Ladies Errant

Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy

Ladies Errant

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: 8 b&w photographs Published: June 1998

Author: Deanna Shemek

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Pre-Modern Studies > Medieval and Early Modern Studies

The issue of a woman’s place—and the possibility that she might stray from it—was one of early modern Italy’s most persistent social concerns. Ladies Errant takes as its starting point the vast literature of this era devoted to the proper conduct and education of women. Deanna Shemek uses this foundation to present the problem of wayward feminine behavior as it was perceived to threaten male identity and social order in the artistic and intellectual articulations of the Italian Renaissance.
Seeing errancy as an act of resistance rather than of error, Shemek carries her study beyond the didactic and prescriptive literature on femininity in early modern Italy to an arena in which theories about femininity are considered jointly with real and fictional instances of women’s waywardness. As prostitutes, warriors, lovers, and poets, the women of Shemek’s study are found in canonical texts, marginal works, and popular artistic activity, appearing, for instance, in literature, paintings, legal proceedings, and accounts of public festivals. By juxtaposing these varied places of errancy—from Ariosto’s chivalric Orlando furioso to the prostitutes’ race in the Palio di San Giorgio—Shemek points to the important contact between elite and popular cultures in early modernity, revealing the strength and flexibility of a gender boundary fundamental to early modern conceptions of social order.


“[A] fascinating and provocative discussion of the problem of female ‘errancy’ in sixteenth-century Italian society and the often complex, if not ambiguous, depictions of unconventional women in both literary texts and festive culture.” — Jennifer Selwyn , Sixteenth Century Journal

“Drawing the boundaries dictating the limits of ‘decent’ behavior for women in sixteenth-century Italy involved demonstrating the punishments in store for transgressors. The five chapters of Ladies Errant, which are essentially five case studies with a connecting theme, show that while fictional heroines of Renaissance epic poems might cross these boundaries with impunity, real women suffered, especially if their transgressions were sexual. . . . These sophisticated, well-written studies of diverse literary, historical, and visual errancies are additionally connected by the application of a common Lacanian perspective.” — , TLS

“Highly recommended.” — L. E. Mitchell , Choice

“In this elegant book, lucid in design and exposition, Deanna Shemek studies female errancy as displayed in four texts. . . . [W]ith grace and agility. . . she brings together separate endeavors in a persuasive unity that greatly illuminates our understandings of women’s position in the social order of early modern Italy.” — Margaret L. King , Journal of Women's History

"Ladies Errant is a brilliant piece of scholarship which makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Ariosto, of early modern representations of gender, and of the ideological dynamics that link gender tightly with other social-political structures. It will be important to anyone interested in questions of gender in the European early modern period." — Albert Russell Ascoli, University of California, Berkeley

"A far-reaching and innovative work with important and suggestive revisions of previous notions of errancy and feminine behavior in Renaissance Italy. Ladies Errant succeeds brilliantly in weaving together texts by providing sophisticated theoretical framings that are at once subtle and powerful." — Margaret F. Rosenthal, University of Southern California


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Deanna Shemek is Associate Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2167-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2155-2
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