us yet once more of the perils into which men have fallen in the past
for having been fascinated by women's beauty. But ¼ 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.
statement could have been made by a 20th-century feminist, such as Gloria
Instead, the words are from one of the letters of a
16th-century French Renaissance noblewoman with the pen name Hélisenne
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.
is the author of Les epistres familieres et invectives d'Hélisenne
de Crenne: Édition 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 Hélisenne
A UNT faculty member since 1997, Nash has primarily
researched well-known French Renaissance writers such as satirist François
Rabelais and poets Maurice Scève
and Joachim du Bellay. He has written nine books about these writers.
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.
response to men
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 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.
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
Crenne also uses biblical and literary allusions in
her invective letters. Nash says the purpose of these letters is to debate
"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.
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
"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.
"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,"
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
"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."