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Female authorship and social networks in XVIIIth-century Lisbon

The question «What is a female author?» Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?) presented by Michel Foucault in 1969, and again, by Roger Chartier, in the year 2000, by the Société française de Philosophie (Foucault 1994; Chartier 2000). The way each of these scholars answered the question can be taken as a starting point for the discussion presented here.

Michel Foucault (in a way continuing the discussion opened by Roland Barthes in 1968 with the announcement of the «Death of the author» (Barthes 1984) postulates the existence of a «function» called author, which he considers «characteristic of the way of existence, circulation and functioning of certain «discourses» («discours») inside a given society». This postulate enabled him to bring to attention the distance between the subject of a text and the biographical writer, as well as to emphasize the way in which an author’s name, or an author’s reputation can condition the reading of texts assigned to this function. On the other hand, speaking in general terms, but having in mind the French cultural reality, Foucault associated the emergence of this author function to the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, and associated it to the new rules of the property system in the bourgeois society, to the certification of certain discourses, as well as to their «penal appropriation» (the expression is Chartier’s) by censorship. In the hypothesis put forward by Foucault the need and the consequences of the «author function» would vary if applied to literary discourses or to scientific ones, being essential for reading the former and not always relevant for the reception of the latter.

When returning to the subject almost thirty years later, Roger Chartier retained the idea of the «author function», but tried to integrate this concept in a more precise historical approach, confronting Foucault’s theoretical proposal with facts related to librarian’s privileges, the invention of copyright, the emergence of the concept of originality and the association of the «author function» with published texts. In doing so, Chartier was able to redefine Foucault’s assumptions, and to integrate the concept of authorial property in the framework of the old-regime society and in the privilege-system from which librarian rights and the notion of copyright emerged, as well as the aristocratic models of validation of scientific, as well as literary texts. On one hand, Chartier draws attention to the fact that in the period between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries, the name of the patron often had a function similar to that of the author’s, especially in the case of scientific texts. On the other hand, he recalls the weight given to the author’s name in the sixteenth century Spanish Inquisition indexes of forbidden books, and describes it as a prefiguration of the «author function». In doing this, he points out to the existence of modalities of authorship that are not necessarily linked to printed works: he speaks of an «author function» constructed not on the basis of the economical market, but built upon the aristocratic values of disinterest (the «economy of symbolic goods»). He concludes that the «genealogy of the «author function» for literary texts is of much longer durée than Foucault has suggested» (Chartier 2000, 22) and states that it is connected to the materiality of texts.

Even if Foucault’s opinions have been contested along the years by other scholars (for example: Foster 2002), the issues he raised, as well as their refutation by Chartier, can help us proceed to the discussion on female authorship:
First the emergence of the «author function» is a concept of longue durée in the history of text transmission, and is historically and socially determined.
Second there can be various modalities of authorship not necessarily dependent upon printing.

We would like to stress these points, for they allow us to escape from the framework of one particular conjuncture – like, let’s say, relations between authors and the book market in eighteenth-century France –, and move across time and space, to look into the ways authority can be constructed in a given society at a given point of time. Dynamic theoretical models relating the literary phenomena with different areas of cultural life, as well as with the forces of attraction and repulse between groups or individuals competing in a market of both material and symbolic goods, like the ones proposed in Bourdieu 1991 or in Even-Zohar 1990, allow for a diversified approach, capable of taking into account the kind of strategies adopted by authors in different cultures at different times.

Following this kind of reasoning, we could say that an author is whatever person a given society at a given time considers to be an author, independently of this person’s relationship to printing, to the book market, to the size of his audience, etc. This implies, obviously, to accept that neither texts, nor author’s names have specific intrinsic value in themselves: elements like literary appreciation and author’s reputation are also understood as social constructs, interrelated to the various configurations of the social space and subject to the interference of the institutional powers (political, ecclesiastical, academic, financial, etc., cf. Bourdieu 1991 and 1992). In this sense, may-be we should reformulate the initial question, and instead of asking «What is a female author?» or «Who is a female writer?» ask: «What, or who is a female author or writer at a given time in a given society? We would like to illustrate this point of view with the Portuguese case.

The Portuguese case
In the second half of the eighteenth century there is evidence of the existence in Lisbon of a number of women who were recognized as authors by the cultivated elite. This recognition was not related to the printing of their works, nor to money income obtained through the selling of their writings, nor to membership of official institutions. These women belonged to the aristocracy or to the upper layers of the bourgeoisie, they have studied at home with private teachers, and disseminated their productions using one, some, or all of the means of text-diffusion that were effective at the time: through manuscript copies, through out loud readings in circles of acquaintances, and through printing. In the case of these women the construction of authority, as well as the strategies they adopted in order to acquire an author’s reputation can not be understood without taking into account the main characteristics of the Portuguese literary field at the time.

