's, that is to say men's, power over her by telling other women about that power. In Wittig's words, Hélisenne is “dealing a blow with words,” or, as Beauvoir's discussion of women's autobiographies makes clear, “exposing this dependence is in itself a liberation” (Second 789). Ultimately, the tower, phallic representation of male power, harbors the weapon, the Trojan Horse, that exposes it.

There is no need, then, to read this text solely as a sample of the libidinal energy of the “écriture féminine” that one version of French feminism posits as woman's escape from male discourse and masculine theories of the subject. Hélisenne does not write the body, but rather writes of her imprisonment in the female body that men use to make her an other, their object. The near annihilation of that body, the violence of male power, is then the impetus to her self-expression. Hélisenne thus self-consciously writes as man's other, seizing her authority from his power over her, and appropriating his language to express her own subjectivity. One last comment on her text makes this self-conscious situating clear: in her time, Hélisenne's sophisticated readers would have noticed yet another countering and exposure of male power in the very language of her text, for she extensively appropriates from the works of her male literary predecessors. Clearly, she interprets her own experiences through a widely shared literary tradition of courtly love, captive women, cruel husbands, etc. More specifically, however, Hélisenne comes close to using the very words of her predecessors. Appendix II of Demats' edition provides a twenty-page listing of borrowings (in a text that is only 97 pages long) from only three sources: the French translation of Boccaccio's Fiammetta, the translation of Caviceo's Peregrino, and Jean Lemaire de Belges' Les Illustrations de Gaule et singularitez de Troie. Doubtlessly scholars could uncover still more borrowings from still more sources; nevertheless, the available evidence already underscores the deliberate intertextuality that makes Les Angoysses douloureuses a woman's counter-text.

Why has Hélisenne's Trojan Horse been lost to literary history until recently? The answer to that question may be a horse of a similar color: we could find it in a history of male-centered literary history and criticism, a long story in the history that explains why Irigaray can in truth say that “any theory of the ‘subject’ has always been appropriated by the ‘masculine.’” Hélisenne's is only an early chapter in this history.7


  1. Without any mention of Wittig, Toril Moi's discussion of Irigaray's “mimeticism” points in a similar direction (131, 140-141).

  2. In her introduction to the critical edition of the first part of Les Angoysses douloureuses, Paule Demats discusses the rarity of the name Hélisenne and notes the very few literary characters in medieval and Renaissance literature who are called by it (viii).

  3. I draw these biographical facts from the introductions of both Demats and Mustacchi and Archambault; both introductions also contain much more detail.

  4. All citations are from Demats' edition; I have not attempted to modernize the text. I have, however, omitted Hélisenne's near constant use of italics. All added emphasis is mine.

  5. Yet another such incident occurs in chapter sixteen: “… je commençay à regarder entour moy, et en regardant veis moult grand multitude d'hommes et aulcunes damoyselles, dont plusieurs vindrent à circuyr autour de moy et me commencerent à louer et extoller, en disant diversitez de propos. Les ungs disoient avoir esté en plusieurs pays et avoir veu plusieurs dames et damoyselles; mais ilz affermoient que j'estoye la plus accomplie en formosité de corps qu'ilz eussent jamais veue” (50).

  6. While she does not place it in a feminist context, Winn discusses the thematics of the gaze in her article.

  7. I would like to thank Rita Munson, Helen Solterer, and Monique Wittig for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay.

Works Cited

Bair, Deidre. “‘My Life … This Curious Object’: Simone de Beauvoir on Autobiography.” The Female Autograph. Ed. Domna Stanton. New York Literary Forum 12-13. New York: NYLF, 1984. 237-245.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Crenne, Hélisenne de. Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours. Ed. Paule Demats. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968.

Felman, Shoshana. “Women and Madness: The Critical Phallacy.” Diacritics 5 (Winter 1975): 2-10.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Mustacchi, Marianna M. and Paul J. Archambault. A Renaissance Woman: Hélisenne's Personal and Invective Letters. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986.

Winn, Colette. “La symbolique du regard dans Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours d'Hélisenne de Crenne.” Orbis Litterarum 40 (1985): 207-227.

Wittig, Monique. “The Mark of Gender.” The Poetics of Gender. Ed. Nancy Miller. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 63-73.

———. “One is Not Born a Woman.” Feminist Issues 1.3 (Winter 1981): 47-54.

———. “The Trojan Horse.” Feminist Issues 4.2 (Fall 1984): 45-49.

Jerry Nash (essay date winter 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Nash, Jerry. “‘Exerçant oeuvres viriles’: Feminine Anger and Feminist (Re)Writing in Hélisenne de Crenne.” L'Esprit Créateur 30, no. 4 (winter 1990): 38-48.

[In the following essay, Nash shows how in her letters de Crenne uses anger to offer a feminist critique and to revise and rewrite literary, cultural, and intellectual history.]

The claim has often been made that women in early modern literature, both those writing it and those being written about or depicted in it, have very seldom explored the subject of “women by women,” a seemingly modern subject of inquiry and revisionary writing so central to the feminist movement as we know it today.1 I wish to offer here discussion of a clearly notable exception in the Renaissance, the case of Hélisenne de Crenne as female author and central female character as both acquire meaning in her Epistres familieres et invectives of 1539.2 In this early, highly neglected monument of feminine anger and feminist (re)writing, Hélisenne already espouses what are unmistakably today the major principles and strategies of the feminist movement, those of “reading like a woman” as Jane Marcus has recently called them or of “the resisting reader” as Judith Fetterly also puts it in the very titles of their two seminal studies.3 Hélisenne's Epistres—much more than her other better known and today more widely read Angoisses douloureuses, which she called one of her “petites compositions” (EI4/sig. 06v)—are remarkable for the way their author and central character harness the resistant yet creative energies of anger in art. This is not done just passively for lamentation, as do so many feminist writings in the early modern period (including the Angoisses) and even beyond, but, to the contrary, actively for the purposes of “feminist critique,” for the feminist causes of revision and rewriting of literary, cultural, and intellectual history itself. This revision involves counter-reading and debunking the conventional, centuries-handed-down wisdom and authority of an oppressive patriarchal ideology. Her rewriting is the participation by a woman in the unmaking and remaking of patriarchally written history. She supplements, and at times replaces, the founding fathers and subsequent male exemplars and enforcers of this ideology in literature, culture, and civilization with accomplished, powerful female role models. Both of these strategies of revision and rewriting come together in Hélisenne's intriguing and defiant understanding and portrayal of “performing manly works”: “exerçant œuvres viriles” (EF8/sig. K2v). Through this central and unifying concern of the Epistres, Hélisenne posits, much ahead of her time, nothing less than the feminist transference of “manly works” to the feminine domain, their redefinition and their rewriting, au féminin, in the service of art and social-intellectual progress.

Hélisenne's letters are combative and revisionary and poignant autobiographical constructs of feminine anger and its recourse to feminist writing. They reflect the transgressive, subversive, indeed deconstructive nature and role of all true feminist writing. But there is also in these letters a determined feminine reconstructive impulse, and the latter is in particular what makes her the more powerful and effective as a writer, as the Renaissance writer of a cause—except of course to her husband and the other male antagonists in her letters, all those members of what she calls “ce deceptif & frauduleux sexe viril” (EF5/sig. 13r) whom she addresses collectively at the end of her letters: “O mauldict & plus que mauldict, meschant & audacieux. O faulx dissimulateur, o meschant trahistre, qui ne sçauroit nyer qu'en toy n'habitent toutes deceptions, frauldes & collusions” (EI5/sig. P2r-v). One might say that Hélisenne deconstructs in order to reconstruct. What she unmakes are fundamental and quite dangerous to the parties mentioned above: their blind depreciation of women in general and their “collusions” in thwarting woman's intellectual and creative potential, in short, the many abusive and unbearable instances of male domination and female exclusion in various realms of cultural-intellectual progress and public acts. Hélisenne's subversive letters, therefore, always aim for sexual equality, for cultural and intellectual parity. Let us look first at the feminine consciousness underlying these Epistres, at Hélisenne the character's anger and deeply felt awareness of the need of revision, the need of change. We can then better understand and appreciate the art of feminist (re)writing by Hélisenne the author which turns these letters into what they are—deeply reasoned, well controlled, cogently argued literary embodiments of that felt need for revision and change.

The female character-author in these letters is not only hurt, she is angry, and more angry than hurt. This outrage or anger is what truly compels her to write in the first place, as she informs the reader in the preface to her invectives. Her anger finds an outlet in her conscious act of reading, that is, in the resistant act of her reading like a woman. For Hélisenne, écrire au féminin begins with lire au féminin, and they both ultimately mean relire/récrire au féminin. For a woman like Hélisenne involved in feminist critique, to read and to write in a patriarchal culture mean rereading and rewriting this culture. She is forever, in response to exclusively male points of view, rereading situations in which she appropriates for woman in a given narrative those qualities and characteristics and values traditionally reserved by man for man: those inherited ones identified as rational, self-controlled, courageous, active, creative, and so forth. In the act of analyzing her anger and writing it down, she thus turns it into the narrative art of reversibility. She either portrays the “manly” traits and virtues listed above in women or she takes them away from men and gives the latter what they had always identified as feminine traits: those of being irrational, emotional, uncreative, and so forth. Anger is the first impulse of Hélisenne's art; corrective rereading and rewriting are its end results. The Epistres are full of the need for this reversal, of the patriarchal biases blocking women from reaching their creative potential. They offer a wide-ranging critique of woman's intellectual and cultural identification as merely the negative object to man, who is depicted as exploiting sexual difference in order literally to keep woman in her place and thus to insure the continuation of the patriarchal principle. This place, for Hélisenne's prime antagonist in her letters—her husband—is of course the household with its dreaded fate of endless spinning:

Pour certain toutes telles tiennes presumptions me provocqueroient à rire, n'estoit qu'en te travaillant pour t'exalter, tu t'esforces de totalement deprimer les autres. Et par especial tu increpes & reprens la muliebre condition. […] Parquoy tu conclus qu'autre ocupation [les femmes] ne doivent avoir que le filer.

(EI4/sig. 04v)

Indeed, for Hélisenne's husband, women who attempt to break free of this domestic entrapment are all fraudulent: “O que miserables creatures sont toy, & toutes celles qui te ressemblent, dont grande multitude se retrouve. […] O frauduleuse condition” (EI2/sig. N5r). This is why he had previously told her that she was utterly wasting her time in her desired intellectual pursuit of literature and writing: “[…] ton audacieuse hardiesse […] Pour certain il n'estoit necessaire affatiguer ta main, pour de ta vie passée me faire recors” (EI2/sig. N1v).4 Not simply content to denounce Hélisenne's literary and intellectual pursuits, the husband had seen fit to deprecate all women for such pursuits, as the female character reminds him in the remainder of her speech in the “Fourth Invective Letter”:

Et parlant en general, tu dis que femmes sont de rudes et obnubilez espritz. […]

Ce m'est une chose admirable de ta promptitude, en ceste determination. J'ay certaine evidence par cela que si en ta faculté estoit, tu prohiberois le benefice litteraire au sexe feminin, l'improperant de n'estre capable des bonnes lettres. Si tu avois esté bien studieux en diversitez de livres, autre seroit ton opinion. Au moins si ton inveterée malice ne te stimuloit de persister en l'inimitié que tu portes aux dames. …

(sig. 04v)

But of course Hélisenne realizes that her husband's patriarchal presumptuousness is part of a conspiracy against all womankind which has been cultivated and handed down from generation to generation, beginning with Ulysses and Anthenor:

Parquoy ne puis conjecturer quelz ont esté tes instructeurs en enfance. Mais rememorant la subtilité d'Ulixes & la trahison d'Anthenor, il est facile à presumer qu'en leur escholle nourriture tu as prins. Car certainement tu es d'eux vray imitateur & exemplaire.

(EI5/sig. P2v)

Hélisenne's ultimate hope (and of course what she constantly works toward) is that this male perspective and conspiracy to promote women's intellectual and cultural darkness (“obnubilez espritz”) will undergo the same fate which befell Dathan and Abiram in Numbers 16:12-30: “Et avec ce desir mettray fin à mon epistre. Et ne voulant tes compagnons oublier, les adverty que je vouldroys que ce qui intervint à Dathan & Abiron leur puisse avenir” (EI5/sig. P3v).

To the above fateful end of burying them once and for all, Hélisenne relentlessly continues her literary pursuits. She debunks the male thesis on women proffered by her husband and his male colleagues. She will counter that women possess the same kinds of strengths and abilities, intellectual and creative, as men. She will narrate example after example of women who perform as men do—women “exerçant œuvres viriles”—when they are not silenced and marginalized by men to household activities, not reduced to needle and thread. That is, Hélisenne rereads and especially rewrites in order to erase sexual difference, to undermine the patriarchal principle of female exclusion, all of which she accomplishes by reversing male and female performative role acts themselves. As the classic Renaissance female resisting reader-writer, Hélisenne deliberately erases the lines between male and female in order to negate sexual difference and discrimination. She reverses gender roles and overturns acts and accomplishments and qualities normally reserved for heroes by substituting in her portrayals of past and present public culture heroines for these heroes. Sometimes Hélisenne's heroines go unnamed, for she is encouraging women collectively to acquire and demonstrate the kind of creative courage and reason and stamina, the strength of character and will and purpose heretofore assigned and portrayed in men. Thus, she admonishes a friend who had been battered and slandered in love to apply the most manly of virtues—the Stoic sage's rigorous exercise of reason and will:

Et pour ce efforce toy contre la violence d'amour. […] Nostre ame n'est autre qu'une seule disposition, de laquelle nous faisons comme d'une image de cire, que nous pouvons selon nostre arbitrable volonté augmenter ou diminuer. Et avec telle facilité que l'ame se contriste, avec celle mesme se peult resjouir. Nostre vivre n'est autre chose qu'un vouloir, & où il t'inclinera, l'ame condescendra. Esvertue toy doncq' […] à la droicte voye de raison.

(EF5/sig. 13r-v)

Thus, in another letter (EF9), she praises in these terms another friend who was determined to decide her own marital fate, rather than leaving it exclusively in the hands of her father:

Et à ceste occasion, entre autres propos par luy proferez, j'entens qu'il a dit que ta condition ne te preste tant de puissance, que sans son consentement il te solicite de vouloir aucune chose. […] A quoy tu dis avoir respondu que ne veulx nyer estre à luy subjette. Mais que nonobstant cela, tu peulx disposer totalement de ce que tu cognois à ton salut estre utile.

(sig. K4r)

Thus, she reminds her readers in the preamble to her invectives how difficult it is for her to remain vigilant and strong in the face of adversity and misfortune:

Je me persuade de croire (o lecteurs debonnaires) qu'assez cognoissez estre difficile que la force d'une patience (combien qu'elle soit magnanime) soit si constante que par trop excessifz travaulx ne se trouve vaincuë.

(sig. M2v)

Most of Hélisenne's heroines are of course named. They are striking examples of accomplished female figures from literature and cultural history which she uses to refute her husband's arrogant, maligning patriarchal perspective: “[…] je doubte la superabondance de tes injures, puis que tant de veritables histoires alencontre de ton inveterée malice faveur me prestent” (E13/sig. 03r). These heroines include for Hélisenne one above all others so famous and so deserving of admiration and emulation that she spends a great deal of time describing her character and accomplishments. This woman's name is Dido, “qui en langage phenicien est interpreté, & vault autant à dire, comme Virago, exerçant œuvres viriles” (EF8/sig. K2v). As we have seen in all of Hélisenne's heroines up to now, the performance of virile or manly works as a defining concept of feminine identity is a state of mind and will, the inner exercise of reason and strength of will, as well as the outward accomplishment of acts themselves. Dido (“Virago,” Latin for “heroine”) happens to embody in her character and actions this complete identity-concept. She is exemplary of “ceste personne [qui] est digne de louange, qui contre les infortunes constante se demonstre”; she is certainly not “du nombre d'aucunes pusillanimes femmes”; to the contrary, Dido is so strong and firm in the face of adversity and misfortune that her “magnanime constance” deserves to be imitated by all women, for “c'estoit celle que l'adverse fortune ne pouvoit aucunement surmonter.” Dido's real accomplishment included not only inner strength in responding to and controlling misfortune, but a determined, creative ability to turn misfortune into a positive outcome, quite literally into the construction of the city of Carthage. Here is part of Hélisenne's passage on the “grande demonstrance de sa vertu,” of the inner and outer response to misfortune of Dido's active virtue:

[…] elle, estant succombée en la calamité de tenebreuse infortune, fit apparoir la reluisance de sa magnanimité, de telle forte que par elle fut construicte & edifiée la noble cité de Carthage. […] O que selon le jugement d'un chascun, elle fut digne de louange, puis que sa grande vertu en telle extremité la rendit constante.

(EF8/sig. K2v-K3r)

There are many other notable women as heroines singled out by Hélisenne for their performance of manly works, for their being exceptionally rational, self-controlled, courageous, active, creative, and so forth. There are far too many to list them all. But each and every time her husband denigrates woman (which amounts to every time he speaks and resurrects a passage from literature to comment on), she is quick to counter his blind male perspective. Anger or anguish transformed into “œuvres viriles” is what Hélisenne saw in all the great heroines she admired from the Greeks to the Bible to the Renaissance. Among these is the Biblical heroine Judith whom Saint Jerome considered “non seulement digne d'estre imitée des femmes mais aussi des hommes” and who exercised “telle vertu qu'elle a obtenu victoire de celui qui demeuroit invincible de tous, & a supedité celui qui estoit insuperable.” (What she “procured”—“a supedité”—was the severed head of Holophernes, the Assyrian general who was attacking the Israelites.) And then there is “Camila roine des Volquains [qui] à la discipline militaire avec magnanimité virilement s'exerça.” Through the manly accomplishments of such women, “les histoires hebraiques et grecques sont decorées & anoblies” (EI3/sig. 02r-v).

The “Fourth Invective Letter” contains the best narratives of the “œuvres viriles” performed by Hélisenne's heroines, as well as being a tour de force in countering the patriarchal views of her most unenlightened husband. Here once again she is very consciously reading and writing like a woman, in the exact modern sense of the term of a feminist critique: she is correcting old male scholarship that excludes with new feminist scholarship that includes. She is applying, constructively, feminist critique to assert the struggle for woman's rights, for social, cultural, and especially literary-intellectual equality and acceptance. This letter by itself is enough to refute her husband's “superbes & audacieuses parolles,” his “temeraire follie,” his “presumption [qui l'] offusque & aveuglit” when he says and promotes the idea that if things are to continue the way they should be (which would amount to suppressing Hélisenne's and all feminine writing), he “prohiberoi[t] le benefice literaire au sexe feminin, l'improperant de n'estre capable des bonnes lettres” (sig. 03v; sig. 04v). The point of this letter is to demonstrate, through applied feminist criticism, just the opposite perspective: that outstanding accomplishments in literature and in writing in a skillful and forceful and authoritative manner have been achieved by many female figures, who certainly are capable of rivaling and even at times outdoing (outreading and outwriting) their male counterparts in history (with the intended meaning of course that Hélisenne as character-author outreads and outwrites her husband on this score!). She teaches her husband a few basic lessons from history. Since he considers himself, intellectually, as the very descendant of Jupiter, she reminds him that it was not male intellectual acuity but something else that sprang from Jupiter's brain—female strength and wisdom embodied in Athena: “Tellement qu'en ta pensée tu crois estre procréé du cerveau du grand Jupiter, duquel fut produite Pallas, deesse de fortitude et de prudence” (sig. 03v). In spite of the high intellectual esteem in which he holds himself, she also reminds him that, contrary to his opinion, he is not “plus docte que les personnes qui anciennement faisoient residence à la fonteine […] de Pegasus” (sig. 03v-04r). In no way does he, again contrary to his beliefs, “exceder en recit des hystoires la memorative Clio,” nor “preceder en narration de tragedies Melpomené,” nor “en commedies Thalie,” nor “en moduleuse resonnance Euterpe,” nor “en melodie Terpsicore,” nor “en geometrie Eratho,” nor “en literrature Calliope,” nor “en cognoissance du cours celeste Urania,” nor “en rethorique Polimia” (sig. 04r)! “Toutes telles tiennes presumptions,” indeed, as she tells him later on, “me provocqueroient à rire, n'estoit qu'en te travaillant pour t'exalter, tu t'esforces de totalement deprimer les autres. Et par especial tu increpes & reprens la muliebre condition” (sig. 04v)! Hélisenne then continues to narrate a long list of distinguished literary and cultural heroines, a veritable pantheon of female intellectual figures and feminist scholarship: the daughters of the orators Lelius and Hortensius who, through their writing abilities, made “l'elegance de leurs peres singulierement recommandée”; Damas, Pythagoras' daughter, who “fut si tres savante en Philosophie qu'apres que les trois seurs eurent coupé le fil vital à son pere, elle exposoit les difficultez de ses sentences”; Queen Zenobia who “fut tellement instruicte par Longin philosophe que par l'habondance & reluysante science des escritures fut nommée Ephinisa, dont Nicomachus translata les saintes & sacrées œuvres”; Deborah who “en grec […] fut tant prudente & discrette que comme on lit au livre des Juges, pour quelques temps exerça l'office de judicature sus le peuple d'Israel”; the Roman Valery who “fut si experte en lettres grecques & latines qu'elle expliqua les vers et metres de Virgile, à la foy & aux misteres de la religion chrestienne”; Aspasia who “fut de si extreme sçavoir remplie que Socrates philosophe tant estimé ne fut honteux d'aprendre quelque science d'elle”; Aresta “femme tres sçavante [qui] fut mere d'Aristipus philosophe, lequel du commencement elle instruict en philosophie”; and so on and so on with the depiction of many other famous women and their accomplishments from the past, heroines and role models in cultural, intellectual, and literary history with whom to enlighten her husband's patriarchal blindness. Hélisenne ends her discussion of the “louables œuvres des dames sçavantes”: “Ainsi furent excellentes poetrices & oratrices: Capiola, Lucera, Sapho & Armesia surnommée Androginea” (sig. 04v-05v).

So as not to forget the present, Hélisenne highlights one particular “dame sçavante” in whom she sees in the Renaissance the culmination and excellence of all feminine progress, one in whom she finds the true female exemplar of manly works. This person is none other than the illustrious Marguerite de Navarre. To debunk her husband once and for all, Hélisenne describes how this one woman combines all the heretofore seemingly manly virtues of past culture, all the accomplishments for which the four most acclaimed male philosophers and writers in all of history were so esteemed by their male descendants, and who had been used by the latter (and Hélisenne's husband in particular!) as male paradigms to promote male superiority/domination and female inferiority/exclusion. Hélisenne defiantly undermines male wisdom and authority by portraying this wisdom and this authority in Marguerite. Here is Hélisenne's passage on Marguerite, truly the apogee of feminine consciousness and feminist writing in the Epistres:

Mais si toy malheureux veulx perseverer de dire que je ne fay mention que des anciennes, & que pour le present n'en est à celles que j'ay predict equiparables, à cela je te respons tes dictz estre de la verité alienez. Car je n'estime point qu'au passé jamais fust, ne pour l'avenir peult estre, personne de plus excellent & hault esprit que la tres illustre & magnanime princesse, ma dame la Royne de Navarre. C'est une chose toute notoire qu'en sa royalle, excellente & sublime personne reside la divinité platonique, la prudence de Caton, l'eloquence de Cicero & la socratique raison. Et à brief parler, sa personne est tant acomplie que la splendeur d'icelle à la condition feminine donne lustre.

(sig. 05v-06r)

To be sure, the above reversed portrayals of women “exerçant œuvres viriles” are the more effective and powerful because Hélisenne always depicts her husband (and quite often men in general) as not embodying these same viril character traits and performing similar accomplishments. This too is part of her feminist writing of reversibility, assigning to her husband those traits and qualities and actions which he had always criticized her and other women for: those of being irrational, emotional, uncreative and so forth; in short, those most patriarchally viewed disabilities making the accomplishment of “œuvres viriles” impossible. A few examples, among many others which could be cited, will show what I have in mind. In these passages, Hélisenne is writing as a woman more than simply as a wife when she reverses the “manly” virtues of reason and steady self-control in her husband, who is depicted as exploding into mindless emotion and utter lack of control, into male hysteria:

Il est facile à conjecturer que si avec pensée reposée tu avois distinctement considéré mes escriptz […]

Au moins si ton ire n'estoit plus fondée en l'appetit de me persecuter qu'en la raison […]

Parquoy donnant lieu à fureur, par dessus raison superiorité obtint […]

(EI1/sig. M4v-M5r)

Tu es si remply d'insolence que la raison te deffaillant, […] generalement tu detestes la feminine condition.

(EI3/sig. N6v-N7r)

How far indeed are we the readers from the “socratique raison” and “œuvres viriles” of Marguerite and of Hélisenne's other heroines! In her revision and rewriting of the patriarchal principle, which amounts to the rewriting of cultural and intellectual history, Hélisenne asserts the female meaning and female possibilities of manly accomplishments to foster sexual equality, to counter the patriarchal strategy of exclusion of female participation in this history. She challenges the principle that defines human wisdom, strength, and action as male. Hélisenne's own participation in “exerçant œuvres viriles”—her right to read and write like a woman, her courage and determination to pursue literature and writing as she envisions them, indeed the creative acts themselves of conceiving and writing the 18 epistles—is, finally, an optimistic plea of hope.5 This participation is the eternal feminist hope that the future will not continue to be written, or read, conventionally in male-dominating, female-excluding terms of “œuvres viriles.” If so, she as woman, or, by implication, some other woman will always stand ready to strike back by wielding the pen and rewriting in even stronger terms to insure a feminine presence and standing in literature and cultural-intellectual progress. As Hélisenne herself warns her chief male antagonist at the end of her “Fourth Invective Letter”:

Mais si […] tu persistes en ton antique folie, qui seroit cause de faire esmouvoir la fureur de ma plume, laquelle me stimuleroit te rescrire propos plus fascheux que tu ne pourrois precogiter!

(sig. 08r-v)

It is clear that one of the main goals of feminist studies today is to reopen and enlarge the literary canon by recovering lesser known works, usually written by women, which herald the accomplishments and performative standing of woman. In our ongoing revision of the early modern period, Hélisenne's Epistres deserve to be included. As a cultural-literary corrective testament on woman, these letters can bring a more balanced light to our own rereading and rewriting of the Renaissance itself.6


  1. On this point very recently, see Renée Hubert's “Preface” in her exciting edited collection of essays on Women, Gender, Genre, in L'Esprit Créateur, 29(1989), especially pp. 3-4.

  2. Quotations from the Epistres will be from the facsimile edition of Hélisenne's Œuvres of 1560 (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1977). All editing of this Renaissance text is mine (the modernization of i and j, u and v, m or n for the tilde, etc., and the addition of accents and punctuation where needed for intelligibility). Each reference will include “EF” or “EI” to designate “familiar” or “invective” letter, followed by the number of the letter and page number. Since the initial blank leaf was not reproduced in the facsimile edition, rectos and versos appear side by side. The only modern edition of Hélisenne's letters, including an excellent historically oriented discussion of them, is the edited translation in English by M. M. Mustacchi and P. M. Archambault, A Renaissance Woman (Syracuse University Press, 1986). As good as this translation is, those few translations of Hélisenne in this study are my own. Also, unless otherwise indicated, all italics are mine.

  3. Jane Marcus, Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988) and Judith Fetterly, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971). See also Elaine Showalter, “Towards a Feminist Poetics,” in Mary Jacobus, Women Writing and Writing About Women (London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1979), pp. 22-41, where she divides modern feminist writing and its criticism into two distinct varieties: the one concerned with “woman as reader” which she calls “feminist critique” and the other with “woman as writer” or “gynocritics.” As we shall see, Hélisenne in her Epistres affords the reader-critic both varieties.

  4. In the passages from Hélisenne's letters I am discussing, there is also at issue, in addition to the cultural and intellectual deprecation of woman, the question of feminine morality, or rather the lack thereof—her husband's views on her and on woman as sexual degenerates. Such views Hélisenne forcefully and skillfully refutes. This moral-ethical dimension of the Epistres is too vast to treat here and will comprise the subject of a separate study.

  5. It is at the same time her original contribution to an ongoing “translatio studii” with a female difference. Hélisenne borrows much of her thematic material concerning exemplary woman from Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus and from Cornelius Agrippa's De nobilitate et praecellentia feminei sexus. She also, generically, seems to adopt, though for altogether different, in fact opposite, ends, the satirical view of Juvenal: “Si natura negat facit indignatio versum qualemcumque potest,” which can be paraphrased: “Indignation will supply the power of writing in any literary mode which nature may have denied me” (Liber primus, Satire I, lines 79-80, in J. D. Duff, ed., Fourteen Satires of Juvenal [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957]). For Hélisenne too, indignation or anger becomes a conscious literary mode to vent her ideas; it “makes” (produces) feminist writing, the writing of invective letters. By borrowing (but of course adapting for her own ends) in this intertextual fashion both her inventio and elocutio from famous men, Hélisenne herself, as a writer, “exerce œuvres viriles.”

  6. I am of course referring to the revision of the Renaissance undertaken recently by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers in their stimulating collection of essays on Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). For French authors treated, see the essay on Rabelais by Carla Freccero and the two on Louise Labé by François Rigolot and Ann Rosalind Jones.

Robert D. Cottrell (essay date January 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Cottrell, Robert D. “Female Subjectivity and Libidinal Infractions: Hélisenne de Crenne's Angoisses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours.French Forum 16, no. 1 (January 1991): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Cottrell examines the issues of female authorship and female readership in Les Angoysses douloureuses, focusing on the problem of female subjectivity as it relates to the female narrator and to the text itself.]

Several claims have been made for Hélisenne de Crenne's novel Les Angoisses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours, published in 1538 and reprinted at least eight times by 1560. Gustave Reynier, whose 1908 study on Le Roman sentimental avant l'Astrée renewed interest in Les Angoisses, called de Crenne's text the first “roman sentimental” in French literature.1 Agreeing with Reynier, later scholars have maintained that it is also, as Fritz Neubert puts it, “the first original French novel of modern times,”2 and, further, that it is France's first autobiographical novel.3

Thanks to the research of several scholars,4 we know that Les Angoisses was written by Marguerite de Briet, who published under the pseudonym of Hélisenne de Crenne. In Part I of the novel (the only part that has been reedited since the sixteenth century and the part on which this essay will focus), the fictional Hélisenne de Crenne, writing in the first person, recounts how her marriage was disrupted when she fell hopelessly in love with a young man beneath her in social station and wealth. Although we do not know if Marguerite de Briet herself did indeed fall in love with such a man, the documents available do tell us that she was wealthier than her husband, that her marriage had begun to turn sour by the time she wrote Les Angoisses, and that by 1552 she was legally separated from her husband. Reexamining the documentary evidence, Paule Demats, the scholar responsible for the modern edition of Part I of the text, points out that nearly all of de Crenne's works—including Les Angoisses, a collection of fictional letters (the most interesting of which are invective letters addressed to a malevolent husband), and a text called Le Songe—were written in the late 1530s when Marguerite de Briet's marriage seems to have been headed for the rocks.5 Noting that each of these texts repeats the same scenario and, further, that this scenario seems to have been shaped, in part at least, by events in Marguerite de Briet's own life, Demats concludes that the works that bear the signature of Hélisenne de Crenne all relate the same “drame bourgeois” (xi), a drama that, in Marguerite de Briet's own life, would conclude with her separation from her husband.

Using the vocabulary of narratology, we can say that the narrator in Les Angoisses is the “I as protagonist.” The primary consequence of this narrative strategy is that all the situations and events recounted are viewed from a fixed center, the point at which the narrator is located. In the penultimate chapter of Part I, the narrator explains that her husband has imprisoned her in a tower in a remote country castle. She has written down the story the reader has been reading because she hopes that her text will fall into the hands of her amy, Guénélic, who, because he is located on the same diegetic level as the narrator, is the narratee. However, he never reads the manuscript, which, wrapped in white silk, was discovered only after Guénélic and the narrator had both died.

If the narratee inscribed in the text is male (a male who never hears what the female narrator tries to tell him), the implied reader is female. The narrator frequently interrupts the narrative and speaks directly to female readers. Abandoning momentarily the narratorial voice of Hélisenne de Crenne, the narrator—because in these instances she speaks from beyond the narrative—seems to assume the authorial voice of Marguerite de Briet, addressing, beyond the implied female readers, a readership composed of real female readers. Far more aggressively than other sixteenth-century texts that explicitly address female readers, this text, by virtue of its repeated shifts from (in Benveniste's terms) histoire to discours, from narrative to direct address aimed at female readers, excludes the male reader and denies him easy access. Beginning with the prefatory poem, entitled “Hélisenne aux lisantes,” and continuing to the final chapter of Part I, which is addressed to “treschieres et honnorées Dames” (96), the narrator speaks to female readers. She seeks to alert them to the dangers of love. She warns them that if ever they should experience the first stirring of an illicit, libidinous passion (the word “libidineux” appears repeatedly in the text) they must nip it in the bud. Should they fail to do so, it will flourish quickly and soon reduce them to despair and humiliation. Hers is a cautionary tale, intended to demonstrate to female readers the terrible consequences of “amours impudiques” (96). “Je serviray d'exemple aux aultres” (4), she says, stating clearly the exemplary status she ascribes to her story.

At the same time, however, the narrator is motivated by another impulse that is even more powerful than her desire to warn female readers against love. Claiming that “les dames naturelement sont inclinées à avoir compassion” (1), she seeks to arouse pity in her female readers and to move them so deeply with the account of her grief and pain that they will weep while reading her story. “J'estime,” she says at the very beginning of the novel, “que mon infortune vous provocquera à quelques larmes piteuses” (1). Quite deliberately, Les Angoisses sets out to be what film buffs, speaking of movies purportedly produced for a female audience, call a “weepie.”

Les Angoisses can be read as a representation of the process by which subjectivity is formed. It demonstrates how the subject, that is to say, the Self, is shaped and molded by the gaze and the voice that come from the Other. In the pages that follow, I shall focus on the problematic of subjectivity as it relates first to the female narrator and then to the text itself, for at the metatextual level, the text, like the female narrator, is a subject whose speech discloses the process by which its Self was formed.

At the beginning of the novel, the narrator, having informed her readers that she is of noble birth, explains that when she was eleven years old several suitors asked for her hand in marriage. The husband chosen for her was a young nobleman she had never met. Nevertheless, she was pleased to accede to the socially sanctioned status of “wife.” She claims that the love between herself and her husband was mutual and reciprocal. This claim bespeaks familiarity with the latest and most “advanced” neoplatonic notions about love, for the neoplatonism that was becoming fashionable in the late 1530s stressed the mutual and reciprocal nature of love.6

Neoplatonic commonplaces may figure the narrator's desire for reciprocity but they do not express the reality of her marriage as it was experienced by her body. The narrator tells us that because she was married too young (she was eleven) her health deteriorated, adding, however, that whenever her husband was away from home for an extended period of time her health improved and her body began to regain its former vigor. Rebelling against a marriage judged to be, in one sense at least, unnatural (“j'avoys esté mariée en trop jeune aage” 3), the narrator's body registered the desire of the Other as abuse and violation. Her body, on which the Other's desire was inscribed as injury, offense, illness, spoke a discourse of pain and subjection that belied neoplatonic commonplaces and that prefigures the discourse of corporeal suffering that will constitute much of the text. Unfolding as a series of scenes in which she is wounded, bruised, and battered, the novel repeats over and over the trauma of a wedding night that the narrator reconstructs in a fantasy, the central image of which is that of a child being beaten.

By the time she was thirteen she had matured physically, her body having become so beautifully proportioned that she can say, “J'estoye de forme elegante, et de tout si bien proportionnée que j'excedoye toutes aultres femmes en beaulté de corps” (3). She explains that had her face been as beautiful as her body she would have been one of the most beautiful women in France. Whenever she appeared in public, men would gather around her and, gazing at her, would say, “Voyez là le plus beau corps que je veis jamais” (3). Then, looking at her face, they would add, “Il n'est à accomparer au corps” (3). The face, which is the symbolic locus of mind and selfhood, is presented, therefore, as a bodily fragment that is inferior to, and isolated from, the rest of the body. By dismissing her face, by—through the agency of the gaze—remapping the terrain of the female body so that it becomes an elegantly elongated form from which the face has been detached, cut off, the men who look at her are able to assure themselves that they alone possess the gaze, for the object of their voyeuristic and fetishistic pleasure, being a body deprived of the selfhood disclosed in a face, does not look back at them.

Not that she resisted the reification to which she was subjected by the male gaze. On the contrary. Identifying narcissistically with the image of the castrated Other that was reflected back to her in the male gaze, she delighted in being the object of male pleasure. Before leaving her house (to go, for example, to church, accompanied always by her husband), she paid great attention to the elegance of her clothes. She arranged her hair and chose her jewels with great care. Then, like a peacock (the word is hers), she would begin to walk back and forth in front of her mirror, admiring herself. She was immensely pleased when, as she walked down the street, “tout le monde jectoit son regard sur moy, en disant les ungs aux aultres: ‘Voyez là la creature excedant et oultrepassant toutes aultres en formosité de corps’” (22). The anonymous men who surround her and whose gaze she feels pressing on her body are themselves never described. Men are the subject, not the object, of the gaze. They are positioned in the shadows as viewers whereas she, perfectly coiffed, elegantly dressed and highly lit, is positioned as the object that is seen. She participates in her own reification and introjects with narcissistic fervor the gaze that comes to her. Seeing herself as others see her, she never describes her own face, except to note that her eyes are green. With the exception of this detail, which is formulaic (in Renaissance depictions of female beauty the woman's eyes are nearly always green), the narrator's own face is erased from the image she has of herself. She sees herself as a body that is defamiliarized by the male gaze, a body that the male gaze redrafts as a sightless, passive object, the function of which is to arouse and sustain masculine desire. In other words, she finds her identity as woman by exhibiting her body and by masquerading as the object men want, by becoming a representation of male desire.

But the story line of Les Angoisses hangs on the woman's sudden claim to repossess her face, to appropriate the gaze, and to constitute herself as a subject who looks. Leaving their country castle (which is the very castle to which she will be returned as a prisoner at the end of Part I), the narrator and her husband moved to an unnamed city. Immediately upon their arrival at their city house, the narrator sat down in front of a window. For the first time in Les Angoisses she begins to “look.” The next morning she got up earlier than usual. So eager was she to station herself at the window and to indulge in her newly discovered capacity for scopophilic as well as exhibitionistic pleasure that she rushed to the window as soon as she got out of bed. Standing in front of the open window, she finished getting dressed. Suddently, she saw a young man at a window in the house on the opposite side of the street. Because it was very hot, he was wearing only a black satin doublet. Eagerly, her eyes traced the contours of his partially exposed and well-shaped body. Sizing him up, she was struck by the youthful beauty of his beardless face, by his smile, and by his blond, curly hair.

This scene, which is de Crenne's version of the innamoramento, or the process of falling in love, is composed of petrarchist commonplaces that, in the discourse of male poets, had been used for centuries to depict idealized feminine beauty. When appropriated by a female author for the purpose of depicting masculine beauty, they become charged, however, with transgressive power. In the economy of the text, or better yet, in the economy of the fantasy the text records, the young man (and the text insists on his youth) is installed in the feminine position vis-à-vis the narrator's gaze, which is not only aggressive but also—to borrow the word psychoanalyst Phyllis Greenacre uses to describe vision generally—prehensile.7

Looking at the young man in the window opposite her, the narrator, accustomed to being the object of the Other's desire, suddenly becomes a desiring subject. She yearned to “avoir jouissance de [ce jeune homme]” (10). At first, she tried to resist the imperatives of desire, reminding herself that she was “lyée de mary” (5). But desire was stronger than reason. “Usant de regards impudicques” (8), she sought to communicate her passion to the youth and to solicit from him a response to her wordless message of desire. Soon, he responded, looking at her with a gaze that was not only prehensile but phallic as well. [“Il me jeta”], she says, “une tresperçante œillade qui me fut penetrative jusques au cueur” (5). In the days that follow their first encounter, the narrator and Guénélic position themselves at their respective windows. As they exchange glances, the narrator's husband stands nearby and watches both his wife and the young man, perfectly aware of his wife's desire.

From the moment she fixes her gaze on Guénélic, the subject pitches her erotic narrative in the register of fantasy. Stressing the fantasmatic nature of her libidinal desire (“mes fantasieuses pensées” 30, “ma cruelle et furieuse fantasie” 48, “mes furieuses fantasies” 51, “mes diverses fantasies” 80, and so forth), the subject points to a truth about human sexuality that Freud will later articulate, namely, that all forms of human sexuality, even those a given culture may define as “normal,” marginalize need and substitute a fantasmatic object for the original object. Shaped by a single voice, Les Angoisses unfolds as a fantasy that articulates what fantasy always articulates: the subject's desire. Freud likened fantasies to daydreams and fictions that the subject creates in an effort to satisfy a desire that demands expresion but that, because it is censored, cannot find expression elsewhere.8 Fantasy always articulates both the desire and the prohibition.

