Racy Reformation potboilers touted as popular among Frenchwomen may have been a ploy to attract male readers in search of titillation, according to new research.
Pollie Bromilow, a lecturer in French at Liverpool University, revealed her research into 16th-century Frenchwomen's reading last weekend at a conference entitled Women in French and Women Postgraduates in Spanish at St Andrews University.
Dr Bromilow began to question whether women or men were being targeted since women's literacy rate is thought to have been about 10 per cent that of men's in Reformation France.
"Printers saying 'women read this' could be a way of giving male readers a promise of access to female intimacy," she said. She recently discovered a French potboiler owned by Alexander Arbuthnot, principal of Aberdeen University in the 1580s, a time of strong links between Scotland and France. "It contains stories of love and transgression that always have a tragic ending."
While hero and heroine could arguably both be equally to blame for adultery, the woman was always censured for leading the man astray, Dr Bromilow said. The books claimed a high moral purpose in educating women, but at the same time insisted women were ineducable because of their weakness and irrationality.
Diana Holmes, professor of French at Leeds University, is researching trends in French romantic fiction, which were tacitly encouraged by the Catholic Church, in which pious, virginal heroines tamed and married devilishly attractive heroes.
In contrast, researchers have also discovered feminist love stories written in the 1890s, in which the heroine often jettisoned the hero because she could not reconcile love in a relationship of unequal power.