Women Printers

Women in the Estienne Family

All studies of the Estienne family, from whatever century and view-point, emphasize that every member of the family received an excellent education. Henri II (1528-98), writing to his son, Paul (1566-1627), draws attention to the fact that this bi-lingual education in French and Latin was not confined to the males of the family :

‘Your ancestress understood people conversing in Latin as well as if they were talking French, and my sister Catherine, your aunt, used to talk Latin in a way that could be understood by everyone. […] How did they learn ? By use, just as French people learn French and Italian people learn Italian’.[1]

The decision to educate their daughters was as much a practical as a paedagogical choice for the Estienne family for they were very much aware of the importance women could play in the development of a printing house.

 [Tes kaines diathekes hapanta. Evangelion. Kata Matthaion. Kata Markon. Kata Loukan. Kata Ioannen. Praweis ton apostolon]: Nouum Iesu Christi D.N. Testamentum. Ex Bibliotheca Regia (Paris, 1550), Sig. *3r : detail of ornate capital.

Guyone Viart

Women played a dynamic role in the history of the Estienne printing dynasty. The career of the founder of the printing house, Henri I (1460-1520) is testimony to this for Henri I did not create his printing house from scratch. Like most printers, we first find him working in association with another printer, Wolfgang Hopyl (fl. 1489-1523), a printer in Paris. Following the death of Hopyl’s associate Jean Higman in 1500, Henri I seized his chance and married Higman’s widow, Guyone Viart. Guyone was the daughter of a printer and would become the wife of not one but three famous printers (Higman, Estienne and, after him, Simon de Colines (c. 1480-1546)). This type of marital business arrangement was not unusual in printing houses of the period. In order to ensure the press’s prosperity, it was common at that time for the widow of the former head printer to marry again until her first son could come of age and could then inherit his father’s legacy. Such a marriage allowed the press to survive and to a widow with children who were too young to run the business its benefits were obvious. On the other hand, the marriage provided the new husband with an established printing house and, as Kay Amert notes, often a very capable business manager in the shape of the former’s printer’s widow.[2] Henri I’s marriage was thus a major career opportunity. It is possible that he may already have worked as part of the Higman press, prior to Higman’s death, but it was Guyone Viart’s decision to marry him that first set the Estienne press on the road to greatness.

The fact that women ran printing presses before handing them over to their sons had a huge impact on the survival of the whole Estienne brand over the years. When Henri I died in 1520 Guyone did not immediately re-marry but instead ran the press herself for at least one year (and possibly two), before marrying Simon de Colines. This last marriage was likely undertaken to ensure the survival of the Estienne printing press rather than the development of a new Colines printing house – Guyone was intent on ensuring her second husband’s legacy. De Colines is nowadays regarded as a major figure of Renaissance French printing in his own right but before 1520 he had not published a single work under his own name. It is telling that his first output mentioned the name of ‘the late Henri Estienne’ though the privilege was under the name of ‘Symon de Colines, bookseller […] of Paris’.[3] Colines took charge of Robert I Estienne’s educational formation and proved a faithful guardian to the Estienne brood.  On Robert I’s marriage to Perrette Badius in 1525, Robert took over his father’s printing house. It was only then, when the Estienne printing house had been handed over to Robert I, that Simon and Guyone chose to open their own printing workshop nearby.

Epitome Iodoci Badii Ascensii in Sex Latinæ linguæ elegantiaru[m] libros Laurentii Vallæ. Et subinde non contemnendæ explanationes. Antonii item Mancinelli lima suis locis apposita (Paris, 1533), title page. One of Robert’s early publications was by his father-in-law, Jodocus Badius (1462-1535).


Perrette Badius

Knowledge of Latin was clearly considered as an important skill by the Estiennes. It is not difficult to see why this was so for it was essential in building connections with scholars across Europe. Such networks had a huge impact on the output of the press, but they also impacted on the lives of the Estienne women. The daughters and wives of the Estienne were not, as might be supposed, passive actors in these exchanges. Often they played a central role for by marrying into other printing dynasties they helped cement the strength of the Estienne printing house. A good example of this is the marriage of Robert I to Perrette Badius, the daughter of Jodocus Badius (1462-1535). Badius was a Flemish scholar who had played an instrumental role in the early years of printing in France. He had worked with, among others, Jean Petit (fl. 1493-1530), before setting up his own printing house in 1503. Robert I’s marriage with Perrette thus connected two great printing houses together, a connection which was further strengthed by the marriage of Perrette’s brother, Conrad Badius, with an un-named Estienne girl. In this way, potential rivalry was avoided.