In their important reformulation of the Freudian notion of fantasy, Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis observe that what the subject imagines or aims at in the fantasy is not really an object; rather, it is “a sequence in which the subject has its own part to play and in which permutations of roles and attributions are possible.”9 The primary function of fantasy is to provide a setting for desire. Fantasy is a scenario, a characteristic feature of which is the shifting place of the desiring subject.

In the fantasmatic scenario that is staged in Les Angoisses, the female subject's desire shifts between two opposing aims: an active aim (to look at, to subjugate); and a passive aim (to be looked at, to be subjugated). As the female subject puts it, “le sexe fœminin n'est jamais rassasié de veoir et d'estre veu” (4). In the language of the perversions, the active aim is, of course, scopophilia, which Freud associates with sadism; the passive aim is exhibitionism, associated with masochism. Unfolding in a specifically visual field, Les Angoisses registers a fantasy that is engendered by spectatorial desire. The three protagonists are bound together in a triangle of desire that is constructed by the gaze.

In the erotic geometry mapped out in the text, both men, though from radically different positions, act to objectify the woman and to deny her an active role in the economy of desire. Unlike the desiring female subject who moves in fantasy from an active to a passive aim, from scopophilia to exhibitionism, the two male protagonists, at least in the fantasy created by the female subject (which is what we have in the text), occupy always the active position and strive relentlessly to fix her in the passive position of object. Guénélic humiliates her publicly when he points her out to his male friends, and, in a voice that is loud enough for her to hear, boasts, falsely, that he has possessed her. Sorrowfully, she accepts this humiliation as the inevitable accompaniment of female desire. Throughout much of the novel, her husband heaps verbal abuse on her, subjecting her to a masculine discourse that figures woman as a beast of unlimited libidinal capacity and appalling lust. As the novel unfolds, he tries to “correct” her by administering punishment that becomes increasingly violent. At first he beats her with his fist; later, with a club. During one beating she falls and breaks two teeth. Another time, he beats her until she is black and blue. Sometimes his rage stimulates his erotic desire; seeing his wife battered, tearful, and bloody, he throws himself on her “pour parvenir au plaisir de Venus” (19).

Pale, fragile, shedding torrents of tears, often fainting, succumbing to bouts of fever and fits of trembling, lamenting the day she was born, trying unsuccessfully to kill herself, Hélisenne never blames or accuses the males who persecute her. She blames only herself. And for what? For desiring. She situates the male Other in the position of absolute power and absolute right, calling him “seigneur et maître” (80). Over and over she says that the beatings she receives from her husband are intended to protect her from her own depravity. Acknowledging her shamelessness and lasciviousness, she speaks of “mes regardz impudiques” (15), “mes inicques pechez” (42), “mon appetit desordonné” (65) [my emphasis]. She internalizes the male voice and the male imago as the super-ego and thus participates in her own degradation. In the “fantasmatic” that unfolds in the text, she looks at herself from the position of the super-ego, whose censorship and punishment become so severe and overpowering that they assume sadistic proportions.

Sadism (Freud's other term for it is Destrucktionstrieb)10 that turns around on the subject's own self is, of course, masochism. Failing to wrest the gaze from the male Other and to experience desire in the active mode, the female subject shifts back to the passive mode and experiences desire as masochism. In “The Economic Problem of Masochism,”11 Freud distinguished between two categories of masochism, both of which are at bottom “erotogenic,” meaning that both are linked to the fantasy of corporeal pleasure-in-pain. He called the first category “feminine” masochism, which is associated with fantasies of the body being bound, beaten, defiled. He called the second category “moral” masochism, which originates in a sense of guilt and “a need for punishment at the hands of a parental power” (169). In “moral” masochism, the super-ego, which—at least in the present social order—is always the paternal function, beats not the body, as in “feminine” masochism, but rather the ego. By calling masochism a “need,” Freud situates it among the active drives. Much of the subsequent literature on masochism has, however, stressed its passivity. Claiming that the apparent passivity enacted in masochism is a ruse intended to allow the masochist to disavow sexual agency and pleasure, Linda Williams has recently observed that “masochism is a strategy for negotiating pleasure from a position of relative powerlessness.”12 Williams continues:

Because women have so often been presumed not to have sexual agency, to be objects and not subjects of desire, masochism has often been taken as the “norm” for women under patriarchy—as if women only suffered the sexual pleasure of others. But we need to recognize the extent to which this “suffering” is also a performance to both self and others; for suffering in sex has not only been the way women have often experienced sex, it has also been the way women negotiate pleasure while submitting to patriarchal law. To a certain extent, then, … masochism represents a subversion of this law, a devious act of defiance.


If the masochism that is staged in the fantasmatic scenario we know as Les Angoisses represents a subversion of patriarchal law, writing, as it is thematized in the text, is an equally devious act of defiance. At the metatextual level, Les Angoisses demonstrates the process by which the text's subjectivity was formed. As in the case of the female narrator's subjectivity, the text's Self is to a large extent produced by the gaze and the voice that come from the Other. There is scarcely a page of Les Angoisses that does not contain borrowings from the works of earlier, invariably male, authors: Boccaccio, Piccolomini, Diego de San Pedro, Juan de Flores, and others. These purloined passages, which, in sixteenth-century editions of Les Angoisses, are not identified as the work of another author, vary in length from a few words to several lines. In her modern critical edition of the text, Paule Demats italicizes and identifies the passages de Crenne lifted from earlier works, making immediately apparent that the voice we often hear in the text is not that of the female author but that of authoritative male authors whom the desiring female subject impersonates, deploying the speech of male Others to form and shape her own discourse.

In Les Angoisses, the male voice, being that of the super-ego, censures and punishes the female ego. A significant number of the passages in which the narrator heaps blame and contempt on herself were, in fact, written by male authors. The female subject appropriates them and beats herself with them. “Je suis basse et infime” (81), she says, condemning her female lubricity with words that are now her own but that originated in patriarchal discourse, in this case, in a text by Caviceo, whose novel Il Peregrino was widely read in the early sixteenth century.

There has been a tendency in the criticism devoted to Les Angoisses to see in the massive borrowings from canonical male-authored texts a sign of the female author's lack of imaginative intensity and creative energy. Female erotic desire and female suffering seem to have no voice of their own in the text, for they come, by and large, from male discourse. The scripts of female desire, female pleasure, female suffering that are inscribed in Les Angoisses were in most cases written by men, who vilified erotic desire in woman. In the male-authored passages that de Crenne cites, female desire and female suffering are expressed in language that is highly rhetorical. Critics have often concluded that the female author of Les Angoisses betrays a “feminine” fondness for highly embellished discourse and for the seductive charm of rhetoric. Embedded in this conclusion is the misogynistic view, widely held in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that rhetoric, the art of persuasion and seduction (linked metonymically to cosmetics) was essentially “feminine,” for woman, like rhetoric, was thought to be skilled in the ruses of deceit.13 Woman, according to this view, was an overdetermined signifier that lured man away from the signified. By contrast, logic and grammar were thought to be essentially “masculine.”

A different conclusion, however, is possible. The mannered artificiality of the male-authored passages de Crenne borrows suggests that the female desire depicted in such passages originates in the male “fantasmatic” and is, therefore, a male pathology. The female author sometimes mimics the male authors whose words she borrows and, to portray female desire, writes a prose that equals theirs in rhetorical flourish. But such passages do not constitute female speech. Rather, they mimic male speech, which, to the extent that it claims to depict female desire, is a masquerade of female speech and of womanliness. Sometimes de Crenne heightens the masquerade by altering a word in the male-authored passages she cites, substituting a boldly ostentatious Latinate neologism for a more common word and increasing in this way the artificiality of a masculine discourse that claims to speak for women.14 Because de Crenne's text consists of many borrowed pieces that are stitched together, it can be seen as “mimicking” the exemplary female activity of piecing, patching, quilting.15 But it can also be seen as illustrating the compositional design we know as montage. And, as art critic Griselda Pollock has noted,16 montage is particularly useful for criticizing culture, for getting behind conventions of representation and exposing the ideology those conventions serve. For, in its juxtaposition of disparate elements, montage employs “dis-identificatory practices” (158) that are designed to liberate the viewer—in this case, reader—“from the state of being captured by illusions of art which encourages passive identification with fictinoal worlds” (163). In short, montage and masquerade disrupt the illusionist procedures of fiction and introduce distance within the space of the text.

Joan Riviere, in her famous 1929 article, “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” was the first to theorize femininity as mask.17 Riviere, who was a lay analyst, reports the case of one of her patients, a professional woman who, after presenting a brilliant paper before a largely male audience, could not resist flirting in a blatant and overt way with the men in whose company she found herself. Riviere states that the woman felt compelled to compensate for her intrusion into masculine territory, for her usurpation of discourse, her theft of masculinity, by exaggerating the gestures of feminine flirtation, by flaunting womanliness. Riviere notes that the woman mimicked genuine womanliness and, in masquerade, took on an undeniably feminine identity shortly after her incursion into what she perceived to be masculine territory. Riviere then remarks: “The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or where I draw the line between genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade.’ My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing.” This startling statement means, as Stephen Heath points out, that for Riviere “to be a woman is to dissimulate a fundamental masculinity.”18 In Riviere's formulation, femininity is precisely that dissimulation.

Riviere's theorizing is, I believe, relevant to the blatant and overt citational practice of the implied female author of Les Angoisses. The borrowed passages, all by famous male authors, serve, certainly, to illustrate how female desire and female suffering are represented in patriarchal discourse. The male authors whom the implied female author cites articulate womanliness as, on the one hand, lubricity and, on the other, suffering. “O pauvre dame infelice et malheureuse” (84), the narrator in Les Angoisses says about herself, citing Boccaccio. Speaking in the somewhat hysterical voice that early Renaissance male authors apparently believed to be the authentic voice of womanliness, the female subject implores death to release her from her suffering by repeating the words Caviceo had written for the female protagonist in Il Peregrino: “O ciel, O la terre, O corps superieurs, O vagues esperitz, O ames irreposées, conspirez ma mort, et imposez fin à ma miserable vie!” (85).

If we apply the logic of Riviere's argument to Les Angoisses, we can say that the implied female author, perhaps even the real female author, felt compelled to compensate for her usurpation of discourse, for her theft of masculinity, by—through stress on female lubricity and female suffering—exaggerating the gesture of feminine pain that was traced out in texts by male authors, by producing herself as an excess of womanliness, by, in other words, foregrounding the masquerade and thus dissimulating the masculinity she exhibits by speaking, by writing.

If female erotic desire and female suffering are mediated by patriarchal discourse, the desire to write is not. It is articulated only through the discourse of the implied female author. When the husband is informed by a servant that he can probably learn the truth about his wife's involvement with Guénélic by reading the manuscript she has been writing secretly, he kicks the door down to his wife's room and bursts in upon her. Startled and frightened, she did not have time to hide what she calls “mes escriptures” (83). Having read the manuscript, he became so enraged that he pulled out his sword and would have killed his wife then and there if servants had not restrained him. “O meschante et detestable,” he says to her, “à ceste heure suis bien informé, par les escriptures de ta main escriptes, de ton effrenée lasciveté! … tu es de luxure si prevenue que tu ne desire que l'execution libidineuse” (83). He destroys her manuscript, and she, utterly bereft, implores the figure of death to free her from “ceste peine inhumaine et insupportable tribulation, qui incessamment me tourmente” (83).

Driven by an urge to write (an urge that may in fact be an effort to regulate her sexual energy), the narrator started over and rewrote Les Angoisses during her imprisonment in the country castle. This version, too, was taken away from her, confiscated by the woman her husband had engaged to guard her. Presumably she wrote Les Angoisses yet a third time, and this is the version that was discovered after her death.

Throughout Les Angoisses, the narrator's libidinous passion, “ceste vulpine subtilité feminine” (85) of which her husband accuses her and of which she accuses herself, is inseparable from her desire to record what she calls “l'experience de ma furieuse follie” (96). Ultimately the narrator's “appetit venerien” (17) stands metonymically for that other perverse female desire: the desire to accede to the Symbolic and to register in a text the experience of the moral and physical degradation she suffers under the law of that implacable male god Cupid, “[qui] avoit sur moy,” she says, “domination et seigneurie” (83).

Locked up in a tower at the end of Part I, the narrator, now away from her husband and away from the gaze of male Others, usurps the male voice and creates the long narrative of Parts II and III of the novel, a narrative in which the speaking subject, the “je,” is a male, Guénélic, who relates his chivalric adventures as he searches for the imprisoned Hélisenne. The fictional Hélisenne retains for herself, however, the role of implied author, for she reveals that she is writing Guénélic's story for him. Moving away from the compositional design of Part I, the female author composes a long sustained narrative of adventure that conforms to literary tradition and so affirms her accession to the Symbolic.

Because Les Angoisses solicits specifically a female readership, how, we may ask, is a female reader to read this text? The female reader who accepts the urgent invitation extended in Part I of Les Angoisses to engage with the fantasy inscribed in the text becomes herself the subject of the textual fantasy she appropriates. Now as Laplanche and Pontalis have argued, the subject's place in fantasy is not fixed. Fantasy, like reverie and daydream, allows the subject to shift from one place to another, to disregard all boundaries, to cross all lines of demarcation, including the bar of gender. The female reader of Les Angoisses can, by narcissistic identification, put herself in the position of the female subject as it is mapped out in the text's fantasmatic scenario. In this position, she will be the passive or masochistic female subject. But the female reader, like the males in the text who gaze at the female body, is necessarily in the position of the one who sees, who looks. Thus she can—indeed, in some ways, must—identify with the possessor of the gaze and situate herself in the active or sadistic position. Identification with the position the text clearly defines as male entails, however, an acceptance of what we can call, borrowing from Laura Mulvey's important work on female spectatorship in cinema, a certain “masculinization” of readership.19 Because the text defines “looking” as, essentially, a male activity, the female reader, obviously possessor of the gaze, must occupy the position of the one who looks, even though she can occupy that position only by impersonating the male.

The fact that the implied author in the text is female, and further, that the author who created her is also female, subverts, however, the neat alignment of female with passivity and masochism, on the one hand, and male with activity and sadism, on the other. Throughout much of the text, “womanliness” is presented as a fiction created by male authors. The fact that the woman can appropriate “womanliness” and wear it like a mask when it suits her purpose means that for the female reader narcissistic identification with the woman in the text does not necessarily entail identification with the figure of woman as lustful beast or tender wound. It can also entail identification with the figure of woman whose claim to be lustful beast or tender wound is a strategy designed to permit her to slip into the Symbolic. What characterizes fantasy is precisely that, though the positions are fixed, the subject (in this case, reader) who engages with textual fantasy shifts from one position to another. The reader appropriates textual fantasy in ways the text cannot entirely anticipate or determine, for appropriation of textual fantasy depends on the particular psychic scenarios the reader brings to the text. Exhibiting the self-awareness that characterizes so many Renaissance works, Les Angoisses, then, maps out with considerable precision the problematic of female authorship and female readership, that is to say, the problematic of female subjectivity, in a society that privileged patriarchal discourse.


  1. Gustave Reynier, Le Roman avant l'Astrée (Paris: Colin, 1908) 99-122. Also: M. J. Baker, “France's First Sentimental Novel and Novels of Chivalry,” Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance 36 (1974): 33-45; Anne R. Larsen, “The Rhetoric of Self Defense in Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours (Part one),Kentucky Romance Quarterly 29 (1982): 235.

  2. Fritz Neubert, “Hélisenne de Crenne (ca. 1500-ca. 1560) und ihr Werk. Nach den neuesten Forschungen,” Zeitschrift für Französische Sprache und Literatur 80 (1970): 303.

  3. Reynier, Le Roman avant l'Astrée 117. Also: Neubert 300; Colette Winn, “La Symbolique du regard dans Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours d'Hélisenne de Crenne,” Orbis Litterarum 40 (1985): 207. Marianna M. Mustacchi and Paul J. Archambault, A Renaissance Woman, Hélisenne's Personal and Invective Letters (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986), call Les Angoisses a “seemingly autobiographical tale” (3).

  4. Especially V.-L. Saulnier, “Quelques nouveautés sur Hélisenne de Crenne,” Association Guillaume Budé 4e Série, 4 (1964): 459-63, and “Hélisenne de Crenne: notes biographiques,” Studi Francesi 31 (1967): 77-81.

  5. Hélisenne de Crenne, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours, ed. Paule Demats (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968). All citations are from this edition and are identified by page number in the text.

  6. Introduced into France by Symphorien Champier (La Nef des dames vertueuses, 1503), the neoplatonic notion of love was powerfully articulated by Castiglione in the Courtier, published in Italian in 1528 and in French in 1537. Texts by Ficino began to appear in France in the 1540s. Furthermore, neoplatonism and the status of women were among the issues that were debated in the Querelle des amies in the early 1540s.

  7. “Certain Relationships between Fetishism and Faulty Development of the Body Image,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 8 (1953): 91.

  8. On Freud's use of the word “phantasy,” see Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (Paris: PUF, 1967) 152-57, rendered in English as The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Norton, 1973) 314-19. Cotgrave translates fantasie as “a vision, representation, or image of things conceived in the mind.” This is the Stoic definition of fantasie, for according to Stoic epistemology, which depended on an empiricist psychology, external sources inscribe on the mind impressions (phantasia) analogous to those made by a seal on wax. On the importance of the Stoic concept of fantasie in the Renaissance, see Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle, Rhetoric and Reform: Erasmus' Civil Dispute with Luther (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983) 48.

  9. The Language of Psycho-Analysis 318. For a fuller development of their concept of fantasy, see Laplanche and Pontalis, “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality,” in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan (London: Methuen, 1986) 5-34.

  10. “Das Ökonomische Problem des Masochismus,” in Gesammelte Werke (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1940) 13: 377.

  11. In The Standard Edition of the Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1961) 19: 159-70. In his introduction to Le Miroir des femmes, ed. Luce Guillerm et al. (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1983) 2: 7, J.-P. Guillerm notes that novels produced in France during the 1530s are marked by a sado-masochistic strain: “En marge des poésies platonisantes et/ou pétrarquisantes, les romans semblent assumer la part plus ouverte et plus vulgaire des mises en scène clairement sado-masochistes.” See also Luce Guillerm, “La Prison des textes ou Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours d'Hélisenne de Crenne (1538),” Revue des Sciences Humaines 195 (1984): 10-23.

  12. “Power, Pleasure and Perversion: Sadomasochistic Film Pornography,” Representations 27 (1989): 51.

  13. In the late twentieth-century, Jean Baudrillard has restated the view that “the female,” defined as “a principle of uncertainty,” is the figura of artificiality and seduction, which he, unlike medieval and Renaissance male writers, praises over “masculine production.” See his Séduction (Paris: Galilée, 1979).

  14. On p. 79, for example, de Crenne lifts several passages from the French translation of Caviceo's Il Peregrino, but changes “malheureuse” to “infelice” and “navra” to “vulnera.”

  15. Luce Guillerm, “La Prison des textes …,” speaks of de Crenne's “écriture en patch-work” (11). For the notion of piecing applied to women's texts, see Elaine Showalter, “Piecing and Writing,” in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia UP, 1986) 222-47. Tom Conley, “Feminisn, Ecriture, and the Closed Room: The Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours,Symposium 27 (1973): 322-32, points out that the text reflects the conditions that confronted a woman who, like Marguerite de Briet, wanted to write: lack of privacy, narrow range of lived experience, etc. See also Colette Winn, “Perception spatiale dans Les Angoisses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours,Degré Second 9 (1985): 1-13.

  16. Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988).

  17. Rpt. in Formations of Fantasy 45-62.

  18. “Joan Riviere and the Masquerade,” in Formations of Fantasy 49.

  19. “Afterthoughts … inspired by Duel in the Sun,” Framework (Summer 1981): 13. See also two articles that have attained canonical status: Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975): 6-19; Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator,” Screen 23 (1983): 74-87.

Diane S. Wood (essay date summer 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Wood, Diane S. “The Evolution of Hélisenne de Crenne's Persona.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures 45, no. 2 (summer 1991): 140-51.

[In the following essay, Wood examines how de Crenne fashions her self-portrait in her novel and letters.]

The innovative nature of france's first sentimental novel has been examined during the past few years in numerous doctoral dissertations and scholarly articles. The present study is concerned with the author's acquisition of writing techniques and traces how Hélisenne de Crenne creates her own persona in the reader's mind from a collage of elements. A multifaceted view of the author/character/narrator/letter writer evolves gradually during the course of her first two published volumes and becomes more complex as the author gains confidence in her craft. Her self-portrait is genre-specific and intertextual in nature. Contemporary criticism enables the modern reader to codify the different Hélisennes and to distinguish her fiction from autobiography. Hélisenne develops from a specially acceptable (i.e., passive young woman) to become a much-criticized bas-bleu, far ahead of her time. Despite social constraints of the sixteenth century, she paints a vivid fictional portrait in her prose. Reading her novel, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538), along with her letter sequence, Les Epistres familieres et inuectiues (1539), provides the key to tracing the depiction of her personal development, culminating in her invective letters, wherein she presents her mature visage as defender of literary women and author of bestselling fiction.

The author's use of first-person narration complicates discussion of how her persona evolves due to the multiplicity of her separate, contiguous selves, all of whom may be referred to as “Hélisenne.” In order to distinguish clearly between the various layers of narrators, protagonists, and letter writers, the following appellations will be used:

1. De Crenne = the author

2. Hélisenne = a global reference to the various Hélisennes

3. Letter Writer A = the writer of Epistres familieres 1-9

4. Letter Writer B = the writer of Epistres familieres 10-12

5. Letter Writer C = the writer of Epistres inuectiues 1-5

6. Narrator = the narrator of the Angoysses, Part One

7. Protagonist A = the protagonist of the Angoysses, Part One

8. Protagonist B = the protagonist of the Angoysses, Part Three1

The theoretical constructs for breaking down the components of the complex portrait of Hélisenne are recent developments. One should keep in mind that dividing her portrait into several letter writers and protagonists, as well as distinguishing between author, narrator, and character, is possible only because of modern narrative theory. Nonetheless, although the sixteenth-century reader did not have this theoretical framework, De Crenne's strong message was not lost. Narrative theory enhances the twentieth-century reader's appreciation of the author's technique in presenting her message: passion leads to personal ruin and women can write literature.

The novel and letters are linked by a common plot line. The first nine Epistres familieres fit chronologically into the first chapter of the Angoysses. They establish the nature of Letter Writer A's relationships and furnish details about her early life that are absent in the novel. The next two letters, which concern the character transformation that occurs after the young woman falls in love, complete Part One of the novel. The last two letters refer to the woman's rescue by her beloved and serve as an addendum to the novel's final episode, in which Protagonist B expresses Christian Neoplatonic ideals. The five Epistres inuectiues present Letter Writer C as the creator of a fictional world. The novel and letters are intended to be read together, as complements, receiving privilèges only thirteen months apart—11 September 1538 for the Angoysses and 18 October 1539 for the Epistres (along with her allegorical Songe). The two volumes were undoubtedly displayed side by side in the shop of their Parisian imprimeur/libraire Denys Janot. The complementary nature of the two separate works becomes even more obvious in the 1543 edition in which the novel, letters, and allegorical dream sequence appear in the same volume.2 Subsequent sixteenth-century editions recognize the self-referentiality of the three works by continuing to publish them together. Three modern editions break this basic unity by presenting the novel separately, with two of the editions including only Part One of the novel.3 Such a presentation obscures for today's reader the evolution of Hélisenne's persona on several fictional levels.

The narrator of the Angoysses creates a psychological portrait of Protagonist A in the reader's mind by describing her inner reality as an intense déchirement, the embodiment of angoysse douloureuse. Physical description, on the other hand, plays a relatively small role in De Crenne's writings (Wood 134-36 and 140-46). The narrator offers only a glimpse of Protagonist A's physical attributes at age thirteen: “J'estoye de forme elegante, & de tout si bien proportionnée que j'excedoye toutes aultres femmes en beaulté de corps; & si j'eusse esté aussi accomplye en beaulté de visage, je m'eusse hardiment osé nommer des plus belles de France” (Angoysses 7). The relative plainness of her face, as compared with her stunning body, deflates the impression that Protagonist A's beauty is hyperbolic. This presentation undercuts, to a considerable extent, the reader's perception of the young girl's attractiveness, an estimation supported by the general opinion of her peers:

Quand me trouvoye en quelque lieu remply de grand multitude de gens, plusieurs venoient entour moy pour me regarder (comme par admiration) disans tous en general: “Voyez là le plus beau corps que je veis jamais.” Puis apres, en me regardant au visaige, disoient: “Elle est belle, mais il n'est à accomparer au corps.”

(Angoysses 7)

Despite her less-than-perfect face, the narrator states that several admirers, including a king, sought her favor (Angoysses 7). The negative comments concerning her features lend verisimilitude to her description of herself, prevent any possible charge of vanity on her part, and are in keeping with the topos of humilitas, a literary constraint very much in evidence in De Crenne's writings.

Along with physical description, details concerning Protagonist A's attire are also scarce. Her clothing is noted on only one occasion when her husband orders her to dress splendidly (“triumphamment”). Ironically, she takes delight in adorning herself not for her husband but for her beloved:

Je vestis une cotte de satin blanc & une robe de satin cramoisy; j'aornay mon chef de belles brodures & riches pierres precieuses. Et quand je fuz accoustrée, je commencay à me pourmener, en me mirant en mes sumptueulx habillemens, comme le paon en ses belles plumes, pensant plaire aux aultres comme à moy mesmes.

(Angoysses 32-33)

Her use of the male peacock to connote pride in her personal appearance is particularly striking. This simile is not original to De Crenne, however, but comes directly from Boccacio's Fiammetta, an important source for the novel.4 The narrator exploits the peacock's symbolism to make this pejorative comment concerning the vanity of her younger, foolish, and prideful self.

Whereas in the Angoysses description of the external is often lacking, the novel is replete with the description of both the narrator's and Protagonist A's troubled states of mind. The text is dominated by the overpowering sensual passion on the part of the focal character, who spends countless sleepless nights yearning for her beloved. The narrative is also punctuated by comments that the narrator relives her pain while writing the novel: “la recente memoire rend ma main debile & tremblante” (Angoysses 52). Tom Conley explains the function of the narrator's angoysse as catharsis. In the act of writing, the narrator regains her equilibrium through the process of reliving of her pain (Conley 328). From the time she first catches a glimpse of him, Protagonist A spends countless sleepless nights troubled by her obsession for her beloved: “mon entendement commenca à voltiger en composant diverses & nouvelles phantasies, qui me causoit une laborieuse peine, en sorte que ne povoye dormir” (Angoysses 25). The narrative continually oscillates between Protagonist A's inner turmoil and the remembrance and rekindling of this agitation by the narrator. The force of these extreme emotions oppresses the novel and gives it an almost claustrophobic tone, especially because the plot line has been so diminished by the narrow focus on intense psychological states (Conley 326).

Repetitive depictions of emotional turmoil reinforce the didactic message that passion is dangerous and must be avoided. The narrator presents herself as a negative model and attempts to teach others from her own unfortunate experience:5 “quand je considere qu'en voyant comme j'ay esté surprise, vous pourrez eviter les dangereulx laqs d'amours, en y resistant du commencement, sans continuer en amoureuses pensées” (Angoysses 3). Unbridled passion results in disastrous consequences, ruins her marriage, and eventually brings about her death. The intense descriptive focus that portrays Protagonist A's inner life mirrors her total absorption with her passion. The external world seems to cease to exist. She is figuratively imprisoned by her own tumultuous emotions long before her outraged husband finally gives the order to have her confined to a tower at the end of Part One.

While the impact of external reality is being reduced, Protagonist A is portrayed in the Angoysses as having no links with people besides her jealous husband and her beloved. The world of the novel (Part One) is limited to the three members of the love triangle. Other characters fulfill only minor narrative functions. No character assumes the role of confidant and penetrates the isolation of the focal character.6 This feeling of being cut off from society in the novel contrasts strikingly with the sense of connectedness apparent in the Epistres, where there is a social context of family, friends, and, later, the literary world.

In the Epistres familieres, Letter Writers A and B present themselves as confidants and counselors to an extended family system. Whereas the situation in the novel is dependent on Protagonist A's total involvement in her personal situation, by its very nature, the epistolary genre requires interaction and connection with others as part of the letter writing process (Altman 48). The letters as such could not exist without correspondents. They would have the form of a diary or confession similar to the Angoysses.7 A total of thirteen correspondents are addressed in the Epistres. Her personal letters are written to an abbess, two female relatives, three male acquaintances, two female friends, her lover's faithful companion, and an enigmatic addressee presumed to be her beloved. Her invective letters are destined for her husband, a literary critic, and the citizens of a town. The number of correspondents implies that she is at the center of a large network of relationships with friends and relatives both male and female.8

This sense of a social context, of ties to others, is totally lacking in the novel. Indeed, the Angoysses seems to strip Protagonist A of her relationships to focus solely on the intensity of her psychological state. The lack of social and familial connections in the novel predisposes the main character to develop her love obsession. Her father died when she was young, leaving her mother to see to her education: “ma mère print ung singulier plaisir à me faire instruyre en bonnes meurs & honnestes coustumes de vivre” (Angoysses 6). The novel makes no further mention of Hélisenne's mother who would logically figure as the young girl's most influential role model as, for instance, Mme de Chartres in La Princesse de Clèves. The Angoysses introduces an eleven-year-old bride, bereft of companions and married to a man she had never met and who lived far away: “il y avoit grande distance de son pays au mien” (Angoysses 6). The novel unfolds with Protagonist A functioning as an isolated individual, interacting in society, but with no friends, no persons with whom she feels at ease. Her imprisonment in a tower by her jealous husband continues this isolation and, ironically, permits her, as narrator, the “freedom” to write her life story.

By its very title, the Epistres familieres implies the existence of family connections. Whereas Protagonist A speaks only briefly of her mother, Letter Writer A is actively engaged in caring for her mother in Letters One and Two. Duty to her mother dominates these letters. In Letter One, she relates how she had to leave the peaceful atmosphere of the convent because of her mother's illness. In the second, she refuses her correspondent's kind invitations to a family wedding and to the birth of a child, two important occasions for social interaction in the extended family of sixteenth-century France, to remain at her mother's bedside. Far from being motherless, Letter Writer A portrays herself as a dutiful daughter who is devoted to her mother, who puts the welfare of her mother before herself, and who, in so doing, suppresses her own desires. Without the pressure of filial obligations, she would have stayed in a convent forever. Only familial responsibilities outweigh her desire to lead a contemplative life. In her letter to an Abbess, she lists the “sainctes coustumes” practiced in the convent which she tries to emulate. These practices form the basis of Letter Writer A's personal value system, an ideal of feminine perfection:

La bonne exemplarité, l'assidue reuerence à dieu, les frequentes abstinences, la virginalle continence, les sõbres parolles, l'espargné regard, la continue demeure solitaire, le mesuré temps, la dispersé charité, ensemble le contempnemẽt du monde, l'aspre penitẽce, l'extreme diligẽce en deuotes oraisons, & la souueraine pacience en toutes affaires obseruées.

(Epistres A4v)

The presentation of these admirable qualities fosters the reader's perception of Letter Writer A as a highly moral individual.9 In the first nine letters, she exemplifies these virtuous qualities. Because of her goodness, she is sought as a personal advisor. By her responses to their queries, she guides those who are having personal difficulties. She counsels patience three times: in the face of slander (Letter Three), banishment from court (Letter Four), and loss of personal wealth (Letter Six). She consoles a widower on the death of his young wife (Letter Seven). Three letters deal specifically with the question of love. Letter Writer A recommends the renouncing of illicit love and admonishes a young girl to be obedient when her father choses a husband for her. She has compassion for the misfortunes of others but, at the same time, offers stern advice to women who contemplate being unfaithful to their husbands or who are not sufficiently compliant to their father's wishes. Her ideal of virtue comes not only from her convent experience but, also has a secular aspect, inspired by her reading of the classics. Letter Writer A suggests the example of Dido as a model of female constancy and tells her correspondent Clarice to “imiter & suyvre vertu” (Epistres D4v). She does not think that Clarice is weak (“pusillanime”) but, on the contrary, urges her to model herself after the strength in adversity demonstrated by the Queen of Carthage:

Ceste Dido fist grande demonstrance de sa vertu … par elle fut construicte & edifiée la noble cité de Carthage: laquelle fut tresfameuse & renomée. O que selon le iugement d'ung chascun elle fut digne d'estre extollée, puis que sa supreme vertu en telle extremité la rendit cõstante.

(Epistres D5r-v)10

Dido's virtue and her constancy in loving Sicheus thus serve as models for emulation. Throughout the first nine letters, Letter Writer A serves as a competent advisor who maintains a detached and rational perspective. She speaks out strongly against love and underscores its negative force: “Certes amour comme nous lisons, est vng songe plein d'erreur, de folye, temerité & inconsideration” (Epistres B7r-v).

Letter Ten completely reverses the previous self-description, destroying her persona as a stable and mature personality capable of giving advice to others. After having warned of the dangers of love, she herself falls victim to passion. Because the first nine letters emphasize and underscore Letter Writer A's virtue, the irresistible power of love appears all the greater when she succumbs. The simile of green wood, which is difficult to ignite but which burns hotter when finally lit, expresses the letter writer's experience with love:

tu vueille [sic] mediter que tout ainsi que le bois vert à peine recoipt la flambe & ardeur du feu: mais apres qu'il l'a receue, la tiẽt & conserue plus longuement, rendãt plus vehemente chaleur. Pareillemẽt m'est il aduenu qui au precedent pressée, tentée, & stimuleé, auec assidues poursuytes ne fuz vaincue: Mais finablement estãt surprinse, trop plus que nul aultre amour feruẽte & fidelle: ie obserueray ce que manifestemẽt ie demonstre: Car il n'ya peril qui m'espouẽte: il n'y a accident qui me retire, ne prison qui me retienne.

(Epistres E3r)

Thus, Letter Writer A's initial portrayal of herself as virtuous may be seen as part of her strategy to demonstrate the overpowering negative force of passion. If even she can succumb, others likewise will do so. Her mention of “assidues poursuytes” that she had successfully resisted in the past harkens back to the Angoysses, where Protagonist A was sought after for her physical attributes. The change in her personality occurs rapidly, almost accidentally, but once begun, it proves unstoppable. Logic and virtue cannot prevent her from being overcome (“surprinse”). Beginning with Letter Ten, she presents herself differently. No longer can she claim to practice the virtues of convent life or the constancy of Dido. Love has overwhelmed her best intentions just as it once did the Queen of Carthage.

Letter Twelve to the friend of her beloved and Letter Thirteen (in code) to her beloved return to the plot line of the novel and show Letter Writer B dissembling her true feelings.11 Dissemblance is a tactic that Letter Writer A mentions in Letters One, Eight, and Nine. At first, it is used for the noble purpose of concealing from her family the depth of her despair at leaving the convent. In the later letters, dissemblance is recommended as an effective strategy for delaying an unwelcome marriage. Thematically, it serves to link the letters with the novel, because dissemblance is a way of life in the Angoysses. After she falls into an extramarital love, Protagonist A finds it necessary to mask her true sentiments in all her dealings with her husband. In a particularly striking passage, she relates how she submits to sexual relations with her husband strictly for the purpose of hiding her true feelings:

il s'esveilla & me print entre ses bras pour me penser resjouyr & retirer à son amour. Mais, il estoit merveilleusement abusé, car mon cueur avoit desja faict divorce & repudiation totale d'avec luy; parquoy, tous ses faictz me commencerent à desplaire; & n'eussent esté contraincte je n'eusse couché avec luy. Mais, pour couvrir & donner umbre à mon inicque vouloir, me convenoit user de dissimulation.

(Angoysses 30)

Dissemblance becomes a way of coping when her true feelings are not aligned with a virtuous way of life, especially when revealing the truth might provoke physical abuse from her husband.

In the Epistres inuectiues, Letter Writer C's portrayal of herself has made the transition from that of a character in the narrative to its creator (Kauffman 25). No longer a family counselor, in these letters she becomes an author who defends first herself, then womankind, all women authors, and, finally, her own literary technique.12 The first three letters present a heated exchange between Letter Writer C and her husband. The theme of dissemblance, which was woven throughout the Lettres familieres, reappears, because she claims her motivation to write stems from the virtuous necessity to avoid idleness and not, as her husband maintains, to record illicit love: “tu as estimé cela (que pour euiter ociosité i'ay escript) eust esté par moy cõposé; pour faire perpetuelle commemoration d'une amour impudicque (G5v). Her husband's reply in the “Second Invective,” with its misogynistic distrust of all women, permits a third letter wherein Letter Writer C catalogues exemplary women throughout the ages. This three-letter exchange accomplishes what was never possible in the novel. Letter Writer C verbally masters her former dominator. By permitting herself two letters to his one, she overshadows his arguments and gives herself the final word. Her calm logic triumphs over his accusations. In the novel, Protagonist A is totally under her husband's domination to the point of being physically restrained, beaten, and, finally, imprisoned. As Letter Writer C, she avenges herself by mastering him verbally.

In the “Fourth Invective,” she energetically replies to Elenot, an outspoken adversary of women authors. The introductory précis summarizes the arguments of this letter:

Epistre exhibé par ma dame Helisenne à Elenot, lequel excité de presumption temeraire, assiduelement contemnoit les dames qui au solacieux exercice litteraire se veulent occuper: mais pour le diuertir de sa folie, Icy est faict commemoratiõ des splẽdides & gentilz esperitz, d'aulcuns dames illustres.

(Epistres K4r)

Letter Writer C presents herself as an able and eloquent speaker on behalf of her sex, a theme that is expanded in her allegorical Songe. She lists many women from antiquity, as well as her contemporary Marguerite de Navarre, whom she praises at great length.13 As was the case with her husband in the previous letter, Elenot is overpowered by the force of Hélisenne's arguments, her display of erudition, and her logic. She condemns him for being motivated by “presumption temeraire” and calls his point of view “folie.” By extension, Hélisenne presents her own views as reasonable. Elenot is given no voice and his foolish objections to women writers are quickly silenced.

The Epistres inuectiues thus signal the final stage in the development of Hélisenne's persona. She proves in the letters that she has gained her mature voice as an author, a voice that will continue, in her Songe and her Eneydes, to express literary opinions and experiment with writing techniques. Reading the letters as autobiographical, Paule Demats sees the “Third” and “Fourth Invective Letters” as the real ending of Hélisenne's drama: “Déçue par l'amour, impuissante à prouver son innocence, elle cherche dans la littérature une consolation et un moyen de satisfaire son besoin d'activité vengeresse” (xxxviii). Demats's appraisal of the two letters as personal vengeance does not, however, explain Invective Five, wherein the author's reproach is the most vehement. A comparison of the endings of the four letters written by Letter Writer C demonstrates that her hostile tone culminates with the final letter in the series, not with the fourth. Three letters close with rather bland comments invoking God's aid to enlighten her detractors:

Letter One—exorant la supernele bonté quelle se condescende, à de toutes vaines opinions te liberer.


Letter Three—le Dieu eternel [i'] exoreray, que par grace especiale, de telle obstinatiõ te libere.


Letter Four—exorant le souuerain des cieulx, que pour grace especiale vueille ton obfusqué entendement illuminer.


The tone of the three endings appears almost mild when compared with Invective Five, which closes with a scathing malediction worthy of Rabelais:

ne voulant plus aultre choses escripre, sinon que te dõner certitude de mon desir, que totalemẽt aspire, que anticque, infirme, aueugle, sourd, muet, indigent, & souffreteux te puisse veoir. Et si pour n'auoir en toy force de telles calamitez tolerer, Atropos te couppe le fil de ta miserable vie, ie vouldrois qu'apres telle dissolutiõ, tõ corps sans hõneur de sepulture, peult demourer: affin qu'il deuẽt pasture de liepars, loups affamez, liõs, Ours, Tigres, & toutes bestes feroces pour à leur exorbitante faim, de ton malheureux corps satisfaire: & auec ce desir, mettrya [sic] fin à mon epistre: & ne voulant tes compaignons oublier, les aduertis, que ie vouldrois que ce qu'il interuint à Dathan & Abiron, leur peult aduenir.


This imprecation is addressed to the inhabitants of the city of Icuoc (anagramme of Coucy), and especially to the most wicked of them all, a man whom she does not even deign to name. Her vehemence stems from his criticism of her as an author. Letter Writer C heaps scorn upon the latter for slander (detraction) and for criticizing the technique of her novel as being a roman à clef, which is too easily understood: “que mon liure intitulé, les Angoysses, estoit trop intelligible: & que ie debuois plus occultement parler, sans ainsi faire designatiõs des lieux” (L7r). The intensity with which she reacts to the criticism of her novelistic technique makes her dispute with her husband and her most vociferous Parisian critic appear minor.

