Early Music History


Jeanice Brooks  a1 1
a1 University of Southampton

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François de Billon’s Fort inexpugnable de l’honneur du sexe feminin (1555) was among the most extensive contributions to the sixteenth-century polemic on the nature of women known as the querelle des femmes. In keeping with the military connotations of its title, Billon’s ‘impregnable fortress’ is an exercise in bellicose rhetoric; his sallies are illustrated with woodcuts of roaring lions and fire-spitting cannons to heighten the effect of bravado. In the section on women’s musical gifts, he vaunts the ‘angelic sweetness’ of the female singing voice, and claims that although male musicians more often win fame, women have always been better singers:

In [singing] nevertheless women have always been the very best. Whatever may be said by Sandrin, Arcadelt or Janequin, the most renowned musicians of Europe in our time, whom I would willingly ask, ‘Where is it that one can find sweetness of vocal harmony, in general, if not in the musical throat of Woman, even if she puts forth only a little warbling?’ And if they answered that in some men one finds more, could I not rightly reply, ‘What is the reason, my friends, that so few men of your profession are married and that you all flee marriage, if not that through propriety [honnesteté] you would be forced to bring your wives (instead of choirboys) into princely chambers to sing with you, or without you, which would be found so much sweeter than any childish voice? O what harmony, if you were all married in the normal fashion to beautiful women; if they were well instructed by you in the rules of music; and if in the aforementioned manner, you tuned yourselves well with them. The pleasure of listening to you would be double, the advantage triple, and thus, frequently nothing would be sung except in duo’.


1 I would like to thank Tim Carter, Francesca Chiarelli, Robert Evans, Thorsten Hindrichs, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Jonathan Le Cocq, Laurie Stras, Richard Wistreich and anonymous readers for their help and suggestions. Earlier versions of this study were presented at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, the University of Texas at Austin and the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society in Toronto, 2000; my thanks to Richard Freedman for stepping in for me on the latter occasion and for his helpful comments on my work.