As it was the case in most European countries, the eighteenth-century Portuguese society, although organized on the basis of the written word, consisted mainly of illiterate people: it is probable that only 20% of the population could read and write (1). Portugal was an absolute monarchy during the whole century, and Portuguese rulers dedicated a special attention to the control of written texts. At the time, this control included all written documents, in print form as well as manuscript. Until 1768, the censorship system did not differ from the one that had been in force in Portugal since 1539. It consisted of three entities: the Inquisição or Tribunal do Santo Ofício, which was responsible for the application of the Pope’s directives to the specific case of the country; the Ordinário, (a council consisting of the local Bishops) which should control the works that had been published in each Diocese; and the Desembargo do Paço, or the King’s Censorship which had the right of precedence over the other two. Without the written approval of these three bodies, no text could be printed or communicated. One should note, however, that it was possible for individuals of the upper layers of society to obtain legal permissions to read and possess certain forbidden works. In practice, eighteen months to two years would pass between the moment when an original was given out for printing and the moment it was available for sale.

In 1768, during the rule of the Marquis of Pombal – Prime Minister of King D. José –, Censorship was reformed and these three organisms were reunited in one. The Real Mesa Censória became responsible for the examination of manuscript and printed books, for the control of the book commerce and for the import of written materials, as well as the surveillance of book ownership. The preoccupation with the circulation of texts continued during the reign of Queen Mary I, who created in 1787 a new censorship structure for books – the Real Comissão Geral sobre o Exame e Censura dos Livros – reformed in 1792 by the Regent D. João (through the law: Abolição do Tribunal da Real Mesa da Comissão Geral sobre o Exame e Censura dos Livros). However, in spite of all reforms, the delay between the delivery of the original to be printed and it’s final appearance in the bookseller’s market continued to be very long.

As a consequence, the Portuguese book market of the old regime was extremely fragile. Printers faced great financial risks, given the small number of readers and the permanent dependency upon the whims of censorship. They usually tried to overcome these risks by obtaining Patronage and by acquiring privileges of exclusivity for the edition and sales of the works during a given period of time. They tried to invest in products which did not require large financial investments, and tried not to catch the censorship’s attention. One should stress the fact that, although a system of privileges for printers and bookseller’s had developed at least since the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, the discussion on author’s rights did not take place in the Portuguese-Brasilian cultural space until mid-nineteenth century. Professionalization being practically unattainable, authors lived in the dependency of patrons and Mecènes who were intimately connected to the Court and to the King, and the borders between these two forms of sponsorship – which Alain Viala could separate in the French case (Viala 1985) – are almost impossible to determine.

This situation can explain, in part, why between 1700 and 1800, around 50% of the Works printed in Portugal consist of the so-called «occasional literature» commemorative of festive occasions of the Monarchy, the Church, the Court, the Princes or Patrons (2). It can also help us understand why so many authors of the period preferred to leave the whole, or part of their writings unprinted. At least in Portugal, in Spain and in the Iberian-american societies of the modern period there never ceased to exist an intense circulation of texts in manuscript form, parallel to the circuits of diffusion of the printed book. Often used as a form of resistance to the control of censorship, the manuscript copy allowed for a fast dissemination of texts, in a controlled way, among selected groups of people (Bouza Alvarez 2004, 197).

In eighteenth-century Lisbon, this particular way of text-diffusion was intensively used in the context of three main forms of sociability: academies, outeiros, and assembleias. These practices allowed for the circulation of a considerable number of texts, in private or semi-private circles, under the protection of the elites, without the use of tipography. Let’s describe them very briefly.

As far as their structure was concerned Portuguese Academies had not changed much since the seventeenth century. They were promoted either by members of the Court aristocracy or of the Church hierarchy, who would gather around them a number of men of letters (usually lawyers, magistrates, public administration officers, etc.) linked to them through the invisible ties of service and favour (loyalties towards certain noble Houses, attribution of administrative posts, family connections, etc.) (3). Although all academies were linked in a more or less clear way to the Court, in two cases there was evident direct royal patronage: the Academy of History was founded by King John V in 1720 and the Academy of Sciences was instituted in 1779 with the open support of Queen Mary I. Portuguese academies did not allow for female membership, but at least in the case of the Academy of Sciences, women were allowed to be present in the sessions as listeners (4). The fact that most of the proceedings of these academies were registered in manuscript did not prevent them from circulating among their members, and added to the selectiveness of the endeavour.