This final invective letter evokes Letter Writer C as an author of fiction and the creator of a fictional world. Whereas the writer twice repudiates her novel as fiction in other letters, in Invective Five she contradicts her earlier statements and treats fictional incidents as having taken place. This is not to say, however, that she is claiming an autobiographical connection between her novel and her life. On the contrary, she is speaking solely of events in the lives of her male heroes. In this letter, the events of the novel are not seen as inventions out of whole cloth to prevent idleness but as “lived” situations that occurred and must be defended. The question of fiction versus reality becomes all the more difficult to resolve because of the importance that the narrator/protagonist/letter writers have already given to the techniques of dissemblance. Similarly, questions may be asked about veracity of the last two lettres familieres. The slippage between various levels of “fiction” adds to, rather than detracts from, the interest of De Crenne's texts by contributing an illusive ambiguity.

Whereas the portrait of Letter Writers A, B, and C evolves from ideal virtue to obsessive passion to self-conscious authorship, the depiction of Protagonists A and B moves from innocent virtue to obsessive passion to sublimation of the sensual. The tensions implicit in such swings of sentiment augment the nuancing of the portrayal of Hélisenne in all her various facets. Far from a stereotyped creation, she has human frailties with which the reader may identify, as well as a heroic dimension in her triumph as a literary woman.

Reading the Angoysses along with the Epistres demonstrates the self-referential nature of the author's corpus and offers a view of how the composite portrait of the fictive Hélisenne evolves: literally how she creates herself in the reader's mind. In the two works she gives us complementary aspects of herself—a psychological profile in the novel and a sociological one in the Epistres familieres. The didactic message is the same in both works: love brings moral decline and personal ruin. The elements constituting her composite persona are genre-specific. When she gains her voice as an author in the Epistres inuectiues, she speaks forcefully about womanhood and literature. From a timid beginning, she gradually finds a voice and uses it in her own defense and in defense of her sex. This is the persona that she presents in her last two volumes—the mature woman author who is confident and contributes to the literary debate of her time. Creating such a voice requires experience and the courage to break with the social convention of her time. Tracing this evolution bears witness to the painstaking effort that De Crenne exerted to master her craft.


  1. The protagonist of the Angoysses, Part Two, is Hélisenne's beloved Guénélic. Research for this article began during an NEH Summer Seminar at Princeton with François Rigolot. Special thanks go to Natalie Davis, who rekindled my interest in the Epistres. Subsequent research was supported by an NEH Travel to Collections Grant, Texas State Organized Research Funds, and a Faculty Development Leave from Texas Tech University.

  2. Printed in Paris by Charles l'Angelier.

  3. Secor presents the Angoysses in its entirety. Paule Demats and Jérôme Vercruysse (Paris: Minard, 1968) present only Part One of the novel. Of the modern printings, only the 1977 Slatkine reprint of the 1560 edition gives the reader the three works in a single volume.

  4. See Secor's note 32-33: 75-81, 427.

  5. This insistence on the personal nature of the experience has encouraged readers to read the novel as autobiography rather than as fiction.

  6. The old woman in the tower at the end of Part One is a soundboard for Hélisenne's complaintes rather than a character with whom the protagonist interacts.

  7. Mustacchi and Archambault note that one of Hélisenne's models for her novel, Boccaccio's Fiammetta, is itself a long letter-elegy (10). By recounting her story as a novel, Hélisenne actively rejects the epistolary genre as appropriate for her first literary endeavor.

  8. Such a web of connected relationships is basic to human development, and especially to the development of women (Chodorow 43-4 & Gilligan 62).

  9. Conley comments on the morality of the first group of letters but does not link such a moral view to characterization of the letter writer: “the first nine letters appear to have no rapport other than one of moralism, a hightening [sic] of the stoical position longed for in the Angoysses” (329). The “moral energy” of the letters echoes the verbal preferences of the narrative present in Part One of the novel as quantified by Frautschi (216). If his study were repeated on the vocabulary of the letters, one might expect less of the pathos that Frautschi found Hélisenne often combined with vocabulary denoting moral energy and goodness.

  10. De Crenne's presentation of Dido is drawn from Christine de Pisan's Livre de la Cité des Dames (768 & 775). The story of Dido's disastrous love for Aeneas and her subsequent suicide is not mentioned in the Epistres. That aspect of Dido's legend is explored subsequently by Hélisenne in Les Eneydes, her translation of the first four books of the Aeneid (1541). The Dido mentioned in the Epistres remains virtuous and resists passion.

  11. Mustacchi and Archambault term this letter a “coded message” (6). Demats calls it a “cryptogramme puéril” (xxx). Larsen defines dissimulation in the Angoysses (Part One) and the Epistres and shows how this tactic can be either a vice or a virtue, depending on the circumstance (237-39).

  12. Larsen summarizes Hélisenne's arguments in the Lettres invectiues, discussing them as self-justification, not as part of her technique of self-characterization (240-41).

  13. With this catalogue of exemplary women, Hélisenne is echoing Christine de Pisan's praise of women in Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (1405).

Works Cited

Altman, Janet G. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio UP, 1982.

Chodorow, Nancy. “Family Structure and Feminine Personality.” Woman, Culture, and Society. Ed. Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1974. 43-66.

Conley, Tom. “Feminism, Écriture, and the Closed Room: The Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours.Symposium 27 (1973): 322-32.

De Crenne, Hélisenne. “Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538).” Ed. Harry R. Secor. Diss. Yale, 1957.

———. Les Epistres familieres & inuectiues. Paris: Denys Janot, 1539.

Demats, Paule. Introduction. Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538). Première Partie. By Hélisenne de Crenne. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1968. v-xlix.

De Pisan, Christine. “Le Livre de la Cité des Dames.” Ed. Maureen C. Curnow. Diss. Vanderbilt, 1975.

Frautschi, Richard L. “Narrative Voice in Les Angoysses douloureuses I: The Axe Present,French Forum (1976): 209-16.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Kauffman, Linda S. Discourse of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.

Larsen, Anne R. “The Rhetoric of Self-Defense in Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent damours (Part One).” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 29 (1982): 235-43.

Mustacchi, Marianna M. and Paul J. Archambault. Introduction. A Renaissance Woman: Hélisenne's Personal and Invective Letters. By Hélisenne de Crenne. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1986. 1-33.

Wood, Diane S. “Literary Devices and Rhetorical Techniques in the Works of Hélisenne de Crenne.” Diss. Wisconsin-Madison, 1975.

Jerry C. Nash (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Nash, Jerry C. “The Rhetoric of Scorn in Hélisenne de Crenne.” French Literature Series 19 (1992): 1-9.

[In the following essay, Nash argues that de Crenne angrily but effectively attacked male domination and marginalization of women in her writings—in a restrained manner in her novel but bluntly and with clear scorn in her letters.]

As a Renaissance female writer, Hélisenne de Crenne was deeply and extensively involved in the “querelle des femmes,” the heated debate in the early sixteenth century on the nature and status of woman. This is the subject that virtually every study of her writings over the past decade and even beyond has pursued to one extent or another. She is shown, and justifiably so, to be one of the Renaissance's chief defenders and proponents of women's rights and women's art.1 There is, to be sure, another querelle that Hélisenne was also interested in and which she portrays especially in her Epistres—the reversed one that might be called Hélisenne's “querelle des hommes.” Going much beyond simply defending women's rights and praising female accomplishments as a response to male marginalization of them and male domination, this side of Hélisenne's feminist anger and outrage can be seen in her taking the offensive and going on the attack by turning the invective blade of the knife back upon the male aggressor. Not content to remain in, and simply to lament, the depressing and demeaning clutches of “womanhood” (her “muliebre condition” as she calls this condition of being abused and scorned by men in words and deeds—EI4/sig. O4v), Hélisenne most defiantly through her own rhetoric of scorn strikes back by returning this scorn. She avenges herself and women in general through assaults of demolishing verbal invective. It is the strategies and effectiveness of these assaults that I shall focus on in the present study.2

If Hélisenne's anger and anguish in the Angoisses douloureuses appear necessarily repressed or restrained in silence and aphasia and are held in harness by (male) conventions of the novelistic genre, as Beaulieu suggests in his study discussed above (i.e., the Angoisses illustrating “the near impossibility for an educated woman of that time to make herself heard on social matters”—p. 36), her views on the male sex are heard loud and clear in the blunt, scornful verbal manner of the Epistres. Hélisenne is always extremely conscious in this epistolary work of the rhetorical strategies of scorn to inveigh against and to debunk the male maligner-aggressor. Her new-found ability to use invective language to expose and thus demolish male malice is a constant thought and preoccupation of hers. “Cruel fortune” in the form of male injustice and abuse is what truly compels her to turn to scorn as a rhetorical weapon, as she informs the reader in the preface to her invectives: “Certes sa cruaulté intollerable me stimule de sorte qu'elle me contrainct (nonobstant mon naturel au contraire) qu'aux Epistres invectives je donne commencement” (sig. M2v). She views her writerly recourse to the strategies of scorn to be a vital and constant necessity, and she highlights this awareness throughout her eighteen letter as well as at the very end of them, in EI5. Reflecting in this final letter back upon all the others, she asks herself if, in her wish to portray just some of man's natural vices and perverse habits, her epistolary art had indeed been sufficient to the task: “Je debvois avant penser si mon stile estoit apte à divulger l'extremité de vos perverses coustumes.” And later on in the same letter, she ponders again the relationship between her art and her anger when she asks herself if her “plume” had been adequately “occupée à user d'invectives” in order to expose such intense male abuse. All this writerly self-conscious questioning aside, Hélisenne cannot, and by now at the end of her letters, has not kept silent any longer: “… la faulte que j'ai commise au passé [in her Angoisses?] tenant souz silence vos iniquitez, je vueil reparer pour l'advenir” (sig. 08v-P1v).3

Hélisenne has amended her silence on her husband and on man bluntly and persuasively with a scornful vengeance, not only for the future but also for the present. “Ce deceptif et frauduleux sexe viril” she writes, exploding into invective, in her “Fifth Familiar Letter” (sig. I3r). Hélisenne will use most frequently these two derogatory epithets in her direct denunciation of man. The defining characteristics of man's deception and man's fraudulence are in fact the two targets of the most scornful contempt in the Epistres. Man is considered by her to be “fraudulent” because, contrary to the image of self which he has seen to construct from time immemorial, he is actually incapable of rational and firm thought and decisive actions. He is derided and summarily dismissed in the Epistres as full of fickleness and mutability:

Car pour estre la condition virile assez prompte à se pouvoir divertir d'un lieu pour s'obliger en un autre, je n'en sçaurois bien juger: car considerant que par longue usance, mutabilité & inconstance aux hommes est faicte une chose naturelle.


In spite of the fact that man considers himself more rational and more intelligent and more prudent than woman, he is contemptuously portrayed as abandoning reason to embrace sensuality:

Car puis que l'homme se dict exceder la femme en prudence, … mais nonobstant qu'il se dise tant scientifique, delaisse la raison, à la sensualité adhere.


Not reason or moral integrity but sexual conquest and superiority are man's real interests and motives, as Hélisenne considers to be the preoccupations of her misogynic husband:

Parquoy donnant lieu à fureur, par dessus raison superiorité obtint.

(EI1/sig. M4v-M5r)

Tu es si remply d'insolence que la raison te defaillant, … generalement tu detestes la feminine condition.

(EI3/sig. N6v-N7r)

What the above statements on male fraudulence are really leading up to and serve to reinforce is Hélisenne's primary portrayal of male “deception,” that is, the ways in which man exploits sexuality in order to master and degrade women as submissive sexual objects. She is singularly outspoken (and outraged) for someone in the Renaissance in her awareness of past and present insult and injury, and in her refusal to take them any longer. In her “Fifth Familiar Letter” in particular, Hélisenne avows that to tell the tale of all the women who had been deceived and abused and exploited sexually by men would take her more time than to restore Rome to its past glory: “Qui vouldroit faire recit de toutes les dames par les hommes contemnées, trop plus de temps à le narrer s'y consumeroit, que ne feroit à restaurer Romme au premier point de son antique Empire” (sig. I3r). But she does of course narrate and comment on these abuses in her own “recit de toutes les dames par les hommes contemnées”: the abuse by the Athenian hero Theseus who, having “acomply son desir (auquel Adrienne [Ariadne] satisfit), en lieu solitaire, pasture de Loups, proye de Ours, viande de Lyons, seule la laissa & abandonna, pour aller ravir Phedra sa soeur”; the abuse by the handsome hero Paris who “monstra jamais à dame plus d'evidence d'amitié que fit le pasteur troyen à Oenonne. Et toutesfois il ne differa de la repudier apres que son infortune eut permis le ravissement d'Helaine” (the latter act having been the cause of the Trojan War); the abuse by Demophon, Theseus's son, who “se manifesta jamais plus doulx … à sa tres benigne hostesse Philis, & non pourtant apres que d'elle se fut absenté, il ne fut observant de la foy jurée de son brief retour” (and who thus was responsible for Phyllis hanging herself); the abuse by Jason of Hypsipyle, “laquelle pour remuneration du bien par elle à luy faict, acompagnée de pleurs & lamentables gemissemens, la delaissa” (and doing this only after having spent two years with her as lover and having promised to marry her); and so on and so on with the depiction of many other instances of deception and sexual abuse performed by equally famous male heroes-aggressors (sig. I2v-I3r). Such cataloguing of despicable male actions, which the reader encounters over and over again in Hélisenne's letters and which she has been stylistically criticized for (especially by male readers) as needless, tedious redundancy, is really a necessary and important feature of this feminist writer's rhetorical strategy and art of scorn. In providing the reader with example after example of this deception, Hélisenne's rhetorical scorn becomes not only painfully obvious but exceedingly effective. She is truly practicing the classic definition of rhetoric as the art of persuading, one might even say of overpowering, the reader. Such condemning and disgusted redundancy forces the reader to be at least as aware (if not as outraged) as the author is of a fully documented, sexually abusive tradition by providing the reader with irrefutable evidence of this tradition. That is, such “veritable narrations” (“veritables parolles”) of the cultural facts surrounding the above mythological instances of male deception prove to be beyond questioning, beyond counter-argumentation by the reader. Hélisenne's rhetorical question on this very strategy clinches her argument, her querelle, once and for all: “Que pourrois-tu donc respondre à ces veritables parolles” (EI3/sig. N8r)?

This kind of scornful rhetoric can be seen in many other passages and letters where Hélisenne employs it in the service of promoting her “querelle des hommes.” This quarrel is forever portraying man's “natural” habit and vice of slandering women, his engrained “detestable vice de detraction,” his “appetit … de contemner les dames,” with the verb “contemner” clearly having two distinct meanings: to contaminate, through slander, the reputation of and to deceive/abuse sexually (EI4/sig. 06r). There is another ingenious question that Hélisenne constantly puts before the reader and which she uses to expose the contradictory, false logic of the slanderous male argument that women are the ones who are lustful and deceptive and dangerous, and thus ought to be “quarantined” (“O que le sequestre en seroit bon,” as the husband blurts out in EI2/sig. N6r)! If man is as reasonable and wise as he believes himself to be, why does he let himself become associated with something as harmful or dangerous as woman: “Car puis que l'homme se dict exceder la femme en prudence, il ne devroit converser avec cela qui se persuade luy estre nuysible & perilleux” (EI3/sig. N8r). But of course the painful truth of the matter, in Hélisenne's eyes, is that deception and seduction really belong to the domain of man, not woman:

O que c'est une execrable iniquité d'homme de telle faulte à la femme attribuer, veu qu'en cela sa secrette conscience le juge: & sçait bien que luy mesme tousiours s'efforce d'estre le decepteur.


And not only does man deceive and seduce, but he performs these crucial, identity-bestowing acts with the persistence and vengeance and sheer brute force that come with conquering a city with war machines:

Car depuis que l'homme par luxurieux desir jette ses yeulx impudicques sur l'honneste beauté de quelque dame, il use de continuelle poursuyte de sorte qu'il semble qu'il ne s'efforce moins de la subjuguer, que si par machine ou instrumens belliqueux pretendoit à assieger une cité!


Or, as Hélisenne describes in another letter man's ever-renewed desire for conquest, the male character is so intent on such brutal maneuvers and is so adept at subterfuge to gain its end that initially it desguises itself as sweetness only in order to conceal its inherent bitterness and ultimate aim of deceiving:

La condition est telle que du commencement ilz sont fort doulx, & à la fin tres amers. Et voyons ordinairement que apres qu'ilz on de leurs dames victoire obtenuë, ilz aspirent à nouvelles conquestes, delaissant celle que [on] faignoit à perpetuité vouloir aymer.

(EF5/sig. I2r)

Indeed, the greater the degree of deception performed by man, the greater is the esteem in which he is held by his fellow comrades-in-arms. After their rejoicing over their “conquests,” the only thing left for these kinds of victors to do is to decide among themselves which one of them to honor the most for his deception: “Puis apres les faulx & desloyaux pleins de libidinosité resjouyssent & reputent heureux celuy qui est plus deceptif” (EF5/sig. I2v)!

As a rhetorical strategy, sardonic and mocking scorn was the primary and only appropriate offensive weapon in Hélisenne's militant confrontation of perceived male malignment and abuse. An author's reliance on scorn is always for the purpose of going on the attack and demolishing one's aggressor, of inflicting serious injury on him. As used by Hélisenne, it is the means of bestowing a harsher fate on the male aggressor, “à aucuns pour avoir contemné les dames,” which Hélisenne amply describes again for the reader in her cataloguing of example after example of those (“aucuns”) who earned and truly deserved such a fate:

N'as-tu regard à la punition qui fut prinse de Thiresias [the Theban Tiresias] pour avoir fait jugement que le sexe feminin, plus que le masculin, estoit lubrique? Certes ceste temeraire & folle prononciation fut cause de le priver de veue. Aussi fut tres griesve la vengeance prinse de Herisiton [Erysichton], pour avoir la Deesse Ceres desprisée. Car si bien tu te recordes, par faim exorbitante luy mesmes se mangea. Ne fut pareillement payé de sa desserte condigne Ajax Oyleus [Ajax son of Aiolus], qui envers Minerve de detraction avoit usé [whom he had blasphemied by kidnapping the Trojan princess Cassandra]? Autres se retrouvent que je te rememoreroys.

(EI3/sig. O3r)

Or, if these kinds of just retributions are no longer possible for the present and future, then Hélisenne's sincere wish is that the fate that awaits the male aggressor might at least include the following:

Mon desir, qui totalement aspire, [est] que ancien, infirme, aveugle, sourd, muet, indigent & souffreteux je te puisse veoir. Et si pour n'avoir en toy force de telles calamitez supporter, [que] Atropos te couppe le fil de ta miserable vie. Je vouldroys qu'apres telle dissolution, ton corps sans honneur de sepulture puisse demourer, à fin qu'il devienne pasture des Leopards, Loups affamez, Lyons, Ours, Tigres, & de toutes bestes cruelles, pour à leur exorbitante faim de ton malheureux corps satisfaire.

(EI5/sig. P3v)

And so as not to forget all the other male “warriors” in addition to her husband, Hélisenne ends the above demolishing passage with this wish, which is her last one and which comes at the very end of her letters:

Et avec ce desir mettray fin à mon epistre. Ne voulant tes compagnons oublier, les adverty que je vouldroys que ce qui intervint à Dathan & Abiron leur puisse avenir.

(sig. P3v)

Because of their own conspiracy and deception in Numbers 16:12-30, Dathan and Abiron earned the ultimate wrath and punishment, the wrath of God. They were devoured by the earth that opened beneath their feet. The same kind of punishment of “divine justice” is what our Renaissance wrathful rhetorician wishes upon her husband and all his “companions.”

In addition to helping one “bury” the oppressor, there is of course another reason why writers like Hélisenne, or Albert Camus, turn to scorn. As Camus recognized so very well at the end of Le Mythe de Sisyphe, scorn is perhaps the only sure strategic means of helping one to overcome one's own fate. There is, in the final analysis, a certain dignity and therapy that can come from scornful struggle. This is one of the major conclusions Camus draws from the daily ordeal and struggle of the abused Sisyphus. He is both emphatic and optimistic on this score: “Il n'est pas de destin qui ne se surmonte par le mépris.4 This dual fate—that of burying the oppressor and freeing the oppressed—is what Hélisenne's rhetoric of scorn strives to bring about.

Hélisenne's letters will undoubtedly prove unsettling and even uncomfortable for some readers, female as well as male. If so, their scornful rhetoric has achieved its intended purpose. However, these letters are far from expressing purely personal female ire or irascibility, and very far from simply being exercises in sheer unpleasantness. There was after all a reason, a cause, behind them. Hélisenne was obviously voicing woman's collective historical anger (in addition to a personal one) and its recourse to finding an outlet in scorn. In Hélisenne's epistolary art, the rhetoric of scorn is a powerful means to redress the injustice and pain inflicted upon women at the personal and collective levels, as well as to inflict this pain back upon its giver.5 Such scorn is almost always the only recourse of abused, yet rebellious, heroes-heroines like Sisyphus and Hélisenne. Indeed, as her primary rhetorical weapon to expose and counter male malignment and abuse and as her primary rhetorical strategy to assert female anger and dignity in her letters, scorn was the only woman's language a socially committed writer like Hélisenne could turn to. And she makes it clear to her chief male antagonist that she will not hesitate to use this language again in the future, and even in more infuriating and avenging terms, if circumstances require it:

Mais si … tu persistes en ton antique folie, qui seroit cause de faire esmouvoir la fureur de ma plume, laquelle me stimuleroit te rescrire propos plus fascheux que tu ne pourrois precogiter!

(EI4/sig. 08r-v)

With such scornful and defiant words, Hélisenne always launches her rhetorical assaults. In analyzing her anger and capturing its energy for her art—in the very act of writing it down in the form of rhetorical scorn—Hélisenne is certainly anticipating one of the major strategies of the feminist movement as we know it today. Namely, the strategy that the best defense is an offense, a rhetorical offense that is angry, militant, violent, even murderous, and all of these for positive ends. Here is how the contemporary feminist critic Julia Lesage describes these ends of female identity and female dignity that come from a woman's rage and rhetoric: “Anger is a cleansing force. It frees the woman from … despair and inaction; it makes her fearless and restores her self-respect.”6 Much ahead of her time, Hélisenne reaches, and benefits from, these same conclusions on the rhetorical strategies of scornful anger: “Si oncq' lettres ou parolles fidellement reserées eurent vigueur & puissance de pouvoir prester salut …” (EF2/sig. H2v). This “power of words” to bring “solace” and “salvation” is, finally, what Hélisenne's anger, scorn, and rhetoric are all about.

In addition to her rhetoric anticipating more modern feminist concerns and writing, Hélisenne is also adopting and demonstrating generically, though for altogether different, in fact opposite rhetorical ends, the satirical view of Juvenal: “Si natura negat facit indignatio versum qualemcumque potest,” which can be paraphrased: “Indignation will supply the power of writing in any literary mode which nature may have denied me.”7 For Hélisenne too, indignation becomes “la fureur de la plume,” that is, a conscious rhetorical mode—with the female difference of course of being directed against man, not woman as is Juvenal's—to vent her anger. It “makes” (“facit”: is what produces) the writing of invective letters, Hélisenne's “propos fascheux.”8


  1. See, for example, the following representative studies of and approaches to Hélisenne's feminism and feminist concerns: Tom Conley, “Feminism, Ecriture, and the Closed Room: The Angoysses douloureuses qui procèdent d'amours,Symposium, 27 (1973), 322-32; Barbara Ching, “French Feminist Theory, Literary History, and Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses,” French Literature Series, 16 (1989), 17-26; Marianna M. Mustacchi and Paul J. Archambault in their Introduction to their translation, A Renaissance Woman: Hélisenne's Personal and Invective Letters (Syracuse University Press, 1986), which contains an excellent discussion of the historical context of the “querelle des femmes” in the sixteenth century (especially pp. 17-24); Jean-Philippe Beaulieu, “Erudition and Aphasia in Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours,” L'Esprit Créateur, 29 (1989), 36-42, which stresses the thematics of “silence” and “speechlessness” in her novel: “In battling with a husband who beats her and a lover who is only trying to take advantage of her, Hélisenne loses the capability of expressing herself and becomes the silent witness of her own drama” (p. 39); and my essay on “‘Exerçant oeuvres viriles’: Feminine Anger and Feminist (Re)Writing in Hélisenne de Crenne,” in Ecrire au féminin à la Renaissance, François Rigolot, editor, L'Esprit Créateur, 30 (1990), 38-48, which explores Hélisenne's revision and rewriting in her letters of cultural-intellectual history.

  2. Quotations from the Epistres will be from the facsimile edition of Hélisenne's Oeuvres of 1560 (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1977). All editing of this Renaissance text is mine (the modernization of i and j, u and v, m or n for the tilde, etc., and the addition of accents and punctuation where needed for intelligibility). Each reference will include “EF” or “EI” to designate “familiar” or “invective” letter, followed by the number of the letter and page number. Since the initial blank leaf was not reproduced in the facsimile edition, rectos and versos appear side by side. Unless otherwise indicated, all italics in this study are mine.

  3. As will become obvious, in spite of her tendency to generalize, Hélisenne's querelle does not propose a blanket condemnation of all men (indeed, there are those, both mythological and real, whom she highly praises in her letters). The object or addressee of her epistolary scorn is always a particular kind of man or class of men, thus portrayed in the singular and in the plural, who denigrates and abuses woman (misogynists, in the true sense of the term), and who is also often embodied in the passages we will be considering as the husband of Hélisenne. This accounts for the third-person and second-person narrations in these letters.

  4. Albert Camus, Essais, R. Quilliot and L. Faucon, editors (Paris: Gallimard, 1965), p. 196.

  5. For discussion of other works containing a rhetoric of scorn, and especially that of more modern writers (Baudelaire, Barbey d'Aurevilly, Léon Bloy, Bernanos, Céline, etc.), see Albert Sonnenfeld, “The Pathology of Anger: Wrath and Rhetoric,” The Romanic Review, 78 (1987), 405-19. Sonnenfeld explores the following in the above authors: their “scorn” and “angers” and “pains” which seek an outlet in “the word as ‘action’” (p. 411), “the assault through language” (p. 412), the use of “anger to inspire anger” (p. 418), “repressed rage and [its explosion] into invective” (p. 419), and so forth. Obviously, I believe Hélisenne would fit nicely in this company of “wrathful rhetoricians.”

  6. “Woman's Rage,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (University of Illinois Press, 1988), quoted by Jane Marcus, Art and Anger (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988), p. vii.

  7. Liber primus, Satire I, lines 79-80, in J. D. Duff, editor, Fourteen Satires of Juvenal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957).

  8. For more discussion of anger and art and the notion of therapy in Hélisenne's letters, see my article on “Anguish and Art: Writing as Therapy in Hélisenne de Crenne,” forthcoming in Anna Maria Raugei and Michel Simonin, editors, Chemins de la connaissance, 1992.

Diane S. Wood (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Wood, Diane S. “Dido as Paradigm of the Tragic Heroine in the Works of Hélisenne de Crenne.” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 18 (1992): 125-36.

[In the following essay, Wood contends that de Crenne's works offer a singular vision about the destructiveness of love that take inspiration from the story of Dido in the Aeneid.]

The popularity of the tragic story of Dido during the French Renaissance is reflected not only in many translations and in the theater, but also in popular fiction by Hélisenne de Crenne who utilizes the figure of Dido as inspiration for her female characters.1 In her writings Dido symbolizes an example of great feminine virtue as well as a warning of love's potential for destructiveness. Dido, the unfortunate victim of love in the Aeneid, serves De Crenne as a paradigm for the woman who tragically loses herself to amor. Always a didactic author, De Crenne's four prose works offer examples of love's excesses and the perils of sensuality. Regardless of the genre she utilizes—the sentimental novel, the epistolary, the allegorical dream and the epic—she presents facets of the disastrous effects of passion. Writing of love's dangers in an epoch permeated by classical literature, she recreates in her sixteenth-century heroine the emotional turmoil of the Carthaginian Queen and goes beyond her model to find in Christian Neoplatonism a resolution to the difficulties caused by passion.

De Crenne's novel Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538) presents the terrible consequences of love on the lives of her protagonists. Les Epistres familieres et inuectiues (1539) complements and retells in letter form the plot of the novel and defends Hélisenne as a woman author. Le Songe (1540) uses the allegorical dream tradition to abstract the conflict between Sensuality and Reason portrayed fictionally in the first two works. Her Eneydes (1541) translates into prose the story of the Carthaginian Queen, making accessible to the non-Latinist Vergil's tale of love and betrayal. Read together, De Crenne's corpus offers a unity of vision about love's destructiveness which can be traced by examining her complex presentation of the Dido story.

For De Crenne, Dido personifies an inherent dualism of character demonstrating both heroic virtues in the face of great obstacles and abandonment of these same virtues because of love, the embodiment of the cruel tension between chastity and carnality. De Crenne finds a paradigm of love's negative power in the striking contrast between Dido's courage before the arrival of the Trojan refugees and her subsequent character disintegration. She underscores Dido's dual nature by emphasizing her positive and negative qualities as two distinct exempla for the reader, thereby distinguishing between her virtuous conduct which is to be emulated and her tragic weakness which is to be avoided.

De Crenne catalogues Dido's positive qualities as a model for emulation in her eighth epistre familiere. She underscores Dido's constancy in her devotion to her dead husband as a paradigm for a young woman who is resisting parental pressure to marry. This mention of Dido affords the letter writer an opportunity to display her erudition to her correspondent in a sort of compendium of classical literature. She explains the Queen's names at length, including the supposed Phoenician etymology of the appellation “Dido”; [tu] t'efforceras d'estre semblable à celle à qui la magnanime constance, fut occasion de changer son nom primitif, qui estoit Helisa: Mais subsequentement appellé fut Dido, qui en langaige Phenicien est interpreté cõme Virago, excerceant oeuvres viriles …” (D4v-D5v).2 The author's emphasis on the name Helisa and the manly nature of the Carthaginian Queen casts light on her conception of Dido. In De Crenne's view, Dido accomplishes “oeuvres viriles” by building Carthage. She is a successful monarch, ruling in her own right, and furnishes an example of wise leadership by a woman.3 Hélisenne intends for her correspondent to emulate the virago by being steadfast like Dido and thus her advice elaborates at length on the theme of constancy despite adversity:

Certainemẽt c'estoit celle que l'aduerse fortune ne pouoit aulcunement superer: Car à l'heure que icelle instable la vouloit totalement prosterner en permettant la mort immaturé de sõ fidele mary, Ceste Dido fist grande demonstrance de sa vertu … par elle fut construicte & edifiée la noble cité de Carthage: laquelle fut tresfameuse & renomée. O que selon le iugement d'ung chascun elle fut digne d'estre extollee, puis que sa supreme vertu en telle extremité la rendit cõstante.


In this letter virtue, activity, and constancy are inextricably linked. De Crenne presents Dido's strength and courage for emulation by the sixteenth-century women facing difficult circumstances. Dido is seen as exceptional in the force of her virtue, and according to the letter writer she offers a strong model for women of any era:

toutesfois vertu foemenine y a bien peu resisté, qui doibt seruir d'exemples, tant aux modernes qu'a la posterité future, croyant indubitablement que les vertus desquelles ont été decorez noz predecesseurs en leurs sucesseurs, se peuuent bien retrouver.


By following her example of steadfastness, De Crenne's correspondent may likewise show “la reluisence de sa magnanimité” (D5r). By writing, an activity traditionally considered to be “masculine,” De Crenne herself acts as a virago and provokes charges of unseemly behavior on the part of a woman. Her five Epistres inuectiues serve as her defense for the unfeminine act of becoming a published and successful author (Larsen 240).

In her narratives De Crenne merges the life of her main character with that of other tragic heroines who suffered from love (Debaisieux 30). Virtuous like Dido before meeting Aeneas, Hélisenne abandons reason for passion once she falls in love. Following the pattern of the Carthaginian Queen, she fails to restrain her actions once she is in love. She describes the intensity of her emotion using the metaphor of green wood which, once ignited, burns with great heat:

tout ainsi que le bois vert à peine recoipt la flambe & ardeur du feu: mais apres qu'il l'a receue, la tiẽt & conserue plus longuement, rendãt plus vehemente chaleur. Pareillemẽt m'est il aduenu qui au precedent pressée, tentée & stimulée, auec assidues poursuytes ne fuz vaincue: Mais finablement estãt surprinse, trop plus que nul aultre amour feruẽte & fidelle: ie obserueray ce que manifestemẽt ie demonstre.


The image of green wood clarifies the newness of the love experience to the letter writer who previously had been insensitive to the pain caused by love to her correspondents. The intense heat of the green wood conveys the psychological change caused by amor, the same transformation experienced by Dido who is literally consumed by fire.

Hélisenne, the first person narrator and character in the Angoysses, is overcome by passion like Dido and the writer of De Crenne's Epistres. In this novel Dido's presence includes not only a positive reference to constancy but also a negative one referring to her obsessive passion. De Crenne uses negative exempla frequently throughout the prose account. The narrator claims to be telling her own story as an example to other women to avoid the dangers of love: “O trescheres dames, quand je considere qu'en voyant comme j'ay été surprise, vous pourrez eviter les dangereulx laqs d'amours, en y resistant du commencement, sans continuer en amoureuses pensées” (3). The narrator consistently maintains this didactic tone throughout the novel. She tells her sad story and relives her misfortune in order to help other women to avoid similar mistakes.4 Dido, with her virtuous beginnings and subsequent fall, reinforces this pattern and offers both positive and negative qualities to the reader.

De Crenne's novel presents Dido in a negative light in her familiar role of tragic victim who succumbs to love's power. The Queen is recalled, along with Helen, as a woman who was not constant: “Et si la royne de Carthage eusse perseveré d'estres constante, elle eust avec louenge perpetuelle de son amy Sicheus l'umbre suyvie” (43). De Crenne continues, explaining how stories such as Dido's (and Helen's) serve as an example of conduct to be avoided:

Telles hystoires doibvent estre suffisantes pour nous garder de succumber en semblables delictz, et, pour ung petit appetit, n'estre si faciles d'escouter les polides, elegantes & suaves parolles de vous aultres jouvenceaulx, lesquelles ne sont sinon ung laq deceptif pour circunvenir & decepvoir celles qui sont trop faciles au dommageable croire, lequel vice a esté cause de adulterer plusieurs dames fameuses.


The narrator explains that Hélisenne's apparent refusal of her beloved's appeal constitutes part of her amorous strategy. The heroine is cognizant of the fact that giving in too quickly may lead her to be valued less by him. She will be a better “prize” if she appears to be difficult to conquer: “Et me sembla qu'il ne seroit bon d'acquiescer promptement à sa requeste par ce que les choses qui facilement sont obtenues sont peu appreciées, mais celles que en grandz fatigues on acquiert sont estimées cheres & precieuses” (42). By following Dido's example the protagonist prolongs her inevitable admission that she is passionately in love, but it is only the admission that is delayed. Hélisenne has long since given in to the force of her sensual passion. Despite her cautious tactics, she never intends to follow the path of constancy and resistance suggested by her Carthaginian model. Dido serves as an inspiration for a tactical maneuver rather than a curb to Hélisenne's newly awakened sensual urges.5

In the Angoysses, Penelope, Oenone, and Lucretia serve as models of marital fidelity (68-9). Unlike Dido, they never succumb to temptation. Penelope faithfully waits ten years for Odysseus's return. Both the nymph Oenone, who is betrayed by Paris, and the Roman matron Lucretia, who is raped by Tarquin, kill themselves to avoid further dishonor. Despite the allusion to these unambiguous cases of fidelity, Part One of the novel ends with the narrator wishing the reader (among other qualities) “la constance de Dido” (143). This reference to Dido as a model of constancy comes as a surprise after the negative reference to Dido forgetting Sicheus and the praise of Penelope, Oenone, and Lucretia, unless one appreciates the extent to which De Crenne creates a duality in the nature of Dido as exemplum. The Dido as a model of constancy is the virago who is in full command of her faculties, and not the victim of love.

In De Crenne' novel Vergil's infelix Dido represents a case of extreme suffering in a narrative where emotional pain caused by love is the main theme and the title, Les Angoysses douloureuses, emphasizes this distress. De Crenne's narrator tells the readers that she suffers more than Portia, Cornelia, Laodamie, and Dido combined: “jamais Porcia pour Brutus, ne Cornelia pour Pompée, ne Laodamie pour Prothesilaus, ne la magnanime royne carthagienne pour Eneas, toutes ensemble, tant de dueil ne souffrirent que moy, paovre defortunée je sentz” (132). This hyperbolic statement equates Hélisenne with the beleaguered ladies of antiquity, making her a member of their tortured sorority (Debaisieux 30-1). The incorporation of Christian Neoplatonism into the Angoysses resolves the tension created by the hyperbolic anguish of the main characters without offending contemporary morality. While Portia, Cornelia, Laodamie, and Dido commit suicide, Hélisenne preserves her virtue and chastity with a religious conversion at her death. She and her beloved suffer and die from love while, at the same time, they remain chaste and platonically faithful to each other. For this fidelity, despite a long and cruel separation, they are judged worthy to join the panoply of exemplary lovers in the pagan underworld. The epilogue of the novel presents the heroine and hero's souls as they are welcomed to the Elysian Fields, a passage modeled after Aeneid VI.6 A marginal note in De Crenne's Eneydes explains the virtues of those who merit this honor: “Les Champs Elisées, est le seiour des ames qui par les iugementz de Minos, Radamanthus, & Eacus sont bonnes, pures & synceres” (P6r).7 Although they are not named specifically, these “splendides & claires ames” (408) of the Elysian Fields which Hélisenne and Guénélic join presumably include the company of all tragic literary figures in whose company Hélisenne and her beloved now belong. This is her own conception of an afterlife modeled after the medieval courtly garden and the pagan resting place for heroes (Wood “Descents” 74-6).

De Crenne recounts the story of Dido and Aeneas in her translation of Aeneid I-IV, Les Eneydes. This prose translation cannot be considered a totally faithful rendering but is, rather, a highly personalized transposition of the story (Scollen-Jimack 198-9). The translation limits itself to the tragic love story contained in the first four books of the epic probably since her readers, the same readers of her novel, were not interested in Aeneas's mission to found Rome. Likewise, departing from Virgil's emphasis, Dido is the central figure to De Crenne's readers, not Aeneas. He is reduced to being the object of Dido's obsession. The full significance of the Trojan's mission is omitted and there is no noble explanation of his betrayal. Through her abridged translation, Hélisenne presents to her readers the paradigm from classical literature of a woman destroyed by love without the Christian redemption found by the main characters of the Angoysses.

The question of the marriage of Dido and Aeneas is central to the interpretation of the betrayal in the epic. In Aeneid IV Juno, the goddess of marriage, plans and presides over the cave episode signifying their legitimate union. Vergil comments on Dido's feelings, indicating that Aeneas did not necessarily feel the same: “coniugium vocat; hoc praetexit nomine culpam” (172 “she calls it marriage and with that name veils her sin”). In the passage leading up to the cave scene, De Crenne's translation emphasizes the concept of marriage by adding such terms as “matrimonial alliance” (01r), “nuptiale coniunction” (03r), “alliance coniugale” (04r), “mariage legitime” (04r). The translation faithfully renders Vergil's comment and explains that Dido “called it marriage” to escape public criticism: “Toutes fois pour se conseruer d'estre de la chose commise increpée, ce faict mariage elle appelle, couurant de ce nom sa griefue coulpe” (05v). Whereas Virgil's Dido believes that she is wedded to the Trojan, Aeneas excuses abandoning her on the grounds that there was no formal ceremony binding them: “nec coniugis umquam / praetendi taedas aut haec in fodera veni” (338-9 “I never held out the bridegroom's torch nor entered such a compact”). De Crenne's version reinforces the argument by stating Aeneas's lack of intent to marry Dido and the absence of a marriage contract: “Car de nous deux ne fut la conionction faicte, pour proposition que i'eusse d'auec toy cõme mary & espoux demourer. Iamais ne vins au doulx & fertile pays de Carthage pour cõtract de mariage pourchasser” (P5r & Perkell 208-10). Since the readers of De Crenne's translation stop at Aeneas's departure at the end of Book IV and the readers do not witness his founding of Rome, the Trojan appears only as a betrayer of love in this version and not as a heroic figure. His pietas and noble mission are forgotten as he takes a secondary role to the Carthaginian Queen who is at the center of De Crenne's rendering.

