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Female Printers in Sixteenth-Century Paris

The following is a guest post by Marianna Stell.  Marianna works in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

In sixteenth-century Paris, a woman did not choose to become a printer.  For a woman to learn the craft of printing, she had to be one of two things: the daughter of a printer, or the wife of a printer.  In order to own her own print shop, she had to be one thing: the widow of a printer.  Yolande Bonhomme (ca. 1490–1557) was all of the above.  Born to a printing family, she learned the trade from her father, Pasquier Bonhomme, and she married Thielman Kerver, who owned one of the more important publishing houses in sixteenth-century Paris.  Consequently, when Thielman died in 1522, Yolande inherited the directorship of the House of Kerver, and she remained at its helm for the next thirty-five years.

The Law Library has in its collection a copy of Yolande’s 1541 publication of Justinian’s Institutes with the Glossa of Accursius, a popular textbook of the Roman law for the period.  On the title page Yolande retained her late husband’s distinctive printer’s mark, which features two unicorns and a shield above his name, but it is Yolande’s name that appears first in the printer’s statement at the bottom of title page.

Almost as though it were an epitome for Yolande’s professional life, the statement reads: “From the workshop of the bookseller, Yolande Bonhomme, widow of the noteworthy man, Thielman Kerver, on the Rue Saint Jacque under the sign of the unicorn.” [Ex officina librari yolande bonhomie vidue spectabilis viri Theilmani Kerver in via jacobea sub signo unicornis].  These selected biographical details present contemporary readers with a small window into the life of this sixteenth-century Parisian printer.

Yolande Bonhomme quite literally printed this text under the “sign of the unicorn.”  Her printer’s shop was located on the street level of a large hotel, the hôtel Unicorn, on the Rue Saint Jacque, one of the busiest streets of what was known as the printing district in the Latin Quarter, in convenient proximity to the Sorbonne and to its faculty and students.  Her proximity to the university provided a local market and therefore opportunities to print scholarly editions of canon and civil law as well as translations and editions of theological works.  Yolande also enjoyed a broader national market for liturgical publications, particularly for materials commissioned to meet the liturgical needs of specific monastic orders.  Yolande’s publishing house was well-known for printing devotional prayer books—particularly books of hours—not only for French markets but also for other Western European markets such as those in Portugal and England.  In short, Yolande’s business acumen was sufficient to make her quite successful, but she was aided in certain respects by the legal climate of Paris.

Detail of printer’s statement. Institutionum seu elementorum iuris ciuilis libri iiij… Parisijs : Ex officina libraria Yolande Bonho[m]me vidue spectabilis viri Thielma[n]ni Keruer …, 1540 [i.e. 1541]. //lccn.loc.gov/98107043

A woman working in sixteenth-century Paris held something of an advantage over women who lived in other parts of Europe, because in France, women could inherit property even if a male heir were still living.  Unlike England, where the laws of primogeniture required that inheritance pass from the father of a family directly to the eldest son, the widow of a sixteenth-century Parisian printer could inherit the printing business upon the death of her husband, even if she had a son.  The Custom of Paris (Coutume de Paris) directed that upon marriage a couple entered into a community of property, unless there was some specific language inserted into a marriage contact which was not infrequent.  Whichever party died first, half of the communal property would go to the bereaved spouse, and the other half was divided equally among the offspring. Children inherited equally regardless of sex or birth order, and the consequence was that the widow, rather than the eldest son, might become the head of the household.  Yolande had five children, but she became the head of the House of Kerver, and the matriarch of her family.

Despite the advantageous property rights that Yolande enjoyed, the Parisian printing guild restricted a woman’s privilege to operate as a printer. Only the widow of a printer who was continuing to run her husband’s business could print under her own name.  If the widow remarried another printer, her second husband would take her place as the head of the business and subsequently his name would replace hers on the printer’s mark.  If the widow remarried a man whose profession was not printing, she could no longer continue to run the business.

Consequently, widows like Yolande were economically encouraged to either marry another printer, or, to remain a widow and thus continue to serve as the legal head of her printing house. While Yolande was one of the more successful women printers of her era, she was not the only one.  Historians have identified approximately fifty women who published texts and managed printing establishments in Paris between 1500 and 1600.  Only a few operated printing houses as large and well-established as the House of Kerver.

Charlotte Guillard (ca. 1485–1557) was among those few women whose publishing houses rivaled the House of Kerver.  Having married two printers and outlived them both, she owned and directed the Soleil d’Or printing house for more than two decades.  The Soleil d’Or exceeded the House of Kerver in its reputation for printing humanist editions of patristic authors.  Few women of the period—and even fewer lay women—would have had a similar opportunity to work with the kinds of texts that Charlotte Guillard’s press published with regularity.  In keeping with the spirit of the age, she focused on quality translations and publications of Greek authors.  Competition does not appear to have resulted in antagonism, however, as Charlotte and Yolande are known to have collaborated on select publications, and to have both signed the same legal complaint regarding the poor quality of the paper available for sale in Paris. The Law Library has in its rare books collection a copy of Charlotte Guillard’s 1558 imprint of Decretum Gratianithe first major work of the canon law of the Catholic Church.

As with the Law Library’s copy of Yolande’s work, this text is remarkable because of its context.  The Decretum Gratiani, is a standard compilation, yet its printer is anything but ordinary.  Both Yolande Bonhomme and Charlotte Guillard were able to seize a particular social and legal environment that allowed them an opportunity to print works under their own names, successfully produce texts in classical languages, and become the legal and financial matriarchs of their respective households.  Participation in the printing industry placed these women in proximity to the intellectual resources of the works they published and the academic communities that fostered printing culture in Paris.  During a period of history when women’s education was a symbol of leisure, these two printers’ lives illustrate one way in which middle class women could access the intellectual life of the times.

Further Reading:

Beech, Beatrice Hibbard.  “Charlotte Guillard: A Sixteenth-Century Business Woman.”  Renaissance Quarterly 36.3 (Autumn 1983): 345-367. Retrieved June 6, 2018 from

Beech, Beatrice Hibbard. “Women Printers in Paris in the Sixteenth Century.” Medieval Prosopography 10.5 (Spring 1998): 75-93.

Beech, Beatrice Hibbard. “Yolande Bonhomme: A Renaissance Printer.”  Medieval Prosopography 6.2 (Autumn 1985): 79-100.

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