Outeiros were reunions taking place in feminine convents and are especially important to understand female authorship at the time. The proliferation of feminine convents in Portugal during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is a result of the Catholic interpretation of Christian values at the time, which proposed the Virgin Mary as a model for women’s behaviour, and presented celibacy and life dedicated to prayer as the best way to salvation. According to the rules approved by the Council of Trent in 1565 (5), when entering the convent nuns were expected to abandon all contacts with the external world. In spite of this, and of the sincere religious feeling and desire of isolation of a number of women, the relationship between religious feminine communities and the civil society in this period was extremely close.

Since women were seen as emotionally unstable, unable to control their lives, and incapable of participating in economic activities, there was no place for them in society unless they lived in the dependency of male tutorship. For a long time convents became a means society could make use of to punish, put pressure or simply control feminine behaviour: they were used as storehouses for unmarried girls to whom families could not, or did not want to give a dowry, as punishment for women whose behaviour did not conform to social expectations, as moral reformatories and prisons for women criminals, or as a refuge for female orphans and widows deprived of male protection. Although subject to the local Church authorities, feminine religious communities were mostly self-governed, and enjoyed greater freedom than women living in families (Lopez 1989, 25). Dedication to Religion was seen as a reason to teach women how to read and write, as well as to allow them to study the rudiments of Latin (6). This is why, until the second half of the eighteenth century most Portuguese female authors were nuns. But, both nuns and cloistered lay women participated actively in the Convent’s outeiros, which had, as one of their main attractions, the improvisation of poetry upon given themes and were largely participated by men.

In the lay world, until the late second half of the eighteenth century, Portuguese women who did not belong to the working classes were confined to their homes, which they could only leave rarely, and briefly, never alone, to go to church or to visit relatives. Unmarried girls were confined to one part of the house and should not be seen by men, unless they were relatives. The separation of the sexes, still preached by the Bishop of Coimbra in 1741 (7), was also in vigour at court where, in festivities presided by King John V, man and women would eat at separate tables, and did not even mix for dancing. It was not until after the Lisbon’s earthquake of 1755, that these strict social rules started to change, partly due to the disruption caused by the disaster, partly to the increasing circulation of «new» Catholic ideological models (such as the ones preached by St. Francis of Sales), and partly as a consequence of a government policy aiming at a greater proximity with the Northern European social models of behaviour.

From the 1760’s onwards, it became fashionable to organize and to participate in assembleias: periodical reunions of men and women presided by a woman – married and accompanied by her husband–, where people could dance, play music, read out loud, improvise poetry, etc., which can be considered as the Portuguese version of the literary salons.
Academies, outeiros and assembleias allowed for the constitution of social networks of intellectuals who moved from one circle to the other, disseminating their textual production. Belonging to one particular academy, being an habitué of the outeiros of certain convents, or of the assembleias of a certain Lady, was not only seen as a sign of distinction, but also as a certification of talent. The prestige of a number of male Poets who were mentioned with praise by their contemporaries, but left most of their production in manuscript was based upon a reputation acquired in this way (8). Men of letters of non-aristocratic origin could make themselves noticed to patrons in the same way, and find subscribers or sponsors for printing their works (9).

The same strategy served the interests of women. The existence of these ways of dissemination of texts made it possible for some aristocratic and bourgeois women to acquire a reputation as authors in a lay context, which could be considered as non conflictive with the discretion and modesty imposed upon them by society rules, given the ambiguous quality of these supposedly private sociabilities, as well as the craft-like, intimate qualities of the manual copy. The reputation acquired in these social gatherings has provided them with a social basis of support for publishing their works, but when it came to publishing, they usually presented to the public the works that would be more socially in accordance with an image of discretion, seriousness and moral virtue: translations, religious or didactical texts (cf. Feldman 2002).

To conclude,
we would like to ask another question: how can one be certain that a woman who writes was seen as a woman writer in this kind of system?

We would answer saying that the existence of an «author function» associated to certain texts is especially visible in this universe through the different mechanisms used by contemporary texts to refer to other texts (in epigraphs, through gloss (Port.: glosa), quotation, imitation, etc.). These mechanisms make frequent use of women’s productions. On the other hand, from the material point of view, the preservation of a great number of manuscript copies of texts written by women can be considered as proof of their acceptance and circulation, and indirectly, of their author’s popularity.

