Queens and royal mistresses of the Renaissance were the Hollywood celebrities of their time, which explains their enduring magnetism for writers, artists, and the...

Queens and royal mistresses of the Renaissance were the Hollywood celebrities of their time, which explains their enduring magnetism for writers, artists, and the public. Historians and scholars, however, have long ignored them. Enlightenment philosophers used descriptions of powerful women in the French court to mock the monarchy. Nineteenth-century historians propagated myths about these historical women to discredit the monarchy and to justify the exclusion of women from the French republic. Feminist scholars have eschewed royal women as subjects because their influence stemmed from their sexual and romantic association with kings and not because of their own merit. And contemporary historiography in France has long turned away from political elites to focus on social and cultural sites of inquiry.
Kathleen Wellman, in Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France (Yale University Press, 2013, Yale), argues that women of the French court deserve our undivided attention because they greatly influenced the French Renaissance. Between the mid-15th century to the end of the 16th century, women such as Agnès Sorel, Anne of Brittany, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, and Marguerite de Valois, acted with agency, carved out spheres of influence, overcame constraints, and made use of their positions for personal and political ends, and in the process influenced the course of French history. Wellman’s engrossing account of royal women compels us to revise our understanding of the French Renaissance.

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