Women’s Libraries in Late Medieval Bourbonnais, Burgundy and France

S.C. Kaplan takes us through her experience writing Women’s Libraries in Late Medieval Bourbonnais, Burgundy, and France: A Family Affair. This new book is about women’s reading and their intellectual influence–on each other, but also on the men around them and on the different French-speaking courts more generally–as demonstrated through the literature that they shared with each other.

Ms.471, Chanson d’Amis et Amile, Bibliothèque du musée Condé, Château de Chantilly.

I experienced a delightful number of “aha!” moments while writing Women’s Libraries in Late Medieval Bourbonnais, Burgundy, and France. Is the mysterious book in this earlier inventory the same as the mysterious book in that later inventory? They are! Aha! This poet not only composed poems for female aristocrats, but he named them in this poem? Now we have proof that they participated in the poetic community of the time! Together! Aha! This book that I thought no longer existed is not only still materially real and accessible (provided one can get to a particular castle in France), stumbling onto it also meant finding records for a number of other still-extant books! Aha!

Of course, every jubilant “aha!” was followed by the realization that I would need to revise the text again. Move things around again. Update the numbers again.

All that work was certainly worth it in the end, though. Those hours in the archives, transcribing, planning, researching, reading, writing, and revising led to one of very few larger-scale assessments of French-speaking aristocratic women’s literary culture across multiple courts and most of a century during the late Middle Ages.

[Dijon, Archives de la Côte d’Or, B 1625, f. 248. Record of payment for a manuscript created for Anne of Burgundy by order of her brother Philip the Good. Transcription available here.]

One of the most important challenges that I pose in Women’s Libraries is to the idea of literary cultural edifices as the domains of men. Even today, most scholars and history lovers still talk about the libraries of the dukes of Burgundy and Bourbon. And it is true that men played important, sometimes dominant roles in the assemblage of books that comprised those libraries. For instance, by the time he died in 1467, Philip the Good had added about 700 books to the tally of 200 or so that his father, John the Fearless, had owned when he was assassinated in 1419. But, in its case study of the Bourbonnais library in particular, Women’s Libraries demonstrates that the women of the households also played a fundamental part in building those collections, both directly and indirectly: at least 25% of those books became part of the library because of a woman.  

Women bought themselves books that eventually became part of the family collections, no question. Joan of Valois, duchess of Bourbon from 1456 to 1482, commissioned a beautifully written and illustrated copy of the French translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s On the Fates of Famous Men, BnF fr. 227, that was completed in 1468, and stayed in the library at Moulins for decades. Inheritance was also a very typical way for women to acquire books. But, Women’s Libraries asks, what about other means of acquisition? What about books that women gave and received as gifts? (Really, who doesn’t love a book for their birthday?)

It turns out that women in the Middle Ages liked giving and receiving books too. Usually these exchanges took place with one of the men in their family circles, but not always. One of my favorite examples is that of Gabrielle de la Tour d’Auvergne, countess of Montpensier (the younger line of the Bourbon family), who gave a copy of the mid-15th-century romance Cleriadus and Meliadice to one of her nieces—it feels just like the sort of interaction that I have with family members myself. “I loved this book so much that I’m buying you your own copy!”

And, Women’s Libraries asks, what about borrowing? These household libraries weren’t quite public institutions, but they weren’t so private as to be completely inaccessible either. Some men definitely had borrowing privileges at their masters’ homes—John the Fearless loaned his physician, Geoffroi Maupoivre, a set of books on civil law—but those men didn’t exactly have the run of the house. Wives, daughters, cousins, and ladies-in-waiting, on the other hand, did—and many of them took full advantage. Margaret of Bavaria, duchess of Burgundy, had borrowed more than a dozen volumes from her family’s library according to the inventory taken after John the Fearless’ death. Her sister-in-law, Margaret of Burgundy, countess of Hainaut, did the same in Hainaut about a decade later.

The tricky thing about borrowing, though, is that most of the time it left no trace (or, more probably, records of the loan have been lost over time). While we have some records about some women’s borrowing (Women’s Libraries has assembled information about 33 women acting as borrower, lender, or both), they all had to be brought together to form a meaningful pattern that I could then extrapolate from to make claims about other women’s borrowing—such as asserting that they probably did it all the time.

These gaps in our data are all too common for medieval topics, and a good scholarly publication on the Middle Ages is often as much about the author’s story-telling skill and how they can fill in those holes as it is about anything else. It’s important that we get a good sense of the gaps’ shape, breadth, and depth before we can really go about filling them in or even going over or around them. This is the other important thing I tried to do with Women’s Libraries. I’m no longer willing to gesture vaguely at the problem and accept that we just don’t know—I want to know what it is we don’t know about women’s libraries, and why, and I especially want to know how much is missing from our current understanding. And it turns out that if you bring information on enough of these women together, you can actually quantify these gaps. For instance, the rate of material survival of books that are specifically mentioned in women’s inventories ranges from 10 to 60%. From these numbers, we can turn around and conclude that women whose inventories we don’t have access to—whose books are only known because some of them still survive—owned 40 to 90% more books than we had previously thought! This is even more exciting because it casts serious doubt on the assertions that women didn’t read as much as men, and that they owned so few books as to barely merit consideration.

The job now is to keep on trying to fit those puzzle pieces together and bring ever more clarity to our understanding of women as consumers and disseminators of culture.

For more information on Women’s Libraries in Late Medieval Bourbonnais, Burgundy, and France by S.C. Kaplan, visit the Liverpool University Press website.


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