Anne de Graville and Women’s Literary Networks in Early Modern France

Elizabeth L’Estrange

Who was Anne de Graville?

Anne de Graville was a writer and bibliophile who lived at the turn of the sixteenth century. She was born around 1490 to a family that was close to the French monarchy. Her father, Louis, was the admiral of France and both her parents were very interested in books. For a long time, Anne was remembered less for her writings than for her marriage to her cousin Pierre de Balsac – Anne’s father disapproved of the marriage and the two eloped, leading to Anne’s disinheritance. After Louis’s death, she successfully fought for her portion of her parents’ estate – including some of their books. However, this is just one part of Anne’s story. She was also a successful author: her two main surviving works were written for the queen, Claude of France, and for the mother of the king, Louise of Savoy. Both of these works were adaptations of older works to which she gives a pro-feminine slant, bringing them into the debate known as the querelle des femmes. The Beau roman is a rhymed rewriting of the Livre de Thezeo, itself a translation into French prose of Boccaccio’s Teseida; the Rondeaux is a carefully crafted reworking – using the complex rondeau form – of Alain Chartier’s Belle dame sans mercy

What was the most surprising work in Anne’s library?

The most surprising work might be the Chaldean Histories – depicted on the front cover (see below) but an intriguing aspect of her library is the presence of several works in different redactions. It seems that Anne was interested in different versions of works and in the shifts between poetry and prose – themes  that are also central to her own writing. Another item that sticks out is her copy of Virgil’s Les Georgiques, translated by Guillaume Michel and printed in 1519. It’s the only printed book that can be securely placed in her library, which is perhaps unusual given that by this time, printed books were common and were often popular in aristocratic libraries. Perhaps Anne de Graville preferred manuscript to print or perhaps there are printed editions inscribed with her name somewhere out there in private collections?

What was the state of women’s literary networks in Early Modern France?

We know that women played important roles in the commissioning of new works and in the translation of older works in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and there is evidence that women lent their books to each other, as well as to men. What I’ve tried to tease out in the book are the literary interconnections between women as writers and readers, even if those women did not necessarily live at exactly the same time or know each other personally. Christine de Pizan’s writings in defence of women in the early fifteenth century were clearly picked up by Anne of France in her Enseignements (c. 1503) written for her daughter Suzanne, as well as by Anne de Graville, her sister-in-law, Catherine d’Amboise, and Margaret of Navarre whose works all show an interest in promoting women’s experiences and overturning the idea that men were the sole purveyors of knowledge. We see this especially in the miniatures accompanying their works, in which they are depicted offering their works to women readers. 

How do we see Anne’s influence in today’s literary world?

As I was finishing the book, I noticed that the public library in Le Havre, France (where Anne’s family were influential) has been renamed La Bibliothèque Anne de Graville. This is great and suggests that she’s not been completely forgotten by history. More broadly, Anne’s works draw on and extend the legacy of Christine de Pizan’s intervention in the ‘woman debate’ (the querelle des femmes) which sought to defend women from misogynistic tropes present in literature, religion, and society. Women continued to take part in the querelle as writers well into the sixteenth and seventeenth century and we might say that this debate is on-going: stereotypes about men and women and everyday sexism are still present in our society and contemporary artists like Judy Chicago and Penelope Haralambidou continue to engage with the ideas first put forward by Christine de Pizan. What I hope to have shown in the book is that Anne de Graville plays a key role in connecting Christine’s struggle with that of later women. 

Tell us about your cover, what does the image depict?

The cover image is taken from the frontispiece of a manuscript now in the Louvre, Abu Dhabi. It was painted by the Master of the Chronique scandaleuse, an artist popular with the French court, and shows a seated Anne de Graville reaching up to take a book that is being offered to her by a disembodied hand, guided by a cupid figure. The banderols around her head include an anagram of her name J’en garde un leal that is also found in other books belonging to her and which she used to sign her works. The text found in this manuscript is a partial translation from Latin into French of Annius da Viterbo’s Antiquities (1498), a text about the history of Europe before the Flood. It was prepared for Anne at the behest of her husband, Pierre de Balsac, and is full of declarations of love for his wife and was intended to provide her with some solace and diversion following the fallout from their elopement. Annius’s work was a popular, yet controversial, one since it was essentially a forgery of ancient writings. However, the interesting thing here is that no translation of Annius’ work into French was known before Jean Lemaire des Belges mined it for his Les Illustrations de Gaule around 1512. The translation in Anne’s copy is unique and predates Lemaire des Belges’ work: the fact that Pierre had this personalised translation prepared for his wife points both to her interests in history and translation and to her learning and erudition. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

For a long time, scholars assumed that Anne’s two works, the Beau roman and the Rondeaux, were both written for Queen Claude of France. The Beau roman is explicitly dedicated to the queen in all but one of the surviving copies but the Rondeaux only exists in one manuscript that is dedicated ‘A ma dame’ (to my lady). During the writing of this book, deep in lockdown, an internet search turned up a frontispiece showing a lady giving a book to Louise of Savoy with an inscription on the verso: ‘La belle dame sans mercy / translatée en rondeaulx’. This is probably the frontispiece originally included in the only witness of the text and proves that the dedicatee of the Rondeaux was the powerful and influential Louise of Savoy who served as regent for her son, Francis I…unfortunately, irony would have it that the manuscript into which the frontispiece had been inserted has since been lost from the convent library it was formerly housed in!

Anne de Graville and
Women’s Literary Networks
in Early Modern France

Elizabeth L’Estrange

£70 / $99, Hardcover,
9781843846864, April 2023
376 pg., 31 colour illus;
29 b/w illus;
1 genealogical table


£42 / $59.40


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ELIZABETH L’ESTRANGE is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham.