The son of a nobleman from Perigord, Brantôme spent his youth at the royal court. Educated first at the College of France in Paris and later at the University of Poitiers, he resumed life at the court sometime around 1556. The next year he was granted the Abbey of Brantôme and assumed the title of abbot despite his interest in pursuing a military career. A riding accident in 1584, coupled with a break with Henry III in 1582, isolated him from the court but left him the time to begin writing his memoirs of the Valois kings.
Brantôme's reputation as a memoirist rests primarily on three works: the Vies des grands capitaines [Lives of great captains] and two volumes treating women, Les dames illustres [Lives of illustrious ladies] and Les dames galantes [Lives of gallant ladies]. The Grands capitaines focus primarily on an idealized version of the courts of Francis I and Henry II, and the Dames illustres paints a similar portrait of the women at those courts. The Dames galantes, a blend of gossip, rumors, and well-known stories, depicts an erotic counterpoint of the court, often reporting on the same figures. The manuscript versions left by Brantôme were published posthumously in 1665–1666.
Brantôme's Dames galantes can be viewed as an encyclopedia of scandal. The focus of the text is galanterie, the amorous and sexual adventures of the members of the French court. In essence Brantôme equates sex and court life. Although it is clear that the veracity of much of his account cannot be verified, he raises questions about and offers models for gender relations and sexuality in mid-sixteenth-century France.
Divided into "discourses," each with multiple anecdotes, the Dames galantes treats a wide range of themes. The first discourse, titled "On Women Who Make Love and Cuckold Their Husbands," examines extramarital relations. The discussion includes a lengthy subsection on female homoerotic relations. Brantôme combines references to classical antiquity, such as Martial and Lucian, with gossip about women at the French and other courts as well as examples from exotic countries such as Turkey.
Brantôme specifically refers to Sappho, and in that section the first concrete use of the term lesbian to designate women who engage in same-sex relations appears. There is a notable tension in Brantôme's attitudes toward those "lesbians." On the one hand the significance of such relationships is downplayed somewhat; indeed, Brantôme emphasizes their utility as preludes to heterosexual sexual relationships while maintaining a woman's chastity. On the other hand he mentions some women who maintain long-term relationships. The sexual ambiguity of such women proves more troubling. A marked anxiety in his discussion of women who use prosthetic devices in sex acts is played out in his cautions about the risk of debilitating illness or even death for those women. Nonetheless, Brantôme concludes that erotic relations between women do not constitute cuckoldry, reinforcing a gender system aligned with biological sex. The only true sexual relations are heterosexual ones.
The discourses range from topics such as "On Married Women, Widows and Girls, as to Which Are Warmer in Love Than the Others" to "On One Must Never Speak Ill of Woman and the Consequences of So-Doing." Despite Brantôme's apparent affection for women and the request "Ladies … excuse me if I have offended you," his overarching position in the Dames galantes reinforces gender stereotypes.
Brantôme. 1933. Lives of Fair & Gallant Ladies. New York: Liveright.
Brantôme. 1955. Les dames galantes, intro. Maurice Rat. Paris: Editions Garnier Freres.
Brantôme. 1991. Recueil des dames, poésies et tombeaux, ed. Etienne Vaucheret. Paris: Gallimard.
Coats, Catharine Randall. 1993. "Drink Deep from the Text: Wooing and Warning the Reader in Brantome's 'Dames galantes' and 'Dames illustres.'" Modern Language Studies 23(2): 84-91.
Cottrell, Robert D. 1970. Brantôme: The Writer as Portraitist of His Age. Geneva: Librairie Droz.
Daumas, Maurice. 1998. Le système amoureux de Brantôme. Paris: L'Harmattan.
Lazard, Madeleine. 1995. Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme. Paris: Fayard.
Holly E. Ransom