DES ROCHES, Catherine

DES ROCHES, Catherine (1542-1587) and Madeleine)
(c. 1520-1587)
The Dames des Roches, mother and daughter, were members of France's upper middle class who hosted a salon, or gathering of scholars and artists. They were authors of epistolary poems, verse dialogues, and lyric and narrative poems that exhibit their knowledge of classical authors as well as current debates.
Both Madeleine and Catherine were born and lived their lives in and around the French city of Poitiers. The mother, Madeleine, instructed herself and her daughter, Catherine, in the arts and sciences of the time. In order to better pursue a life of learning with her mother, Catherine des Roches chose not to marry, despite her many suitors. The salon gatherings attracted suitors among the many writers and scholars in attendance.
Madeleine des Roches wrote three particularly noteworthy pieces: "Epistle to the Ladies," "Epistle to My Daughter," and an "Ode." In the "Epistle to the Ladies," she describes a community of educated women readers, perhaps asso­ciated with the court of the queen mother Catherine de' Medici.* She warns the ladies against heeding the virtue of silence in women, a virtue that was highly admired by many people of the time. Instead of silence, she argues, women's honor should be associated with reason, which distinguishes humans from ani­mals and is articulated through speech. It is this same advice she passes on to her daughter in the "Epistle to My Daughter." This letter to her daughter is written in verse and wishes her the best in her scholarly endeavors. Peppered with numerous classical references, her "Ode" further discussed the current quer­elle des femmes, in which the virtues and vices of the female gender were hotly debated. Madeleine encourages the implied female reader to undertake learning despite considerable opposition she will encounter due to gender expectations.
Madeleine's daughter, Catherine, wrote about a wide variety of gender-based topics, from Amazons to distaffs to dialogues concerning family relations. In her poems on Amazons, Catherine resurrects this classical myth about women warriors from a female point of view. Her Amazons are chaste and learned as well as strong, virtues she may well have possessed herself. In a poem written to her distaff, she compares the two instruments—her distaff and her pen - equally and favorably. The distaff, or spindle, represents the traditional female occupation of spinning, whereas the pen, which was not a traditionally female implement, receives equal honors. This poem, like others she wrote, can be read as conciliatory in the querelle about women's roles: women can embrace both conventional roles and scholarship.
Unlike some other women writers, but like their Lyon contemporary, Louise Labe,* the Dames des Roches were published in their lifetime: Les oeuvres (1578 and 1579), Les secondes oeuvres (1583), and Les missives (1586). Mad­eleine was fervently nationalistic; France was superior to all other nations. Both mother and daughter opposed the Protestant Reformation, yet they maintained friendly relations with Protestant humanists.
Bibliography
A. Larsen, "Les Dames des Roches," in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Refor­mation, ed. K. M. Wilson, 1987.
Ana Kothe

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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