Dido's last speech bears the marks of De Crenne's highly accented emphasis on the suffering caused by love (Lorian 31-3). Exclamations abound. At the mention of Fortune, “Vixi, et quem dederat cursum Fortuna peregi” (653 “I have lived, I have finished the course that Fortune gave”), De Crenne adds an additional page to Dido's lament, similar to the long complaintes of the Angoysses (Wood “Literary” 41-5). She launches into a series of exclamations: “O caducque & faulse humaine esperance, O aueuglée & instable Fortune. … O cruelle & inicque Fortune. … O deceptiue [Fortune]” (R4r). In De Crenne's rendering, Dido blames Fortune for her ills, accusing Fortune of knowing the precise way of bringing about her downfall through her concupiscence. De Crenne uses the metaphor of warfare to describe the assault on the Queen: “Ha ha fausse Fortune tu iugeois bien par coniecture que la concupiscence, qui continuellement contre la raison insiste, m'infereroit telle guerre, que finablement me feroit submerger en la mer periculeuse de delectable volupté” (R4r). Dido accepts the blame for her fall from virtue, couching it in vocabulary reminiscent of the metaphor of green wood in the Epistres:

Ce qui a esté tresfacile, d'autant que du principe de telle bataille ay esté trouué desgarnye des auirons de vertu: lesquelz au precedent me faisoient ma viduité & chaste pudicité conseruer. Las si ie les eusse aupres de moy retenu, ilz eussent esté aptes à me iecter & liberer de tous perilz, en me conduisant apres longue resistance au porte de suaue & doulce tranquilité. Or ne fault il doncques que sur la fragilité humaine ie m'excuse: puis que tout ce mal me succede, pour non auoir auec prudence vertueusement à l'appetit sensuel resisté.


De Crenne's allegorical imagery of losing the “auirons de vertu” and her inability to reach the “porte de suaue & doulce tranquilité” convey Dido's regret at not overcoming her passion. In Virgil's time as well as De Crenne's conventional morality saw Dido as deserving punishment for her adultery and thereby serving as a warning of the dire consequences of carnality (duBois 22). Dido's paradigm serves to underscore this theme since resisting sensual impulses is a major concern throughout De Crenne's writings, a pervasiveness which creates intratextual cohesiveness. The Eneydes demonstrates as did the Angoysses and the Epistres, the “self-annihilation” resulting from Dido's “absolute emotion” (duBois 16). By contrast, De Crenne's Songe shows the triumph of Reason over Sensuality and thereby provides a model of virtuous conduct for the reader without the tragic overtones of destructive carnality in her other narratives.

The figure of Dido is ever present in Hélisenne de Crenne's prose as the virtuous widow and the wise ruler as well as in its tragic aspect of love's victim. Her novel rewrites the hopeless ending of the tragic situation by going beyond the paradigm offered by Dido. Through declamatory passages, De Crenne transforms Dido into a sentimental heroine, akin to her own main character. Vergil's infelix Dido merges with De Crenne's conception of the destructive power of love. Dido, once the virago, becomes the tormented and betrayed victim of love. Aeneas leaves her bereft of comfort whereas the hero of the Angoysses follows his beloved even into death. Hélisenne finds a platonic sublimation of her passion which affords her a way to rise above her sensual nature towards God. The Carthaginian Queen kills herself in despair; Hélisenne, through tempering her passion, is eternally reunited with her beloved, a positive rewriting of the Dido paradigm.


  1. Schoolboys translated Dido's story as did Saint Gelais (1509), De Crenne (1541), Des Masures (1547-60), and Du Bellay (1552 & 60). The dramatic pathos of her situation formed the basis of one of France's first tragic plays, Jodelle's Didon sacrifiant (c. 1560). Research for this article began during an NEH Summer Seminar with François Rigolot at Princeton University. Additional support came from an NEH Travel to Collections Grant, Texas State Organized Research Funds, and a Faculty Development Leave from Texas Tech University.

  2. De Crenne borrows this dual description of Dido from Christine de Pisan's Le Livre de la cité des dames (768 & 775).

  3. A “princesse monarque” in Part Two of the Angoysses holds a similar position of responsibility. The parallel between her and Dido is reinforced in a comparison between the two (284). Like Dido, this princess is a wise ruler. De Crenne supports the idea of female rule, “a world upside down” to the Romans (du Bois 22).

  4. Boccacio's Fiammetta, a model for the Angoysses, likewise uses negative exempla.

  5. Waldenstein considers Hélisenne's moralizing as conforming to literary taste and believes her real message is “hidden below the surface of superficial declarations” (77). She observes that Hélisenne would have given in to her sensual impulses in Part One of the novel if she had had the opportunity (75).

  6. Debaisieux notes that Hélisenne's very name predestines her for the “champs ‘Hélisiens’” (33).

  7. In the translation Dido tells Aeneas that she will be going to the Champs Elysées. Vergil, however, places her in the Lugentes Campi (VI 440-476).

Works Cited

Debaisieux, Martine. “‘Des Dames du temps jadis’: Fatalité culturelle et identité féminine dans Les Angoysses douloureuses.Symposium 41 (1987): 28-41.

DeCrenne, Hélisenne. “‘Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours’ (1538).” Ed. Harry R. Secor. Diss. Yale, 1957.

———. Les Epistres familieres & inuectiues. Paris: Denys Janot, 1539.

———. Les Quatre premiers liures des Eneydes du treselegãt poete Virgile. Paris: Denys Janot, 1541.

———. Le Sõge. Paris: Denys Janot, 1540.

De Pisan, Christine. “Le Livre de la Cité des Dames.” Ed. Maureen C. Curnow. Diss. Vanderbilt, 1975.

Larsen, Anne R. “The Rhetoric of Self-Defense in Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procent damours” (Part One). Kentucky Romance Quarterly 29 (1982): 235-43.

Lorian, Alexandre. Tendances stylistiques dans la prose narrative française du XVIe siècle. Paris: Klincksieck, 1973.

Ortiz, Judith Miller. “The Two Faces of Dido: Classical Images and Medieval Reinterpretation.” Romance Quarterly 33 (1986): 421-30.

Perkell, Christine G. “On Creusa, Dido, and the Quality of Victory in Vergil's Aeneid.Women's Studies 8 (1981): 201-23.

Scollen-Jimack, Christine. “Hélisenne de Crenne, Octavien de Saint-Gelais and Virgil.” Studi Francesi 77 (1982): 197-210.

Wood, Diane S. “Correcting Homer and Vergil: Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Eneydes (1541).” USF Language Quarterly 17 (1979): 38-40.

———. “Literary Devices and Rhetorical Techniques in the Works of Hélisenne de Crenne.” Diss. U of Wisconsin-Madison, 1975.

———. “Virgilian Descents to the Underworld in Sixteenth-Century French Literature.” Explorations in Renaissance Culture 5 (1979): 70-83.

Virgil. Aeneid I-VI. Trans. H. Rushton Fairclough. Loeb. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann, 1956.

Waldenstein, Helen. “Hélisenne de Crenne: A Woman of the Renaissance.” Diss. Wayne State U, 1964.

Katharine Ann Jensen (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Jensen, Katharine Ann. “Writing Out of the Double Bind: Female Plot and Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours.Oeuvres & Critiques 19, no. 1 (1994): 61-67.

[In the following essay, Jensen discusses the general assumption that Les Angoysses douloureuses is autobiographical, maintaining that this belief has obscured de Crenne's text.]

In her “First Invective Letter,” published in 1539 in the collection Epistres familieres et invectives, Hélisenne de Crenne struggles to correct a misreading of her novel, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, published a year before in 1538. Addressing her husband who has read the novel's first-person narrative of adulterous love as evidence of his wife's infidelity, Crenne asserts herself as a writer, as a creator of fiction rather than a transcriber of personal fact:

Your heart's hasty judgment has led you to imagine that my Angoysses (which I had composed, in fact, only to pass the time) were intended to immortalize an illicit love. You believe, moreover, that I really experienced the lasciviousness about which I wrote. I am surprised you should imagine this to be the case, for as I was modest and temperate in my young and tender years you cannot allow yourself to believe that I am lascivious now that I am older.1

Thus Crenne implies that her husband is not only hasty but naïve in equating her person with her writings. He should be able to distinguish between them based on his personal knowledge of her past. I want, for the moment, to bracket the question of adultery to concentrate on Crenne's articulation and anticipation of a problem that has beleaguered women writers throughout history: the critical (not to say “naïve”) tendency to equate a woman's person with her writings; the assumption that when women write, they “simply” write their lives. With little fictional craft and virtually no narratorial distance, women, as literary critics have often read and thereby dismissed them, “naïvely” transfer their own amorous and domestic preoccupations to their heroines.

Crenne's Angoysses has been nothing if not dismissed by centuries subsequent to her own. The last printing of the three-part novel in its entirety dates from 1560, and while Part One was reprinted in two editions in 19682, it has received even less critical attention than other Renaissance women writers and rarely figures on graduate or undergraduate reading lists. Insofar as a number of critics of the Angoysses have read it as the author's account of her life, I would wager that this “autobiographical assumption” has played its pernicious part in obfuscating Crenne's text.

This “autobiographical assumption” is particularly ironic given Crenne's warning against it in her “First Invective Letter.” Clearly, she was sufficiently concerned about distinguishing her writing apart from her life to bring this distinction to public attention. In publishing what was presumably a private letter written to her husband, Crenne re-addressed her claim to a distinct writerly identity to a wide audience. The original address, moreover, may itself be a fiction; Crenne may never have really written this letter to her husband, but fabricated it out of whole cloth for publication, in order to plead her case as a writer to a general audience, who, like the supposed husband, may have judged her as an adulteress on the basis of her “autobiographical” novel3.

If, as this “First Invective Letter” might suggest, a woman's writing was read in Renaissance France, by husbands and public alike, as transparent to her life, then, we might wonder why Crenne wrote about so personally damning a topic as adultery in the first place. Why not choose a “safer”, less self-incriminating subject for her novel?

In trying to answer this question, we immediately confront the problem that there were, in effect, no “safe” topics for the Renaissance woman who would write; at issue was not so much the topic as the mere act of writing. For a woman to write at all or even to speak outside the confines of a rigidly guarded private, domestic arena was, itself, tantamount to sexual promiscuity. In one of her studies on Renaissance women poets, Ann Rosalind Jones reviews a spectrum of texts by sixteenth-century male social theorists that consistently equate women's public speech with their (naked) bodies and irresistable sexual temptation. As Jones assesses: “The equation between women's bodies and women's speech depends upon a further assumption: women's onlookers and hearers are always men.”4 So while women were prohibited from speaking, there were also: “… prohibitions against women's being spoken about. Men's eyes and tongues were assumed to share the power to define and possess a feminine object” (78-79). The ideal woman, then, as these theories construct her: “… was distinguished by what she did not do, or, equally important, by what men did not do to her: she was unseen, unheard, untouched, unknown—at the same time that she was obsessively observed.” As Jones concludes: “This must be what is meant by saying that women occupy a negative position in culture” (79).

The question becomes: how did Renaissance women writers negotiate around this cultural negation of female subjectivity? How did they circumvent the feminine ideal of silence and invisibility and become subjects of language whose writings were published and, therefore, deemed assimilable by a culture whose ideals they violated? Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours provides an intriguing avenue through which to pursue these questions because the novel itself features a Renaissance woman who comes to writing. As I shall argue, by showing adulterous love to be both the means and the price of textual production, Crenne thematizes the double-bind constricting the woman writer in the Renaissance—and beyond.

In Part One of the Angoysses, the first-person female narrator, named Hélisenne, tells how she was overtaken by adulterous longing. Although married to a man who loved her and whom she loved, Hélisenne falls hopelessly in love with a young man she sees from her window during a trip she and her husband take to a nearby city. Returning her gaze, Guénélic, the young man, becomes fatefully enamoured of Hélisenne. Eventually, the lovers begin to exchange letters on the sly and later, manage to meet clandestinely, but never actually consummate their passion at any point in the three-part novel. When Hélisenne's husband discovers her adulterous desire, he is enraged, and as she continues to pursue her passion, he becomes physically violent, beating her and ultimately incarcerating her in a castle tower. The end of Part One, then, finds the heroine, as she says: “… prisonnier en la fleur de ma jeunesse” (158).

Apart from the letters she writes to Guénélic, Hélisenne produces another text out of her illicit desire, a self-addressed journal or memoir writings: “… [où] estoient exhibées et bien amplement déclarées toutes les fortunes bénévoles et malévoles qui m'estoient avenues depuis que Cupido avoit sur moy domination et seigneurie” (142). This text leads directly to her downfall, for her husband (guided by a treacherous servant) breaks into Hélisenne's room in search of these incriminating writings: “escriptes” as he says, “de ton effrénée laciveté” (142). After reading this material proof of his wife's adultery, he tries to kill her—“toute vermoulue d'iniquité” as she is (142)—at swordpoint, but is prevented by his servants. As the next best thing, he imposes a living death upon her by imprisoning her in the tower and burns, as we find out later, in implicit effigy, the corpus of her writings.

The fact that Hélisenne's writings are seen to be as sinful as any physical performance of her illicit desire could be clearly illustrates the Renaissance equation between women's language and women's bodies. This fateful link between the transgressive forces of female language and body is overdetermined not only by Renaissance gender ideology but also, relatedly, by how Western literary tradition defines female plot. So the act of women's writing is implicated in the topic, and vice versa. Whereas male plot is classically determined by epic adventure and heroic action, a woman's story consists in romantic love, which, furthermore, is distinct from marriage. A woman, that is, has had a story—whether she tells it or whether it is told about her—precisely to the extent she defers or deviates from marital union. By definition, then, the happily married Hélisenne does not have a story. Only when she falls in love with Guénélic, thereby becoming subject to passion's pain and pleasure and marital unhappiness, does she have something to tell. But this, of course, leads right into a double bind. In following prescriptions for conventional female plot, Hélisenne violates the laws regulating female virtue. By writing out of her adulterous desire and producing a text that records it, Hélisenne assures herself of nothing but of a text that the righteous guardians of womanly virtue will use against her.

The only way to loosen this double bind, as Hélisenne's narratorial stance will show, is for the woman writer to act in place of the righteous and use her story against herself. After her husband destroys her writings, Hélisenne starts over. While in her tower, she begins: “… l'œuvre présente, estimant que ce me sera trèsheureux labeur …” (156). Initially, then, the purpose of this second memoir, like the first, is to have the pleasure that putting amour and angoysses into writing provides. The imprisoned Hélisenne hopes, moreover, that this second text might give her another pleasure: “… si ceste félicité m'est concédée qu'elle tombe entre les mains de mon amy, je luy prie qu'il ne me vueille frustrer de mon espérée et attendue suavité …” (156). Although Guénélic eventually does rescue Hélisenne, thereby fulfilling at least one of her long-awaited desires, it is not because he had gotten hold of her writings. These, she re-addresses at some unspecified point5 to a public audience, specifically, to “toutes honnestes Dames” in order that they could “honnestement aymer, en évitant toute vaine et impudicque amour” (34). From the very beginning of the final (published) version of her memoir, Hélisenne sets herself up as the bad example, the fallen woman. As the narrator, she frames her story—and herself—with the ruling morality, judging and condemning her illicit love. At this price of self-condemnation, she can justify writing and publishing her “shameless” tale of love: “ce que selon l'opinion d'aucunes dames timides se pourra juger plus digne d'estre conservé en profond silence que d'estre publié ne vulgarisé” (159). Illustrating what not to do, Hélisenne's story will protect other women from a similar fate: “… par l'expérience de ma furieuse folie, vous puis aviser et donner conseil qui vous sera utile et prouffitable pour de tel embrasement vous conserver” (159). The text that Hélisenne's husband destroyed, then, can re-emerge from the flames fit for public viewing only because the female narrator has repented and judges her adulterous self guilty and depraved.

This repentence through narratorial perspective is not quite enough, however. In Part Three of the Angoysses, when at long last Hélisenne and Guénélic are reunited, Hélisenne, so weakened by her ordeal of imprisonment and amorous suffering, dies; but not before seeing the light and begging God to forgive her sins of adultery, unconsummated though they were. She also urges her lover to follow her moral example and repent in turn. Guénélic does not repent, but, instead, dies of sorrow. That their illicit desire ends in death—the classic Liebestod—gauges, of course, even as it romanticizes, the cost of deviating from the ruling morality. Death is not, however, the end of their story or of the novel.

The fourth part of the novel, entitled “Ample narration faicte par Quezinstra”6—Quezinstra being Guénélic's companion in the epic adventures that were the subject of Parts Two and Three—explains how the book we have just read came into being and into publication. As Quezinstra mourns the death of the lovers at their tomb, the god, Mercury, approaches him; for it is Mercury who will conduct the souls of the deceased to Hades. As the god anoints the corpses, he notices near Hélisenne's body: “ung petit pacquet couvert de soye blanche” (n.p.), which turns out to be a book. Inspecting it himself, Quezinstra sees that it recounts all the “entreprinses & voyages” that he and Guénélic undertook during their lengthy quest to find Hélisenne. He further identifies the author of the book: “… je peuz facilement comprendre, que la paovre defuncte lavoyt escript, apres le recit que Guenelic luy en pourroyt avoyr faict” (n.p.). Thus we find that not only did Hélisenne write her narration, that is, the female plot of adulterous passion, but she also wrote Guénélic's and Quezinstra's heroic tale of epic adventure, acting as her lover's amanuensis. In fact, however, she already identified herself as the apparent author of the novel's epic; for Parts Two and Three were presented as: “composees par Dame Helisenne, parlant en la personne de son amy Guenelic” (n.p.). If we only find out her role as mere amanuensis, rather than as creative author, after “her” novel has supposedly been completed, why do we need to find this out at all?

The answer has to do with what it means to be a (Renaissance) woman writer condemned to and by female plot and female genre. At the end of Part One, after justifying the moral value of her immoral narrative, Hélisenne apologizes for the inadequacy of her “petite œuvre”, whose style, in contrast to that of “orateurs” and “historiographes”, can only be seen as “rude et obnubilé” (159). She goes on, however, to attribute her deficiency to the gender of writing: “Mais en cela me doibt servir d'excuse que nostre condition féminine n'est tant scientifique que naturellement sont les hommes” (159). If one's sex affects how one writes and the degree to which one's “langaige” is “rude” or “élégant” (160), it also determines what one writes about, as Hélisenne's reference to orators and historiographers indicates. In our cultural, literary hierarchy, the “high” styles and genres—such as history, drama, and epic—have belonged to men while “low” styles and genres—love letters, journals, the novel in its early years—have been women's lot to the extent that they have managed or been allowed to write at all. We have already seen what it cost Hélisenne to write “at all” and in accordance with conventional female plot and within the female genre of memoir. How could a Renaissance woman dare to transgress the literary-sexual boundaries of genre and expect to live—as a writer, that is, without alienating her readership?

Clearly, Hélisenne's role as Guénélic's amanuensis functions as a strategy, allowing her and her author—Crenne—to move out, at least momentarily, of the double-bind and self-negation of female plot and into male epic adventure without seeming to violate the sexual limitations of genre. While having Hélisenne write “in service of” her lover masks the real author's—Crenne's—ambition to write more than female plot, I believe this ambitious wish is readable in the gap between Hélisenne's implied authorship of Parts Two and Three and Quezinstra's belated revelation of her role as scribe. Crenne's ambitious writing wish is further evident in the fate of Hélisenne's book. Mercury decides to give it as a present to Pallas Athena: “laquelle singulierement aux lectures se delectoyt” (n.p.). This present, however, generates a nasty quarrel; Venus takes offense that Mercury did not give the book to her since it is about love and therefore “… doibt estre dedie a ma divinite” (n.p.). Athena counters, also on the grounds of genre, that since the book is about war, it should be given to her. This impasse is surmounted only when Jupiter steps in and takes the book away from both goddesses to give to Mercury whom he sends to Paris to get the book published: “… affin de manifester au monde les peines, travaulx, & angoysses douloureuses, qui procedent a l'occasion d'amours” (n.p.). Published under the auspices of the highest god on Mount Olympus, object of desire and contention of goddesses, Hélisenne's book is distinguished as a highly precious and morally instructive work. So positive a representation testifies, I believe, to Crenne's wish that her own novel—obviously an overlapping version of Hélisenne's—be similarly lauded and treasured.

During her lifetime, Crenne's wish, it seems, was fulfilled. The Angoysses, along with her Epistres and Le Songe, a philosophical allegory, were printed seven times between 1543 and 1560. Now, some 450 years later, the Epistres have been republished in an English translation and, as I mentioned, Part One of the Angoysses exists in two recent editions. This exclusive focus on the part of the novel bound to female plot strikes me as somewhat ironic since I suspect it was the part that least interested Crenne. My suspicion is based on what I see to be her singular effort in the Angoysses to use the female plot of adulterous love as the means to write epic, as a way to provide herself with a knight errant whose adventures she could author while her heroine recorded them. Crenne's last work, significantly, her final publication, was a translation of Vergil's Aeneid. That she ended her career as Vergil's “amanuensis” gauges, I think, not only her interest in epic, but also the extent to which she had already exhausted the possibilities open to the Renaissance woman who wanted to write narrative prose.


  1. A Renaissance Woman: Hélisenne's Personal and Invective Letters, ed. and trans., Marianna M. Mustacchi and Paul J. Archambault (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 81.

  2. Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, Première partie, ed. Paule Demats (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968). And Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, ed. Jérôme Vercruysse (Paris: Lettres Modernes, 1968). All my references to Part One of Crenne's novel come from the Vercruysse edition and occur parenthetically in the text, a practice I follow for all texts from which I quote more than once.

  3. In adopting the pen name, “Hélisenne de Crenne”, Marguerite de Crenne, née Briet may have been the first in a long line of women writers who adopted pen names (or, alternatively, published anonymously) in order to shore up authority for their fictions by keeping them distinct from their persons.

  4. Ann Rosalind Jones, “Surprising Fame: Renaissance Gender Ideologies and Women's Lyric”, in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 77.

  5. In fact, Hélisenne would never have had the chance to re-address and revise her memoir. She continues to love and desire Guénélic until the moment she repents before God and dies.

  6. Hélisenne de Crenne, Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, composées par dame Helisenne de Crenne (Paris?: ca. 1540), n.p.

Jerry C. Nash (essay date summer 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Nash, Jerry C. “Renaissance Misogyny, Biblical Feminism, and Hélisenne de Crenne's Epistres familieres et invectives.Renaissance Quarterly 50, no. 2 (summer 1997): 379-410.

[In the following essay, Nash discusses de Crenne's use of the Bible as a source of arguments and anecdotes to refute misogynist views, reject male arguments about female inferiority, and portray women as moral exemplars.]

And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.

—Mark 14:91

Je t'admonneste de … te repentir, d'avoir detracté de celles, pour lesquelles extoller tous vertueulx se travaillent (K ii).


We will begin where all early modern feminists, from Christine de Pizan to Hélisenne de Crenne and beyond, begin: in the beginning was the word, and the word was misogynist. This is the ideological, literary, and cultural context for reading and appreciating virtually every early modern feminist work. Stung and dismayed in particular by her reading of the tirade against women by the cleric and poet Matheolus in his Lamenta (1300), Pizan at the very beginning of her highly influential Livre de la Cité des Dames (1405) informs us that she is determined to come to terms with such a blatant and longstanding tradition of misogyny: “Je me demandais quelles pouvaient être les causes et les raisons qui poussaient tant d'hommes, clercs et autres, à médire des femmes et à vitupérer leur conduite soit en paroles, soit dans leurs traités et leurs écrits. … Philosophes, poètes et moralistes—et la liste en serait bien longue—, tous semblent parler d'une même voix pour conclure que la femme est foncièrement mauvaise et portée au vice.3 Pizan's commitment to revising and rewriting classical and especially clerical history in favor of woman and her moral worth is the first feminist project to truly debunk male vituperation of le sexe féminin, and the view in particular that “woman is evil by nature and prone to vice.”

Much closer to Crenne were the misogynist and extremely disparaging words of Gratien du Pont, whose Controverses des sexes masculin et femenin are, I am now convinced, what occasioned Crenne's own literary activity in composing her Epistres familieres et invectives, or at least large parts of the Epistres. As the Renaissance master misogynist, Du Pont belabors his vitriolic perspective and attack on woman in a work that is remarkable for its unabated nastiness and its sheer length—three books covering over four hundred large folio pages in the 1534 Toulouse first edition. Following in the footsteps of his medieval misogynist brother Matheolus and other Christian and classical writers, Du Pont launches into diatribes against the offensive sexual behavior and highly questionable moral capacity of women to show that they are indeed “foncièrement mauvaise[s] et portée[s] au vice.” But as far as Du Pont is concerned, he is simply recalling and recording the “authoritative truth” on women which has been put forth and tested from the beginning of time. Du Pont is pleased and proud to turn to his sources for “confirmation” of his own views, to these “autheurs tant Theologiens, Historiographes, Legistes, Canonistes … par lesquelz est confermé le dire de l'autheur.” His long, two-page, single-spaced list of sources and authorities whom he invokes includes Genesis, Job, Mark, John, Moses, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Paul, Augustine, Thomas, the Biblia aurea, and the familiar name of Matheolus—all of whom appear at the very beginning of his work and give, as he sees it, “authenticity” to his views.4

Du Pont's concern with female ontological inferiority—that is, with male superiority—is an obsession that he justifies and feeds by turning especially to Christian tradition and scriptural authority. A man, even the most “wicked,” we are assured, is of higher value in the eyes of his Creator (and thus in Du Pont's), than the “holiest woman”: “Le createur a plus estimé en somme / Le plus meschant, et le plus infaict homme / Le plus maulvais, et plus villain infame / Que la plus saincte, & plus devote femme” (fol. 23v). Forever invoking and interpreting, à sa façon, the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 2 and 3, Du Pont depicts woman as morallly depleted and sexually conniving, always in collusion with the devil: “Luxurieuse, sans fin pensant en mal / La ayde et secours du grand prince infernal.” Adam of course found this out too late: “Tout mal provint de femme anciennement / Tesmoing Adam, deceu villainement” (fol. 52). All of book 3 is a cataloging, with extended commentary by Du Pont, of “lustful” women, or women as “Exemples sur le peché de luxure. Et premierement des histoires de la saincte escripture” (fol. 143v). Starting with Eve, of whom Du Pont never tires, all the biblical women evoked in the Controverses are portrayed as villains or worse. In a word, or rather in the form of a checkerboard,5 woman, and woman viewed in particular through Christian misogynist eyes, is all of the following: “femme abuseresse,” “de maulx affluante,” “infaicte meschante,” “au monde nuysante,” “grande tromperesse,” “en bien negligente,” “en luxure ardente,” “charogne puante,” “de vices regente,” “en scavoir asnesse,” “de vertu impotente,” “de mal instiguante,” “des bons bayssante,” “grande pecheresse,” “oeuvre insuffisante,” “à Dieu malplaisante,” “d'orgueil la deesse,” “de l'homme servante,” and so forth. The reader is overwhelmed by these epithets and cannot mistake the biblical “proof,” or what Du Pont believes to be proof, underlying his negative views of woman's sexuality and her moral, intellectual worth. More than any other French Renaissance writer and misogynist, Du Pont is thus responsible for promoting a religious basis for understanding female inferiority and subordination.6

There is an especially harsh and classically misogynist character in Crenne's Epistres, however, who picks up where Matheolus and especially Gratien du Pont leave off. His discourse, teeming also with biblical wording and references and disparaging epithets on “what she has done” (to return to Mark 14:9) and “told in memory of her,” was indeed written, just as Pizan had previously defined the discourse of misogyny, “d'une même voix pour conclure que la femme est foncièrement mauvaise et portée au vice” (“with the same voice proclaiming that woman is evil by nature and prone to vice”). The husband of Hélisenne in these letters will voice verbatim the misogynist views and biblical bias of his predecessors. The “injures” or insults used by the husband to attack Hélisenne in “Epistre invective 2” in particular (and whom Hélisenne responds to in the next letter, in “Epistre invective 3,” both of which constitute a veritable débat littéraire on feminism and anti-feminism in the Renaissance) always portray woman “de lubricité attaincte,” and women “de luxure fetides [esprises] & maculées”7 (H vi: “consumed by carnal delights,” “consumed and contaminated by lust”). Having learned to “deteste[r] tout le sexe femenin” (H iiii: “to loathe the entire female sex”), this husband views his wife Hélisenne, as well as woman in general, to be morally and sexually degenerate, and nothing more than modern-day Eves. Thus, his stated purpose in “Epistre invective 2” is to “[lui] inferer [donner] punition, telle que [son] inicque scelerité [meschanceté] l'a deservye” (H iiiiv: “to inflict upon her the punishment her iniquitous behavior deserves”).8

The “odieuse macule” (“hateful stain”) of Hélisenne's “enormes pechez” (“monstrous sins”)—clearly a reference to the biblical “stain of sin” or curse brought upon Eve in Genesis 3—her “effrenée lascivité” (“unbridled lust”), “luxure abhominable” (“abominable lust”), and “beaultez, fardz & aornemens, dont tant de malheurs s'ensuyvent” (I iiii: “physical allurements, the source of so much grief”), are what turn Hélisenne into the sexually degenerate and conniving “maledicte [maudite] creature” (“wretched woman”) that she and all women are. The misogynist husband is of course convinced of this, “car il est notoire qu'estant la femenine condition de luxure prevenue, une merveilleuse audace l'associe” (I: “for everybody knows that the female condition exists to satisfy its lascivious desires, to which end women become remarkably daring”). Woman's nature is thus defined by him, based on his way of interpreting Genesis 3, as the combination of fundamental “lustfulness” and scheming “audacity.” As Proverbs and other sources put it, women are truly temptresses, betrayers, and the source and cause of evil doings; such biblical “authority” is subscribed to by this husband without hesitation: “For the lips of a strange woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil” (5:3-4); “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways, do not stray into her paths; for many a victim has she laid low; yea, many strong men have been slain by her” (7:25-26). In deprecating woman, Hélisenne's husband is clearly attempting to absolve himself, and men in general, from all moral responsibility in the realm of sexual activity. As he sees it, they are simply victims caught up in a situation over which they have no control, ensnared like Adam by Eve:

Pour certain il n'y a plus superbe ne perileux ennemy de l'homme que la femme. … O que infelices [malheureuses] sont voz beaultez, fardz & aornemens, dont tant de malheurs s'ensuyvent … la guerre [waged by sexual woman against rational man] aulcunesfois est cause de nous faire en leurs laqs deceptifz succumber

(I iiiv-I iiii: “Surely there is no more proud or perilous enemy of man than woman. … How dangerous are your physical allurements, the source of so much grief … in the struggle against women we often fall right into their traps”).9

Now that the necessary groundwork has been laid, we can turn specifically to a true understanding and appreciation of Crenne's biblical feminism, which constitutes “her-story,” that is, by necessity, a reaction to the “hi(s)-story” of misogyny. Like patriarchy, misogyny is the source of woman's oppression as well as woman's power.10 On such a fundamental issue like the nature of woman, and especially in being confronted with such an overwhelmingly negative picture of woman and female sexuality and morality, it is not surprising that Crenne, following the lead of Pizan, will go to the source, and turn to the Bible itself and to Christian tradition and ideology in order to find, as Hélisenne puts it in the salutatio of “Epistre invective 3,” “plusieurs raisons aptes à confondre le dire de son mary” (I ivv: “several arguments in refutation of her husband's opinion”).

The Bible was considered a valuable and reliable source in the Renaissance by many defenders as well as attackers of women. Misogynists and profeminists alike looked to theology and the Bible to supply them with arguments and anecdotes and examples of both bad and good women. In her own rhetorical, polemical strategy and discourse of reversal and disclosure—used by virtually all early modern feminists as well as by more modern ones—Crenne accomplishes three things. She totally debunks the misogynist views presented above by showing them to be purely personal and prescriptive rather than descriptive of woman's “nature.” Secondly she levels the ethical and biblical playing field, so to speak, on questions of morality by rejecting the male argument of woman's sexual inferiority and depravity based on generalizations and especially the use by misogynists of a double standard to assess morality. Finally, Crenne not only defends but praises woman through her discussion and portrayal of female exemplarity in the realm of ethics and morals. The purpose and method of Crenne's feminist project are thus identical to Pizan's in the Cité des Dames and also a fulfillment of the prediction found in Mark 14:9. As a dedicated feminist encomiast, she, too, relies on a resounding memorial art for “telling” the “memory of her” and “what she has done.” And like Pizan's, Crenne's project is a very different memory and telling from the misogynist pronouncements of Du Pont and company. As Crenne understands the biblical principle, her writing will be fervently focused on “celles, pour lesquelles extoller tous vertueulx se travaillent” (K ii: “those whom all good people work to praise”). Praise them and commemorate them in her letters she does, with narrative emphasis placed on the ethical “doing” of women as an integral part of the early feminist discourse of cultural reversal and disclosure. In a word, Crenne will use the gospel, as called for in Mark 14:9, to spread the feminist gospel on woman. As we shall also see, she does not hesitate to use “la fureur de [la] plume” (L iii: “the fury of the pen”) in her epistolary writings to accomplish her ends.

The feminist principle of reversal begins perforce with refuting and rejecting the dominant misogynist view of women's identity and female conduct, as Hélisenne indicated above in her desire to “confondre le dire de son mary” (“to refute her husband's opinion”). She further explains in “Epistre invective 3” the urgent need of such reversal:

Mais voyant que generallement tu deteste la femenine condition, m[']a semblé que trop est grande l'injure, puis qu'elle est universelle. Et pource passant soubz silence, ce que je pourois respondre, à ce que particulierement tu me dis, Je donneray principe [je commenceray] à approuver [prouver] faulse l'accusation, que tu fais de noz malicieuses oeuvres.

(I v-I vv: Seeing as how you loathe the whole feminine condition, however, it has seemed to me that your insult is particularly great because it is universal. I shall therefore be silent as to your accusations against me in particular and concentrate on refuting your incrimination of what you call our malevolent deeds.)

Reacting to, and therefore reversing, the misogynist “injure” and “accusation” was the necessary condition early modern women writers like Crenne found themselves in. As Joan Kelly so aptly describes the feminist response to Renaissance misogyny: “Caught up in opposition to misogyny, the feminists of the querelle remained bound by the terms of that dialectic. What they had to say to women and society was largely reactive to what misogynists said about women. Yet the way beyond that resistance had to lie through it. … To oppose misogyny was to initiate the long feminist struggle for women's full humanity and for the humanity of society as well.”11 This “struggle” was precisely Crenne's in the Epistres, which retell in a different literary form and depict even more passionately and polemically the same drama between husband and wife found in Crenne's widely read Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, her first work published in 1538, one year before the Epistres.

To prove the misogynist assessment of woman's evil nature false, Crenne turns to the other side of the Bible, to its profeminist side, and to a different perspective that the Bible itself makes possible.12 Hélisenne's husband had avowed how “[les] femmes sont infideles, inconstantes, frauduleuses & deceptives” (“women are unfaithful, inconsistent, fraudulent and deceptive”) and, therefore, “qui presteroit foy à [son] dire, nul en mariaige ne se lyeroit” (I vv: “if anyone were to believe what he says, no one would ever get married”).13 Man is therefore better off, it would seem, avoiding woman and marriage in particular. Hélisenne strongly disagrees with this and will try to remonstrate with her husband. Turning to Paul, who is also used by other Renaissance evangelicals like Erasmus to praise woman and her place in marriage (Insitutio matrimonii christiani), Hélisenne reminds her husband that the institution of marriage was divinely ordained as a very special relationship between man (husband) and woman (wife), like the one between Christ and the church: “l'escripture saincte a exprimé l'estat de l'eglise [l'Eglise]: & choses ardues par cest etat de mariaige, appellant le redempteur l'espoux & l'eglise [l'Eglise] son espouse” (I vv: “Scripture has compared the state of the Church to the state of marriage, calling the Redeemer a bridegroom and the Church his bride”). Crenne is referring here to Ephesians 5:25-32, where the husband is urged to imitate Christ in conjugal love and respect: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. … This mystery [the union of man and woman in marriage] is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

Hélisenne then proceeds, ironically, to instruct her husband in misogyny, which is obviously part of her strategy to preempt the misogynist argument. Whereas the husband might have used the examples of Solomon and the Book of Wisdom to further denigrate women and to warn his male colleagues “que l'on ne doibt entendre la tromperie d'une femme, c'est qu'on se doibt preserver de l'iniquité femenine: & de la melliflue prononciation d'une femme estrange” (“against Woman's deception, Woman's iniquity, and the mellifluous accent of a foreign woman”), she reminds him that such negative views also serve the opposite purpose of reinforcing and promoting a positive judgement of “good women”: “Plusieurs aultres choses des maulvaises ont escript, Mais tu doibs entendre, que merveileusement sert à la decoration des bonnes” (I vi-I viv: “They have written many other things about bad women, but you must understand that this is a marvelous way of promoting good women”). As Hélisenne is quick to point out, Solomon and others also wrote, in praise of woman and marriage, “qu'en la femme forte & bonne le cueur de son mary repose: & si est dit aussi que la femme est la couronne de l'homme, ediffie sa maison, & que c'est sa consolation & hilarité [joye]” (I viv: “that in a woman of valor and strength the heart of a husband can find peace. They also state that Woman is Man's crown, the adornment of his home, his consolation and his joy”; cf. Proverbs 5, 6, 7, 12, 31). For Hélisenne, such biblical views and testimony on women and on their positive contribution to marriage are absolutely beyond refuting. She thus ends her plea to her husband on this subject: “Que pourrois tu donc respondre à ces veritables parolles” (I viv: “These are words of truth. What rejoinder could you possibly give”)?

Hélisenne takes up next in this “Third Invective Letter” another point of argument used by her husband, a favorite biblical “proof” used by misogynists to further soil the reputation of women: their beauty and vain use of cosmetics and dress with the sole purpose of alluring males. Hélisenne cautions her husband: “Pour certain utile ne te sera de dire que formosité femenine, avec force & somptuosité d'accoustremens, ne sont seulement choses vaines, mais tres dommageables” (“Surely it is pointless for you to say that feminine beauty with its sumptuous dress is both vain and very dangerous”). “Very dangerous,” that is, as the husband had argued in the preceding letter (I iiiv: “pour certain il n'y a plus superbe ne perileux ennemy de l'homme que la femme. … O que infelices [malheureuses] sont vos beaultez, fardz & aornemens, dont tant de malheurs s'ensuyvent” [“Surely there is no more proud or perilous enemy of man than woman. … How dangerous are your physical allurements, the source of so much grief”]), because of “les perilz preteritement [par le passé] aux hommes intervenus, pour avoir esté imitateurs de ses [ces] beaultez excellentes” (I viv-I vii: “the perils into which men have fallen in the past for having been fascinated by woman's beauty”). Hélisenne's response to this view is incisively simple as she characteristically turns the table against the accuser: “Car je t'asseure qu'elle [female beauty] n'est perilleuse pour les hommes, ausquelz consiste vertu” (I viiv-I viii: “I can assure you it holds no danger for any man of integrity”).

To support her statement and to show that men should not condemn or be fearful of female beauty, Hélisenne invokes again the Bible, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 this time, where the “enfans d'Israel” are permitted to select their wives from the most “beautiful” women prisoners: “Et si elle causoit si maulvais effectz comme tu dis, en Deuteronome, ne seroit permis aux enfans d'Israel, d'eslire entre les captives & prisonnieres les belles femmes” (I viii: “If womanly beauty were as destructive as you say it is, the children of Israel would not have been allowed to select beautiful wives from among their prisoners and captives, as found in Deuteronomy”). She also turns to Genesis 24:15-61, where Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac: “Nous lisons du serviteur d'Abraham, que quand il eust dressé sa veue sur Rebeca fille de admirable beaulté, Il dist secrettement en soy mesme, icelle [celle] est la femme que Dieu a appareillée pour Isaac” (I viii: “We read to Abraham's servant that when he laid eyes on the very beautiful Rebecca he wondered whether this was the woman whom God had meant for Isaac”). From 1 Samuel 25:32-35, Hélisenne recalls this feat by Abigail, described there as a woman “of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance”: “Je me recorde aussi d'Abiguail femme de Nabal, tresmalicieux homme: laquelle n'estoit moins prudente que belle, qui fut occasion de conserver la vie & les biens de son mary: nonobstant la ferocité de David, & ainsi fut l'homme inicque preservé par la beaulté de sa femme” (“I also remember the example of Abigail, the wife of Nabal, a most evil man. She was no less wise than beautiful, which allowed her to preserve her husband's life and possessions in spite of David's ferocity; and thus was that iniquitous husband saved by his wife's beauty”). Female beauty is even depicted here as rescuing male iniquity: “Car David luy respondit les parolles qui s'ensuyvent. Vas en paix en ta maison: car j'ay ouy ta voix & ay honoré ta face” (I viii: “For David said to her: ‘Go up in peace to thine house; see, I have hearkened to thy voice and have accepted thy person’”).

