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Writing Places: Sixteenth-Century City Culture and the Des Roches Salon.

Kendall B. Tarte. Writing Places: Sixteenth-Century City Culture and the Des Roches Salon.

Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007. 269 pp. index. append. bibl. $56. ISBN: 978-0-87413-965-5.

This monograph intersects with current investigations of topics of much interest, such as the early modern city and the culture of cartography, chorography, landscapes, and cityscapes -- those of Poitiers in particular from the 1560s through the early 1580s--the literary, social, historical, and political dynamics of Renaissance literary coteries and circles--Madeleine and Catherine des Roches's salon being one of the earliest and best-known in France--the French Wars of Religion and historical writing by both male and female authors such as the Des Roches team; and the connections between collaborative writing circles, editors, publishers, and the book market. Writing Places offers as well as thorough and multifaceted examination of La Puce de Madame des Roches (1582, 1583), a fascinating and still unedited anthology of improvised poems composed by and for the Des Roches's salon guests concerning a flea sighted on Catherine's breast --Catherine des Roches also wrote improvisational poems for the collection. Finally, it insightfully argues that the Des Roches's oeuvre figures among the earliest examples of historical and political writing by women.

Chapters 1 and 2 examine the links between the entertaining volume of La Puce and the spaces, places, and communities of Poitiers reflected therein. The authors of the flea poems nimbly drew on three distinct traditions, those of the anatomical blason, the proceedings of law courts, with which as judges of the 1579 Grands Jours of Poitiers they were amply familiar, and the topographical descriptions of the Poitiers landscape. La Puce offers thus "a politicized 'topography' of the female body of Catherine des Roches and a feminized topography of the city of Poitiers" (60) into which converge female body parts, cityscapes, and the legal proceedings and language of the Grands Jours.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the city of Poitiers in peace and wartime. The topographical allusions to Poitiers so abundant in La Puce and throughout the Des Roches's oeuvre reflect the flourishing genre of geographical writings. These were made popular by cartographers who sought to represent the world such as Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum and Munster's Cosmographia, and chorographers interested in regions, districts, and cities. Tarte's apt connections between contemporary maps containing anthropomorphic landscapes in the form of the human body and the poems of La Puce and of Pleiade poets who wrote on Poitiers indicate how much city poems of the time drew on such sources. Historical works on city sieges during the Wars of Religion also drew on topographical writings to bring out the visual dynamics of such sieges. Poitiers underwent several major attempts by Protestant troupes to overcome its famous defenses. No less than fourteen historical accounts on Poitiers's 1569 siege were published by Catholic and Protestant historians and poets. Tarte examines the rhetorical techniques of these texts' engagement in the polemics of the civil wars and topographical writing.

The final two chapters illuminate the Des Roches's historical and political writings on the Wars of Religion and the governing elite, and the actual and imagined communities that they forged for themselves or created in their works. Mother and daughter were exceptional in that few early modern women writers addressed outright the political issues of their time. An interesting question is whether the Des Roches might have been familiar not only with Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies, as Tarte indicates, but with Pizan's political writings as well.

There is much here to appeal to several groups of readers. Scholars can appreciate the extensive intertextual allusions to several notable sixteenth-century writers who influenced the Des Roches circle. Students will find useful the information on the French Wars of Religion and how these wars figure prominently in the works of two women who stood out among the most astute commentators of the events of their age. And readers from different disciplines such as women's studies, early modern history, and urban studies, will be interested in Kendall Tarte's thorough research into the gendered applications of early modern cartography and chorography to historical and textual cities. I appreciated especially the interdisciplinary nature of this study and its discussion of many primary sources pertaining to cities in early modern France.


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Author:Larsen, Anne R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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