A treatise on famous female rulers

By Sandra Toffolo

While descriptions of illustrious men were a well-known literary topos throughout Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period, the following book treats a different theme: illustrious women. The book in question is entitled De illustrium foeminarum in republica administranda, ac ferendis legibus authoritate libellus (‘Book about the right of illustrious women to administer states and pass laws’), a quarto volume in 27 folios, printed by Jean de Foigny in Reims in 1580 (USTC 111505).

Our research for Preserving the World’s Rarest Books brought to light no fewer than nine copies of this book, spread all over the world: Dublin Marsh’s Library, the University of Ghent, the University of Glasgow (which even holds two copies), Cambridge Trinity College Library, the Morgan Library in New York, Johns Hopkins University, the University of St Andrews, and All Souls College Library in Oxford. The image above shows the title page of the copy held by the University of St Andrews Library Special Collections, which has been handed down to us in undamaged conditions.

De illustrium foeminarum in republica administranda was written by John Lesley (1527-1596), a Scottish bishop and historian. He was a friend of Mary, Queen of Scots, and continued to try to help her cause while she was held captive in England. Lesley is the author of a number of works defending Mary. His most famous work is a history of Scotland. De illustrium foeminarum in republica administranda is a Latin version of a treatise on The Lawfulness of the Regiment of Women. Lesley wrote it as a response to John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Regiment of Women (printed in Geneva in 1558), in which Knox had attacked female monarchs by saying that women ruling over men was contrary to the Bible.

Lesley dedicated De illustrium foeminarum in republica administranda to another female ruler: Catherine de’ Medici. He argues that women’s right to rule is supported by religion, nature and human law. He also speaks of many illustrious women all over the world, who had distinguished themselves in a variety of fields. However, particular attention goes to female rulers. For each part of the world, Lesley gives many examples, such as Artemisia, Semiramis, and Tomyris in Asia; Dido, Cleopatra, and Isis in Africa; Agnes wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, Amalasuntha, and Aeneas’ widow Lavinia in Europe.

De illustrium foeminarum, detail of the title page border
Detail from the woodcut title-page border. (St Andrews, TypFRh.B80FL)

Lesley connects his general idea on female rule with his more specific goal of advocating the cause of Mary, Queen of Scots: there are numerous references to her right to rule in the book. Interestingly, at some point in its life, the copy in St Andrews was bound together with another book by Lesley: De titulo et iure serenissimae principis Mariae Sctorum Reginae, quo Regni Angliae successionem sibi iuste vendicat, libellus (‘Book about the title and the right of the most serene ruler Mary Queen of Scots, with which she rightfully claims the succession of the kingdom of England for herself’) (USTC 11506). In this book, also printed in Reims by Jean de Foigny in 1580, Lesley again defends Mary’s right to the throne. Unfortunately, it is unclear at which point in time these two books were bound together.

De illustrium foeminarum in republica administranda, ac ferendis legibus authoritate libellus is a fascinating book, which offers important insights for various fields such as gender history and the history of Scotland and England. It can be consulted in the libraries listed above, all of which are partner libraries of Preserving the World’s Rarest Books.


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Sandra Toffolo is a postdoctoral researcher for Preserving the World’s Rarest Books at the University of St Andrews. Her current research focuses on early modern pilgrimage and on geographical descriptions of Venice and the Venetian mainland state. You can follow her on Academia.edu.

Photos used with the permission of the University of St Andrews Library Special Collections.

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