Other biblical sources, episodes, and commentary are similarly retrieved and become an integral part of Hélisenne's feminist argument. Their purpose is to counter her husband's misogynist perspective on female beauty and woman's reliance on that beauty for sexually evil and conniving gains (woman again as “foncièrement mauvaise et portée au vice” [”evil by nature and prone to vice”], as Pizan had defined the misogynist view). To further reject his opinion “que l'ornement des femmes, de soy provocque et attire les hommes à lascivité & luxure” (“that men are drawn into lasciviousness and lust by the way women dress”), Hélisenne will summarize Jerome (in his Letter XXII to Eustochium) on the positive role of female dress and accoutrements:

& quand ad[à] ce que tu dis de la curiosité femenine, en sumptueulx & riches accoustrements, Sainct Hierosme a redigé par escript, que les femmes & filles sont desireuses de precieulx vestemens, & scavoit plusieurs dames pudicques le faire, non pour complaire aux folz, ne par orgueil: mais par honnesteté ayant regard à l'estat & noblesse de leurs mariz, ou de leur pere.

(I viiiv: As to what you have said about women's willingness to experiment in rich and sumptuous clothes, Jerome has written that women and girls desire expensive clothes; and he knew several chaste women who did so, not in order to satisfy foolish men nor out of pride, but out of honest regard for the social state of their husbands or fathers.)

Suzanna (Daniel 13) is precisely one of these women invoked by Crenne as an example of she who attends to her beauty out of respect for her husband:

lors qu'elle fut molestée de la perversité des deux vieillars se mundifioit [se lavoit] à la fontaine, & avoit envoyé investiguer [querir] par ses pedissecques [servantes] unguens odoriferens, pour la conservation de sa naturelle beaulté, & pour complaire à son mary.

(K-Kv: Suzanna, in the Old Testament, was molested by two perverse old men while she was washing at a fountain and awaiting the return of her servants whom she had sent to fetch her best and most perfumed lotions; she wished both to preserve her natural beauty and to please her husband.)14

In addition to the example of Suzanna, Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, II, ii, question 169, article 2: “Non semper tamen talis fucatio est cum peccato mortali, sed solum quando fit propter lasciviam vel in Dei contemptum”) becomes for Hélisenne a most reliable and valuable reference on woman and the wearing of makeup. She quotes him to show that this custom does not constitute a mortal sin unless it is done out of “oultrecuydance, lascivité, ou contemnement de Dieu” (Kv: “arrogance, lasciviousness, or contempt of God”). At the very least, as far as Hélisenne is concerned in concluding her argument on female beauty and its enhancements, woman should be given the benefit of the doubt. Man should not be so quick in rushing to pass judgment on her: “& pource que les choses mentales nous sont occultes, nous ne debvons estre promps à faire jugemens des intentions d'aultruy” (K: “since the things of the mind are concealed from us, we should not be too quick to judge the intentions of others”); “& pource que les occasions nous sont ignorées, nous devons toujours prendre les choses de la meilleure part” (“because the real reasons are hidden from us, we must always accept these things in their best light”); and, above all else, “ne plus determiner si promptement” (K ii: “not be such a rash judge”). Hélisenne's misogynist husband is however incapable, as we have seen, of such restraint or of viewing woman and her activities “in their best light” (“de la meilleure part”).

And then there is the remarkable example of Judith, who is a very special biblical heroine for Crenne and the central memorial figure, indeed the mnemonic locus, of “Epistre invective 3.” Judith is a woman, as Hélisenne remembers her, of exceptional beauty and virtue at the fore of “celles, pour lesquelles extoller tous vertueulx se travaillent” (“those whom all good people work to praise”) and of those who “de sempiternele louenge sont dignes” (K ii: “are worthy of eternal praise”). Hélisenne additionally discusses the ethical exemplarity of Judith by relying again on Jerome's commentary of the Latin Vulgate text of Judith translated from the Old Testament Apocrypha, in which he offers passionate praise of this biblical character, praise which Hélisenne shares and repeats:

Prenez la veufve Judich [Judith] pour exemple de chasteté: & la magnifiez par louenge triumphale, & par canticques perpetuelz: car celluy qui est remunerateur de sa chasteté l[']a faicte, non seulement digne d'estre imitée des femmes: mais aussi des hommes, & l[']a tant favorisée qu'il luy a concedé telle vertu, qu'elle a obtenu victoire de celluy qui demeuroit invincible de tous: & a supedité celluy qui estoit insuperable.

(K ii-K iiv: Take the woman Judith as an example of chastity and praise her with triumphal song and perpetual hymns and canticles. For He who rewarded her chastity made her worthy to be imitated not only by women but by men: and He so favored her that He gave her the strength to gain victory over an enemy who had until that time been invincible.)

For Crenne, female beauty and chastity can lead to much more than just ethical behavior. They can be the instruments of political assassination, of biblical good triumphing over evil, of the biblical tradition of God manifesting his power by choosing to work through the “weaker sex,” through a woman, in this case a piously retired widow who outwits the overwhelming enemy force that threatens to destroy her people. Through Judith, Crenne shows us how activity in the moral-sexual and political domains can ultimately be seen as functionally and heroically equivalent. For not only does Judith, through her beauty, preserve her chastity, she saves the Jewish people. The biblical scene and text on this subject posit nothing less than the triumph of feminine virtue over brute force, with emphasis on the heroic acts of doing by Judith. Her highly renowned beauty and the “subterfuge” that ensues from it totally captivate the Assyrian enemy soldiers and especially Holofernes, their powerful and ruthless general (Judith 10:1-20). Judith's beauty and apparent sexual conniving are in fact a coverup for her wit and become her very means of serving God. Her hand as the the hand of the Lord will exterminate the enemies of Jerusalem. As she ironically tells Holofernes's eunuch when he comes to invite her to Holofernes's tent as part of the latter's seduction plan: “Who am I, to refuse my lord? Surely whatever pleases him I will do at once, and it will be a joy to me until the day of my death” (12:14). What she does with her hand is cut off the head of Holofernes. The “virtue” or “strength” given to her by the Lord (“car celluy qui est remunerateur de sa chasteté l[']a faicte”), and for which she is worthy of praise and of emulation not only by women but also by men (“non seulement digne d'estre imitée des femmes: mais aussi des hommes”), enables her to keep her chastity and to defeat “celluy qui demeuroit invincible de tous.” Chastity and beauty as wit and Justice are what she uses to “supedit[er] celluy qui estoit insuperable.” And what she “procures” (“supediter”) through her beauty and chastity is the severed head of Holofernes and thus the salvation of the Israelite people. Judith also procures Crenne's highest “louenge triumphale” in “Epistre invective 3.”15

There can be no doubt that Judith is, for Crenne, the biblical equivalent of the classical Dido, whose character and accomplishments are the focus of Crenne's writing in Epistre familiere 8. Both of these women are viragoes or heroines (good “virile” women of great stature, strength, and courage, and of great public accomplishments), with narrative emphasis placed on their acts or their doing, that is, as Crenne portrays it, on their “exerceant oeuvres viriles” (“exercising manly tasks”). (Indeed, what Crenne really chooses to highlight in her narrative on Dido, as in Judith, is her “virility,” not her succombing to passion and becoming the myth of the tragic heroine. Other Renaissance writers of course stress the latter.) Dido, like Judith, is a woman strong in courage and capable of performing even the most daring of actions. Just as we saw in the passage on Judith, she is a woman whom “l'adverse fortune ne povoit aulcunement superer [surmonter]” (Epistre familiere 8, D v: “adverse fortune could not at all defeat”). Crenne admires Dido the classical virago as a female hero, a virtuous widow, and an effective ruler and especially an achiever. She encourages her female readers to identify with this exemplary role model, just as she had done with the example of Judith. Hélisenne writes to one of her friends, emphasizing and explaining Dido's “virile” nature:

Car je suis certaine que tu ne vouldroys estre du nombre d'aulcunes pusillanimes femmes: Mais au contraire, t'esforceras d'estre semblable à celle à qui la magnanime constance, fut occasion de changer son nom primitif, qui estoit Helisa: Mais subsequentement appellée fut Dido, qui en langaige Phenicien est interpreté, & vault autant à dire comme Virago, exerceant oeuvres viriles: Certainement c'estoit celle que l'adverse fortune ne povoit aulcunement superer [surmonter]: Car à l'heure que icelle instable la vouloit totalement prosterner en permettant la mort immaturée de son fidele mary, Ceste Dido fist grande demonstrance de sa vertu … par elle fut construicte & edifiée la noble cité de Carthage: laquelle depuis fut tresfameuse & renomée.

(D iiiiv-D v: I am sure you will not wish to be counted in the number of faint-hearted women but rather will endeavor to imitate one whose steadfast endurance was her reason for changing her former name. I mean Helisa, subsequently called Dido, which in the Phoenician language means ‘Virago,’ one who exercises manly tasks. She was a woman whom adverse fortune was not at all able to defeat; just when fortune was attempting to crush her completely by sending her faithful husband to a premature death, Dido gave ample proof of her courage … by building the great city of Carthage, which since then has become so very famous.)

Crenne's classical and medieval sources for the virile Dido include Virgil (The Aeneid, I, IV), Ovid (Heroides, VII), Boccaccio (De claris mulieribus, XL), and Pizan (Cité des Dames, I, 46; II, 54; II, 55). The “manly” virtue of such heroines as Dido and Judith is a biblical as well as a classical concept, and one that denotes a type of person, male or female. Crenne develops for the early Renaissance the truly revolutionary feminist implications of the biblical admonition, “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). For Crenne, the accomplishment of “manly” or heroic works is not in relationship to gender but to individual ability and performance, in the sense of a single human nature and a single human activity. This virile nature, as some readers of the Bible such as Crenne knew, is thus one, both male and female, because it is of one and the same genesis or origin. Since man and woman were created from the same source, they may, equally, pursue the benefits of their creation. Of great importance to Crenne, I believe, and to our understanding of her portrayal of women as viragoes “exerceant oeuvres viriles” (“exercising manly tasks”), is precisely this story of creation, but not the one found in Genesis 2:21-22, whose misogynist interpretation Hélisenne's husband, following the thinking of Du Pont and Matheolus, is so indebted to and obsessed with. Rather, it is the one found in Genesis 1:27, which I quote from the Vulgate version of the Bible: “Et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam: ad imaginem Dei creavit illum, masculum et feminam creavit eos” (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”).16

Since woman, like man, was derived from and created by God, without the privileging of one sex over the other or any hierarchy established between the two sexes (Genesis 1), there can be no difference between the power allotted to man and that allotted to woman, nor any disparity between the accomplishments which both are capable of achieving. With this understanding and view of creation surely in mind—which amounts to a denial of any male sovereignty or superiority over women—Crenne rejects outright any ontologically fixed relationships between the sexes, and especially dispels the concept of woman as a purely sexual and thus inferior being. Biblically oriented and indebted as she is, there can be little doubt that Crenne knew the passage in Genesis 2. Like all other early modern feminist writers, however, she does not challenge it directly, for that would have been tantamount to attacking God's word. Crenne simply responds to the passage by ignoring it, which is a feminist statement in itself. Besides, her problem was with a certain class of men, not with God. For Crenne, the sexual dimorphism promoted by misogynists and used to denigrate women by stressing their different (i.e., inferior) nature has no real foundation, biblical or other. For her, it is not ordained by God, nature, or reason. It is socially derived and socially prescribed, and especially by certain misogynist advocates of Christian ideology—like Hélisenne's husband—who prefer to opt for the other story of creation found in Genesis 2.17

The fact that Crenne reads, understands, and applies Scripture from a different perspective and that her sympathies lie with the first story of creation in Genesis can be seen in her feminist argument in the Epistres that women have always been involved in and accomplished “virile” works from the beginning of time. And what makes Crenne's feminism specifically “biblical” and distinguishable from other early modern feminist rhetorical practices is the degree to which she is forever turning to and appropriating the Bible in order to “authorize” her feminist ideology and narratives, especially her use of the meaning of creation in Genesis 1 as the justification for her kind of “equality” feminism. Indeed, what better way to discredit and debunk the misogynist principle with its biblical mandate for female inferiority and subordination than by documenting the successes of its object of scorn and ridicule in the biblical achievements of woman. One of Crenne's best accounts of women “exerceant oeuvres viriles” (“exercising manly tasks”), in addition to those portrayed in “Epistre invective 3,” is to be found in “Epistre invective 4,” which is her “commemoration des splendides [excellens] & gentilz esperitz, d'aulcunes dames illustres” (K iiii: “commemoration of famous women with brilliant and refined minds”), a rich testimony to the powers of women in the ethical, cultural, and public domain. This testimony also shows, just as we saw in “Epistre invective 3,” her panegyrical propensity to argue and to promote woman primarily through anecdote and example. Hélisenne is specifically reacting to, rejecting, and reversing the misogynist view of Elenot, to whom “Epistre invective 4” is addressed and who had prescribed “le filler” (“spinning”) as the only activity in which women can and should excel (K vv). This letter is the one singled out for praise by François de Billon in 1555 in his Le Fort inexpugnable de l'honneur du sexe Femenin. He comments quite approvingly on the way Crenne debunks “Woman's detractors” and the misogynist “Principles” of Elenot in particular: “Bien pourroit on dire pourtant, qu'en vn passage de son Liure touchant les Angoisses amoureuses, elle donne vne facheuse touche à tout detracteur de Femme, quand en vne Lettre qu'elle enuoya à un certain Elenot (qui maintenoit fort & ferme les Femmes ne se deuoir mesler que de filer) elle renuerse aussi plaisamment ses ironiques Raisons” (35v-36).

Of the “virile” or “manly” achievements of exemplary women extolled by Crenne through her consciousness-raising memorial discourse in “Epistre invective 4,” the following deserve special mention: “les filles de Lelius, & celles de Hortensius (tres fameulx orateurs) [qui] rendirent par leurs scavoirs, l'elegance de leurs peres singulierement recommandée” (“the daughters of Lelius and Hortensius [both very famous orators] [who] made the elegant style of their fathers singularly attractive”); “Damas fille de Pitagoras [qui] fut si tres perite & scavante en Philosophie, qu'apres que les troys seurs eurent coupé le fil vital à son pere, elle exposoit les difficultez de ses sentences” (“Pythagoras' daughter Damas [who] was so expert in philosophy that after the Fates had recalled her father from this life she commented on the most obscure points of his maxims”); “la royne Zenobia [qui] fut telement instruicte par Longin philosophe, que pour l'habondante & reluysante science des escriptures, fut nommée Ephinisa: dont Nicomachus translata les sainctes & sacrées oeuvres” (“Queen Zenobia [who] was so instructed by Longinus the philosopher that she was named Ephinisa for her wide-ranging and brilliant knowledge of literary texts. [Nichomachus translated her sacred writings]”); “en Grec Delbora [qui] fut tant prudente & discrete, que comme l'on lit au livre des Juges, pour quelque temps exerca l'office de judicature, sus le peuple d'Israel” (“Deborah [who] was so well-versed in Greek that, as we read in the Book of Judges, she exercised the office of magistrate over the people of Israel”); “la royne Attalia [qui] regna, & jugea l'espace de sept ans en Hierusalem” (“Queen Athalia [who] reigned and judged seven years in Jerusalem”); “Valerie vierge Romaine [qui] fut si experte en lettres Grecques & Latines, qu'elle explicqua les vers & metres de Virgille, à la foy & aux misteres de la religion chrestienne” (“Valeria, a Roman virgin, [who] was so well versed in Greek and Latin literature that she explicated Virgil's metrics and verses in the light of the mysteries of the Christian faith”); “Aspasia [qui] fut de si extreme scavoir remplie, que Socrates philosophe tant estimé, ne fut honteux d'apprendre quelque science d'elle” (“Aspasia [who] was filled with such great knowledge that Socrates did not blush at learning anything from her”); and “Alpaides vierge & religieuse [qui] fut de la grace divine tant illuminée, qu'elle eust le sens des livres de la saincte Bible” (“Alpaides, a virgin and nun, [who] was so filled with divine grace that the meaning of the books of the Bible was revealed to her”).

Crenne's majestic “commemoration of famous women with brilliant and refined minds” culminates in the figure of the “tresillustre & magnanime princesse, ma dame la royne de Navarre” (“the most illustrious and distinguished princess, the queen of Navarre”), in whose “reginale [Royalle], excellente & sublime personne, reside la divinité Platonicque, la prudence de Caton, l'eloquence de Cicero, & la Socratique raison” (“[whose] royal and lofty person combines Plato's godlike wisdom, Cato's prudence, Cicero's eloquence, and Socrates' wisdom”). For Crenne, it is the “splendeur” (“brilliance”) of the women she has just championed—Marguerite in particular—that truly “à la condition femenine donne lustre” (“enhances all of womankind”) (K vi-K viiv). Combining biblical evidence with argumentative conviction and rhetorical skill, Crenne has once again affirmed woman's moral, intellectual, and cultural equality, and at times her superiority to men. There are many other narratives in the Epistres, however, which provide further evidence as to the singular honors and achievements accorded to women by God and the Bible. Crenne is dedicated to recording these achievements, especially since she is convinced that her views on women were authorized by and endowed with “la faveur de Dieu” (A iii: “God's approval”) and that they represented true “Evangelicques parolles” (C viv: “words of the Gospel”). She overwhelms her misogynist adversary (as well as her reader) with all these memorial words on woman, with all her examples of good, intelligent, achievement-oriented women.

In each of the above examples, most of them culled from female biblical archetypes, Crenne admires the capacity of women to be exceptionally active and productive, and their ability to teach both women and men, and to be “non seulement digne[s] d'estre imitée[s] des femmes: mais aussi des hommes” (“worthy to be imitated not only by women but by men”), as Crenne had said of Judith (K ii). The words of Paulinus of Nola about women “becoming male” thus constitute an apt commentary on each of Crenne's viragoes “exerceant oeuvres viriles,” and especially on the biblical and religious ones who make up a majority of her examples in the above passage, as elsewhere in her letters: “What a woman she is, if it is permissable to call such a manly Christian a woman!”18 This is another way of saying, in the words of a recent book's Galatians-quoting title, that ethically and culturally speaking “there is no male or female.”19 Crenne agrees with such views on female equality, especially when it comes to human nature and female morality and accomplishment. Her portrayals of biblical viragoes who embody moral-ethical ideals and active accomplishment demonstrate this point clearly. Whether the characters include the woman/wife in Ephesians and Proverbs, Rebekah in Genesis, Abigail in 1 Samuel, Suzanna and Judith in the Apocrypha, and so forth, they all exemplify female behavioral and cultural models for whom “becoming male” or “exerceant oeuvres viriles” (“exercising manly tasks”) means, in the true Christian sense of being and living, “to cultivate a religious identity” and to participate in a process “that will ultimately lead to eschatological fulfillment.”20

Crenne's portrayals of biblical and religious viragoes are also without a doubt the most forceful testimony and dominant feature of her “feminist textuality,” in the sense of Joan DeJean's definition of it: “The process by which the first female literary tradition [her italics] in France was conceived as the continuation of women's activity in the public sphere generated what I would term … an écriture féminine, writing not the body but the body politic and women's involvement in it. From this perspective, parallels between political and literary heroinism become apparent … the strength of prowoman sentiment generated repeatedly, in a space where history and literature meet, what can be termed a feminist textuality.21 There is no better example of this space and this textuality, where pro-woman sentiment, cultural history, and personal literature come together, than Crenne's Epistres. And there is no higher praise that a Renaissance writer can bestow upon her “heroines” than to portray them as viragoes. As Jacob Burckhardt reminds us in his discussion of “virility” and its application in early modernity to women: “The highest praise which could then be given to the great [Renaissance] women was that they had the mind and courage of men. … The title virago, which is an equivocal compliment in the present day, then implied nothing but praise.22

Crenne's inversion of language, sex roles, and values in her depiction of forceful and strong women “exerceant oeuvres viriles” is also a continuation of New Testament literary strategies (1 Corinthians 1:20: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”; Mark 10:31: “But many that are first will be last, and the last first”). This biblical and, for Crenne, feminist strategy of reversal and disclosure makes woman the equal of man in every regard by replacing woman's so-called debility with positive, strong, and achievement-oriented qualities traditionally ascribed to the male sphere. (The appropriation and use of the masculine for feminine identity can likewise be seen in the masculine family name which Crenne, or rather Marguerite Briet—the real name of our letter writer—appropriates for her authorial signature. Her husband was Philippe Fournel, “seigneur de Crenne.”) Crenne's Epistres therefore constitute a radical questioning of gender dimorphism as constructed in the traditional binary opposites man/woman, active/inactive, public/private, and, most of all, good/evil. The object of Crenne's questioning is certainly not to turn women “exerceant oeuvres viriles” (“exercising manly tasks”) into men but to express the absolute equality between the two sexes in matters of gender relations. The “manliness” of Crenne's biblical heroines represents a transcendence of the sexual nature itself, with social and cultural reform as its goal. Crenne's project of equality feminism thus becomes one of how to write women into history, to design new conceptual frameworks (which are actually biblically old ones) that place women at the center of human nature and human activity, as well as at the center of historical examination. Toward this end, she gives us example after example of women “exerceant oeuvres viriles,” that is, women going beyond their ontologically and culturally “limited” sex.23 For Crenne, the opposition man/woman (good/evil) is not “natural,” but social and cultural. She therefore seeks and finds heuristic models that embody and illustrate women's historical participation in social-cultural-ethical development, and thereby reconceptualizes history in the Epistres as the record and the experience of both men and women. Crenne's biblical and writerly project—indeed the shaping principle of her encomiastic and memorial art composed for “celles, pour lesquelles extoller tous vertueulx se travaillent” (“those whom all good people work to praise”)—is her way of restoring women to an ethical-cultural history and of rewriting this history for them.

In her (re)telling of the biblical stories of Judith and other female exemplars, Crenne is bringing female beauty and chastity and female heroism into the public arena. The characters are used to serve a religious and political purpose, and obviously a culturally polemical purpose, since Crenne is retelling these stories for her own immediate, cultural concerns. Woman as Judith or as Abigail or as Deborah becomes here an important part of the feminist dialogue of disclosure connecting generations, connecting History as it is written in the Old Testament and History as Crenne would have it written and understood, and especially read, in the Renaissance. Her portrayal of Judith is one of many biblical stories and myths of female morality and heroism through which “what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9), and also, as Crenne puts it, through whose retelling “les histoires Hebraicques et Grecques sont decorées et ennoblies [anoblies]” (K iii: “Hebrew and Greek histories are honored and ennobled”). The Judith text, Hélisenne tells her misogynist husband, is one of “tant de veritables histoires [which] à l'encontre de [son] inveterée malice faveur [lui] prestent” (K iii: “many examples from history with which to refute his inveterate ill-will”). It is one of her best feminist responses to the misogynist “jugement, que le sexe femenin, plus que le masculin estoit lubricque” (“opinion that the female sex was more lascivious than the male”). It is her way, finally, to “extirper [les] damnables opinions” (“root out the wretched opinions”) of her husband and to beseech “le Dieu eternel … que par grace especiale, de telle obstination [le] libere” (K iiiv-K iii: “God … that He may liberate him from his obstinate opinions”).24

Although we have discussed several of Crenne's letters, we have focused in this essay on her “Epistre invective 3” because it is truly her best assessment, and ultimate refutation, of the misogynist position on woman's nature and her moral worth. This feminist assessment always begins with the misogynist principle itself, with the “jugement, que le sexe femenin, plus que le masculin estoit lubricque” (K iiiv: “opinion that the female sex was more lascivious than the male”). Is it true, Hélisenne asks herself in this letter, posing the same question that Pizan had previously asked, that women are “infideles, inconstantes, frauduleuses & deceptives” (I vv: “unfaithful, inconsistent, fraudulent, and deceptive”) as men over the centuries have written? Using the reasoning and scholarly power of a woman, Crenne portrays the “chastity” of very exemplary and active biblical women in a way that deconstructs the male hypothesis. But there is more to Crenne's position in “Epistre invective 3.” She will use the invective not only in defense of women, but in the attack of men. The study of ancient history and of the Bible in particular enables Crenne to conclude that men, when it comes to morality and deception, have no reason to be so self-righteous. Man is clearly more than capable of abandoning reason and embracing sensuality (I vii: “derelinquant [delaissée] la raison, à la sensualité adhere”), and even of committing rape (I viiv: “à perpetrer violentement l'adultere”). Sexual morality, good or bad, is an individual matter, not a gender matter. Crenne's rejection of abusive male generalizations on woman's sexual depravity (I iiiiv: “l'injure universelle” of Hélisenne's husband who “ne se peult garder d'increper [de detracter] en general la condition muliebre” [“incriminates and slanders all of womankind”]) is her rejection of the misogynist double standard on sexual morality. It is her protest against the double standard of sexual behavior, which freely gives to man what woman is severely chastised for.

Crenne was not alone in rejecting this male standard. It had also been rejected by the Christian humanist Juan Luis Vives in his De institutione foeminae christianae published in Antwerp in 1524 and in Paris in French translation in 1542. Crenne sides with Vives and echoes his views in her own feminist argument, which simply repeats the Christian truism (cf. Ambrose, De Abraham, I, 35) that all sexual violation is a sin and that what is not allowed to women is also not allowed to men. For both Crenne and Vives, the behavior of “perverse” women is not proof that all women are “wicked.” Vives writes: “Si plusieurs en y a de perverses, cela n'argue ny monstre la malice de la nature, non plus que des hommes, entre lesquelz plusieurs sont larrons, meurtriers, faulx & desloyaulx. Entre iceulx aucuns ont escript par leur curiosité invectives contre le sexe feminin, qui les devoient attribuer à tous les deux” (334). Besides, in the realm of “luxure” (“lust”), as Vives sees it in the exact opposite way from Matheolus, Du Pont, and Hélisenne's husband—and as Crenne also sees it and documents it fully in “Epistre invective 3” and just as fully in Epistre familiere 5, which is one of her most accomplished invectives against “ce deceptif & frauduleux sexe viril” (Cv: “the deceptive and fraudulent masculine sex”)—“les hommes sont plus brutaulx que les autres animaulx” (Vives, 339: “men are more brutal than other animals”). Crenne agrees completely. This is why she turns the misogynist argument of female sexual depravity and aggression against the accuser, in effect answering invective with invective:

O que c'est une execrable iniquité d'homme de telle faulte [sexual deception] à la femme attribuer, veu qu'en cela sa secrette conscience le juge: & scait bien que luy mesmes toujours s'esforce d'estre le decepteur. Car depuis que l'homme par luxurieux desir, jecte ses yeulx impudicques sur l'honneste beaulté de quelque dame: il use de continuelle poursuyte, de sorte qu'il semble qu'il ne s'esforce moins de la subjuguer, que si par machine ou instrumens bellicqueulx, pretendoit à l'obsession d'une [à assieger une] cité.

(I vii-I viiv: What a shameful injustice it is for men to fault women for deception when in their heart of hearts men know that they are always the ones doing the deceiving. From the moment a man casts a lustful eye on the genuine beauty of a woman's face he is in constant pursuit of her and tries to conquer her no less persistently than if he were besieging a city with war machines.)

We will draw this discussion of Renaissance misogyny and Crenne's biblical feminism to a close by returning to where we began—to Christine de Pizan's project to discredit and debunk the anti-feminism of the cleric Matheolus and all those like him, and to Pizan as the spiritual feminist model for Crenne. Crenne's own view in the above passage of a “beseiged cité” is a clear reference to and sure indication of her desire to continue the work of Pizan and her Cité des Dames. The works of both authors are a defense of the female sex against the “damnables opinions” and the misogynist “obstination … d'aulcuns, pour avoir detracté des Dames” (K iiiv: “insistence … of certain men who have spoken ill of women”). Pizan and Crenne publicly challenge those who “ont le sexe muliebre contemné” (I vi: “have slandered the female sex,” with the verb “contemner,” as we have seen, having the double meaning of slandering the reputation of and even sexually abusing women). Both writers construct a literary citadel for women—with the book serving as a “city” (Pizan's full title is Livre de la Cité des Dames), and as a feminist enclosure, an ideological and cultural space—in which women are protected from and can refute and withstand misogynist abuse and assault. The new “cité” or book envisioned by Pizan and Crenne is nothing less than the feminist concretization of their defensive attitude and response to misogynist warfare. It is to be both woman's “refuge” and her “rampart”: “une nouvelle Cité qui, si vous en prenez soin, sera pour vous toutes (c'est-à-dire les femmes de bien) non seulement un refuge, mais un rempart pour vous défendre des attaques de vos ennemis” (Pizan, 275).

Neither Pizan nor Crenne will, however, answer the question of whether the misogynist perspective that holds woman to be “foncièrement mauvaise et portée au vice” (“evil by nature and prone to vice”) will ever be amended, or is indeed capable of being amended. At times, Crenne appears rather skeptical of such an outcome. In “Epistre invective 5,” Hélisenne will address another misogynist who is so “endurcy en mal” (“hardened to evil”) in regard to women that he “ne desespere de scavoir couvrir verité par mensonge: & coulourer mensonge par verité” (“never gives up knowing how to veil truth with lies, and color lies with truth”). Turning this time to Quintilian and Virgil, Hélisenne concludes that this type of person “ne peult estre corrigé, car comme narre [recite] Quintilian, Tu romperas plus [beaucoup plus] que tu ne corrigeras celluy qui est endurcy en mal. Voyes [Voyez] doncques l'occasion pourquoy l'on ne se doibt persuader, que jamais l'infelice [le malheureux] se reduyse” (L vi: “cannot be corrected. As Quintilian says, one can more easily break than correct the man who is hardened to evil. This is why one should not think it possible for wretches to reform”).25

But such a doubtful outcome in no way keeps Crenne from writing, or from trying to reason with the proponents of misogyny in order to bring about a change of attitude and feelings. Crenne refuses to give up the cause of woman. The misogynist in “Epistre invective 4,” like Hélisenne's husband in “Epistre invective 3,” is fervently implored to change his ways. Hélisenne's exhortation to him is simply to confess his error toward “ce gracieux sexe femenin” (“the gracious female sex”). After all, this amendment is what Scripture, along with reason and conscience, also calls for: “O [Or] medite [penses] doncques de confesser l'offense que tu as perpetrée envers ce gracieux sexe femenin, qui par l'eglise est appellé devotieux. Si tu peulx faire ce dont je te exhorte [prie], bien t'en trouveras: car raison le veult, honnesteté le consent, & conscience le commande” (L iiv-L iii: “Why don't you seriously consider a public admission of the offense you have done to the gracious female sex, which the Church itself calls devout? If you succeed in doing so, as I urge you to, you will feel better. Reason calls for it, honesty consents to it, conscience ordains it”). Since the reception of Hélisenne's pleas and the desired change in attitude on the part of the misogynist type are indeed uncertain, Crenne must therefore remain, as she sees it, ever vigilant to counter his harsh, abusive words with her own, and to combat the misogynist “anticque folie” if it persists in the future. Hélisenne goes on to “reassure” the misogynist in “Epistre invective 4”: “si … tu persiste en ton anticque folie, qui seroit cause de faire esmouvoir la fureur de ma plume: laquelle me stimuleroit de t'escripre [te rescrire] propos plus facheulx, que tu ne pourroys precogiter” (L iii: “if … you persist in your usual madness, this would only serve to release the fury of my pen and make me write things more irritating than you could possibly predict”).26

Crenne is dedicated, as Pizan had been before her, to an activist biblical feminism that promotes woman's moral worth along with her intellectual and cultural equality. She is committed to spreading the gospel on woman, even if it means wielding the pen as a sword, as she has Hélisenne warn the misogynist above in the closing passage from “Epistre invective 4.” Crenne's “fureur de [l]a plume,” the feminist fury of her pen as sword, is a figurative expression and a most formidable instrument for dispensing afflictive judgments, just as the pen is in Leviticus 26:27-28 (“And if in spite of this you will not hearken to me, but walk contrary to me, then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and chastise you myself sevenfold for your sins”), and again in Ezekiel 5:13 (“Thus shall my anger spend itself, and I will vent my fury upon them and satisfy myself”). In the context of Crenne's biblical feminism, the word of God likened to a sword is, finally, not unlike the words of Crenne in defense and in praise of woman and this author's divinely inspired fury or purpose. Her words, too, are penned to “approver [prouver] faulse l'accusation, qu['il] fai[t] de noz malicieuses oeuvres” (I v-I vv: “to refute his incrimination of what he calls our malevolent deeds”). For Crenne, women deserve to be remembered and recorded differently, not through “detractions, opprobres & injures” (I v:“slander, rage and insult”) but “par louenge triumphale, & par canticques perpetuelz” (K ii: “with triumphal song and perpetual hymns and canticles”). Crenne's Epistres are these highly biblically inspired, feminist “canticques perpetuelz.”27


  1. Biblical references are to The New Oxford Annotated Bible, with the Apocrypha.

  2. “I admonish you … to repent for having slandered those whom all good people work to praise.” Quotations in French are from Crenne, 1996. Page numbers, given in Roman numerals, are to the 1539 first edition, which are always provided by Nash in the 1996 critical edition. Translations into English, with a fair degree of modification, are from Crenne, 1986. They will be given henceforth in parentheses in the text following the original citation.

  3. The cleric Matheolus was also called Mathieu le Bigame because he married a widow in violation of canonical interdiction. This woman, as we learn from reading his work, he soon came to hate, along with marriage itself. His Lamenta, containing extremely caustic invectives on the subject of women and marriage, were translated into French by Jean Lefèvre in 1370. All italics and translations in this essay are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

  4. Du Pont, fol. iiiiff. Quotations are from the British Library copy, Shelfmark C7b1. Conventional editing of this Renaissance text has been done by me. The Controverses were published in 1534; Crenne's Epistres appeared five years later in 1539.

  5. “Eschequier en forme deue,” fol. 54v. Du Pont also prided himself on being one of the century's leading Grands Rhétoriqueurs. The checkerboard poetic design is one of many examples of intricate, visual poetry in the Controverses.

  6. This kind of cleverly crafted (as the misogynists saw it) verbal depiction of woman culminates in the late Renaissance and early seventeenth century with Jacques Olivier's Alphabet de l'imperfection et malice des femmes (1617). He dedicates his work to “la plus imparfaicte créature de l'univers, l'écume de la nature, le séminaire de malheurs, la source de querelles, le jouet des insensés, … l'allumette du vice, la sentine d'ordure, un monstre de nature, un mal nécessaire.” His twenty-five portraits or views of woman each correspond to a letter of the alphabet. For example, “Advissimum animal, animal très avide; Bestiale baratrum, abîme de bêtise; Concupiscentia carnis, concupiscence de la chair; Duellum damnosum, duel dommageable; Estuans aestans, été brûlant”; and so forth. See Albistur and Armogathe, 124 for the first quotation; and Darmon, 7 for the second one.

  7. The variants proposed by Claude Colet in the 1560 edition of the Epistres, which make Crenne's 1539 text less Latinate and thus more easily read, are given in brackets within the original French quotations.

  8. Hélisenne's husband is even put in the position of actually writing “Epistre invective 2,” as we read in the letter's salutatio where its authorship is ascribed to him. This strategy puts Crenne (the real author) in the even better position of having the last word on misogyny in this Renaissance débat, as we shall see in “Epistre invective 3.” I shall always refer to Crenne as the author and to Hélisenne as the fictional character or letter writer and first-person narrator of these letters. The real name of our letter writer is of course Marguerite Briet, whose literary pseudonym is “Hélisenne de Crenne.”

  9. There is another major misogynist (there are also minor ones throughout this epistolary work) whom the reader will encounter in “Epistre invective 4.” Whereas the husband in “Epistre invective 2” whom we have been quoting denigrates woman as morally and sexually degenerate, this other one denigrates woman's intellectual and cultural merit and public accomplishments. This other side of misogyny and Crenne's response to it are discussed in Nash, 1990.

  10. “Feminist theorizing arose in the fifteenth century in intimate association with, and in reaction to, the new secular culture of the modern European state. It was the voice of literate women who felt themselves and all women maligned and newly oppressed by that [misogynist and patriarchal] culture, but who were, at the same time, empowered by it to speak out in women's defense” (Kelly, 1984, 66).

  11. Ibid., 1982, 14-15. This essay was later revised, but not altered substantively, and published in book form (cf. preceding note). On the querelle des femmes and Renaissance debates about women that Crenne and other early modern writers were so actively involved in, see also the Introduction of Mustacchi and Archambault in their translation of Crenne's Letters, especially 17-25.

  12. For critical reading on the opposing views of woman in the Bible and in Christian culture, see, on biblical misogyny, the studies by Harris and Aubert; on biblical feminism, see those by Fiorenza and Guinsburg.

  13. The husband is repeating here what had previously been prescribed by Du Pont on the subject of woman and marriage. Marrying a woman is just as risky a venture, as Du Pont had put it, as riding a horse: “Sy tu veulx femme, prendz la de ton voysin / Car mainctes foys, tant par montz que par vaulx / Lon est trompé, en femmes et chevaulx” (Controverses, fol. 48). The husband is also siding with the man who is contemplating the prospects of marriage in the Debat de l'omme et de la femme of Guillaume Alexis, an extremely popular débat published in Paris in 1493, 1500, 1520, 1525, 1530, etc. The refrain which closes each stanza where “l'omme” expresses his views is identical to the misogynist and misogamist view of Hélisenne's husband: “Bien eureux est qui rien n'y a” (“Bien heureux celui qui s'absente de la femme” [Alexis, 1:121-44]; cf. Hélisenne's husband: “Parquoy extreme beatitude succede, à ceulx qui de leurs deceptives personnes s'alienent” [I iiv: “That is why we must count happy those who shun you deceiving creatures”]).

  14. In Epistre familiere 3, Suzanna is again referred to as an example of female beauty and chastity, and cited to show the slander and persecution that women possessing these qualities can encounter. Hélisenne writes to a cousin, who was also suffering from this kind of misogynist treatment: “pour certain tu n'es seulle, ayant esté persecutée, de cette pululante detraction. Ne sces tu que la chaste Suzanne de faulx delateurs fut accusée? Mais estant la splendeur de sa sincerité bien grande, par faulx rapport, ne se peult long temps occulter. Parquoy son innocence fut purgée & démonstrée. Si cela en ta memoire assiste, facilement ta douleur mitigueras” (B ii: “Surely you are not the only one to have been persecuted by the spread of slander. Don't you know that the chaste Suzanna also had her false detractors? But since the splendor of her sincerity was so bright it could not long be concealed by a false report. Her innocence was therefore cleansed and brought to light. Remember this, and it will ease your sorrow”). Having been accused of licentiousness and adultery by two old judges who were not able to compromise her virtue, Suzanna was condemned to death but saved, in extremis, by young Daniel (Daniel 13). Clearly, a major motive behind Crenne's writing is therapeutic. Her use of examples, as in the case of Suzanna, is to console and to encourage her readers, to help them overcome their pain and sorrow (“ta douleur mitigueras”). For a discussion of Crenne's epistulae consolatoriae, see Nash, 1993.

  15. Crenne's “triumphal praise” of the exemplary “chastity” of this biblical heroine is also a continuation of the praise paid to Judith by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in his De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (Antwerp, 1529). The liminary poem of this highly profeminist work announces perfectly the feminist project of Crenne in her Epistres: a project dedicated first to “cesse[r] d'appliquer au sexe féminin / Des blâmes perfides” (the refutation of misogynist slander and abuse) and then to “lou[er], de préférence aux hommes, le sexe féminin” (the subsequent principle of praise of woman). Among other “good” women, Judith occupies a very important position in Agrippa's profeminist treatise and encomium. For a good discussion of Agrippa's view of women and of Renaissance feminism, see Antonioli's “Préface” in his critical edition of De nobilitate, 29-38; 91 for the above quotation.

  16. The annotation of this line by May and Metzger reads: “Him, them: man was not created to be alone but is male and female. Man, the Hebrew word is ‘adam,’ a collective, referring to mankind” (2, their italics). The account of creation in chapter 1 of Genesis belongs to the Priestly tradition, whereas that in chapter 2 belongs to the Yahwist tradition. The dialectic in Genesis 1 is that Man-Adam-Mankind is made one and many, singular and plural, male and female. Thus, “neither male nor female alone is in the likeness of God, but both together. … There are no two origins of mankind; the creation of woman is not delayed, as in the Yahwist account.” On this subject of creation in Genesis 1 which endows early Christianity with “authentic feminism,” see Tavard, especially chapter 1: “The Two Traditions,” 3-26, and 10 for the above quotation. Genesis 1 is crucial for an understanding of biblical feminism, and also the primary source for the biblical liberation of woman. As Tavard further notes: “The first creation story of Genesis refers to informatio, the formation of man and woman as human beings related to God and equal to each other in this relationship; the second [creation in Genesis 2], to conformatio, the formation of man and woman as beings related to each other for the purpose of procreation and unequal at that level, the one being active and dominating, the other passive and subordinate” (114). One of the primary aims of Crenne's Epistres is to discredit the misogynist interpretation and use of creation as conformatio. She will even turn to the Creator himself for help in ridding man of his false “damnables opinions” on women's sexual and moral inferiority. Hélisenne tells her husband: “Mais pour timeur [crainte] que remonstrances ne fussent suffisantes, pour extirper tes damnables opinions, m'en deporteray: & donnant repos à la fatiguée plume, le Dieu eternel exoreray [supplieray], que par grace especiale, de telle obstination [his previously expressed “jugement, que le sexe femenin, plus que le masculin estoit lubricque” (“opinion that the female sex was more lascivious than the male”)] te libere [delivre]” (“Epistre invective 3,” K iiiv-K iiii: “But I shall refrain from doing so [i.e., from continuing to write for the moment] as I fear that merely remonstrating with you would not be enough to root out your wretched opinions. I shall therefore give my tired pen a rest and pray God that He may liberate you from your obstinate opinions”).

