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UNT System: Resource magazine >> The power of the pen

A future in plastics: U N T scientists work to build a better polymer by Kelley ReeseYou remind us yet once more of the perils into which men have fallen in the past for having been fascinated by women's beauty. But it is not women who should be blamed, for if men are supposed to be wiser than women they should not deal with anything they know to be harmful or dangerous.
   
This statement could have been made by a 20th-century feminist, such as Gloria Steinem.
    Instead, the words are from one of the letters of a 16th-century French Renaissance noblewoman with the pen name Hlisenne de Crenne.
Jerry Nash photo    Topics of her 13 personal letters and five invective, or argumentative, letters include female companionship, moral values, love and infidelity, and the education of women. When published by a Paris bookseller and printer in 1539, the letters were widely believed to be written by a man, says Jerry Nash, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of North Texas.
    "They have a forceful style, and 16th-century writers of that style were usually educated men," he says.

Critical edition
   Nash is the author of Les epistres familieres et invectives d'Hlisenne de Crenne: dition Critique, one of the few scholarly books about Crenne's work and one of two books that examine her letters in their original French. Nash's book received a special recognition for excellence from France's National Center for Scholarly Research. He is writing a second book about Crenne's writing, The Fury of the Pen: Renaissance Misogyny, Invective Writing and the Letters of Hlisenne de Crenne.
    A UNT faculty member since 1997, Nash has primarily researched well-known French Renaissance writers such as satirist Franois Rabelais and poets Maurice Scve and Joachim du Bellay. He has written nine books about these writers.
First page of the first letter of the 1539 edition    In the early 1990s, he discovered Crenne's letters through an English translation published in 1986 by Syracuse University Press.
    "I was fascinated with them and wanted to study them in French, but then I found out that no critical edition of them existed in French. I decided to do my own," he says.

In response to men
   After their first publication, Crenne's letters proved to be popular among the French and were reprinted five times during her lifetime.
    However, they were misread as fact rather than autobiographical fiction until 1917, when researchers identified Crenne as the literary pseudonym of Marguerite Briet, Nash says.
    Born in Abbeville in the Picardy region of France around 1510, Briet took the name "Crenne" from the surname of her husband. By 1552, she was known to be legally separated and living near Paris.
    Nash says Crenne's letters were a response to misogynistic literature literature that provoked disrespect and hatred for women by several male writers, particularly Gratien du Pont. Du Pont's Controverses des sexes masculin et femenin, published in 1534, is 400 pages of "diatribes against the offensive sexual behavior and highly questionable moral capacity of women," Nash says.
    "As far as du Pont is concerned, he is simply recalling and recording the 'authoritative truth' on women that has been put forth and tested from the beginning of time," he says.

Personal and invective
   All of Crenne's letters are addressed not to actual people, but to fictional characters who may have been based on people Briet knew, Nash says. The personal letters are written to friends, relatives, an abbess and a gentleman who wants to give a friend confidential information about Crenne.
     "These letters gave Crenne forums to approach different subjects," Nash says. "One tries to persuade a friend to end an illicit love affair, while another, addressed to a friend who lost some of his wealth, reminds us that happiness is not based on wealth."
    Crenne's fourth personal letter is written to a nobleman who was banished from the French court because other courtiers accused him of slander. Crenne tells him that his rank will be restored "by the power of truth" but quotes the Bible in asking him not to take revenge on the others.
    "In order to root out this unreasonable intention, you should keep in mind what has been said in the words of the Psalmist, that the man moved to bloodshed will not see the end of his days," she writes.
    Crenne also uses biblical and literary allusions in her invective letters. Nash says the purpose of these letters is to debate misogynistic views.
    "The hallmark of Crenne's letters is equality feminism, which is accepted today but was extremely radical back in the 1520s and '30s. Most men then thought women were incapable of being educated and writing literature," he says.

In defense of women
   Nash says Crenne's strongest argument for the education of women is in her fourth invective letter. The letter denounces the views of a man named Elenot, who may have been a former lover of Briet's, he says.
    "Crenne staunchly defends the ability, capacity and right of women to perform in the public domain by naming certain women as examples of what women are capable of," Nash says.
    Crenne calls Marguerite, queen of Navarre and author of several works, a "most illustrious and distinguished princess" whose brilliance "enhances all of womankind." She lists several female philosophers in ancient Greece, including Aspasia "filled with such great knowledge that Socrates did not blush at learning anything from her." She mentions Deborah of the Old Testament, who became magistrate over the people of Israel.
Title page of the second section of Les Oeuvres    "Crenne had the skill of interweaving biblical and classical allusions to support her arguments," Nash says.
    She highlights the virility of both Judith, a biblical heroine who saved the Israelites by assassinating their enemy's general, and Dido from the Aeneid, who founded and became queen of Carthage.
    "For Crenne, the accomplishment of 'manly' or heroic works is not in the relationship to gender but to individual ability and performance," Nash says. "She also believed female beauty and chastity can lead to much more than just ethical behavior. They can be 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.'"
    Nash describes Crenne's writing style as "extremely Latinate," since she uses Latin words and syntax. This was the same style used by Rabelais and other male French Renaissance writers, he says.
    "It is a bit of overdoing, but I think Crenne was trying to make a point that a woman could write in this manly style developed by Cicero and other ancient philosophers," Nash says.

Wide appeal
   After their final printing in 1560, Crenne's letters, as well as Crenne herself, faded into obscurity. Until her identity as Marguerite Briet was confirmed 357 years later, male scholars either deleted Crenne from literary history or attributed her work to well-known male writers.
    Since the English translation of her letters appeared in 1986, Crenne's work has been widely read by students in women's studies programs, Nash says. But he adds that her letters hold appeal for many others.
    "French majors should study her in regard to reviving marginalized writings. However, I don't want to call Crenne a minor writer because she did influence writers who came after her," he says. "Her letters are also interesting to anyone studying humanist writing or early modern European misogyny. They truly give insight into what France was like in the 16th century."


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