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Historia Ecclesiastica

A New Kind of Literary Patroness

On Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu's heiress. 


Measured and wise beyond her years, Marie de Vignerot did not dignify the gossip about her with direct responses. But neither did she suffer it passively. She had access to Cardinal Richelieu’s deep and wide network, including his contacts in the exploding Parisian publishing sector of the time. And she took a cue from her uncle, who was utilizing the printed word to shape public perceptions as no French prime minister had ever done. She began to assert herself as the patroness of writers and artists who had things to say that she wished to see amplified across France.

Some of the works she patronized were about women and the ways they were underestimated by more than a few moralists and preachers of the time.

Around the time of her foiled kidnapping by the Queen Mother’s henchmen in 1632—something she had faced with a courage that had shocked the men around her—Marie lent support to an aspiring book author named Jacques du Bosc. He was a young Franciscan friar who had much to say about the dignity and moral and intellectual capacities of women, whom he believed were the equals of men in numerous respects.

Du Bosc had written a manuscript on the subject that dared to argue that women were as capable as men of demonstrating courage in the most difficult of situations. They were also capable of great achievements in the arts and sciences even as they were shut out of institutions of higher learning and prevented from developing in such ways.

Bold as he was with his pen in private, the friar was afraid to publish the book under his own name. When his book appeared in print with the title L’Honneste Femme, Marie’s name appeared on it instead, as the anonymous author’s protectress. After Du Bosc had shown the manuscript to Marie, she had financed its publication by Pierre Billaine, an established Parisian printer.

Du Bosc said of Marie in the book’s dedicatory epistle that L’Honneste Femme was “a portrait made in [her] likeness” and an “effort to bestow upon [her] virtue the recognition it deserves.” The book went on to portray a woman who was pious, chaste, guarded in her speech, capable of regulating her emotions, but also lively and engaging in her conversation with men on an array of topics. She was able to enjoy herself at dinners and other festive gatherings without endangering her virtue, whatever naysayers and gossips might say. And she was able—at least when permitted by men to develop her character and her mind—to serve higher causes such as political justice and to study and deliberate over things that traditional moralists, Christian and pagan alike, regarded as the purview of men alone.

While controversial, L’Honneste Femme was an immediate success. In 1633, Du Bosc came out of hiding and worked with Marie and Billaine to produce an expanded second edition. In it, the friar praised Marie more emphatically: “If all women could contemplate your actions, reading this book would not be necessary at all; they would know without additional lessons that it is not necessary to be unsociable in order to be virtuous, and that devotion and civility are not contrary to one another.” Du Bosc would go on to expand the book again, see it republished several more times, and produce additional works on the theme of women’s capabilities, education, and equality with men. By 1645, he was emboldened—this time with Queen Anne of Austria’s protection, which Marie secured for him—to produce a work entitled La Femme Héroique, which featured a quote by Plutarch on its frontispiece declaring, “The virtues of man and woman are but one and the same.”

Fresh off the success of L’Honneste Femme, Marie threw her support behind another controversial work. It was a French translation of an unusual work of theological poetry, De Partu Virginis by Jacopo Sannazaro, a Neopolitan humanist who had been active a century earlier. The translator, Guillaume Colletet, was a Parisian of humble birth whose linguistic talents had won him the attention of the Blue Room regulars. His work of translation of 1634, Les Couches Sacrées de la Vierge, was, as a result of Marie’s patronage, published by Jean Camusat, an up-and-coming printer who would soon be made the official publisher of her uncle’s new Académie Française.

Les Couches Sacrées de la Vierge treated in accessible, fashionable Parisian French a perennially awkward question in the Catholic tradition that Sannazaro had taken on in scholarly Latin—a language that even highly educated women were discouraged from studying. That question was about how, precisely, the Blessed Virgin Mary had come to be pregnant with the Second Person of the divine Trinity on the evening of the Annunciation while still remaining completely virginal, as the Church taught.

Most provocative was the work’s bold suggestion that despite the truly miraculous conception of the Christ Child through the action of the Holy Spirit, His mother had experienced on that pivotal night a fear similar to that of a woman who was about to be raped by pirates.

Marie, in other words, patronized a book that dared to consider the mystery of God’s Incarnation from the perspective of the young woman at its center—a woman portrayed in a real and very human way. What is more, Les Couches Sacrées de la Vierge also depicted Mary of Nazareth as so heroically committed to her own chastity—as a prerequisite for her Fiat mihi and acceptance of the unimaginable divine plan for her womb—that she forced the angel who announced the plan into a sort of bargaining session. Indeed, Mary argued with the angel until she was satisfied that the Lord of all Creation was not going to violate her.