The Estiennes were not the only printing family to educate their daughters – Perrette Badius is often mentioned in Robert I’s texts as a well-educated woman and she reputedly  knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew as well as her husband. Her name may not be listed among the translators of the Estienne output, but this perhaps reflects the invisibility accorded to the role of women in the print trade rather than Perrette’s actual influence. As the New York Public Library’s online exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers, 1570-1900 makes clear, working in a printing house was often presented as being very physically demanding and technically challenging work, more suited to males. However, we know that women certainly played an important role in many printing houses, either engraving printers’ devices, illustrating texts or binding items. In the case of the highly educated Perrette, it is more than likely that her skills as a translator, or at the very least as a proof reader, were utilised by the family firm.

A. Persii Satyrarvm liber I. D. Ivnii Ivvenalis Satyrarvm lib. V. Svlpiciae Satyra I. Cum veteribus commentarijs nunc primum editis. Ex bibliotheca P. Pithoei I.C. cuius etiam Notæ quædam adiectæ sunt (Paris, 1585), title page, detail of imprint information.


Denyse Barbé

The example of Guyone lived on in the history of the Estienne press. Following the death of Robert I Estienne’s son Robert II (1530-70) in Geneva, his widow, Denyse Barbé maintained the output of his printing house under his name for five years before marrying Mamert Patisson (d. 1600) in 1575. Even then, on every single book later published by Patisson, the mention ‘In Aedibus’ or ‘Ex officina’ or ‘Typographia Roberti Stephani’ was used almost as a bibliographical mantra. There were good reasons to do this – and not just because Patisson was holding the press in trust for the next generation of Estiennes but also because the Estienne press was a recognisable brand with a great reputation. It should be said, however, that Patisson was doing rather more than simply keeping the Estienne press in good order until Robert III could come of age. Patisson was instrumental in adding Italian works to the Estienne catalogue which in turn widened their European market.

Dictionarium, seu Latinæ linguæ Thesaurus, non singulas modo dictiones continens, sed integras quoque Latinè & loquendi. & scribendi formulas ex optimis quibusque authoribus, ea quidem nunc accessione, vt nihil propemodum obseruatu dignum sit apud Oratores, Historicos, Poetas, omnis denique generis scriptores, quod hic non promptum paratúmque habeat (Paris, 1543), p. 603, ornate capital.

Florence Estienne

We cannot know for sure the exact influence these women had on the development of the Estienne press but from what we can observe through historical testimony (as evidenced in official papers such as marriage and death certificates or informal sources such as letters, testimonies, etc..) is the fact that without them, the survival of the Estienne name would have been endangered. It is perhaps fitting that their memory lives on due to yet another marriage, this time between Henri II’s daughter Florence Estienne, and Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), one of the most famous scholars of the age. Casaubon not only gave important financial assistance to the Estienne  press, he also kept a diary from which we can catch glimpses of these shadowy but formidable Estienne women.

Iohannis Despauteriii Niniuitae Commentarii grammatici. Eorum, quae in commentariis sparsim annotata sunt, index amplissimus (Paris, 1537-8), p. 3, ornate capital.


Amert, Kay, The Scythe and the Rabbit. Simon de Colines and the Culture of the Book in Renaissance Paris, edited by Robet Bringhurst (Rochester, 2012).

Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal Printer (Cambridge, 1954).

Bernard, A., Les Estienne et les types grecs de François Ier, complément des annales stéphaniens (Paris, 1856).

Casaubon, Issaac, Ephemerides (Canterbury, 1850). (The text was assembled by Theodoor Jansson van Almeloveen (Rotterdam, 1709) who added a biography. It still remains a reliable source for the daily life of a cultured man of the sixteenth century).

Didot, Ambroise Firmin, ‘Les Estienne. Henri I, François I et II, Robert I, II et III, Henri II, Paul et Antoine…’, Nouvelle bibliographie générale, (Paris, 1856; Copenhagen, 1965 reprint), vol. 15-16.’

Renouard, Antoine, Annales de l’imprimerie des Estienne (Geneva, 1971 reprint).

Schreiber, Fred, Simon de Colines (Utah, 1995).



Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers, 1570-1900’, an online exhibition hosted in Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Print Gallery of New York from October 2nd, 2015 – May 27th, 2016.

[1] ‘Ton aïeule entendait la conversation de ceux qui parlaient latin aussi bien que s’ils eussent parlé français, et ma soeur Catherine, ta tante, parlait latin de manière à être comprise par tous. […] Comment l’avaient-elles appris ? Par l’usage, de même que les français apprennent le français et les italiens, l’italien.’ An extract of this letter is cited in Didot, Ambroise Firmin, ‘Les Estienne. Henri I, François I et II, Robert I, II et III, Henri II, Paul et Antoine…’, Nouvelle bibliographie générale, (Paris, 1856; Copenhagen, 1965 reprint), vol. 15-16, p. 518.

[2] Amert, Kay, The Scythe and the Rabbit. Simon de Colines and the Culture of the Book in Renaissance Paris, edited by Robert Bringhurst (Rochester, 2012), p. 13.

[3] Schreiber, Fred, Simon de Colines (Utah, 1995) pp xiii-xliii.