  17. The proponents of the “male-first” perspective from Matheolus to Du Pont and including Hélisenne's epistolary husband always subscribe to the “Adam-then-Eve” story of creation in Genesis 2 and to Paul's “authoritative” pronouncements on it, his instruction that woman thus be subject to man: “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man)” (1 Corinthians 11:7-9). On the other hand, Augustine's understanding of creation, Paradise, and of woman's place in it is more positive toward women. He does not believe, nor does Crenne, in two creations of unequal value (in conformatio associated with Genesis 2). Augustine subscribes to informatio, to the “simultaneous” and thus equal creation of man and woman found in Genesis 1. This at least is what he proposes in De Genesi ad litteram, VI, 5, 8, his discussion of the “original creation”: “It cannot be said that the male was made on the sixth day and the female in the course of days following. On the sixth day it is explicitly said, Male and Female He made them, and He blessed them, and so forth, and these words are said about both and to both” (1:183). See also Tavard, 113-18 for a discussion of Augustine on Genesis 1-2: “In Paradise, as depicted by the bishop of Hippo, man and woman were to cooperate (primarily for the purpose of procreation), but without any inferiority of the female, or any submission of woman to man. They were called to oneness (conjunctio), not to domination and obedience,” that is, to “a service of love (dilectio), not of slavery” (117).

  18. Quoted in Miles, 53.

  19. See MacDonald. This study also subscribes, in its thesis on sexual equality, to creation in Genesis 1. See also Albistur and Armogathe, who quote Abbé Du Bosc (La femme héroïque, 1645) on the notion of sexual equality in Genesis 1 as the first principle of Christian and biblical feminism: “Le premier souci du féminisme chrétien est de restaurer l'idée d'égalité entre les deux sexes. La femme, dit le P. Du Bosc, ‘ne doit pas être ni esclave ni maîtresse, mais compagne’, ou encore: ‘Les deux sexes sont également honorés de Dieu dans la création, faits d'une même main, sujets aux mêmes lois, et pour une même fin’” (132).

  20. Miles, 56. See also, on this process of “making the female male,” Meeks, 194ff., and especially Tavard on women called to male virtues and situations in spite of the conditions imposed on them by society and culture: “The more a woman has progressed in Christian holiness—that is, the freer she has become from the curse and its consequences in society—the freer she is to follow paths that society does not usually recognize as legitimate feminine pursuits. … The more a woman becomes God-like, the freer she is to take positions of leadership, because on the one hand she can imitate equally well the Son and the Spirit in keeping with her charism of the moment [thanks to her creation in Genesis 1] and, on the other, she has risen above the demands and prejudices of society” (200).

  21. DeJean, 6. This feminist textuality can also be an “autogynography,” that is, the “heterogeneous mixture of discours and histoire, to use Benveniste's terms, the personal and the historico-cultural” which is found especially in works like Crenne's Epistres containing an autobiographical dimension. This “mixture” functions to undo the male-constructed “binary opposition … that associated the female with personal and intimate concerns, the male with professional achievements.” See Stanton, “Autogynography: Is the Subject Different?,” in her edited volume on this subject; 8 and 11 for the above quotations.

  22. Burckhardt, 2:391-92.

  23. “Humanist thought throve on example. … Example is historical and thus suited those who wanted to recover the wisdom of antiquity [and, we need to add, the wisdom of Christianity]. Example could be conceived as a tool of practical social change, as a guide to action, in keeping with the strong moral purpose of many early humanists” (Lyons, 12). Hampton similarly writes: “The fact that exemplars both embody ethical ideals and demonstrate practical action suggests the implicitly political and ideological aspects of the processes of appropriation and application of past to present” (16). Crenne understands and uses example/exemplars with precisely these notions in mind.

  24. Very close to Crenne in biblical, feminist spirit and purpose is Georgette de Montenay (Emblesmes ou devises chrestiennes, 1571), who also “conveyed a refusal of the largely negative and restrictive images of women touted by the [misogynist] authorities of her time, proposing in its stead her own vision of a superior feminine identity and more equal gender relations” (Matthews Grieco, 868). The only difference between Crenne and Montenay is the latter's emphasis of “a superior feminine identity.” Crenne does not really opt for “superiority” feminism. She does not develop the “model of educated and spiritually superior womankind” (795). She is more interested in “equality” feminism, and committed to proposing egalitarian models between the two sexes. Woman's superiority was, however, widely argued for in the Renaissance and afterwards (cf., in addition to Montenay, Charles Estienne, Que l'excellence de la femme est plus grande que celle des hommes, 1553; Marie de Romieu, Bref discours que l'excellence de la femme surpasse celle de l'homme, 1581; Jacquette Guillaume, Les Dames illustres où par fortes et bonnes raisons, il se prouve que le sexe féminin surpasse en toutes sortes de genres le sexe masculin, 1665; among others). But on the subject of gender preference, Crenne was more in tune with profeminist writers like Marie de Gournay, who would also argue for woman's equal status: “La plupart de ceux qui prennent la cause des femmes, contre cette orgueilleuse préférence que les hommes s'attribuent, leur rendent le change entier: renvoyant la préférence vers elles. Moi qui fuis toutes extremités, je me contente de les égaler aux hommes: la nature s'opposant pour ce regard autant à la supériorité qu'à l'infériorité” (61). Crenne is the link connecting Pizan with later writers like Gournay and Louise Labé, who too would plead, if not for female superiority, at least for equality: “[le] bon vouloir que je porte à notre sexe, de le voir non en beauté seulement, mais en science et vertu passer ou egaler les hommes: je ne puis faire autre chose que prier les vertueuses Dames d'eslever un peu leurs esprits pardessus leurs quenoilles et fuseaus, et s'employer à faire entendre au monde que si nous ne sommes faites pour commander, si ne devons nous estre desdaignees pour compagnes tant es afaires domestiques que publiques, de ceus qui gouvernent et se font obeïr” (41-42). For Crenne's position on “spinning,” the oppressive symbol referred to by Labé and used by most if not all misogynists to keep woman in her place, see “Epistre invective 4”: “Et parlant en general tu dis que femmes sont de rudes & obnubilez esperitz: parquoy tu concludz, que autre occupation ne doibvent avoir que le filler: Ce m'est une chose admirable de ta promptitude, en ceste determination. J'ay certaine evidence par cela (que si en ta faculté estoit) tu prohiberois le benefice literaire au sexe femenin: L'improperant de n'estre capable des bonnes lettres” (K vv: “And speaking in general terms, you say that women are rough and benighted people; and you conclude that their one and only pastime should be to spin. I admire the haste with which you come to this conclusion. I have good reason to believe that if things were left up to you, you would deny women the privilege of pursuing literature, as they are incapable [so you say] of writing well”).

  25. See Quintilian, I, iii, 12. Having relied on Virgil (Georgics, II, 272, 13: “‘Adeo in teneris consuescere multum est’,”), Quintilian draws this conclusion, which Crenne adopts: “Frangas enim citius quam corrigas, quae in pravum induruerunt” (58).

  26. Of the “two general categories” proposed by Jordan as comprising the Renaissance literature in defense of women, the second one is where Crenne's Epistres, her “propos plus facheulx,” clearly belong: “the second—overtly feminist—is devoted to securing for women a status equal to that of men” (11).

  27. For more discussion of Crenne's “fureur de [l]a plume,” see the essay by Nash, 1997. Crenne's biblical humanism-feminism, which is conveyed through what she calls her “canticques perpetuelz,” is related there both to the tradition of the Christian letter (Paul's in particular) and to Thomas Sébillet's Art poétique français and his discussion of the cantique's double rhetoric of praise/invective, the rhetoric of “prière ou détestation” or of “louanges et invectives” as he calls it.

Megan Conway (essay date 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Conway, Megan. “Classicism and Christianity in Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours.Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 18 (1997): 111-31.

[In the following essay, Conway examines de Crenne's combining of the traditions of classical mythology and Christian doctrine in Les Angoysses douloureuses.]

Although Renaissance philosophers and theologians like Marsilio Ficino strove mightily to show Plato and Plotinus compatible with Saint Paul, writers of popular prose and poetry suffered no such qualms. While it appears curious and often shocking to modern readers to find references to the apostles and Apollo in successive paragraphs, many Renaissance writers followed Dante's example in The Divine Comedy and saw nothing incongruous in embracing classical mythology while espousing Christian doctrine. A fascinating example of this combination of traditions is the popular French work of a female author of the early Renaissance—Hélisenne de Crenne's Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours1 (The Sorrowful Anguish That Proceeds from Love), published in Paris in 1538. In it, Hélisenne uses pagan imagery to accentuate the sensual passions of her lovers and Christian references to advocate chaste love and moral rectitude. Furthermore, I would argue that the continual twining of the two traditions provides a tension and cohesion that serve to unify the disparate elements of the work.

Hélisenne de Crenne is the pseudonym of one Marguerite de Briet, a wealthy, upper-middle-class native of Picardy who spent extensive periods of time residing in the French capital. That she was well educated and extremely well read is aggressively demonstrated in her works. Les Angoysses is a virtual tour de force of well-known and nearly obscure classical and Christian allusions, the sheer number of which is almost overwhelming to the modern reader. Her contemporary audience, however, must have found her style much to its taste. Les Angoysses, her first novel, met with such immediate success among the literate that the publisher, Denys Janot, printed a foreword the following year in the first edition of Hélisenne's next work, Les Epistres familieres et invectives (The Familiar and Invective Letters), requesting exclusive publication rights. In addition, his request to the Provost of Paris asks that editions from any other printing house be confiscated and the house fined if it should issue her work within two years of the request for privilege. Janot's belief in his new author was certainly justified over time. By itself and printed as part of Marguerite's collected works, the novel went through nine editions between 1538 and 1560 from several different publishing houses in Paris and Lyon.

Les Angoysses has the distinction of being the first sentimental novel in France and the first French novel written by a woman. The entire work is composed of three parts followed by an “Ample narration,” all written in first-person narrative. Book one is sometimes considered France's first modern novel (Fritz Newbert qtd. in Cottrell, 5). In this part, the voice is that of a young noblewoman possessed of an incredibly beautiful body and a not-quite-so-perfect face (I,i,3) who shares the name Hélisenne with the author.2 Parts two and three differ radically in content and approach from the first section of the work and remind the reader strongly of the Spanish romances of chivalry that enjoyed tremendous popularity in France during the first half of the sixteenth century. These two sections are told by the questionable hero of the tale, one Guénélic, and lack the introspective musing that characterizes Part one.3

In short—which the novel is not (it contains some four or five hundred unnumbered pages)—this is the story of a young lady of high social standing who has been married for several quite contented years to a much older man when she suddenly, inexorably falls for a handsome young man named Guénélic, whom she happens to see one day in the window of a house across the street. This love is neither Petrarchan nor Neoplatonic, for the lover belongs to a lower social class (I,iii,7) and is distinctly lacking in manners and virtue. It is also obstinately non-Christian since it is in direct opposition to the heroine's marriage vows. Although Marguerite's style of writing is often “modern,” the strong sense of fatality surrounding Hélisenne's love links it to the medieval tradition of courtly love. Hélisenne refuses to give up her love despite desperate anxiety and serious illness. Nor does she yield to the passionate pleas, threats, or, finally, the physical violence of a long-suffering husband. In the end, this love is indeed fatal and causes the deaths of both Hélisenne and her lover Guénélic.

The plot itself then is neither Christian nor pagan, but the author introduces the juxtaposition of the two currents even before the novel begins. Part one is prefaced by a dizaine, then a dedicatory letter, both of which are addressed to female readers. The first line of the poem—and indeed of the whole work—reads “Dames d'honneur et belles nymphs” (Ladies of honor and beautiful nymphs), a melding of virtue and mythology. The poem continues with a warning against the power of the “blind archer” and mythology dominates. In the letter that follows, any classical allusions are conspicuously absent. It is addressed to “honest women” and reads as a frank appeal for Christian charity and pity on the part of the readers. The last line of this dedicatory epistle, which exhorts honest women to profit from the author's sad example and avoid vain and impudique love, is a plea to Mary for aid in remembering and writing down this story. The very next line, that is the first line of chapter one, refers to the goddess Cybele. The mother of God and the mother of the gods thus occur in two successive sentences. From the very beginning, Marguerite establishes these two currents in Les Angoysses and clearly indicates that within the work they are coexistent and not conflicting. Equally important but not immediately obvious is the fact that although Marguerite deliberately uses a Christian framework to package the book and much of its action, Hélisenne herself is not particularly religious.

Among the three principal characters of Book one, the figure of the husband is used to represent what is morally upright, socially acceptable, and, by extension, Christian virtue. Despite the fact that critics such as Paule Demats and Tom Conley refer to him respectively as being “tyrannique et brutale” (preface, x) and guilty of “torture” (323, 327), Marguerite paints the husband as a surprisingly sympathetic character. By contrast, in Book one, Guénélic has no redeeming qualities other than his good looks (which the fair-minded husband even remarks upon) and his slick style. Since he represents the temptations of “impudique amour,” he of course is aligned with non-Christian elements in the text, and it is not surprising that the author uses mythological allusion when referring to Hélisenne's passion for him and in his speech—both written and oral. Hélisenne, who suffers the anguish of being torn between these two impulses, uses both sets of images to portray her suffering and to emphasize the depths of her passion as she turns further and further from the Christian path and learns to lie, connive, deceive, and even attempt suicide to assuage her desires.

In the beginning of Part one, Hélisenne makes the previously chaste and virtuous—Christian—nature of her married life quite clear. Her husband is both kind and generous, and she loves him very much despite the fact that she did not know him at all before they were married, at which time she was only eleven. When Hélisenne first sees Guénélic—an incident for which Fortuna is responsible, not God—she and her unnamed husband have been happily married for seven years. Hélisenne tells us that up to this point, he was her only happiness and that when he had to go away on business, she missed him so much that her health suffered.

Even after Hélisenne falls in love with Guénélic, her husband tries repeatedly and with great patience to coax her out of her infatuation. He says that he will give her anything within his power and that he loves her enough to die for her (I,iii,2). Although her husband is tender, he is neither weak nor contemptible; he bluntly tells Hélisenne that should she think about “kissing”4 Guénélic, within three days he—the husband—will make her friend “kiss death” (I,v,5). If the husband is jealous, he is not unreasonably so. For example, one night when Guénélic has their lodgings serenaded, the husband wakes to remark, “I truly think it is your friend” (I,v,1) and then rolls over and goes back to sleep. He puts up with repeated serenades without resorting to anger. He even copes with his young wife's declaration of love for her lover, which she does, ranting like a fishwife, tearing her hair and face, taunting him to run her through with his sword or to strangle her, and finally knocking herself out with her own fist. It is only when Guénélic's behavior begins to threaten Hélisenne's reputation and honor that the husband loses control. At this point, Hélisenne goes to great lengths to show the reader how her behavior in response to those situations is deliberately provocative. The contrast between lover and husband is marked: the husband is caring, concerned, and virtuous; the lover, none of these. Obviously, Hélisenne (and Marguerite) believes it important to establish that her spouse is not some nasty, cruel, pox-ridden old man who drives her to look for consolation elsewhere. On the contrary, she makes it clear that her previously chaste, virtuous, contented, Christian love has been fatally supplanted by one that is unchaste, malign, unquiet, and pagan, against which she stubbornly declares herself completely powerless. Her laments to Fortuna are numerous and, at least in Book one, underscore the separation of her love for Guénélic and her resulting duplicituous behavior from the Christian code.

Despite the impure nature of her new passion, it is curious that the majority of Hélisenne's encounters with her lover take place in church. Marguerite's use of the word temple instead of the traditional église reflects a distinction made in Italian as well as French and seems to indicate an affiliation with the reformed church rather than a traditional Catholic institution, although she makes no further comment whatsoever on the subject. The heroine and her husband attend divine offices with pious regularity. The religious aspect of the service, however, is never mentioned. They attend in order to show off Hélisenne's beauty and sumptuous clothes, to meet important people, and, once Hélisenne's husband realizes her new passion, to test Guénélic's behavior and her reactions to him.

In one striking passage, the couple attends a morning service where both are relieved at the young man's circumspect behavior. After the service, they return home and spend several hours “passing the time in recreation and voluptuous pleasures” (I,vi,6)—an odd reminder to the reader that they are the lawfully married couple and that Hélisenne's illicit passion has not completely interfered with their sex life.5 Then they go back to church for vespers at which time Guénélic is incredibly rude. He makes a public spectacle by pointing at Hélisenne and passionately staring in such a way that he draws all eyes. As he leaves the church, he approaches her so closely that he steps on her underdress thereby publicly insinuating an intimacy that does not exist. (At this point in their relationship, they have not even spoken to each other.) Hélisenne remarks to the reader that despite the fact she loves her clothes very much (and we already know that this is one of her finest outfits) this act of intrusion does not displease her but gives her a desire to grab the place where his foot had touched. Not unnaturally, the husband is furious that Hélisenne has been made the object of gossip and he forbids her to be anywhere Guénélic is even if it be the service of Holy Communion (I,vi,6-7). At this point, the husband gives his second ultimatum, and in it his suffering is apparent. He states that he has decided to separate from her if she cannot manage to stay away from Guénélic. Furthermore, although she has more “worldly goods, lands and holding” than he has, he will not retain anything, for he does not want to profit from the goods of a “lascivious woman” (I,vi,7).

For several days, Hélisenne follows her husband's commands, not because she wishes to please him but in the belief that by obeying him to the letter he will be fooled into allowing her more freedom. Where she was honest while enjoying virtuous love, this new, illicit passion has taught her how to lie and be devious. She is correct in her assumption about her husband and as soon as he relents, Hélisenne, accompanied by one attendant, goes back to church on a daily basis, not out of devotion or repentance but in the hope of seeing her lover. Guénélic finally does show up looking for her. He is never associated with any kind of virtue in Book one, and not even Hélisenne assumes he is there seeking religious inspiration. Between the two of them, church has become a cover for further deceit. After a few days of exchanging passionate looks in the main sanctuary, Guénélic makes his move and goes into the chapel. Trembling with excitement at this untoward act, Hélisenne follows. Both sit through the entire service—stressing their obliviousness or imperviousness to the religious aspect of their surroundings—and only then does Guénélic come over to her, bow, leer slyly, and finally speak. He begs her to be willing to accept a letter. She makes no audible reply, merely an affectionate glance, and at church the next day Guénélic presents her with a letter and asks her to write back. Any hope on the part of the reader for the evidence of a true love that could excuse the sinful nature of Hélisenne's passion is quickly dashed. Guénélic makes it clear that the reason he has written to her is that he is “marveously afraid” (I,viii,2) of her husband and does not want to be caught talking to her. Only at this point does Hélisenne speak, and it is her single verbal response to the lover for the next seven chapters. She tells him not to worry about her husband because he has no suspicions about her. Both Hélisenne and the reader know that this is far from the truth. We must draw the same conclusion as Hélisenne: that Guénélic is so lacking in character that the least danger or impediment would scare him off completely. We should never forget that, in Book one, Hélisenne loves him because of fate, not because he is worthy of love.

Guénélic's short speech in the church and his letter require our attention. Human nature has changed little, and Hélisenne's picture of the young man, drawn with his own words, is startlingly clear. In a few sentences, the reader sees that Guénélic is a smooth-talking coward. Our eighteen-year-old heroine, however, hears only the honeyed words and the thumping of her heart burning with “Venerial fire” (I,viii,3). The letter itself—the complete text is included—is glib and calculated to turn the head of an innocent girl suffering from a bad adolescent crush, which is exactly how Hélisenne is acting despite seven years of marriage. The language is hyperbolic and clever. For example, he states that since the most valuable thing he has is his person, this is the gift he wishes to bestow upon her (I,ix,3). Unlike the husband, whose reported language is usually moderate, sincere, and relatively quotidian, Guénélic, like Hélisenne, uses classical imagery to dress up his sentiments. In the letter we are allowed to share, he spices up the contents with references to the “son of Venus,” Jupiter and Phaeton, Mercury, and an ancient religious custom among the Persians. The husband, as a representative of what is lawful, virtuous, and Christian, is never allowed access to mythology and classical allusions. Guénélic, on the other hand, uses them as part of his seductive strategy. Hélisenne employs both traditions to successfully portray her turmoil but relies heavily on mythological examples to illustrate the depth of her passion and the inescapability of Fortuna.

When the husband discovers and reads the love letters—both Guénélic's and the copies Hélisenne has made of her own—the incontrovertible evidence so infuriates him that “against [his] custom” and the moderation he has exhibited until now, he slaps his wife (I,xi,3). He then tells his wife that her lover has been flaunting her letters around town in an effort to destroy her reputation. Even this does not dampen her passion. In an effort to avoid the resulting scandal, the husband does not allow Hélisenne to leave the house or stand at the windows for three weeks. When Guénélic serenades the house, the couple once again moves to new lodgings. The husband finally relents and allows Hélisenne to go to church on the condition that she behave circumspectly. Since church has been the lovers' meeting ground, both the reader and Hélisenne expect to find the lover there and are not disappointed. Hélisenne's resulting joy is such that, despite fervent promises to the contrary, she cannot prevent herself from “looking very affectionately” upon him in a most blatant manner. Her passion incenses her husband to violence; this time he knocks her down, breaking two of her teeth.

Hélisenne realizes that she will no longer be allowed any opportunity to see her friend, for she has gone too far, and again she resorts to examples from mythology to illustrate her rage and despair and to convince herself of the advantages of suicide. She is thwarted in her attempt by the maid's cries, which bring her husband running. Still using his character to represent a Christian side of the conflict, Marguerite again chooses to portray a certain magnanimity on his part. She underscores the anguish he is suffering because of the “excessive love” he feels for his wife. Hélisenne's torment converts his “ire” to “compassion,” and he tries to reason with her, reminding her that suicide is a sin. His own distress is increased by the fact that, according to his own code of honor, he cannot seek revenge for his wrongs on the person of his wife's lover because Guénélic's social class is inferior. So, once again, he tells Hélisenne that she must “live … honestly” or they must separate, for he cannot bear her behavior. In desperation, he follows the counsel of a faithful servant and takes Hélisenne to a “devout monastery” to meet with a “scientific person” of considerable renown or, as Hélisenne calls him, an “authentic monk” (I,xii[sic], 2-3).6

Their interview is not felicitous. Hélisenne makes it clear to the reader that she is there under duress, “without the least devotion, … contrition nor repentance” (I,xii,3-4) and with no desire to confess her love. Then she is struck by the fact that all she might say is under the seal of the confessional and that this is her one opportunity to speak openly and without restraint about her passion and her lover. Yet this is not really what she does. In a verbal tour de force, she states her passion, gives examples of sinful passion in great figures from the Bible and philosophy, brilliantly argues that a just God would not condemn her to hell for her sins since she is currently suffering so much, and rationalizes her suicide attempt saying that separation from her lover will alienate the soul from her body, which will cause it to die anyway.7 The monk definitely comes off the worse in the exchange. He offers pious counsel yet, in a careful counterpoint, all his examples of model women—Penelope, Oenone, Lucrece—are drawn from mythology and Roman history rather than the Bible as one would expect from a holy man and are quite unconvincing. Judging from Hélisenne's reaction (she wishes him between Scylla and Charybdis) his platitudes must have seemed as hackneyed to her as they do to the modern reader. To hasten their departure from the place, Hélisenne decides to lie to her husband, saying she is cured. This deception is short lived, however, for she immediately goes into a decline for which her husband urges her to try “several sorts of medicines” (I,xv,9-10). After the failure of the priest, that is, the failure of religion and Christian precepts, Hélisenne no longer meets the lover at church. The scene of their brief encounters shifts to the law courts, where Hélisenne's husband has a case pending.

Guénélic's behavior becomes more and more importunate until he threatens to announce publicly that they are having an affair if she does not give in to him. Although Hélisenne torments her husband by telling him of her love for Guénélic, she has never breathed a word of her feelings to her lover for she is afraid that such an admission would kill his interest. Her lack of confidence in his character is justified, and he finally causes enough scandal that Hélisenne's husband decides to carry her off to the country and sequester her within one of their castles. To relieve her sorrow, Hélisenne decides to write the story of her unfortunate love in order that it might serve as a warning to other women. Book one ends with a prayer to God to grant the readers various virtues belonging to a long list of illustrious Greek and Roman women, thus closing with the same mixture that marked the work's opening.

With books two and three, the shift in narrative voice, narrative style, perspective, plot, characters, and point of view is so abrupt that it brings about a sense of dislocation on the part of the reader. The intimate style of a lady's personal journal is swept away after the opening letter, and the reader is suddenly left in the unfamiliar territory of chivalric romance. The narrative voice now belongs to Guénélic, whom we are expected to accept as the ready-to-be rehabilitated hero of the piece. To this end, the husband is essentially eliminated as a character and his role as Christian spokesperson is assumed by a new player, a noble and courageous young man named Quezinstra, who appears as Guénélic's friend, mentor, and traveling companion during the latter's quest to become a better man and to find the imprisoned Hélisenne. Hélisenne herself virtually disappears from the action until the very end of Book three. Her role of tormented lover torn between the dictates of virtue and the pains of desire is given to Guénélic. Although he repeatedly speaks of his sadness and suffering, his character is perforce very different from that of Hélisenne, and the fascinating self-analysis that characterizes Book one is missing in these books, much to the disappointment of many readers and critics.

Like Part one, Part two opens with a letter addressed to “noble and virtuous ladies.” Nearly four times as long as the first prefatory letter, this epistle endeavors to explain the changes the reader will encounter in the next two books. Hélisenne writes that, having rendered an account of the sufferings of amorous ladies, she will now show how indiscreet love causes young men to suffer. What is problematic for most readers is the sudden transmutation of Guénélic as rude and low-class rascal into Guénélic as hero. Critics have offered a variety of explanations and condemnations. Gustave Reynier, who rescued the novel from centuries of obscurity by discussing it in his groundbreaking Le Roman sentimental avant l'Astrée8 of 1908, is dismissive of parts two and three, saying that Part one is “the only which interests us” (111) and that the story could have stopped there. He also notes a lack of coherence between the parts (122), an opinion that Henri Coulet echoes sixty years later. Various dissertations make the argument that, for slightly differing philosophical reasons, Marguerite broadens the action because with Hélisenne locked away in her chateau there was no other option if the novel were to continue. Martine Debaisieux and Tom Conley offer more interesting and debatable theses. Debaisieux cites Marguerite's frequent use of dédoublement and argues that Guénélic is the object—and the creation—of Hélisenne's desire. Therefore, in Part two when Hélisenne cedes the narrative voice to Guénélic, Debaisieux interprets the change as corresponding to this Narcissistic reflection between the characters as well as the fulfillment of the isolated and imprisoned Hélisenne's desire to hear the story, an “echo of the same desire” (38), recounted by her lover. Conley takes this view even further. He too sees Guénélic as Hélisenne's creation, “a male puppet.” Alone in her tower, Hélisenne can “fabricate a lover finally worthy of her condition, a man who will prove himself to her through combat and knightly condition” (328).

These arguments do allow for a cohesive reading of the text and are rather convincing, particularly when considered in respect to Marguerite's subtitle to parts two and three which reads “composed by Lady Hélisenne speaking in the person of her friend Guénélic.” Unfortunately, they cannot account for Guénélic's strikingly untraditional characterization in the last two books: he is cowardly, moody, surly, and a constant whiner. Although Demats briefly mentions the lover's unknightly demeanor in the preface to her edition of 1968 (xxxi), the subject is all but ignored until M. J. Baker gives this problematic point her considered attention and addresses the issue of Guénélic's lack of heroism.9 Even the briefest study of Guénélic's behavior in these books will cause the reader to question Conley's notion of worthiness. Certainly, Hélisenne/Marguerite is attempting to rehabilitate the lover; she tells us in the prefatory letter to Book two that she overstated the difference in their social class (if it were too low, he would not be eligible for knighthood) and that much of Guénélic's despicable behavior was a matter of hearsay rather than fact. Even so, no one can claim that Guénélic ever becomes the perfect knight.

Curiously enough, his traveling companion, Quezinstra, is the perfect knight. A true hero in the traditional sense, Quezinstra is noble, courageous, strong, and upright. It is he who is always ready with a rational argument or a courteous answer to their hosts when Guénélic falls prey to the sulks, melancholia, or cowardice. Obviously, if Hélisenne/Marguerite were interested only in creating a worthy lover, Guénélic would have been drawn according to a similar pattern. Instead, Quezinstra's heroism and virtue serve as a foil to highlight Guénélic's flaws. Baker's explanation of this dichotomy also supplies a unifying theme for the whole work. She proposes that the key to Guénélic's cowardice is his failure to dominate his appetite for sensual love and that this condemnation of sensual love is “an important thematic link between book one” and the rest of the work (41-42). I suggest that her argument be carried a step further and that the reader consider the pervasive condemnation of sensual love as a part of the ever-present ebb and flow between pagan and Christian motifs.

Guénélic's persistent bewailing about his suffering allows Marguerite full rein to show off her not insignificant knowledge of mythological lore. Quezinstra, on the other hand, as the mouthpiece for reason and traditional Christian views, has ample opportunity to remonstrate. While Guénélic's love is undeniably in the spotlight, Marguerite is careful to include enough reminders so the reader does not forget that, at least ostensibly, the aim of this novel is didactic.

Part two's mixture of Christianity and mythology is played out predominantly according to character while the two men are traveling to many countries where they take part in numerous tournaments and battles. Guénélic uses mythological examples to illustrate his anguish and bemoans his fate in long apostrophes to dozens of gods and goddesses.10 Quezinstra's role is not preachy; he attempts to help Guénélic be a better man, but his main function in this book is keeping his friend from succumbing to despair and a resulting death. He cajoles and chides Guénélic, reminding him that his “sensual appetite is an incurable infirmity from which is born oblivion of God and one's self, loss of time and diminution of honor” (II,ii,7). It is not at all surprising that while Quezinstra talks to and about God, Guénélic addresses the gods and, like Hélisenne in Book one, blames Fortuna for his ills. Quezinstra remarks on this propensity, drawing Guénélic's attention—and the reader's—to this folly early in the book: “The fault that should be attributed to them [lascivious lovers], they accredit it to fortune or to love, which by ignorance they esteem a God” (II,ii,8). Later, after winning a tournament, Quezinstra humbly gives thanks to God and remarks to Guénélic that he need “no longer fear Fortune” (II,x,8). Despite his efforts, Fortune and God remain on relatively equal footing due to Guénélic's persistence.

Unlike the husband of Book one, who never makes use of classical imagery, Quezinstra occasionally employs examples of virtue from Roman history and mythology or refers to Aristotle, Homer, and Vergil in order to make a point. It is quite clear, however, that he avoids mentioning any pagan gods in marked contrast to Guénélic, who rambles on and on in an often frenzied manner leading to frequent swoons and tears. Although unwilling to give up his debilitating passion and emotional storms (II,viii,9), Guénélic openly and repeatedly recognizes his friend's virtues, citing his “discretion and modesty” (II,iv,5), his “discreet and benign reason” (II,xii,6), and his prowess at arms in every combat. Like Hélisenne,11 Guénélic clings to his anguish and, on occasion, gets “outrageously irritated” by his friend's efforts at consolation (II,xii,8). At various points during the pair's journey, several princes and nobles try to convince Guénélic to give up his love and his search. They meet with no more success than Quezinstra, but they do help to prove that Guénélic's love is as obstinate and fatal as his lady's. If he is short on other virtues, he must be granted that of constancy.

Although critics rarely give more than a passing mention of Part three, its function in a perception of the work's unity is critical. While pagan imagery just held in check by a counterpoint of Christian doctrine dominates parts one and two, Part three exhibits a significant strengthening of Christianity that will culminate in the redemptive deaths of the lovers. After pages and pages of classical references used to illustrate nearly any idea or action mentioned in Part two, the reader is astonished to find the author actually citing the Bible12 without a single classical allusion in the preface of Part three. Part two's seemingly endless cycle of journey, battle, Guénélic's complaints, Quezinstra's response (in varying order) is broken.

Like Hélisenne, Guénélic begins to suffer a physical decline as a result of emotional torment. He becomes quite ill (III,i), and when he begins to recover, he and Quezinstra retreat to an island where Guénélic can recuperate. There they seek out a “religious person,” a sort of prophet known for his counsel, who endeavors to reason Guénélic out of his unseemly passion. The saintly hermit's long discourse is well meant and well reasoned. Laden with biblical references (III,ii,2-5)—Jesus Christ, Saint Augustine, Saint Paul, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Sodom and Gomorra, David, Saul, Goliath, Daniel, Judith, Shadrach, Meshac and Abednego, Mary Magdalene, and the Good Samaritan—his speech is strikingly reminiscent of the long lists of pagan gods and goddesses enumerated so often in Part two. Unfortunately, Guénélic, as obdurate in his passion as Hélisenne, is not inclined to listen. In a wonderful piece of casuistry using both Christian and pagan examples, he talks of other, blacker sins (seven in fact: pride, boredom, anger, avarice, laziness, gluttony, luxury) that his love has taught him to avoid. Seeing that the young man is obstinate and that his sermon has fallen on deaf ears, the religious man uses a different tactic. He foretells Guénélic's doom by reading his horoscope.13 Evidently, even saintly hermits can mix a little paganism with their Christian beliefs when necessary.

Although not totally absent, classical imagery in Book three is significantly muted. Marguerite no longer uses example after example but simply a name here and there to grace the narrative. Undoubtedly, this is due to an acceleration of the action and the author's moving towards Hélisenne's last-minute repentance. In chapter four, Guénélic finally discovers Hélisenne's whereabouts. At Quezinstra's insistence Guénélic writes his beloved a letter (no mythological allusions) asking for a plan. Hélisenne answers with an idea (there is one mention of Diane as the moon used as a timing reference), and through bribery, cunning, and strength Guénélic and Quezinstra kidnap her. Unfortunately, she is so weakened by illness, passion, and frustration that she dies in his arms not much more than four miles from her chateau but not before delivering a long speech informing Guénélic and the reader of her sudden change of heart. For the first time since the opening of Book one, Hélisenne (as character not narrator) addresses God (III,viii,6), admitting that she has displeased him and asking for charity. In her final words, she urges an unrepentant Guénélic to change his ways: “If until now you have loved me with a sensual love, desiring the fulfillment of your juvenile desires, you must now desist in these vain thoughts” (III,viii,7-8). Distraught over her demise, Guénélic pays no heed to her request and, railing against life, he decides to die also. Even in his passion, however, Marguerite does not allow pagan references to intrude in these climactic moments—there is only the mention of one historical Greek prince. Obviously, it is the author's intention to let Christian values dominate through the voice of Quezinstra, who argues against Guénélic's sinful desire for death.

The argument, which goes on for pages and pages, demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the Bible and is crammed with biblical citations—from the Psalms, Philippians 1, 2 Corinthians 12, Acts 9, the Gospel of Matthew, the eighth sermon of Saint John, Romans 11, Isaiah 53—and several references to Saint Augustine's City of God, chapters one through five. The reader is quite convinced that the author has decided to end the novel on wholly Christian terms in an effort to contradict the decidedly immoral nature of the lovers' passion and in fulfillment of Hélisenne's last wish. In effect, Guénélic's last words are also humbly addressed to God and, if he does not exactly ask for forgiveness for his sins, at least he begs that he will not be punished for them. Thus, the disappearance of pagan allusions in Book three prefigures the renunciation of the lovers' illicit passions and their last moments bring them back to the Christian fold.

This is not the end of the work, however. Such a simplistic conclusion was evidently not to Marguerite's taste nor would it account within the frame for the transmission of the story to the reading audience. The “Ample narration” that follows Book three adds yet another twist to the narration and to Marguerite's use of pagan and Christian imagery. With the death of the lovers, it is up to Quezinstra to continue the story and he assumes the narrative voice. Since he can no longer serve as a foil for the wayward Guénélic and there are no more battles to be fought, the knightly paragon's role is subtly altered. Although no less virtuous, he is no longer our Christian spokesperson. In fact, in marked contrast to Book three, the “Ample narration” contains no biblical references at all and it is Jupiter who speaks against the dangers of love.

The only warning we are given of this abrupt change is a notice in the title of this section that it “will be declared with decoration of poetic style.” Even so, after the intensely Christian end of Book three, when a brilliant figure with golden wings appears to Quezinstra in a “lofty, supernatural and divine” vision on page one of the narration, it seems logical to conclude that this is an angel. Not so. This figure is Mercury, who has come to transport the souls of the lovers to the kingdom of King Minos! Suddenly the novel plunges into mythology just as completely as it did Christianity on the immediately preceding pages.

Quezinstra is blinded and stunned by Mercury's appearance, but as soon as he recovers his tongue he asks if he can accompany the god—a rather surprising request given Quezinstra's earlier role as mouthpiece of Christian virtue. Mercury agrees but first he anoints the bodies of the lovers with “ambrosia and nectar” to preserve them and, as he does so, he notices a little book wrapped up in silk by Hélisenne's side. When Quezinstra tells him what it is, the winged god is delighted and says that he will give it to Athena, who loves reading. Then with an incantation to Hecate, they take off.

At this point, the author tosses in all manner of mythological decoration: Charon who does not want to take Quezinstra across the Styx, the three-headed dog, the three Furies, Tantalus, Tityus, Ixion, and the forty-nine daughters of Danaus, among others. After the souls of our two lovers have been examined, Minos judges them worthy of the Elysian Fields14 and they are led off to drink of the river Lethe before entering the fields where they will wait to get their bodies back again. Quezinstra is then transported back to earth. In a paradoxical echo of the book's climax, Quezinstra (in Guénélic's former role) also decides to die, but now it is the non-Christian Mercury (in Quezinstra's former role) who has the task of persuading him to live and build a temple in memory of the lovers.

Leaving Quezinstra on earth, Mercury returns to a huge banquet attended by all the gods, a banquet where he presents Hélisenne's book to Athena. Venus sees that it is about love and chides Mercury that she should have it. When a quarrel threatens, Jupiter intervenes and, appropriating the Christian purpose of the work, decides that the best solution is to have the book printed in Paris that it might “show to the world the pains, travail and sorrowful anguish that can come from love” (AN,xii,5-6). Mercury comes back to Quezinstra, who is happy to undertake the completion and publishing of the book—both for Guénélic's sake and (returning to his Christian role) as a warning to readers so that they will not let “sensuality dominate reason.”

The statements of virtuous intention that open and close the novel often seem to be frankly contradicted by the hundreds of pages of text that lie between in which Christian and pagan images constantly vie with each other for dominance.15 Undeniably, Marguerite's use of these two currents provides a framework that unifies the different parts of the work despite significant changes in plot structure, narrative voice, and perspective. As for the sometimes seemingly paradoxical nature of the author's Christian and mythological trappings, we must remember that Renaissance readers were much more conditioned to this pairing than we are today. Her sixteenth-century readers obviously loved the combination—eight editions in just over thirty years attest to the book's popularity. For modern readers, these seeming contradictions can often be astonishing and even humbling considering the tremendous breadth of Marguerite's classical erudition. Despite the claimed intention of moral edification and the final victory of Christian principles, the reader would be well advised to keep a dictionary of mythology close at hand while perusing this remarkable work.


  1. This edition is a photographic reproduction of the Parisian edition of 1560. It contains Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, Les Epistres familieres et invectives, and Le Songe de Ma Dame Hélisenne. This is the only modern edition of the work that contains books two and three. Unfortunately, the pages in this edition are unnumbered. I will therefore refer to chapter numbers and count the pages from the first page of the chapter text in question. Since no English translation has ever been made of the entire work, the translations herein are my own.

    I will henceforth refer to Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours as simply Les Angoysses.

  2. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the heroine of Les Angoysses as Hélisenne and to the author as Marguerite.

  3. The undeniable allure of psychological musings narrated by a female voice is undoubtedly responsible for the fact that there are two modern critical editions of Book one of Les Angoysses and none of the male-voiced adventures of books two and three.

  4. The verb used is baiser and it carries the same connotation of sexual intercourse as it does today, but such a translation would lose the supple verbal play of the text.

