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Transmission of Knowledge to and between Women in 15th-Century France: Agnès de Bourgogne's Education and Library


In Late Medieval France, it is generally accepted that women learned from experience and men from reading. Close examination of medieval tracts about and for female education used in the teaching of Agnès de Bourgogne (1405/7-1476), duchess of Bourbon from 1434-1456, and found in her collection of manuscripts reveals otherwise. I demonstrate that the category of experience is differentiated into experience and imitation, and also that by the 15th century, medieval authors were challenging these gendered stereotypes, particularly in works aimed at a female readership. A critical synthesis of writings about women’s education from St. Jerome, Vincent de Beauvais, Durand de Champagne, the Chevalier de la Tour Landry, and Giovanni Boccaccio brings to light the shift in emphasis from preparing women for a cloistered life (Jerome) to readying them to participate in life at the French court (La Tour Landry). I show that Christine de Pizan modifies her predecessors’ theories in her privileging of feminine experiential knowledge over abstract male instruction in the Epistre Othea, the Chemin de longue étude, the Livre de la cité des Dames, and the Livre des trois vertus, the images adorning various manuscript copies of these works, and letters from the Querelle du Roman de la Rose. A text commissioned by Agnès in 1438-1442, Antoine de La Sale’s Paradis de la reine Sibylle, pushes the boundaries of Christine’s position of self-as-model by inviting the reader not to replicate the author’s experience but to share it, while at the same time relying heavily on learning in the abstract to teach the female dedicatee. Analyzing the books acquired by Agnès from the middle of the 15th-century until her death that afterward passed to daughter-in-law Jeanne de France foregrounds the changing integration of learning by experience and imitation, and the increasing reliance on women’s ability to learn in the abstract and both genders’ ability to learn by imitation. This dissertation helps us understand gendered perceptions about the transmission of knowledge and their impact on how and what women taught their children in 15th-century France.

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