Colletet also helped Marie to redefine her own public image while it was under attack. In his published letter of dedication to his patroness, he underscored Marie’s own purity of spirit, which he likened to that of angels, and not just her beauty and generosity. He rendered her special homage by saying, furthermore, “Your power of judgment is without equal . . . your soul’s goodness, is without example.” Although his inflated praise was a bit embarrassing where it likened Marie to saints already in Heaven, it was a useful counterweight—in that era when printed words had an almost magical power among populations still getting used to them—to things Richelieu’s enemies were saying.

By mid-1634, Marie was also assisting the late-blossoming writing career of a remarkable woman named Marie Le Jars de Gournay. Approaching seventy, Gournay as a girl had taught herself Latin and other humanistic subjects at a time when such endeavors were forbidden to most women. By chance, she had befriended early in life Montaigne, whose work she would edit and help bring to further renown.

In 1622, Gournay had published a treatise arguing for women’s moral and intellectual equality with men and advocating for women’s access to higher learning. This work, Égalité des Hommes et des Femmes, had achieved some recognition when first in print, but it was given new life more than a decade later after Marie convinced Richelieu to take an interest in its author. Marie recruited into this effort the Cardinal’s literary secretary, François Le Métel de Boisrobert, a witty and charming man of known homosexual tendencies whom Richelieu liked and nicknamed Le Bois (“Wood”). (Boisrobert’s less affectionate nickname, given by others, was Bourgmestre de Sodom.)

Hoping to appeal to Richelieu’s patriotism, Marie and Boisrobert presented him with a quatrain that Gournay had composed about the medieval soldier maiden Joan of Arc:

Can you properly reconcile, Virgin so dear to Heaven,
The sweetness of your eyes with that angry sword?
The sweetness of my eyes caresses my country,
And this raging sword gives it back its freedom.

Richelieu liked these verses and showed favor to their elderly, female author. Gournay had never married and she lived modestly in Paris. Now, suddenly, she was offered a handsome pension and unexpected recognition late in life for her talents and life’s work.

Indeed, in 1634 the firm of Toussaint du Bray in Paris published a voluminous edition of Gournay’s essays, poems, and stories. At a time when it was rare for women who wrote to see their work published at all, let alone under their own names, Gournay went on to see second and third editions of her collected works published before she was eighty. Furthermore, when Boisrobert put together several great volumes of propagandistic odes on the King’s and Richelieu’s military exploits, Gournay was the only female poet featured in them.

Marie’s activities were pioneering—and only just beginning—on behalf of authors and literary works that encouraged both men and women not to underestimate the fairer sex. However, they and the dedicatory letters to her now appearing in print did not protect her from attacks on her character. The ex-Jesuit Mathieu de Morgues, for one—the exiled Marie de’ Medici’s bulldog—openly accused her of debauchery in 1635. He called Marie an “adroit courtesan” who “plays the Queen” in Richelieu’s home.

To undermine Richelieu’s regime—and perhaps also to try to put an increasingly powerful, independent-minded, and spirited young woman in her place—some even began to advance the rumor that the Cardinal-Minister’s affection for Marie was anything but avuncular.

One dirty street song in this vein maligned not only Richelieu and Marie but also their friends the Princesse de Condé and Cardinal La Valette, who was now belittled with the nickname cardinal valet because of his loyalty to Richelieu:

The Combalet woman and the Princess
Do not think to do any evil
And do not go to confession
About having, each of them, a cardinal;
Because when they let their chemises go up
And give their bodies to abandon,
It is only the Church to whom they submit,
Which, in any case, can grant them absolution.

As far as the historical record can reveal, the truth of Marie’s private life with her uncle and others was far less sensational—and far more complicated—than such slanders remotely accounted for. For one thing, Marie’s communications with Richelieu in this period were affectionate, direct, and respectful, with no hints of any underlying emotional turmoil suggestive of a relationship other than that of a niece and uncle who had come to relate to each other more the way a daughter and father would.

If anything, because of Richelieu’s travels for the King and his intense focus on preparing France to enter into the Thirty Years’ War, Marie was at times frustrated by his periodic inaccessibility and his continued insistence that her primary task was to secure a worthy husband even after she had proven herself time and again to be a capable assistant in his career. She increasingly utilized intermediaries to communicate with him, such as his secretary Claude Bouthillier. At one point, after communicating through Bouthillier her concerns about political whisperings she was hearing at court, Richelieu dismissed her in chauvinistic terms: “Just as women have no voice in the Church, I am of the opinion, shared by ancient and modern philosophers, that they should not have any in political life.”

That was in the spring of 1633. It is possible, indeed, that Marie’s choices of writers and poets to patronize—underscoring women’s intelligence, points of view, and capabilities for public service—were partly intended to teach her uncle some lessons.

This essay is extracted from La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France, recently published by Pegasus Books.

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Bronwen McShea is a writing fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Life and a visiting assistant professor for the Augustine Institute Graduate School in Denver. She is the author of La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France.