Our picture of French Renaissance literature has been dominated by canonical male authors: Clément Marot, Maurice Scève, François Rabelais, Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard and Michel de Montaigne. In fact anthologies such as that of Lagarde and Michard, commonly used by French students, do not include any Renaissance women writers. French women writers of the sixteenth-century have received increasing attention in the last few years, however, particularly in the Anglophone world, and reading the works of these women writers gives us quite a different picture of the period from the one we receive from their male counterparts. Through a survey of nine carefully selected women writers (among many more) of the sixteenth century in France, it is possible to come to a more balanced understanding of its literary climate. These nine writers – Jeanne Flore, Hélisenne de Crenne, Marguerite de Navarre, Pernette du Guillet, Louise Labé, Madeleine and Catherine des Roches, Marguerite de Valois and Marie de Gournay – are each important for the way in which they modify the genre (or genres) in which they write, and change its definition for subsequent authors, whether male or female.
The literary image of woman emerging from the French Middle Ages was formed through the tradition of courtoisie [courtliness], apparent in both male- and female-authored texts. Amour courtois [Courtly Love] presented by a woman writer such as Marie de France, and questioned over two centuries later by Christine de Pizan, continued to be re-examined by sixteenth-century French authors, including women.