Finally, as it is often the case with women’s history, in order to learn about the ways women were able to construct their authorship, one has to look behind the stage, and check the information conveyed by contemporaries in non-official sources, like letters, journals, memoirs and even Inquisitorial registers of suits against writers: the case of the inquisition file on the Poet and Mathematician José Anastácio da Cunha (1744-1787), for instance: when pressed by the inquisitors to declare the names of the people he used to visit on a regular basis, he explained that he had often been at the house of the Poetess D. Joana Isabel Forjaz where he would read, recite and improvise poetry «though only at times when she was surrounded by other people» (Ferro 1987).

Vanda Anastácio
Lisbon University, Lisbon


1. Rita Marquilhas, in the chapter «Níveis de Alfabetização na Sociedade Portuguesa Seiscentista», of her work A Faculdade das Letras, Lisboa, Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 2000, compares the estimated numbers of literate people in Portugal with the ones obtained for the cases of France and England in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries. For a glimpse at the levels of alphabetization of women in the Portuguese court in the Sixteenth Century see Maria José Azevedo Santos, Assina quem sabe e lê quem pode, Coimbra, Imprensa da Universidade, 2004.
2. Veja-se a este respeito a síntese panorâmica esboçada por Claude Maffre, «L’édition au Portugal entre 1750 et 1810» in Quadrant, Montpellier, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier III, nº 9, 1992, pp. 69-84.
3. Jorge Borges de Macedo «Vias de expressão da cultura e da Sociedade Portuguesa nos séculos XVII e XVIII» Boletim da Academia Internacional da Cultura Portuguesa, Lisboa, nº 1, 1966, 119-133 e Fernando Castelo-Branco, «Significado Cultural das Academias de Lisboa no século XVIII», Bracara Augusta, Braga, 1973, pp. 327-333, Maria Natália de Frias de Almeida Ferreira, Certames poéticos académicos realizados em Lisboa nos séculos XVII e XVIII, 1992, João Palma Ferreira, Academias literárias dos séculos XVII e XVIII, Lisboa, Biblioteca Nacional, 1992 e Maria Margarida Toscano, Racionalidade comunicativa, espaço público, Masters dissertation, Lisboa, FCSH, Universidade Nova, 1994.
4. In fact, in the years 1787-1788 the French ambassador to the Portuguese Court, Marquis de Bombelles, describes in his journal one session of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon and refers to the presence of a number of ladies of the aristocracy who were among the audience. (See Marquis de Bombelles, Journal d’un ambassadeur de France au Portugal, Paris Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian-Presses Universitaires de France, 1979.
5. See, for instance: Concílio de Trento. O Sacrosanto e ecumenico em Latim e em portuguez, 2 vols., Lisbon, Officina de Francisco Luiz Ameno, 1781, Chap. V, session XXV.
6. The Portuguese thinker Luís António Verney, for instance, in his Verdadeiro Método de Estudar (1746) advocated that a moderate knowledge of Latin should be tought to nuns so that they could better participate in the religious services and understand the devotional books in this language.
7. See Manuel Augusto Rodrigues, «As preocupações apostólicas de D. Miguel da Anunciação à luz das suas cartas pastorais», A Mulher na Sociedade Portuguesa (Actas do Colóquio), Coimbra, Coimbra Editora, 1986.
8. Such as Francisco Joaquim Bingre (1765-1856), Domingos Maximiano Torres (1748-1810), Joaquim Severino Ferraz de Campos (1760?-1813?), Luis Correia da França e Amaral (1725-1808), etc.
9. The obvious example of this would be Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage (1765-1805) who obtained such a reputation of Poet in the Lisbon salons that his works were published thanks to the subscription of an impressive sample of members the high bourgeois and aristocratic families of the time.

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FERRO, João Pedro, O Processo de José Anastácio da Cunha na Inquisição de Coimbra 1778, Lisboa, Palas, 1987.

FOUCAULT, Michel «Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur?», in Dits et Ecrits, vol. I (1954-1969), Paris, Gallimard, 1994, pp. 789-820.

LOPES, Maria Antónia, Mulheres, Espaço e Sociabilidade (A transformação dos papéis femininos em Portugal à luz de fontes literárias (segundamente do século XYIII), Lisboa, Livros Horizonte, 1989.

VIALA, Alain, Naissance de l’écrivain. Sociologie de la litterature à l’âge classique, Paris, Minuit, 1985.

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