De mulieribus claris  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
strong and independent women, the "exemplary women" tradition

On Famous Women (Latin: De mulieribus claris) is one of two collections of biographies of famous women written by Giovanni Boccaccio, the Florentine author from Certaldo. The author declares in the preface that this collection of one hundred and six short biographies of women is the first example in Western literature devoted solely and exclusively to women.

Boccaccio says that the purpose he wrote the 106 biographies was for posterity about women who were renowned for any sort of great deed, either good or bad. He explains that by recounting the wicked deeds of certain women that hopefully in the mind of the reader it would be offset by the exhortations to virtue by other respected women. He writes in his presentation of this combination of all types of women that hopefully it would encourage virtue and curb vice.


The 106 Famous Women biographies are of mythological and historical women, as well as some of Boccaccio's Renaissance contemporaries. The brief life stories follow the same general exemplary literature patterns used in various versions of De viris illustribus. The biography pattern starts with the name of the person, then the parents or ancestors, then their rank or social position, and last the general reason for their notoriety or fame with associated details. This is sometimes interjected with a philosophical or inspirational lesson at the end.

The only sources that Boccaccio specifically says he used is Saint Paul (no. 42), the Bible (no. 43) and Jerome (no. 86). The wording of the biographies themselves, however, show much where he obtained his information. He used the classical authors of Valerius Maximus, Pliny, Livy, Ovid, Suetonius, Statius,Virgil, Lactantius, Orosius, and Justinus.


Boccaccio wrote this work in Certaldo probably between the summer of 1361 and the summer of 1362, however could have been as late as December 1362. He dedicated his work to Andrea Acciaioli, Countess of Altavilla, in Naples at the end of 1362 even though he continued to revise it up until his death in 1375. She was not his first choice however. He first considered to dedicate his slim volume to Joanna, Queen of Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem. He ultimately decided that his work as a little book was not worthy a person of such great fame.

There are over 100 manuscripts in at least nine different stages of this work showing that this was a most popular work in the age of hand written codexes of the Renaissance period. Boccaccio worked on this as a labor of love with several versions, editions, and rearrangements in the last twenty years or so of his life. In the last part of the fourteenth century after Bocciccio died a Donato degli Albanzani had a copy that his friend Boccaccio gave him and translated it from Latin into Italian. In the early part of the fifteenth century Antonio di S. Lupidio made a volgare translation and Laurent de Premierfait put it in French while later Heinrich Steinhowel rendered it into German. In the beginning of the sixteenth century a Henry Parker translated about half into English and dedicated it to Henry VIII. This was then followed in the sixteenth century of other Italian translations by Luca Antonio Ridolfi and Giueppe Betussi.

The invention of the printing press brought the first Latin version done by Johan Zainer in Ulm about 1473. The only complete sixteenth century printed Latin version to reach us is from a Mathias Apiarus done around 1539. From that time it wasn't until the middle of the twentieth century until there was another complete printed version done - some 400 years later.

The famous women

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