Call for Papers: Women and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe (Paris)

International conference, 21-22 June 2013, Paris, France

University Paris Ouest Nanterre (Quarto, CREA370)
and University Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 (Épistémè, PRISMES EA4398)

The multiplication of cabinets of curiosities and the obsession with novelty are evidence of the development of a “culture of curiosity” in the early modern period. While curiosity had long been considered as an intellectual vice, associated with hubris and the original sin, and described by Augustine as “lust of the eyes”, it became a virtue in the 17th century. One of the main reasons for this transformation was the continued efforts of natural philosophers to demonstrate that curiosity was morally acceptable in order to legitimise their scientific endeavour. Francis Bacon and his followers thus insisted on the code of conduct of natural philosophers, the usefulness of the knowledge they were seeking and the discrepancy between their own research and occult sciences. All of them championed the “good curiosity” of the natural philosophers, as opposed to the “bad curiosity” of men and women interested in magic, and in trivial and superficial matters.

If there was indeed a “rehabilitation of curiosity” in the early modern period, did it have any impact on women’s desire for knowledge? The emergence of women philosophers at the time (Margaret Cavendish, Anne Conway, Lady Ranelagh, Elisabeth of Bohemia, Catherine of Sweden, Damaris Masham, Mary Astell, Catherine Trotter, etc.) may indicate that their curiosity was now considered as legitimate and morally acceptable – or at least that it was tolerated. Yet it has been suggested that the new status of curiosity in the early modern period led instead to an even stronger distrust for women, who were both prone to curiosity and curiosities themselves. The June 2013 conference on “Women and Curiosity” aims at assessing the impact of the alleged “rehabilitation of curiosity” on women in the early modern period, by analysing discourses on women as enquirers and objects of curiosity. Iconographic and fictional representations of curious women and female curiosity might also give an insight into the relations between women and curiosity in the early modern period (for example, Cesare Ripa’s allegory of curiosity as “a huge, wild-haired, winged woman” in Iconologia (1593), or representations of emblematic curious women such as Eve, Dinah, Pandora, etc.). The origins of these discourses and representations, as well as their premises, might also be investigated: to what extent did the condemnation of women’s curiosity reveal a fear of disorder and transgression? Did it betray male anxiety about female sexuality or about the mystery of birth? Was it justified by medical interpretations of curiosity, such as a specific humoural condition?

Women’s own conception of curiosity / curiosities in the early modern period might also be of interest, especially as it is rarely studied. The conference on “Women and Curiosity” will thus give us the opportunity to focus on what women themselves wrote about curiosity in their treatises, fictional works, translations, and correspondences. Did women writers consider curiosity as intrinsically female? How did they react to male discourses on women as enquirers and objects of curiosity? What representations of curiosity did they give in their texts?

Please send an abstract for 25-minute papers and a biographical note to Sandrine Parageau ( or Line Cottegnies ( by 30 January, 2013.