Books of Duchesses

Contrary to common belief, medieval women in and out of the convent read quite a bit, but information on their books—what texts did they contain? when were they created? do they still exist?—is often hard to find. Sometimes their manuscripts were listed in inventories of belongings taken after the women’s deaths, and other times they were simply folded into husbands’ and sons’ belongings. Occasionally, a woman might inscribe her name in a book, or have one of her secretaries do it for her, yet even that only offers a fleeting glimpse into a manuscript’s history. Her name might come up associated with certain codices through a search on the appropriate library’s webpage, but one has to know to go there in the first place. So where does one even start to find answers to the questions above if all one has is a woman’s name and, perhaps, the title of a text?

One option is to consult Books of Duchesses: Mapping Women Book Owners, 1350–1550 (, which offers easy entry into the fascinating and still under-researched world of women’s literary networks. This interactive, searchable website draws on a database that collects information on hundreds of medieval laywomen to help users figure out who was reading what, where, and when. Each of the female readers has her own page offering information on her whereabouts, family members, and of course, her reading materials—including codices that no longer exist but whose existence is documented in the archives or in other books.

Such is the case for Charlotte of Savoy, Queen of France’s Book of Herbs and Trees (NE 49), recorded in inventories in 1484 and 1523, but vanished today. Each book has its own page too, so researchers can see if more than one woman owned or borrowed it (NE 49 went to Queen Charlotte’s daughter Anne of France, Duchess of Bourbon after Charlotte’s death) and access a select bibliography to help them find further information. Plus, the individual texts in the books have their own pages as well.

Seeing which women shared particular tastes in reading material can throw light on connections between them that had previously gone unnoticed. S.C. Kaplan, Lecturer of French at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has used Books of Duchesses to argue that the high degree of overlap between the libraries of the most important French female aristocrats of the fifteenth century and that of a lesser noble, Gabrielle de la Tour d’Auvergne, Countess of Montpensier, reflects Gabrielle’s desire to emulate the other ladies—and that she facilitated the early spread of rare texts in the process.

Leave a comment

Related Posts