  5. The exact words are first used to describe their relations the day before Hélisenne's first glimpse of Guénélic: “Ce jour se passa en toutes recreations et voluptueux plaisirs” (the day was spent in all sorts of recreation and voluptuous pleasure) (I,ii,2). This is the first occasion (that we know of) since the appearance of Guénélic that Hélisenne has not rejected her husband's advances. She mentions her evasion of his desires several times.

  6. In the Slatkine reprint edition, there are two “Chapter XII”s but no Chapter XIII. This reference and the following one refer to the second Chapter XII.

  7. Hélisenne's attitude towards suicide is significantly nontraditional. Rather than worry that it might put her soul in a state of mortal sin, she is strongly motivated to attempt it by the fact that, after death, her soul could frequently visit her lover and allow her to enjoy his company! (I,xii,4).

  8. Reynier is also responsible for identifying Marguerite de Briet as the author behind the pseudonym.

  9. Baker sees Guénélic's cowardice as the result of his sensual love for Hélisenne.

  10. For example, one aside near the beginning of Chapter II addresses Jupiter, Saturn, Titan, Venus, Mars, Apollo, Mercury, Juno, Pallas, Lachesis, Clothos, and Atropos (II,ii,5).

  11. See Jerry Nash's article for an analysis of Hélisenne's rage in the Epistres.

  12. Hélisenne specifically mentions the prophet Hosea and Chapter five of Saint Paul's letter to the Galatians.

  13. Nor is this a jumbled concoction of signs and planets but a coherent reading. I have this on the authority of Linda Carroll (Tulane University), an expert in astrology, who was kind enough to examine this passage.

  14. Far from being a common name, Hélisenne seems to have been created by Marguerite and thus it is worth noting that Elysian Fields in French (“champs Hélisiens”; AN,9) is quite similar to the masculine form of Hélisenne.

  15. While the book is touted by the author and her characters as a lesson to be heeded, the modern reader cannot help but wonder just what that lesson is. The declaration that the book will warn women to beware of impious love is considerably weakened by the fact that neither Helisenne nor Guénélic regret their passion or evince the least twinge of remorse until they are moments away from death. Moreover, they are welcomed to paradise because of it. How bad can that be?


Baker, M. J. “France's First Sentimental Novel and Novels of Chivalry.” BHR 36 (1974): 32-45.

Bergal, Irene. Hélisenne de Crenne: A XVIth-Century Novelist. Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1968.

Conley, Tom. “Feminism, Ecriture, and the Closed Room: The Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours.Symposium 27 (1973): 322-32.

Cottrell, Robert. “Female Subjectivity and Libidinal Infractions: Hélisenne de Crenne's Angoisses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours.French Forum 16 (1991): 5-19.

Coulet, Henri. Histoire du roman avant la Révolution. Paris: Colin, 1968.

de Crenne, Hélisenne. Œuvres. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1977.

Debaisieux, Martine. “‘Des Dames du temps jadis’: Fatalité culturelle et identité féminine dans Les angoysses douloureuses.Symposium (Spring 1987): 28-41.

Demats, Paule. Preface. Les angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (1538) Premiere Partie. Paris: Belles Lettres; Annales de l'Université de Nantes, 1968.

Nash, Jerry. “The Rhetoric of Scorn in Hélisenne de Crenne.” French Literature Studies 19 (1992): 1-9.

Reynier, Gustave. Le Roman sentimental avant l'Astrée. Paris: Colin, 1908.

Waldstein, Helen. Hélisenne de Crenne: A Woman of the Renaissance. Ph.D. diss., Wayne State, 1964.

Jerry C. Nash (essay date 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Nash, Jerry C. “Constructing Hélisenne de Crenne: Reception and Identity.” In “Por le soie amisté”: Essays in Honor of Norris J. Lacy, edited by Keith Busby and Catherine M. Jones, pp. 371-83. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Nash asserts that misreadings of de Crenne's Epistres by her contemporaries as well as modern scholars have generated misperceptions about her identity.]

It would be of no small interest to discover what early modern readers really thought of Hélisenne de Crenne's Epistres familieres et invectives, and, in particular, of this early modern author's concern for questions of female literary autonomy and identity, that is, of gender and power. That there was tremendous readerly interest in these Letters cannot be disputed, for this work enjoyed six printings in a span of only twenty years between the first edition of 1539 and the last one in the Renaissance in 1560. Obviously, one cannot go back in time and read the Epistres with the mentality of early modern readers. It is possible, however, to approach the fascinating subject of Crenne's reception and identity by examining, first of all, how her epistolary style was totally misunderstood and misread by her contemporaries as well as by later readers, including some today, and, secondly, how the content of her Letters has enjoyed the same kind of misreading. The first point on the misreading of style will reveal that many of Crenne's early readers, as well as some up to 1917, had no idea who the voice, who the actual author behind the literary pseudonym “Hélisenne de Crenne,” really was (that it/she was in fact Marguerite Briet, from Abbeville in Picardy).1 Briet's/Crenne's words, like those of the ventriloquist, seem to come (and in fact were understood as coming) from a source other than the voice of the real speaker. There ensues for a span of about three hundred years an intriguing yet thoroughly farcical scholarly and literary goose-chase for the identity of the real Hélisenne, a search-and-rescue operation to retrieve the real author of the Epistres and to identify “his” literary voice. This is a classic example, as we shall see, of Renaissance misreading that Crenne warns us about in discussing the kinds of readers she hopes will and will not read her letters. It is also, as we shall see, a classic misreading in the sense of applying the reader-response theory of an “autobiographical pact,” which enjoys some currency today, that is, of following Philippe Lejeune's method outlined in his book on this so-called pact.2

First of all, let us consider some assessments that we do have, good and bad, from the few early modern readers who comment on Crenne and then, the famous goose-chase, which stems from Rabelaisian scholarship. In his defense of woman entitled Le Fort inexpugnable de l'honneur du Sexe Femenin published in 1555, François de Billon includes Crenne as one of the period's notable female writers worthy of reception into his “fortress” or “cité des dames illustres,” obviously a feminist construct reminiscent of Christine de Pizan's Cité des Dames. His view of Crenne is quite positive. Her works are to be found, he observes, “si souvent es mains des Francois se delectants de Prose qu'il n'est besoin en faire autre discours.” He does, however, have a little more to say:

Bien pourroit on dire pourtant, qu'en vu passage de son Liure touchant les Angoisses amoureuses, elle donne une facheuse touche à tout detracteur de Femme, quand en vne Lettre qu'elle envoya à un certain Elenot (qui maintenoit fort & ferme les Femmes ne se devoir mesler que de filer [the (in)famous misogynist spinning or sewing image]) elle renverse aussi plaisamment ses ironiques Raisons.3

Billon especially liked Crenne's own defense of women. We will have more to say about Elenot and the letter alluded to above later in this discussion.

But Crenne was especially condemned in the Renaissance and afterwards as a most, or rather overly, learned female author whose vast erudition and writing style proved disconcerting and even displeasing to many of her readers, in spite of the fact that Crenne, herself, stresses time and again how much she valued “le hault & doulx stile.”4 Not everyone agreed that Crenne's style was “noble and pleasing.” Her learning and style were criticized for being over-extravagant, verbose, pretentious, and especially over-Latinate. In 1550, the humanist scholar Claude Colet “corrected” (“translated,” as he put it) Crenne's collected works, and these corrections were republished in every subsequent edition. What prompted him to do so, as he tells us in a letter appended to the 1550 and subsequent editions of Crenne's Works, was the urging of two women readers who clearly admired Crenne, alongside Marguerite de Navarre, as being “entre aultres, des plus doctes & scavans gens de [leur] temps, tant Grecz que Latins, desquelz [leur] France a esté & mere & norrice.” But these two contemporary readers of Crenne found especially “[une] obscurité de beaucoup de termes … dedans deux ou trois de ses epistres.” This “obscurity” was, they believed, the product of an extremely erudite, at times alembicated, style that overly employed a Latinized vocabulary. Thus, their request to Colet was to “rendre en [leur] propre & familier langage les mots obscurs, & trop aprochans du Latin, afin qu'elles [the letters] [leur] fussent plus intelligibles.” Colet accepted the task to “rend[re] en motz plus familiers (et maintenant usitez entre les François) grande partie des termes trop scabreux & obscurs.”5

In his Letters of 1586, Etienne Pasquier is also quite disconcerted by Crenne's writing style. A devoted adherent to Du Bellay's La Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Françoyse and also preferring French to Latin, Pasquier did believe, however, that Greek and Latin derivative words could greatly enhance the French language and literature, but not “pour les escorcher ineptement: comme feit sur nostre jeune aage Helisaine, dont nostre gentil Rabelais s'est mocqué fort à propos en la personne de l'escolier Limousin.”6 Thus, for Pasquier, Crenne was the living model of the notorious, totally incomprehensible “écolier limousin” portrayed and mocked by Rabelais in Chapter Six of Pantagruel.

The goose-chase had begun, and also the so-called “autobiographical pact” that necessarily exists (according to Lejeune today) between an author and a reader, a reader determined to uncover a real person hiding behind a literary signature. Crenne's letters are now in need of an author, and no one could imagine who he might be. The hypotheses become even more bizarre. At the end of the seventeenth century, Jean Bernier is in full agreement with Pasquier:

Le chapitre 5 [in his edition of Pantagruel] est une raillerie de ceux qui au lieu de parler comme les autres, prennent plaisir à se faire un langage barbare ou turlupin. Quant au particulier, on croit que le langage de ce Limousin est une raillerie de certaine Elizaine de Crenne Picarde, laquelle composa divers ouvrages fort extravagans.

And for Bernier, too, Crenne was so “précieuse et sçavante que son sçavoir [l]'avoit rendue folle.”7 So, now we see that Crenne's learning, her enriching the “vernacule Gallique” with a “redundance latinicome,” that is, her deployment of a Latinized vocabulary and rhetoric, has driven her “crazy.” At least this is better, perhaps, than the opinion of La Monnoye in his Bibliothèque françoise edited by La Croix du Maine in 1772. He simply makes Crenne disappear altogether from literary history. For La Monnoye, she never existed: “Cette dame ou demoiselle auteur n'a jamais existé. C'est un nom supposé et romanesque sous lequel un auteur capricieux a écrit en termes françois écorchés du latin.”8

In his 1741 edition of Rabelais, Le Motteux will go one step further with the authorial connection of Crenne, literary style/identity, and Rabelaisian scholarship. He will turn Crenne into a real man, a real “écolier limousin” who, according to Le Motteux, was the actual object of Rabelais's satire:

Comme aucun écrivain du temps de Rabelais n'avoit plus ridiculement affecté un jargon pédantesque qu'un certain [masculine] Helisaine de Limoges, qui en françois parlant grec et latin, pensoit avoir si bien embelli sa langue maternelle, c'est d'un écolier de Limoges que Rabelais fait le jouet de cette satire.9

Thanks to Le Motteux and his own effort at validating an autobiographical pact, Hélisenne the female epistolary writer has now become a male schoolchild from Limoges.

Going in yet another direction in their efforts to uncover the real “écolier limousin”/Hélisenne de Crenne, Esmangart and Jouhanneau, in their own 1823 edition of Rabelais, “correct” the écolier limousin theory by proposing none other than the Hellenistic scholar Jean Dorat, the great classical humanist who inspired the Pléiade poets, as the person hiding behind the pseudonym “Hélisenne de Crenne.” Their logic goes something like this: the name “Crenne” was coined on the Greek “kréne” (a “fountain”) because a great poet always drinks at the “fontaine d'Hippocrenne.” The first name “Hélisenne” is derived from the Greek verb “eilissein”—“to swirl around, to hide.” Thus, it is Jean Dorat, certainly the most important classically inspired figure of the period, who is the author of the Epistres familieres et invectives. It is he who hides under the pseudonym “Hélisenne de Crenne” in order yet again to display his “Hippo-cren-ic,” his Hellenistic poetic inspiration and learning.10

Now, all of these hypotheses are of course illogical and truly fantastic and even vagarious. The ones on Crenne and the “écolier limousin” are also historically impossible. Crenne's Epistres appeared six years after the publication of Rabelais's Pantagruel. These hypotheses do show us, though, to what extremes a reader in the Renaissance, and after (including our own twentieth century), will go in order to validate a so-called “pacte autobiographique,” to understand literary identity in purely historical or biographical terms. This is clearly not the kind of reader that Crenne wanted, and that she warns us about throughout her Epistres. In her statements to, and about, her reader, Crenne will also tell us how to understand the negative reception of her epistolary work that was sure to develop.

In addition to the criticism and the incredible misreading of Crenne's “overly” Latinate, learned style, the content of her letters was also criticized and misread as being overly personal, sexual, and risqué. And such criticism surfaced in spite of the fact that the first-person female narrator of these letters gives us good reasons to reject an autobiographical pact, and one used in particular to criticize Crenne's writings, both in terms of style and especially content. In the “First Invective Letter,” the narrator cautions her male addressee (who happens to be her misogynist fictional husband) about misreading the content of literature as simply a personal diary of lived experience. She urges him to reject the notion of an autobiographical pact:

Parquoy la precipiteuse charge de ton cueur, à telle ymagination t'a conduict, que tu as estimé cela (que pour eviter ociosité j'ay escript) eust esté par moy composé, pour faire perpetuelle commemoration d'une amour impudicque. Et d'advantaige tu crois que telle lascivité se soit en ma personne experimentée.

(pp. 125-26)

Hélisenne/Crenne always denies any relationship between her “compositions,” between “les parolles de [sa] bouche exprimées,” between her “narration” and personal autobiography through which she might be “reput[ée] coupable d'une chose, dont [sa] candide [clere] innocence ne fut jamais maculée” (p. 127). On the contrary, she maintains and stresses to her doubting husband “comment en plusieurs lieux de [ses] compositions [elle] deteste amour illicite: & avec affectueux desir, [elle] exore [prie] les dames de tousjours le vivre pudicque observer” (p. 126). The message to her male addressee and to her general reader is clear. She is pleading with him (and us) for understanding that a woman (Helisenne in the text) and a woman writer (Hélisenne de Crenne the author) are quite competent and have the right to discuss publicly and to write about matters of life and love in the literary domain, a right men had been exercising since the beginning of time.

What Crenne is really talking about here, and pleading for, is what we call today literary equality feminism, that is, female writerly autonomy and identity. Such feminism holds that a woman's writings even on the subject of intense love should not be misread and dismissed and denigrated as merely autobiographical, personal confidences and thus unworthy of the public domain of letters. In her “Preface” to her Invective Letters, Crenne addresses her “amyables Lecteurs” and tells them she hopes that they will be spared “ceste insidieuse fortune” that is, for her, as she tells us later on, misogynist detraction by those (male) readers who turn interpretation into author-specific adulteration and vulgarisation and who are determined to “continuelement prendre les choses [her words, her writings] de [en] la plus deterieure partie” (p. 126). She also tells her male detractor in this “First Invective Letter”: “Si avec pensée reposée, tu avoys distinctement consideré mes escriptz, tu mueroys d'opinion” (p. 126), that is, he would view very differently her writings which have nothing to do with infidelity in a personal context but pertain to fictional characters and situations. The female writerly freedom that Crenne was demanding for herself was truly revolutionary at the time. As Constance Jordan reminds us in her Renaissance Feminism: “Doctrine governing the conduct of women in public [and in the public literary domain in particular] held that the resources of the imagination—feigning and fictionalizing—ought to be denied them.”11 Crenne was determined to reverse this male-authored doctrine in her Epistres.

Crenne was only too painfully aware, of course, that feigning and fictionalizing do have their consequences, and very different consequences for women authors than for men. One of her best statements on the kind of reader she hopes will be reading her works, one who is capable of granting her a measure of literary autonomy without accusing her personally of what is written in her narratives, is found in the “Fourth Invective Letter” addressed to Elenot, who is also, just like her husband, a perfect example of the Renaissance misogynist. (This is the letter that we saw Billon praising above.) Hélisenne avows how she really becomes distraught at the thought of Elenot reading her works, first of all because she would prefer “que [ses] livres fussent toujours monstrés aux scavantes personnes,” one of which he clearly is not. Only such “gens d'esperitz” like them, and unlike Elenot, are by nature inclined to excuse a writer for imperfections, and especially for “la debilité de [son] petit stile.” Intelligence, culture, sophistication—these are the qualities she looks for in a reader. But what she fears is the one in whose hands “bonne relation il n'en fera” because it is not “en sa faculté de les [her writings] entendre” (pp. 153-54). Indeed, what the limited, even malicious reader does not understand, he will criticize and scorn and dismiss as trivial, inferior, or dangerous to the reading public.

There is little doubt that the emerging feminist consciousness and content that are the hallmark of Crenne's Epistres contributed, in addition to her learning and her Latinate style, to exasperating her male readers. Some of them, misreading content just like the others who misread her style, did believe that she was very dangerous. They feared that she might indeed incite other women to indulge their sexual fantasies. Hélisenne's male reader in the “Second Invective,” again her husband who has a very “mauvaise opinion” of her writings and who also, by the way, “deteste tout le sexe femenin,” considers her to be the Renaissance free-living Semiramis, “laquelle estant embrasée de libidineuse luxure, institua une loy que promptement elle fist publier, & estoit telle, qu'à ses subjectz estoit permis d'accomplir fornication, ainsi que bon leur sembloit” (p. 135). Another similar reader, Gabriel Dupuyherbault, also viewed Crenne to be extremely dangerous. In his Theotimus of 1544, he condemns Crenne in these same terms: “Quid Helisennae, quid Flameatae ignibus impudentius? […] quibus nihil unquam sordidius, nihil fœtidius vidit haec aetas.” (What is more putrid than the fires of Helisenne? […] This age has seen nothing more sordid and more foul.)12

It is clear that Crenne's letters have been misread and gotten her into trouble with a lot of readers. Indeed, some of them, using the excuse of her style to denigrate or misidentify her and her writings, went so far, as we saw at the beginning of this discussion, to make her disappear quite literally out of existence, or figuratively so in the the form of madness, or literarily so in the masculine form of Rabelais's “écolier limousin” or of Jean Dorat. Today, I am pleased to say, her letters are being given a more objective and positive reception for what they are: feminist constructs which simply ask for literary understanding and writerly autonomy. The old problem of the author/reader relationship is receding. Crenne's views on love and life are finally being read along the fictional lines that she, herself, wrote them and intended them to be read: “non que par experience je le saiche: Mais comme en l'exercice literaire j'ay comprins” (p. 129); “à la mentalle [and not “la fruition corporelle”] me conviendra avoirs recours” (p. 64). Long before our modern critical distinction (and the resulting tension) between mimesis and metafictionality, between referentiality and self-referentiality, Crenne clearly understood the art of epistolary writing in terms of creative independence and fictitious mimesis, as pure invention of the mind and as reflector of its own self-contained system. Whereas Pierre de Ronsard would proclaim, in qualifying some of his poetic creations and fictions: “ce n'est que Poësie,” Crenne could have also stated, in qualifying her own kind of fictional truth: “these are only Letters.” In both writers, there is an affirmation of the self-contained and mutually dependent integrity of the creative mind and of literary art.13

The question still remains, however, whether or not it is possible, and helpful in reading Crenne's letters, for us to acquire an understanding of the name which she chose to pen her letters. Can we come to meaningful terms with her literary identity? This reader believes that we can. Crenne surely believed that her literary pseudonym would be understood by most everyone, and she would most certainly be amazed, to say nothing of being titillated, by all the misreading of it that has developed. “Crenne” obviously comes from “Philippe Fournel, seigneur de Crenne,” the name of her husband which Marguerite Briet does not hesitate to appropriate for her authorial signature (Hélisenne, dame de Crenne). The first name “Hélisenne” is not to be found, contrary to what has been written in the past and also very recently (by Marianna M. Mustacchi and Paul J. Archambault, and by Jean-Philippe Beaulieu, in particular), in any external source, such as a character called “Helisenne” in the late medieval courtly romance Amadis by the Spanish author Montalvo.14 The problems here are obvious. Montalvo's Amadis was translated into French only in 1540, after the publication of Crenne's works. Furthermore, we have no evidence whatsoever that Crenne read Spanish or that the publisher Janot gave her a prepublication copy of the Amadis.

No, the unraveling and the meaning of the name “Hélisenne” is not to be found in any Renaissance author or text but in the text of the Letters themselves.15 This name and its meaning are indeed encapsulated in the image of Dido whom Crenne praises and identifies with in her Epistres. But this particular Dido has little resemblance to the tragic heroine Dido whom Crenne portrays in the Angoysses, where Crenne follows Virgil's sympathetic treatment of her in the Aeneid (I, 335-756, IV, 1-705, VI, 450-476). From her initial, unsure (self-)portrayals in the Angoysses to her epistolary maturity in the Epistres, Crenne's/Hélisenne's understanding of herself and of her writing undergoes an important ontological evolution. The newly acquired portrayal and identity of Hélisenne/Dido that we are presented and urged to admire in Crenne's letters show helplessness, defeat, and tragedy (infelix Dido) being transformed into action, determination, and triumph (Dido as Virago, the woman capable of performing manly tasks). The shift in identity posits Dido/Hélisenne as la femme forte, the new triumphant image of the strong woman determined to control and shape her own existence. Hélisenne the Renaissance epistolary author is this new “Helisa” (Elissa, traditionally the Phoenician name of Dido), as we read in the Eighth Personal Letter, who “subsequentement fut appellée Dido, qui en langaige Phenicien est interpreté, & vault autant à dire comme Virago, exerceant oeuvres viriles” (p. 95). As Crenne goes on to relate in her praise of Elissa/Dido, one of these “oeuvres viriles” undertaken by Dido—and at a moment when she was almost being overcome by misfortune and adversity—was nothing less than the building of the great city of Carthage:

Car à l'heure que icelle instable la vouloit totalement prosterner en permettant la mort immaturée de son fidele mary, Ceste Dido fist grande demonstrance de sa vertu … elle estant succumbée en la calamité de tenebreuse infortune, fist apparoir la reluisence de sa magnanimité, de telle sorte que par elle fut construicte & edifiée la noble cité de Carthage: laquelle depuis fut tresfameuse & renomée. O que selon le jugement d'ung chascun elle fut digne d'estre extollée [digne de louange], puisque sa supreme [grande] vertu en telle extremité la rendit constante.

(p. 96)

Hélisenne then encourages the friend she is counselling in this particular letter to imitate Dido in her own life, to embrace and display that feminine strength of character (“vertu foemenine”) that woman can inherit from her female ancestors: “croyant indubitablement que les vertus desquelles ont esté decorez noz predecesseurs en leurs successeurs, se peuvent bien retrouver, Ce que je me persuade estre possible se manifester en toy” (p. 96).

Our Renaissance author also assumes for herself the identity of this (H)Elissa-Dido-Virago “que l'adverse fortune ne povoit aulcunement superer [surmonter]” (p. 95) and whose own determined pursuit of “manly” accomplishments included especially the pursuit of letter writing and other literary activity. The adversity confronting Crenne which she refused to succumb to, just as Dido had refused, was misogynist detraction and prohibition. These were intended to deny her (and women in general) the accomplishment of any “oeuvre virile,” such as literary activity, by keeping her in her proper place, which of course was at the spinning wheel. Hélisenne scoffs at Elenot:

Et parlant en general tu dis que femmes sont de rudes & obnubilez esperitz: parquoy tu concludz, que aultre occupation ne doibvent avoir que le filler: Ce m'est une chose admirable de ta promptitude, en ceste determination. J'ay certaine evidence par cela (que si en ta faculté estoit) tu prohiberois le benefice literaire au sexe femenin: L'improperant de n'estre capable des bonnes lettres.

(p. 150)

What Crenne is clearly pleading for is the principle of equality feminism, woman's (and her) right to undertake and to excel in any worthy pursuit, and especially the pursuit of literature.16

Crenne may be telling us that such “manly” accomplishments by a woman are also “godly,” since Dido's other name, Elissa, seems to be a version of a Semitic name containing genuine elements of some Phoenician myth which points to Dido/Elissa as a Phoenician divinity. “Elissa” comes from the Hebrew “el” ([a] god) and “ishshah” (woman), thus, a god-like woman.17 That Crenne thought of herself and of her epistolary writing or mission in god-like, heroic, biblical terms is of course a major defining characteristic of the Epistres.18 Crenne believed that in her letter writing she had been granted and was following “la faveur de Dieu,” without which, as she assures us in her preface to her Epistres, “ne seroit en la faculté [puissance] humaine de parfaire aulcune chose utile” (p. 62). In any case, what is important is that the identity of self that Crenne is claiming in Dido/Elissa projects the image of woman who embodies great stature, strength, and courage, woman who exercises the same power as a man, and especially woman who is actively and adeptly involved in public (traditionally viewed as “manly”) works.

In a quite clever illustration of linguistic and culturally feminist word play reminiscent of the Grands Rhétoriqueurs, “(H)Elis-sa” is turned into “Heli-senne” to rhyme with the masculine family name “Crenne.” What audacity, to be sure, for an early modern female author to assert such literary virility by appropriating and transforming the classical and biblical ideal of manliness. Might this daring perhaps be an early example of the feminist protest against the gendered politics of rhetoric and authorship? Is it not possible that this transgressive gesture by Hélisenne de Crenne laying claim to her identity as a Virago “exerceant oeuvres viriles,” exercising her prerogative in the male literary domain, that is, Hélisenne assuming the role of a Renaissance “voleuse de langue,” as Claudine Herrmann has written on the subject of feminist writing and transgression,19 might not all this authorial boldness and assertiveness in matters of literary style and content really explain the negative reception of this Renaissance writer and her Letters? If, as I believe, one of the most important challenges facing us as Renaissance readers lies in our ongoing efforts to revive the lost, muted, or misunderstood voices and identities of early modern women writers, then the question just asked may well be worth pondering.


  1. Thanks to Louis Loviot's article: “Hélisenne de Crenne,” Revue des livres anciens, 2 (1917), 137-45, Crenne's identity as Marguerite Briet was finally established.

  2. Le pacte autobiographique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1975). See especially pp. 139ff.

  3. Facsimile Reprint, The Hague: Mouton, 1970, pp. 35v-36r.

  4. Crenne is praising here the “noble and pleasing style” of the “treseloquent poete Marot: duquel les oeuvres sont tant excellentes & elegantes, qu'en icelles souverainement se delectent roys & princes” (p. 153). Quotations are taken from my critical edition of Crenne's letters, Les epistres familieres et invectives (Paris: Champion, 1996). All italics in this study are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

  5. Colet is quoted here from his letter at the end of the 1560 edition of Crenne's Oeuvres, Paris, Estienne Grouleau. Some of the variants proposed by him in the 1560 edition, which make Crenne's prose less Latinate and also easier for the modern reader to follow, will be given within brackets in the original French quotations from Crenne.

  6. Les lettres (Paris: Laurent Sonnius, 1619), vol. 1, p. 106.

  7. Jugement et nouvelles observations sur la vie et les œuvres … de maître François Rabelais (Paris: Laurent d'Houry, 1697), p. 246.

  8. Bibliothèque françoise (Paris: F. Bastien, 1772), vol. 1, p. 362.

  9. Œuvres de maître François Rabelais (Paris: J. Bernard, 1741), vol. 6, p. 803.

  10. Œuvres de Rabelais (Paris: Dalibon, 1823), vol. 3, p. 148.

  11. (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990, p. 178.)

  12. Theotimus (Paris: Ioannem Roigny, 1544), p. 28. My translation from the Latin.

  13. For Ronsard and metafictionality, see my essay, “‘Fantastiquant mille monstres bossus’: Poetic Incongruities, Poetic Epiphanies, and the Writerly Semiosis of Pierre de Ronsard,” The Romanic Review, 84(1993), 143-62; p. 162 for Ronsard's quotation.

  14. Though such attribution is recognized as “hypothetical” by all three scholars, they do mention the Spanish Amadis connection as the possible source for “Helisenne” in their English translation and critical edition of Crenne's letters. According to Mustacchi and Archambault, “Marguerite chose to publish under the pen name Helisenne, perhaps because of the name of a character in a contemporary romance. […] The only other ‘Helisenne’ ever mentioned in literature seems to be the mother of the eponymous hero of the novel Amadis, published by [Denys] Janot in 1540 [but possibly] available to Helisenne in manuscript form in 1538.” A Renaissance Woman: Helisenne's Personal and Invective Letters (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 1, 17. Beaulieu likewise writes: “un prénom à consonance littéraire, emprunté à l'un des personnages des premiers livres de l'Amadis de Gaule de G. O. de Montalvo.” Les Epistres familieres et invectives de ma dame Helisenne (Montreal: Les Presses de l'Univ. de Montréal, 1995), p. 10.

  15. Most recently, Christine de Buzon in her critical edition has searched for this prenominal meaning in the text of the Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, Crenne's romance novel that was published one year before her Letters in 1538. Going much beyond the Amadis hypothesis, Buzon believes that the name “Hélisenne” is “une création proprement poétique faisant surgir une onomastique singulière, porteuse de sens pour l'interprétation du roman.” Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (Paris: Champion, 1997), p. 11. Buzon's argument is quite compelling for a reading of the Angoysses, though I believe it must be amended for the Epistres: “Dans l'effort pour donner une forme à la matière douloureuse d'un passé, se résolvent les tensions sans que disparaissent pourtant les présages de mort que contient le prénom d'Helisenne qui paraît dérivé du nom des Champs Elysées ou plutôt ici, Helisiens” (p. 20). The name Hélisenne onomastically “condense des prénoms antérieurs portés par les héroïnes d'histoires amoureuses et malheureuses” (p. 22; i.e., the miserable and amorously ill-fated Dido, Helen of Troy, Medea, Lucretia, Isolde, Guinevere, and Polyxena, all tragic heroines whose French names, resounding in “Hélisenne,” “évoque des images de mort, de destin tragique et de renom glorieux” and for whom love, impossible to consummate in this world, must await fulfillment in the “Champs Helisiens,” pp. 27-28). The model of Dido as the tragic heroine in Crenne's works had already been proposed by Diane S. Wood, “Dido as Paradigm of the Tragic Heroine in the Works of Hélisenne de Crenne,” Explorations in Renaissance Culture, 18 (1992), 125-36.

  16. Female excellence in “oeuvres viriles” or in “exercices virils” is also encouraged and highlighted by François de Billon in his praise of another Renaissance woman writer who likewise succeeded in the (masculine) public domain of literature. Billon writes of Louise Labé: “[cette] Cordiere se pourra bien dire Homme: mesmement qu'elle sçait dextrement faire tout honneste exercice viril, et par especial aux Armes, voire et aux Lettres.” Quoted from François Rigolot, Louise Labe: Œuvres complètes (Paris: Flammarion, 1986), p. 233.

  17. See Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971), pp. 334, 341.

  18. See my two studies: “Renaissance Misogyny, Biblical Feminism, and Hélisenne de Crenne's Epistres familieres et invectives,Renaissance Quarterly, 50 (1997), 379-410 and “The Fury of the Pen: Crenne, the Bible, and Letter Writing,” in Women Writers in Pre-Revolutionary France: Strategies of Emancipation, eds. Colette H. Winn and Donna Kuizenga (New York: Garland, 1997), pp. 207-225.

  19. Claudine Herrmann, Les voleuses de langue (Paris: Des Femmes, 1976).

Leah L. Chang (essay date November 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Chang, Leah L. “Clothing ‘Dame Helisenne’: The Staging of Female Authorship and the Production of the 1538 Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours.Romanic Review 92, no. 4 (November 2001): 381-403.

[In the following essay, Chang examines how the narrative of Les Angoysses douloureuses as well as the process of printing the text of the 1538 edition of the novel contributed to the construction of the authorial figure of Hélisenne de Crenne.]

In Les Angoysses Douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (Paris, 1538), the protagonist Dame Helisenne owns a white cloak of which she is particularly fond: “J'estois fort curieuse en habillemens, c'estoit la chose ou je prenoye singulier plaisir,”1 she recalls, describing the garment on which her lover, Guenelic, indiscreetly steps, a transgression that Dame Helisenne finds nonetheless quite pleasurable. By the end of the story another white wrapping appears, this time clothing a little book that Dame Helisenne leaves behind after her death. Helisenne's white cloak, a mask of purity that ironically comes to mark the erotic desire that it initially tries to conceal, is transmitted to the book. This book's neat exterior packaging and title, a moralistic warning against love, belie its real lesson: that no advice or social stricture can deter women and men from the hazards of love.2

The Angoysses Douloureuses is a fictional, novel-like text attributed to the author now known as “Helisenne de Crenne.” The book enjoyed enormous success, undergoing over six separate editions in the sixteenth century.3 However, we know almost nothing about its author. Critics generally agree that “Helisenne de Crenne” is a persona, perhaps the pseudonym of Marguerite Briet, a historical woman of the lesser French aristocracy who was married to a Philippe Fournel de Crenne. Nevertheless, the attribution of the work to Briet remains more or less an assumption since extant documentation of her life is sparse, and critical efforts to fill in the blanks have relied mostly on the extrapolation of her “biography” from the first part of the Angoysses Douloureuses. In this sense, “Marguerite Briet” is almost as much a construct as “Helisenne de Crenne”; both are devices serving a modern critical need to organize texts around an authorial identity, however fictive that identity might be.4 Nevertheless, because so little is known about the book's writer, the Angoysses Douloureuses offer a convenient text to think about the construction of the author figure. This article explores how the narrative and the material process of printing the 1538 edition together play with the authorial construct, in a period when printers exercised enormous influence over the production of texts, and when the concept of authorial primacy did not yet exist.

Helisenne's white cloak in the story is particularly intriguing because it represents a juncture between the “fiction” of the narrative and the “nonfiction” of the process that generates the material volume of the Angoysses Douloureuses. When the pure white silk reappears covering Helisenne's book at the end of the tale, it suggests that, like the cloak, the book will project one image of Helisenne—her purity, or her warning against love—while secretly harboring her erotic desires. Indeed, the 1538 volume published in Paris by Denys Janot, wears yet another cloak of dissimulation, this time in the form of the title page, which both represents and misrepresents the book's author. For, as the principal character in the plot who also narrates the story and passes for the author of the book, Dame Helisenne occupies a largely fictive and uncertain position.5 The title page announces that she has composed the work, and yet as the volume progresses, her authenticity as one of the book's producers becomes increasingly suspicious, especially since she dies before the end of the story. The title page becomes the site of a guessing game of authorial identity and function, and of fiction versus truth, played among the book's producers and the readers. To explore the relations in this game, I return to Helisenne's white cloak. The episode in which it appears orchestrates a contest between male and female figures around the question of Dame Helisenne's representation, and offers a framework for analyzing the dynamics between author and printer figures in the 1538 publication. In the second half of the article, I will turn to the particular case of the title page in the 1538 Angoysses Douloureuses to discuss the construction of authorial identity through the paratextual “clothing” of the first edition.6

The Angoysses Douloureuses is in many ways a classic tale of the mal mariée, often disturbing and exaggerated, but sometimes even comic. The book is divided into three sections, and the first Partie is written as a personal memoir in the voice of Dame Helisenne, which adds the seductive appearance of authenticity to the tale. She is a beautiful and chaste young woman, married at the age of eleven to a nobleman whose class status approximates her own. All is well with her marriage until the couple moves to another town to contest some property rights and Helisenne, peering out of her window, sees a young man, Guenelic, with whom she falls hopelessly in love. The two begin an emotionally tumultuous love affair, although their relation never takes a physical turn, which complicates the question of Helisenne's guilt and chastity. They exchange glances and words in semi-private places, in secluded parts of the church or law court, or in letters that the husband eventually finds, but they never embrace. Learning of the affair, Dame Helisenne's husband becomes furious, beats her, and destroys her letters and a manuscript in which, racked with guilty but pleasurable desire, she had chronicled her torments. He imprisons her in a castle at the end of the first Partie, and Dame Helisenne tells her readers that the Angoysses Douloureuses is a rewriting of the manuscript the husband had burned. She hopes it may fortuitously fall into Guenelic's hands so that he can orchestrate her rescue.

Dame Helisenne also writes the second Partie, the text tells the readers, but she adopts the voice of Guenlic. This section recounts the lover's exotic adventures with his friend Quezinstra in search of Dame Helisenne, which continue into the third Partie, again composed in Guenelic's voice. Guenelic finds Dame Helisenne languishing in her tower, frees her, and dies after recounting his tale to her. In an epilogue to the third part, the text shifts to the voice of Quezinstra, who narrates the death of Dame Helisenne from her own torments and explains how he published the little book wrapped in white silk that Helisenne left behind; the copy of the Angoysses Douloureuses that the reader now holds is presumably the result of his efforts.


The white silk covering the book that Quezinstra finds after Dame Helisenne's death invites the reader to connect the book's production to the clothing of the protagonist's body. In particular, the book's white wrapping recalls a scene in the first Partie in which Dame Helisenne drapes herself in a sumptuous white cloak to go to church, where she hopes to meet Guenelic and continue their amorous exchanges. It is the only time when the reader is permitted to see Dame Helisenne as a clothed female form in any detail.7 Her attractive body is a source of personal identity in the story, and in early scenes in the text, observers seem to see through her clothes, focusing immediately on the beauty of her body:

Quand me trouvoye en quelque lieu, remply de grand multitude de gens, plusieurs venoient entour moy pour me regarder (comme par admiration) disans tous en general, voyez la, le plus beau corps que je veis jamais. Puis apres, en me regardant au visaige, disoient, elle est belle: mais il n'est à accomparer au corps.


Even after dressing later in the white cloak and a rich, red satin robe, Dame Helisenne's clothes are penetrated by her admirers: “Voyez la, la creature excedant et oultrepassant toutes aultres en formosité de corps” (123). Her observers are enchanted by what they cannot see—her exiquisitely beautiful body is in fact hidden under the clothes—while they consider her exposed face attractive, but nothing special.

However, in the crucial moment in which it appears, the white cloak acts as a marker of Dame Helisenne's body for an audience of which both she and her husband are acutely conscious. Knowing that she pines for Guenelic, Dame Helisenne's husband orders her to dress elegantly for an excursion:

Il est demain le jour d'une feste solennele, parquoy je veulx et vous commande que vous accoustrez triumphamment, affin que vous assistez au temple avec moy, car doresnavant ne vous sera permis de sortir de la maison, sinon en ma compaignie, car je veulx veoir quelle contenance sera la vostre en ma presence, par ce que je suis certain que vostre amy se y trouvera.


Helisenne explains that her husband felt sorry for her sufferings,8 but the reader detects an alterior motive to her husband's request: he wants to use her clothes to prove publicly the purity of her body (about which he is growing increasingly skeptical) and to show her off. Dame Helisenne is quite ready to submit to this test, not only because her clothing lets her revel in her physical beauty—always a source of personal pride—but because the trip actually gives her the opportunity to see Guenelic: “Tel propos me tenoit mon mary, auquel ne feiz aulcune response, mais tins silence, nonobstant que tacitement grand joye et hilarité m'estoit irrigée, emanée, et exhibée, au moyen de l'esperance future de la veue de mon amy” (122). The text details the dressing scene and its pleasurable effect on both the protagonist and her husband:

… je vestis une cotte de satin blanc, et une robe de satin cramoisy, j'aornay mon chef de belles brodures, et riches pierres precieuses: et quand je fuz accoustrée, je commencay à me pourmener, en me mirant en mes sumptueulx habillemens, comme le paon en ses belles plumes, pensant plaire à aultres, comme à moy mesmes, et cependant mon mary se habilloit, lequel prenoit singulier plaisir en me voyant, et me dist qu'il estoit temps d'aller: et en ce disant, sortasmes de la chambre, en la compaignée de mes damoyselles, je cheminoie lentement, tenant gravité honneste, tout le monde jectoit son regard sur moy. …


This is the first instance in the text in which Helisenne expresses her own pleasure at her appearance, as well as the pleasure she hopes to inspire in others. Her husband is indeed satisfied, but his emotions are a rather ironic reaction to Helisenne's attempts to provoke Guenelic's desire. Even more remarkably, this invitation to transgression is encouraged at the unwitting insistence of the husband, who initially misunderstands the consequence that the clothes will have on Guenelic's behavior and on both his and his wife's reputation. In the end, the clothes invite the very infraction on Helisenne's chastity that the husband was eager to prevent.

Although the symbolism of the “pure” white cloak concealing the enticing scarlet, satin dress is hard to miss, Guenelic takes Dame Helisenne's duplicity one step further when he “transgresses” the clothes themselves:

… il venoit passer si pres de moy, qu'il marchoit sur ma cotte de satin blanc. J'estois fort curieuse en habillemens, c'estoit la chose ou je prenoye singulier plaisir, mais nonobstant cela, il ne m'en desplaisoit, mais au contraire, voluntairement et de bon cueur j'eusse baisé le lieu ou son pied avoit touché.


