Renaissance Women in 16C France

‘Frenchwomen,’ said a critic, ‘are very devout in seeming, but in point of fact they are very light and very free. Every one of them, even if she be a courtesan, wishes to be treated as an honest woman, and there is no lady of bad fame who has not some objection to make to the morals of her neighbour.’

Nuns, apparently, were worse. But then many were quite secular in their habits, certainly Henry IV of France enjoyed affairs with several, including Marie de Beauvilliers, abbess of Montmartre. He did like to spread his favours. But then women often chose to enter a nunnery, considering this a better option than marrying a man they didn’t care for. And who could blame them since women often had little control over their choice of husband. Many Renaissance women, however, were independent and well educated.

Marguerite de Valois was proficient in French, Italian, Latin, Greek, music and mathematics as well as her devotions. But it wasn’t only royalty and the aristocracy who believed in education. The bourgeoisie were also great advocates of such refinements. It was considered that an educated woman was better able to maintain her family’s health, raise her children well, make her husband content and keep a household in order. The reformation also encouraged education for girls so that they were able to read the scriptures for themselves and be spiritually closer to God.


Daughters, however, were kept very much on a tight rein. They
were expected to walk behind their mothers, and were rigorously attended and chaperoned at all times. When travelling they were expected to ride en croupe (pillion) behind a servant, observing the proprieties by clinging only to the pommel and not by putting their arms about the servant’s waist. Clearly that would have been beyond the pale. Once having gained some skills she may be allowed to ride side-saddle, which required hooking one leg around the horn of the saddle.

Nor were young ladies allowed to drink, although their mothers might add a splash of Burgundy to give their water a little colour and flavour. ‘But their deportment,’ said an observer, ‘conveyed rather their good taste than their truth.’

Men grumbled, of course, at women’s independence, just as they do now. Nothing changes! They complained that their wives talked too much, stopping to gossip with passers-by in the street. They objected about their readiness to go alone to church or market, often being out and about for hours at a time, and ‘their husbands never daring to ask where they were.’ So a passion for women’s rights obviously simmered beneath the surface. One amusing rule I found for widows, was that they were obliged to wear a high necked dress, long cloak and a veil, and the authorities felt obliged to pass a law restricting the style as widows’ veils had become ‘dangerously attractive.’ You can’t keep a bad girl down.

Henriette d’Entragues was clearly of an independent mind, being highly ambitious and manipulative, with her sights set upon wearing a crown. But while Henry IV might have been sufficiently besotted to agree to anything to get her into his bed, his political advisers and ministers were another matter altogether. A King was not expected to marry his mistress. Could Henriette raise her status and break the rules of etiquette? She was very determined to try.

The Queen and the Courtesan, published 29 June, can be found as a paperback or ebook here:
Most of my titles are now available as ebooks on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords etc. Links to them can be found on my website: http://www.fredalightfoot.co.uk

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