Renaissance and Reformation Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches
Kendall Tarte
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0369


Madeleine Neveu (b. c. 1520–d. 1587) and Catherine Fradonnet (b. 1542–d. 1587), the mother-daughter pair known as the “Dames Des Roches,” were prolific writers and the celebrated hosts of a humanist salon in their hometown of Poitiers, France. Catherine was the only surviving child of Madeleine, who took responsibility for her daughter’s education. Catherine famously refused to marry, and the two lived on their own after the death of Madeleine’s second husband in 1578. That same year they published their first collection of poetry and prose, Les Œuvres de Mes-Dames Des Roches. Their use of a surname based on landholdings, rather than the name of a husband or father, gave the women a means to affirm their mother-daughter bond on the title pages of their works. The name “Des Roches” (“of the rocks”) also offered rich topographical associations that the two women and their contemporaries exploited in their writings. By the time special court sessions, the Grands Jours, brought Parisian legists to Poitiers in 1579, the Des Roches were well known. Étienne Pasquier’s visit, and his conversation with Catherine during which he claimed to see a flea on her breast, led to a salon game in which many male participants wrote jocular verse in the blason tradition. Catherine’s flea poem is a nimble refutation of the corporeal, often bawdy subtext of the male-authored poems. The collected texts—primarily in French and Latin—were published as La Puce de Madame Des-Roches in 1582–1583. Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches jointly published two more collections, Les Secondes œuvres (1583) and Les Missives (1586). Their first and third collections were published by Abel L’Angelier in Paris, an association that brought their works to a wider audience. The Des Roches treat themes common to Renaissance women’s writing, such as female education and the life of the mind, and they address poems to their salon contemporaries and to members of the French court. Madeleine’s poetry bears witness to her personal difficulties; she also engages with local events of the Wars of Religion. Catherine’s writing is more abundant and varied; it includes poetry, prose dialogues, and verse translations and adaptations of classical and biblical texts. The Des Roches were the first French women to publish their private letters. Their contemporaries often remarked on the strong bond between the mother and daughter, and eulogized them after their death of the plague in 1587—which apparently occurred, appropriately and poetically, on the same day.

General Overviews

For readers unfamiliar with Madeleine and Catherine Des Roches, Larsen 2006 and Larsen 2007 are useful starting points. The best comprehensive introductions to their lives and works appear in volumes of their works edited by Anne R. Larsen in French and English; see Des Roches and Des Roches 1993 and Des Roches and Des Roches 2006, cited under Editions. The earliest complete study of the Des Roches, Diller 1936 takes an outmoded biographical approach but contains interesting archival information not published elsewhere. The literary analyses in Tarte 2007 shed light on the contexts of their writing: the salon, the city of Poitiers, and the French civil wars. For the broader context of French Renaissance women’s writing, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation article “Women Writing in French.”

  • Diller, George E. Les Dames des Roches: Étude sur la vie littéraire à Poitiers dans la deuxième moitié du XVIe siècle. Paris: Droz, 1936.

    Dated but still useful literary-biographical study. Appendices include transcriptions of manuscript poems, summaries of archival documents that illuminate the Des Roches’ economic situation, and a catalogue of sources keyed to citations from their works.

  • Larsen, Anne R. “Madeleine des Roches and Catherine des Roches.” In Sixteenth-Century French Writers. Vol. 327 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Edited by Megan Conway, 128–132. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2006.

    Concise biographical overview of the lives of the Des Roches, with highlights about their literary production. Includes a complete bibliography of 16th-century and modern editions, and a brief list of secondary sources.

  • Larsen, Anne R. “Dames des Roches (Madeleine Neveu, 1520–1587; Catherine Fradonnet, 1542–1587).” In Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England. Edited by Diana Robin, Anne R. Larsen, and Carole Levin, 109–112. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.

    Short introduction to the Des Roches and their writing. The online version (available by subscription through the Gale Virtual Reference Library) is especially useful, providing cross-references to entries on related topics in the encyclopedia.

  • Tarte, Kendall B. Writing Places: Sixteenth-Century City Culture and the Des Roches Salon. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007.

    Wide-ranging study that situates the Des Roches in the context of current events, the literary salon, and the city of Poitiers. Special emphasis on La Puce and on poetry evoking the landscape and the Wars of Religion. Includes analyses of contemporary chorographic texts and visual images of the city, conduct manuals, archival court documents from the 1579 Grands Jours de Poitiers, and histories and memoirs of the 1569 siege of Poitiers.

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