In spite of Helisenne's almost humorous shock at Guenelic's indiscretion—she at first concentrates on the injustice done to the clothing rather than on the indecent intimacy of the act—her indignation gives way almost immediately to an illicit pleasure. Her husband, however, registers his anger at the interaction by calling special attention to Guenelic's clumsy dissimulation: “Je m'esbahys de vostre amy, lequel n'a sceu dissimuler son amoureuse follye en ma presence, il luy procede de grande presumption de venir marcher sur vostre cotte, il semble par cela qu'il eust grand privaulté familiarité avecq vous” (124-125). The husband construes the garment as a marker of Dame Helisenne's propriety, and its violation as a sign of her and Guenelic's audacity. Thus the cloak again serves as a figural locus around which the tension between the constant dissimulation and disclosure of the love affair continue to build. Too late, the husband realizes his mistake; the next day he prohibits Helisenne from dressing again in elegant clothes (125).

The white cloak does not act only as a cover for Helisenne's body. Rather, it both represents and misrepresents her: at the time it appears, Dame Helisenne's body is indeed still chaste, while its beauty inflames the longing of her would-be lover.9 This double valence of the cloak also exposes a problematic station of contemporary women who saw female clothing as an extension of the limited control they exercised over their bodies and the messages communicated by the appearance of those bodies. For, in the end, Dame Helisenne's clothes are used as a communicative tool not between the lovers, but between the husband and Guenelic. The husband attempts to make a statement to Guenelic through her luxurious clothes, and Guenelic likewise returns the message by making his own “mark” on the white silk of the cloak, a message the husband clearly grasps.

The tension in the scene of the cloak complicates the problem of Dame Helisenne's agency. What is the protagonist's role in the messages inscribed on her clothes? In fact, although Dame Helisenne is not master of the messages about her body conveyed on her clothing, it is she who chooses to clothe herself specifically in a white satin cloak and a scarlet dress and thus chooses her self-representation. And in this light, one must rethink whether Helisenne misdirects her irritation when she initially focuses so ardently on the injustice done to her cloak. For, as the clothes hide her body by covering it, they also define, represent, and in some sense become it; the female body is absorbed into the device of its representation, constructed through the appearance of its wrapping.10 And while her husband and lover seem to dispute a single meaning of her body and clothes—the body is either chaste or defiled, the cloak is either pure or marked with Guenelic's footprint—for Helisenne the meaning of her clothes moves beyond the black-and-white of bodily chastity and corruption to enter the more ambiguous and ambivalent domain of female sexual desire. In the scene of the cloak, both the husband and Guenelic appropriate and simplify the “text” that she wants to project to an audience that includes both men. The result is a friction between the male and female messages about the status of Helisenne's body/text.

Through competing male messages imprinted on the white cloak in the story, Helisenne is inscribed as a chaste or libidinous creature while her own authority to represent herself is somewhat obscured by the tension between husband and lover. This capacity to represent multiply and ambiguously is a quality the cloak shares with the title page of the first edition. Like the clothing, the title page reflects Dame Helisenne's self-presentation, her “memoirs,” while simultaneously conveying another, male-authored message, this time from the printer Denys Janot. In both cases, Dame Helisenne's identity—as chaste wife or lover, or as author—is at stake; the little white book that Quezinstra decides to publish at the end of the story serves as a symbolic connection between the narrative and material production of the 1538 Angoysses Douloureuses.

As I discuss in the next section, Helisenne's cloak offers a metaphoric model of the relations between author and printer figures in the first edition, in place of concepts of copyright and textual ownership that did not exist in the sixteenth century. But the episode of the cloak also reveals a gendered dimension to the connection between material form and women's public representation. As Louise Labé will contend in 1555, women's clothes construct their identities even though they do not really belong to them. In her dedicatory epistle to her Euvres, she encourages women to turn to writing rather than clothing and jewelry, which she argues “… ne pouvons vrayement estimer notres, que par usage.”11 Her rejection of clothes ironically mimics the message of contemporary conduct literature, which identified sumptuous adornments as devices of women's dissimulation, vanity, and immodesty, and encouraged women to dress themselves instead in virtue.12 Labé, however, rejects clothing not because of its inventive capacity, but because women themselves do not own the instruments of this fashioning, and thus cannot claim to be in possession of their own construction. The Angoysses Douloureuses imply further that women's public construction can pivot around moral values linked with female sexuality, a cause for concern for women like Dame Helisenne if decisions about that form are not their own. The clothing trope in both texts suggests that physical form can reflect and inform meaning and value in gendered ways, an equation that extends, I would argue, to the material production of the 1538 Angoysses Douloureuses and the author figure associated with it. Like the white cloak of the story, the title page of the first edition is also inscribed with gendered messages in tension with one another: how, then, do the gendered polemics about Helisenne's represention—already metaphorized in the narrative through her cloak—invade the seemingly most typographical spaces of the volume?


The figuring of the author in the production of the 1538 edition is rendered particularly complex by obscure concepts of textual ownership and authority in the sixteenth century. Contemporary writers were especially conscious about the power of the printer in publication—whose work did an edition represent when it finally reached its readers? The early-modern book trade was rife with competition, and book producers sought to protect their financial investments in editions: booksellers were anxious to make a profit from sales, as were printers, who frequently lacked financial backers.13 Writers, who frequently financed their own publications, also wanted to protect their investment, and, in the interest of finding a typographer who would take care to print the edition well, sought to assure book producers that they would make a return on their time, labor, and money. The introduction of royal privileges in the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries represents this commercial priority: issued to writers as well as to other book producers, they granted supplicants a legitimate monopoly over the production and distribution of editions for a limited number of years, and promised to punish offenders.14

However, royal privileges to publish, which were expensive to procure and granted on a restricted basis, offered only limited legal recourse to book producers trying to protect their investments from competitors; they were not early forms of copyright in that they did not guard the artistic integrity of a work nor protect authors from other book producers who might appropriate their texts. Writers did not always oversee publications, and there is no doubt that printers were willing to make significant changes in order to augment the market appeal of a book with little or no legal repercussion. The Parisian printer Antoine Vérard, for example, printed Jean Bouchet's Regnars traversant in 1500, citing the well-known German author Sebastian Brant on the title page instead of Bouchet, who was young and inexperienced at the time; Bouchet sued Vérard, and attacked the printer in his poetry, but the alteration remained unchanged in subsequent editions.15 Writers complained regularly about the adverse effects of such commercial emphases on their reputations and texts: printers interpolated the work of one writer in the publications of another; ghost-written and cheaply produced editions were attributed to good authors; books of respected writers were poorly printed by authorized printers and pirates.16 As Cynthia Brown has thoroughly examined in the published works of the French rhétoriqueurs, writers challenged the printer's control in the market and attempted to assert their own authority by acquiring royal privileges in their name, by circulating complaints against book producers, or by foregrounding their authorial signatures and images in woodcuts and engravings in the editions they supervised.17 The absence of a legal and cultural acknowledgment of authorial primacy, however, raised several questions: who will control the production of a text—writer or book producer? How will this authority be constructed and recognized in the book market? Which figure will attract a wider buying audience and assure the readers of the quality, or alternatively, the seductiveness, of the publication?

The market interests and influences of early-modern printers are particularly apparent on contemporary title pages. The advent of print had reintroduced readers to the title page after it had disappeared from medieval codices; its initial purpose was to protect the rest of the text, since copies were often sold unbound.18 However, the development of the early-modern title page also demonstrates the growing experimentation with physical form in the production of books, along with the increasing status of book producers other than the writer. The earliest title pages gave only a brief title alone, printed on the top of an undecorated page, while other publication information, including the place and date of printing, appeared in the colophon; the name of the printer sometimes appeared as well.19 By the first quarter of the sixteenth century, however, title pages included not only the name and work of the author but also the printer, the place and date of printing, along with the printer's device, another means of identifying the individual or printing house that published the work, but also a way of decorating the page.20 Contemporary printers were highly aware of the commercial as well as aesthetic potential of the title page, and the way in which its format style not only ornamented the text but also promoted their own business and artistic principles. Some printers (including Janot) used both the title page and the colophon to self-advertise, while others drew attention to themselves in creative ways by presenting their information in different ink color, font, or type size, or even in carefully contrived verses.21 Set formulae for establishing such material in the book did not exist and early-modern printers did not necessarily relegate this textual space to the purely practical domain. Instead, the title page was a place of experimentation both in its conception and presentation.22

Creativity with the title page is a defining characteristic of the 1538 Angoysses Douloureuses. The first edition actually contains four title pages.23 The first acts as title page to the entire work and presents “Dame Helisenne” as the writer of the three parts of the story. In addition, two interior title pages introduce the second and third parts of the volume (AA and AAA), and indicate that Dame Helisenne narrates in the voice of Guenelic.24 I classify them as title pages since each includes a decorative woodcut compartment containing the title of their respective Partie, and each appears on its own leaf; the Partie that each introduces begins only on the next recto. Finally, a fourth title page announces Quezinstra's epilogue, a final account of the deaths of Helisenne and Guenelic, their voyage to the underworld, and the fate of the book that Helisenne leaves behind (FFF 8): “S'ensuyt une ample et accommodee narration, faicte par le magnanime Quezinstra, pour exhiber la mort immaturée de son compagnon fidele le gentil Guenelic: en comprenant ce qu'il intervint du predict Guenelic, et de sa dame Helisenne apres leurs deplorables fins, ce qui se declarera avec decoration du delectable stile poectique.” Although this last title page also includes a woodcut frame, it does not occupy its own leaf, and the text of the “Narration” begins immediately on its verso. Unlike the other title pages, the fourth appears at the end rather than at the beginning of a gathering of leaves. Although commercial demands may have directed these typographical choices, it is worth considering their effect on the presentation of the author.25 The third title page, for instance, does not tell us that the third Partie contains Quezinstra's epilogue, and unlike the second and third titles, the fourth title introducing the epilogue does not indicate that Dame Helisenne speaks in the voice of Quezinstra. Thus, this fourth title page appears to signal a type of addendum, a brief but unexpected coda to the third Partie that is written not by Dame Helisenne (perhaps, for the reader can never be sure) but by Quezinstra.

As each of the first three title pages introduces a new part of the narrative, each also begins an entirely new set of page gatherings and groups (identified by the “A”—“K,” “AA”—“MM,” and “AAA”—“HHH” signatures). These patterns indicate that in their typographical forms, the three parts were conceived of as entirely separate “books” from each other; I have wondered whether they were each meant to be sold individually.26 Nevertheless, the page signatures indicate that the fourth title page was printed alongside the last part of the text that is narrated in Guenelic's voice.27 The presence of this fourth title page hints that the book's producers were playing with meaning conveyed by material form, using a title page to mark a transition in the authorial figure to Quezinstra from Dame Helisenne (whose shift into Guenelic's voice had already been marked by the second and third title pages).

However, it is the text on the first three title pages that especially complicates their role in the construction of the authorial figure. The title on the first runs as follows: “Les Angoysses Douloureuses Qui Procedent D'Amours: Contentãtz troys parties, Composées par Dame Helisenne: Laquelle exhorte toutes personnes à ne suyvre folle Amour”. The title clearly specifies that “Dame Helisenne” has composed the work: nowhere does the name “Helisenne de Crenne” appear on the page. Nevertheless, on the second title page, an enlarged, printed De Crenne appears in place of the publishing information of the first title page, disjointed from the rest of the page by its obtrusive type size. Its overwhelming size ensures that the reader does not miss it, and almost seems designed to shock; certainly, its looming presence on the second title pages underscores its absence on the first. The third title page also contains a “De Crenne,” printed and laid out on the page in a similar fashion to that of the preceding title page. Moreover, a smaller “De Crenne”—in a type size compatible with the font used to print the actual story—surfaces at the end of the first part of the book, just before Janot's colophon giving the publication information. A similarly sized “De Crenne” reappears at the end of the second Partie, this time following another Janot colophon and printer's mark. There is no “De Crenne” figure at the end of the third Partie.

Who, then, is “De Crenne,” and how does the figure function at the end of the Parties and on the ancillary title pages? Does “De Crenne” necessarily represent a female, authorial persona, especially if, as most modern critics assume, it is the married name of the supposed author Marguerite Briet, and therefore a masculine gendered patronymic? In fact, these questions are never explicitly answered in the 1538 volume. The tendency of these critics to overlook the fact that “De Crenne” never actually sits juxtaposed to “Dame Helisenne” is due, I believe, to the assumption that “Helisenne de Crenne” is the full name of the author and that the two names must necessarily signify one person. But in truth the “De Crenne” figures float by themselves on the pages on which they appear, separated from other text by punctuation and on the title pages by font size. The narrative quality of the titles further contributes to the sense that “De Crenne” and “Dame Helisenne” are two distinct entities. For example, who is it that tells the reader that the third part is “Composée par Dame Helisenne parlant en la personne de son Amy Guenelic: Comprenant la mort de ladicte Dame, apres avoir esté retrouvée par ledict Guenlic son amy”? Is it Dame Helisenne who speaks? The printer, Denys Janot? Or perhaps the ambiguously gendered “De Crenne”?

And who determined the appearance of this “De Crenne” in the multiple title pages and next to the printer's colophons? As I demonstrated earlier, the title page was chiefly the domain of the printers, and this authority to control the presentation of both the text and the author was enough to make more than a few writers nervous about publishing.28 In fact, the ubiquitous paratextual presence of Janot in the 1538 edition not only reveals much about the function of the “De Crenne” figures but suggests that Janot was essential to their instrumentation.


From the first title page of the Angoysses Douloureuses, Janot wastes no time or space in defining his role in the production of the book. If the reader is unfamiliar with the quality of Janot's work, the printer may be found, conveniently along with the latest copies of the book, at the address announced on the first title page: “On les vend a Paris la Rue neufve Nostre dame a Lenseigne Saincte Jehan Baptiste contre Saincte Geneviefve des Ardens” (f. A). Janot reiterates this information at the ends of the first and second Parties in colophons that also reemphasize his profession as printer and bookseller: “Cy finist la premiere partie des Angoisses D'amours: Nouvellement Imprimées à Paris par Denys Janot, Libraire et Imprimeur, Demourant en la Rue neufve nostre Dame à l'enseigne Sainct Jean Baptiste contre saincte Genviefve des Ardens” (f. Kiii).29 His monogram appears in the historiated woodcut compartment of the first title page, and one of his printer's marks (flowers in a vase), surrounded by his mottoes (“Patere Aut Abstine” and “Nul Ne Si Frotte”), appears on the verso of the last page of the first Partie and again after his colophon at the end of the second Partie.30

Initially, Janot's repeated and diverse appearances in the Angoysses Douloureuses may seem little more than paratextual bravura, an exuberance with perhaps a reasonable motive. Self-advertisement in the books he printed was certainly an efficient method of promoting his work and advancing his career. His father, Jehan I Janot, had been printing since 1488 and married Macée Trepperel, the daughter of another successful imprimeur-libraire, Jehan I Trepperel, with whom Jehan Janot had been associated since 1515. Denys Janot was established in his own workshop “à l'enseigne de sainct Jehan Baptiste” by 1532, and one might imagine that he was anxious to distinguish himself both from his extended family, the Trepperel, and from Alain Lotrian, a printer with whom Janot worked on “la rue Neufve Nostre Dame” until 1531.31 In 1538, he was still approximately six years away from succeeding Olivier Mallard as “imprimeur du roi en langue française,” and probably eager to nurture a growing clientele of authors and book buyers.32 But although many printers seem to have regarded liminary spaces as a particularly commercial domain for promoting their work,33 the repetition of the Janot colophon and printer's mark and even the presence of the additional title pages seem excessive.34 Even more curiously, with the exception of the first title page, Janot's name, address, and/or printer's mark always appear within the book alongside a “De Crenne” figure, if not directly preceding or following the figure, then at least within the same verso/recto opening. In other words, in the eyes of the reader, the figures of “De Crenne” and Janot always appear adjacent to each other and, to a certain degree, inseparable.

This positioning of the two names seems hardly coincidental. I would argue that Janot's presence as a type of finishing touch for each section of the book speaks to the purpose of the “De Crenne” figures. Plastered on the interior title pages, or hovering within the colophons, both Janot and “De Crenne” represent parties whose signatory seals testify to the quality of the aesthetic as well as the creative and stylistic aspects of the book. It is possible to read the relation of these two figures as a type of the increasingly frequent competition between author and publisher that Cynthia Brown has documented in printed texts of the early French Renaissance.35 As the privileged printer and bookseller of the Angoysses Douloureuses,36 Janot reemphasizes his textual control each time he advertises his name, profession, and place of business in the colophons and on the title pages. The huge “De Crenne” figures, however, assert the existence of yet another, if mysterious, producer of the book, different from either printer or Dame Helisenne. Whether or not this “competition” was staged in the liminary texts by the printer, the author, or both, it is tempting to see between Janot and the patronymic “De Crenne” a tension similar to that between Guenelic and the husband in the scene of the white cloak. On the title pages and in the colophons, Janot and the figure of “De Crenne” do seem to vie for the superior position in book production over the nominal authorship of Dame Helisenne, whose death just before the end of the narrative renders her unconvincing as a true producer of the text. One senses that Janot and “De Crenne” are indeed struggling over Dame Helisenne's textual “body,” since the symbol of the white cloak that once covered her living body returns after her death in the white silk of the book that she leaves behind in the story, the book that becomes the published Angoysses Douloureuses. And like Dame Helisenne's body, which at the scene of the cloak was at a crossroads between lascivious desire for Guenelic and chaste loyalty to her husband, the book also walks the fine line between warning others away from unchaste thoughts and actions (“O tres cheres dames, quand je considere qu'en voyant comme j'ay esté surprinse, vous pourrez evitez les dangereulx laqs d'amours, en y resistant du commencent, sans continuer en amoureuses pensées,” (97)) and relishing those desires through their (re)telling.

And yet, Janot's textual markers become less representative of the printer as a competitor to the author's textual control, and more indicative of a potential collaboration between author and printer figures, when one considers that print is in fact inscribed in the Angoysses Douloureuses as the climax of the narrative. Much of Quezinstra's final epilogue has to do with the printing of Dame Helisenne's little white book.37 In many ways, this final vignette seems to be the writer's solution to the problem of the protagonist's death and the strain it exerts on the authenticity of Dame Helisenne's authorship. That it is Quezinstra who recounts the deaths of Helisenne and Guenelic in some sense cloaks and dissimulates the obvious fictions of both the death of the protagonist-cum-author and, one suspects, the love affair context that ostensibly drives the composition of the story in the first place. The fourth title page supports his authorship of the epilogue and helps blur the line between fact and fiction since, unlike the case of Guenelic in the second and third titles, it never claims that Dame Helisenne writes in Quezinstra's voice.38 Most importantly, Quezinstra sees to the publication of the book. He decides to publish it for two reasons. First, he promises to obey Guenelic's wish that he “manifest” (manifester) their troubles to the world. Secondly, he hopes the book will warn readers to avoid lascivious love: “… afin que tous lecteurs qui s'occuperont à lire ces angoisses doloreuses, par l'exemple d'icelles se puissent conserver et garder que la sensualité ne domine la raison, pour timeur de succomber en ceste lascivité, dont ne se peult ensuyvre, que peines et travaulx intollerables …” (506).

A printer is clearly essential to such a task, and the narrative actually prescribes his important function in detail, even though Janot is never explicitly named in the text. After the deaths of Guenelic and Dame Helisenne, the god Mercury visits Quezinstra, and it is actually he who discovers the white book. After taking Quezinstra to the underworld, where they deliver the souls of the protagonists, Mercury whisks the book up to heaven where he gives it to Pallas Athena. Jupiter orders the publication of the book, “affin de manifester au monde les peines, travaulx, et angoysses douloureuses, qui procedent à l'occasion d'amours”; the eventual title of the volume derives from his phrasing (503). The gods decide that the city of Paris is the most appropriate place for publication. Pallas Athena and Venus agree, although the two squabble over whether the city is more venerable for its intellectual or sensual attributes. Mercury decides Venus's view is more trivial—indeed, dangerous to men and women just like Guenelic and Dame Helisenne—but the book is clearly meant to appeal to an educated public that is simultaneously an avid audience of amorous adventure (or perhaps the book is meant to bridge two disparate audiences). Janot, as it turns out, is just the sort of Parisian printer to reach both types of reader: in 1538-1539, for example, he published not only erudite works such as La premiere [et seconde] Partie des Epistres familieres de M. T. Cicero, and L'histoire Catlinaire de Salluste, but also humanist love poetry, such as Les Oeuvres de Clément Marot or Les Triumphs de Petrarques.39

Indeed, a striking representation of Janot's arbitrating function between love and erudition in the Angoysses Douloureuses appears in the decorated frame that the printer used for the title page to the second Partie (Fig. 2). The bottom of the frame depicts the Judgment of Paris. The scene captures a moment when Paris is on the cusp of making his decision, but as Zanger has suggested, the addition of Mercury to this frame indicates that Janot quite consciously links the account of publishing the white book in the epilogue, indeed the publishing of the 1538 edition itself, to the legend of Paris and the golden apple. Paris awards the apple to Venus, but Janot will offer the Angoysses Douloureuses instead to several audiences, balancing the dangerous effects of the apple/text.40 Janot embodies Paris—both the city and the mythological figure—to become a new Paris, a representative of the technological prowess of the book trade and a mediating agent of the text as it is dispersed to multiple readers. Although the mythological Paris was eventually punished for his choice, the Paris of the woodcut frame remains suspended just prior to his decision, and the reader is left to wonder about the choice he will make and the risks he will incur. The mythical Paris was a lover who won a beautiful woman in exchange for the apple; one might imagine the lucrative prize Janot hoped to gain from shaping and imprinting Dame Helisenne's corpus (a bit like her lover Guenelic) and offering it to the public. But this scene in the woodcut also suggests that Janot plays with the notion that the printer/Paris is somehow a character in the final moments of the narrative, alongside Mercury and the goddesses. The woodcut frame, then, a mark of 1538 edition's materiality and of Janot's influence on the production of the book, corroborates the idea that the physical processes that yield the 1538 edition are in some sense the culmination of the narrative fiction.

It is, of course, impossible to determine whether or not the writer of the Angoysses Douloureuses had secured Janot as a printer at the time of composing the epilogue. More importantly, however, Janot's role is absorbed into the story, transforming the physical means of collecting and disseminating the many personae and voices in the work into the climax of the tale. Rather than a process that remains exclusive from the creation of the literary text, printing in Paris becomes an essential element of the narrative. It is a climax that is ideally ad infinitum for the story of the lovers will be available to the public for as long as the book remains in publication and accessible to readers, thanks to the printer. In light of Quezinstra's epilogue, Janot's presence in the title pages and colophons takes on new meaning beyond either self-advertisement or a way of representing the different faces of Dame Helisenne, to become the step that completes the circular trajectory of the reader's relation to the book. The first title page acts with the other instruments of print as the proof that Quezinstra has done his job, and that the lovers are in some sense vindicated through the book's publication. By the last page of the epilogue, the 1538 Angoysses Douloureuses seems to have back-tracked on itself, showing its audience another story that may be read on the title pages and through the plot—the story of the book's inevitable success.

The absorption of Janot into the story, however, does not fully explain the significance of the “De Crenne” figure or its rapport with “Dame Helisenne.” Possibly, “De Crenne” functions as an authorial alter-ego whose authority stands in distinct opposition to Dame Helisenne, embodied in a patronymic that complicates the relation between the author and printer figures. For, as a female authorial figure, Dame Helisenne takes a wholly passive role toward the printing of her white book. She dies, after all, in the final vignette, and the publication is enabled by distinctly male figures: Mercury, Quezinstra, Jupiter, and ultimately Janot. And yet, just as the fluidity of Dame Helisenne's author-narrator-character roles prevents the reader from pinning down her relation to the text, so the presence of the mysterious “De Crenne” figure on the title pages suggests that the reader should hesitate from ascribing Dame Helisenne's meekness in the plot to the actual writer of the work. Just as there is no guarantee that Dame Helisenne is anything other than a fictive character, there is no guarantee that her declarations of humility are anything other than mere pretension—posturing, fiction, and dissimulation to a seduce an audience through her protestations, and draw them into a succès à scandale. Part of this titillating appeal resides in the enigma of the plot and protagonist: the audience cannot tell if the scandalous story is fictive or true, cannot resolve if the protagonist is a real or imagined woman, and cannot determine whether the “author” is better reflected in the names “Dame Helisenne” or “De Crenne.” The appeal of this uncertainty recalls the intense attraction that Helisenne's clothed body in the story held for her observers, who were drawn more to the female body that they could not really see than to the face that lay bare to the public.

In this light, one might consider whether the episode of the white cloak—in which male and female figures construct and represent multiply a woman's public image through her clothing—is in its own way a subtly poignant anticipation of the gendered and competitive, but ultimately productive, dynamics between Janot, “De Crenne,” and “Dame Helisenne” that characterize the 1538 publication of the Angoysses Douloureuses. Ultimately, the identity of the individual (or individuals) who stage these tensions both in the story and on the title pages remains speculative, but the first edition fashions an authorial construct that resists singular meaning and definition. The author may be manifest somewhat here in the seductive character of “Dame Helisenne,” somewhat there in the imposing “De Crenne” figure, and its production is shaped as much by the medium of print as by the voices of the narrators. By inscribing the printing of the book into its plot, the producers of the work create a textual moebius strip in which the technical and imaginative processes of book production are inextricably entwined. Subsuming the competitive atmosphere of early-modern book production—the challenge to the writer's authority by the printer/bookseller's during printing and marketing—the narrative anticipates publication, thus transfiguring Janot and his marks in the book into characters alongside “Dame Helisenne” in an ongoing story. In the final book product, Janot is less a competitor to Dame Helisenne's (and perhaps “De Crenne's”) authorial control, and more a collaborator, or even a tool, in a cycle of textual production, dispersion, and consumption. To ask “Who is De Crenne?” might in itself constitute one way in which readers are in turn absorbed into this textual web.


  1. Helisenne de Crenne, Les Angoysses Douloureuses qui procedent d'amours, ed. Christine de Buzon (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1997) 124. All references to the narrative will be to this edition. In order to facilitate reading, I have substituted “i” for “j” and “v” for “u” where appropriate.

  2. The connection between books and clothing was made more than once among early modern women writers, who likened clothing to the printing of their texts. For example, a 1635 version of Marie de Gournay's preface to Montaigne's Essais asks readers to forgive minor printing errors, insisting “si ton esprist est digne de sa lecture [des Essais], tu les sçauras bien r'habiller.” In 1586, Catherine Des Roches likened the correct printing of her writings to a young girl dressed by herself and the publisher: “aiant je ne sçay comment rendu plus estroite la belle robe blanche et noire qu'elle avoit receüe de vostre liberale courtoisie, je suis encore si tardive à l'en accoustrer.” Marie de Gournay, “Préface à l'édition de 1635 des Essais,” ed. Philippe Desan, Montaigne Studies 2 (December, 1990) 96. Madeleine et Catherine des Roches, Les Missives, ed. Anne R. Larsen (Genève: Droz, 1999) 210.

  3. For a comprehensive list of editions and their variations, and for locations of the 1538 version, see de Buzon's introduction to her edition, 44-69.

  4. For examples of two important twentieth-century publications of the Angoysses Douloureuses, which nevertheless only reproduce the first part of the three-part story, see the editions edited by Paule Demats (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968) and Jérome Verycrusse (Paris: Lettres Modernes Minard, 1968). For a discussion of the categorical function of the authorial identity, see Roger Chartier, L'ordre des livres: Lecteurs, auteurs, bibliothèques en Europe entre XIV et XVIIIe siècle, (Aix-en-Provence: Alinea, 1992) Chapter 2.

  5. For a critical discussion of these various identities see Diane S. Wood's presentation of Helisenne's multi-faceted persona in “The Evolution of Hélisenne de Crenne's Persona,” Symposium (Summer 1991) 140-151.

  6. For the typographical aspects of title pages and colophons of the first Parisian edition, I am working principally with the copy housed in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Rés. p Z2013). Due to the fragility of this copy, I have had to limit reproductions to the four images included in this article. The 1538 edition was printed in -8°. In his “Denis Janot, Parisian Printer and Bookseller (fl. 1529-1544): A bibliographical study in two volumes” (Thesis: University of Warwick, Department of French Studies, 1976), Stephen Philip John Rawles lists measurements for the text on an average page of the Angoysses Douloureuses as 121 by 70 mm. The binding of the BN copy is postsixteenth century. Denys Janot was an early pioneer in the use of the woodblock and illustrated frontispiece, and his 1538 version of the Angoysses Douloureuses contains over sixty woodcuts that loosely illustrate the plot; on Janot as a trend-setter in this field, see Nina Catach, L'orthographe française à l'époque de la Renaissance (Genève: Droz, 1968) 248. It is the presence of multiple title pages in the 1538 Angoysses Douloureuses, complete with woodcut frames, that particularly interests me in this article, and that distinguishes Janot's work from that of other printers. Janot appears to have been fond of using title pages to separate different parts of a single work. For example, he uses them to distinguish the two parts of the 1539 Epitres Familières et Invectives, also authored by “Dame Helisenne”; his Oeuvres de M. T. Cicero, published the same year, also uses a simple title page—printed on its own leaf, but this time without decorative frames—to divide different parts of the work. As I discuss in the second half of this article, it is the way in which the title pages, together with the narrative of the Angoysses Douloureuses, play with and construct the authorial figure that is particularly important to this study. Helisenne's white cloak in the story offers a way to conceptualize these dynamics, for it too explores the meaning of material form in the construction of a persona.

  7. There are other moments in the story when Dame Helisenne tells us she dresses in fine clothing, but unlike the episode with the white cloak, those scenes never reveal details such as the type of clothing or the color of the garments.

  8. Her husband tells her: “M' amye, je vous prie que delaissez voz pleurs et gemissemens, et reduysez vostre cueur en consolée lyesse. Quant à moy, je ne vous presteray matiere, ny occasion de melencolye” (122). He then tells her of the “feste solennele” that will take place and asks her to dress finely for the occasion.

  9. For a discussion of a similar paradox of female chastity that provokes its own violation, see Stephanie Jed, Chaste Thinking, The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

  10. Abby Zanger argues for the critical importance of clothing to the construction of the female royal body in her analysis of the efforts to transform the Spanish infanta María Teresa into a French queen upon her marriage to Louis XIV. See Chapter 2 of her Scenes from the Marriage of Louis XIV: Nuptial Fictions and the Making of Absolutist Power (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) 37-67. For other discussions of women's clothing and cosmetics as paradigms of female representation in premodern Europe see Howard Bloch “Silence and Holes: The Roman de Silence and the Art of the Trouvère,” Yale French Studies 70 (1986) 95; Frances Dolan, “Taking the Pencil out of God's Hand: Art, Nature, and the Face-Painting Debate in Early Modern England,” PMLA 108, no. 2 (1993) 224-239.

  11. Louise Labé, Œuvres Complètes, ed. François Rigolot (Paris: Garnier Flammarion, 1986) 41.

  12. For example, Pierre Changy's translation of Vives's De institutio foeminae christianae claimed that women's ornamentation defies nature and God, while Jean de Marconville argued that rich clothing inflames the desire of others and threatens their chastity, as well as that of the women who wear them. Changy, Livre de l'Institution de la Femme Chrestienne Tant en son enfance que mariage et viduité, Aussi de l'office de Mary (1542; Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1970); Marconville, De la Bonté et Mauvaistié des Femmes, ed. Richard A. Carr (1566; Paris: Honoré Champion, 2000).

  13. On the expenses of printing and the commercial interests of book producers see Natalie Zemon Davis, “Protestantism and the Printing Workers of Lyons: A Study in the Problem of Religion and Social Class During the Reformation,” Ph.D. Dissertation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan 1959) 153-189. On the merchant and artisan origins of many printers see Sheila Edmunds, “From Schoeffer to Vérard: Concerning the Scribes who Became Printers,” Printing and the Written Word: The Social History of Books, ed. Sandra Hindman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Rudolf Hirsch, Printing, Selling, and Reading 1450-1550 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1974) 18-19.

  14. The privilege was an official document, issued in France most often by the royal chancery or the Parliament of Paris, or in the provinces by the Prêvot de Paris. Printers, publishers, booksellers, and writers were all eligible to petition for a privilege. The protection it offered was limited; privileges were usually in effect for three to five years, up to ten years maximum. The penalties for violating a privilege could be fierce, including confiscation of the illegal books, fines, and sometimes the cost of the case if the offender was brought to trial. As an unauthorized 1556 edition of Labé's Euvres indicates, however, privileges did not always ward off potential ghost editions. Nevertheless, a printer who obtained a privilege and printed an extract of it in his editions, as many did, could at the very least warn others of pending sanctions against illicit printings of the book. A privilege also endorsed a book to the public by advertising its authenticity. For authors, privileges helped ensure the quality printing of a text (in which the reputations of both printer and author were at stake); it also helped many writers secure printers who may have been unwilling to invest their time, labor, and finances in the project without such protection. For the definitive study of the use of book privileges in Renaissance France see Elizabeth Armstrong, Before Copyright, The French Book-Privilege System 1498-1526 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

  15. Jennifer Britnell, Jean Bouchet (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986) 81-82; Cynthia Brown, Poets, Patrons, and Printers: Crisis of Authority in Late Medieval France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995) 27.

  16. Such complaints appear in many Renaissance privileges, prefaces, and other paratexts by writers and scholar-printers including the various rhétoriquers, Erasmus, Henri Estienne, Dolet, Rabelais, Marot, Ronsard, Du Bellay, Montaigne, and Marie de Gournay. For syntheses of some of these complaints see Brown, “Late Medieval Writers as Owners and Protectors of their Texts,” Chapter 1, Poets, Patrons, and Printers 18-59; Hirsch passim; George Hoffmann, “The Art of Proofreading,” Chapter 4, Montaigne's Career (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) 84-91.

  17. See Brown's chapters 1-4.

  18. Printers incorporated this first page to prevent the text from soiling, leaving the recto of the first leaf blank and beginning the printing of the text on its verso. After 1480, printers began using a brief title on this recto in order to enable easier identification of the work. Lucien Febvre and Henri Jean Martin, L'Apparition du Livre (Paris: Albin Michel, 1958) 120. According to Rudolf Hirsch, the earliest documented title page in France of this sort appeared in 1486, in a volume printed by Pierre Levet; “Title Pages in French Incunables, 1486-1500,” Gutenberg-Jahrbuch (1978): 63.

  19. Not all early imprints, however, foreground the name of the book producers. Gutenberg's famous 42-line Bible, for instance, does not divulge the name of the printer or his backers.

  20. Alfred W. Pollard, Last words on the History of the Title-Page with Notes on some colophons and twenty-seven fac-similes of title-pages (London: John C. Nimo, 1891) 26, 30.

  21. The title page of the 1488 Breviarum Parisiense, for example, printed by Le Rouge for the publisher Commin, boasts a poem indicating where the potential reader might purchase a copy: “Qui en veult avoir on entrevue / A tresgrant marche et bon pris / A la rose en la rue neufve / De nostre dame de Paris.” Cited in Hirsch 64. Elizabeth Armstrong also notes literary examples of advertising a royal privilege to publish; Before Copyright, The French Book-Privilege System, 1498-1526 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 140.

  22. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin note the increasing pressure to fill up the title page with words and decorations in the early part of the sixteenth century. Moving information about the printing from the colophon to the title page may have been part of this trend. On the changing trends in title pages through the mid-sixteenth century, see their L'Apparition du Livre (Paris: Albin Michel, 1958) 120-121.

  23. I use the following terminology to describe how pages of a printed book were collated and sewn together. Since multiple pages were printed on the front and back of one large piece of paper, and then folded according to the number of pages, the bookbinder needed a systematic way to determine how to fold the sheets so that the pages would appear in the proper order. Thus, printers provided a mark—usually a letter and a number—on the lower right hand corner of the first few printed pages; this letter is called a “signature.” The letter and numbers on the first set of pages, for example, might be A—A4; in an octavo like the Angoysses Douloureuses, the next four pages would not need signatures since their order would naturally follow the first folds determined by the signatures on the initial four pages. A collection of pages, all of which belong to the same signature pattern, is called a “gathering.” Additional gatherings usually follow an alphabetical pattern; thus the second gathering would begin with “B,” the third with “C,” and so forth. The collection of these gatherings bound together is called a “group.” Finally, additional groups were marked by a new pattern of letters and numbers. In the case of the Angoysses Douloureuses, the second group begins “AA,” and the third begins with “AAA.” For further description of these terms and practices see D. C. Greetham, Textual Scholarship: An Introduction (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1994) 128-136.

  24. The second title runs as follows: “La seconde partie des angoisses douloureuses, qui procedent d'amours: Composée par Dame Helisenne, Parlant en la personne de son Amy Guenelic: En laquelle sont comprins les faicts d'armes de Quezinstra et dudict Guenelic errans par le pays, en cherchant ladict Dame.” The third title begins with identical language, but substitutes the following phrase after the colon: “Comprenant la mort de ladicte Dame, apres avoir esté retrouvée par ledict Guenelic son amy.”

  25. For instance, Janot might have decided not to put the fourth title page on a separate leaf in order to economize on paper. In his study of the emblems in Maurice Scève's Délie, Edwin M. Duvall stresses the importance of typographical considerations in the layout of texts and images. See his “Articulation of the ‘Délie’” Emblems, Numbers, and the Book,” Modern Language Review 75 (1980) 65-75. I thank Abby Zanger of Harvard University for underscoring the importance of considering the commercial reasons behind book layout and ornamentation.

  26. Since in the sixteenth century printed books were usually sold in unbound copies, the purchaser could bind them as he or she saw fit, using a favorite bookbinder or one in association with the bookseller or printer. Or, the reader could choose not to bind the book at all, which would minimize the price. Denys Janot could have had all three Parties available for purchase separately in his shop on La Rue Neuve Nostre Dame. Or they could have been sold together, and the signature patterns represent the printer's way of facilitating the future binding process. The latter seems most likely, since most extant copies include all the Parties. In the end, however, there is no way to tell definitively how the book was originally intended to be sold and circulated.

  27. The last page of Guenelic's narrative appears on FFF 7 v°, and Quezinstra's epilogue begins on the recto of FFF 8.

  28. On writers' anxiety about the textual authority of printers see Cynthia Brown, Poets, Patrons, and Printers: Crisis of Authority in Late Medieval France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); George Hoffmann, “The Montaigne Monopoly: Revising the Essais under the French Privilege System,” PMLA 108 (1993) 309-311, 315.

  29. I cannot entirely explain the variation on the title that Janot uses in this colophon. Most likely, he needed to justify the lines and shortened the title of the book in order to do so.

  30. Philippe Renouard, Les Marques Typographiques Parisiens de XVe et XVIe Siècle (Paris: H. Champion, 1926) 149-150. The compartment is number 485 and the printer's mark is number 480.

  31. For the family tree of the Janot and Trepperel, see Emile Picot's entry in Revue d'histoire et de littérature 2 (1887) 47-50.

  32. Elizabeth Armstrong claims that Janot was granted this title in 1543, while Henri Omont claims he succeeded to the position in 1544. See Omont, Catalogue des Editions Française de Denys Janot (Paris, 1899) 12-13. Armstrong notes that in the 1540's this title was barely more than nominal permission to print all French books that passed the censorship. See her Robert Estienne Royal Printer; an historical study of the Elder Stephanus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954) 122.

  33. Elizabeth Armstrong, Before Copyright, The French Book-Privilege System, 1498-1526 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 144.

  34. In my continued examination of imprints by Janot and his contemporaries, I have not yet seen its match.

  35. See Brown's Poet's, Patrons, and Printers.

  36. The royal privilege for the 1538 Angoysses Douloureuses is accorded in Janot's name, and is printed on the verso of the title page.

  37. This description of the book's anticipated publication does have literary antecedents. The most notable can be found in Boccaccio's Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (c. 1343), which has been identified as one of the primary models for the composition of the Angoysses Douloureuses, especially since it was translated into French in 1532 (Lyon: Claude Nourry, 1532).

  38. Quezinstra also smooths over other potential flaws in the vraisemblance of the story. He explains, for instance, how it is that Guenelic's adventures came to be recorded with Dame Helisenne's own story, even though the two had only be reunited for a short time: “… je congneuz par l'intitulation, que en ce estoient redigez toutes noz entreprinses et voyages, Parquoy je peuz facilement comprendre, que la pauvre defuncte l'avoit escript, apres le recit que Guenelic luy en pourroit avoir faict” (489).

  39. Omont 22.

  40. Abby Zanger recently noted the relationship of this woodcut to the final vignette in a paper entitled “‘Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent … le livre’: Helisenne de Crenne and the Turmoils of Passing to Print,” presented in a conference on “Material Cultures” in Edinburgh (July 2000). I am indebted to both her and her research assistant Vera Keller for drawing my attention to the significance of Paris in the woodcut.


Principal Works


Further Reading