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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


Professor Helena Sanson

Professor Helena Sanson
Professor of Italian, History of Linguistics, and Women's Studies (Personal Chair)
Fellow of Clare College
Professor Sanson is currently on research leave working on a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust
Contact details: 
Telephone number: 
(+44) (0)1223 333204 (College)

Clare College 
Memorial Court 



Helena Sanson (PhD Reading, 2002) joined the Department of Italian in 2003 as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and in 2005 as a University lecturer. She is Professor of Italian, History of Linguistics, and Women's Studies and a Fellow of Clare College. Before coming to Cambridge, she taught at UCL, University College London (1998-2003).

She is the founder and general editor of the book series Women and Gender in Italy (1500-1900)/Donne e gender in Italia (1500-1900), Paris, Classiques Garnier (for more information, see here) and of the interdisciplinary journal Women Language Literature in Italy/Donne lingua letteratura in Italia (see here).


Teaching interests: 

Helena Sanson teaches across various papers for the Italian Section, in all years of the UG degree course (16th-, 19th-, 20th-century literature; ‘Questione della lingua’; political theory; women’s history and writing). For the Faculty’s MPhil in European, Latin American and Comparative Literatures and Cultures, she teaches on the ‘Women and Writing in Italy’ module, on the interdisciplinary modules ‘Approaches to Gender’, ‘Cultures of the Renaissance’, and ‘Marginalities in the Nineteenth Century’, and on the core course seminars ‘Gender: Theory and History’. She also teaches on the MPhil in Multi-disciplinary Gender Studies (University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies).

Professor Sanson welcomes inquiries from potential MPhil and PhD students interested in doing research on a range of topics related to language, literature, and culture in Italy, between the 16th and the early 20th century, in particular with reference to women and gender; also women’s history and women writers; conduct literature; history of linguistic thought in Italy and ‘Questione della lingua’. Prospective students are encouraged to get in touch by email with a provisional research proposal. Interdisciplinary projects are particularly welcome. Professor Sanson is also happy to supervise students applying for an MPhil or PhD at the Centre for Gender Studies.


Research interests: 

Professor Sanson’s interdisciplinary research focuses on the history of the Italian language, literature and culture in Italy, between the Renaissance and the post-Unification period. She is particularly interested in the relationship between the history of linguistic thought and the history of women, as representative of the less learned, as well as in the role of women writers and women readers, in the same period. She has published a number of articles and chapters on these issues and is the author of Donne, precettistica e lingua nell’Italia del Cinquecento: un contributo alla storia del pensiero linguistico (Florence: Accademia della Crusca, 2007) and Women, Language and Grammar: Italy 1500-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2011; this book was one of the winners of the ‘British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship Monograph Series’ competition). Another strand of interest is the vast production of conduct literature for and about women that aimed to define women’s nature and their role in society. She has prepared modern editions of sixteenth-century texts on conduct, and among these Lodovico Dolce’s Dialogo della instituzion delle donne, secondo li tre stati che cadono nella vita umana (1545) and Isabella Sori’s Ammaestramenti e ricordi, Difese, Panegirico (1628) for the MHRA ‘Critical texts’ series (respectively published in 2015 and 2018). She also co-edited a volume on Conduct Literature for and about Women in Italy, 1470-1900: Prescribing and Describing Life (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2016).

Her current research also focuses on women's role in and contribution to the history of translation in Italy.


Recent research projects: 

Among Professor Sanson's latest publications is the co-edited volume Women in the History of Linguistics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, December 2020), a ground-breaking exploration of the role women have played in the history of language codification and the history of linguistic thought across a range of European and non-European traditions. Click here for more information. Professor Sanson is currently completing a new monograph, Knowledge across Boundaries: Women, Language and Translation in Italy's Long Eighteenth Century, which investigates the role of women translators in the circulation of new ideas and the popularization and dissemination of knowledge in Italy from Arcadia to the beginning of the 19th century. Thanks to a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2021-2023), Professor Sanson is continuing to explore the history of the Italian language from a gender perspective. Her new project Women and Linguistic Culture in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Italy examines the uncharted landscapes of women's everyday linguistic experience within both the domestic and the public sphere - across regions and social classes - and takes the investigation outside the remit of traditional historiography on language, revealing captivating tales of exclusion and constraint, careful negotiations, and individual accomplishments against all odds.

Professor Sanson is also the UK host and co-applicant of the Newton International Fellowship project Female Portraits in Italian and British Travellers' Accounts from Poland (1600-1700) carried out by Dr Małgorzata Trzeciak Cygan.


Prizes and awards:

Professor Sanson is the recipient of a number of prizes and awards; among these: British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship; British Academy Small Research Grant; AHRC research leave grant; British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship Monograph Series competition; CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) Early Career Fellowship; Isaac Newton Trust research grant; British Academy Conference Grant; MHRA conference grant; Cambridge Humanities Research Grant; Leverhulme Research Fellowship. In 2018-19, she was awarded a Senior Visiting Fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Alma Mater Studiorum, University of Bologna, where she also was Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Classic Philology and Italian Studies in 2019-20.

She is also the recipient of a Philip Leverhulme Prize.


Published works: 


Principal Publications


  • Isabella Sori, Ammaestramenti e ricordi, Difese, Penegirico, ed. by Helena Sanson (Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 'Contributi e proposte',2021), 312 pp.
  • Women in the History of Linguistics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020; co-edited with W. Ayres-Bennett), 672 pp.
  • Women and Translation in the Italian Tradition, ed. by Helena Sanson (Paris: Classiques Garnier, forthc.).
  • Isabella Sori, Ammaestramenti e ricordi, circa a' buoni costumi, che deve insegnare una ben creata madre ad una figlia, da citella, d'accasata e da vedova; [...] divisi in dodeci lettere [...]. Con [...] dodeci Difese, datte contro alcuni sinistri giudicii, [...] e nel fine un Panegirico [...] dell'Illustrissima città d'Alessandria (1628), ed. by Helena Sanson (Cambridge: MHRA, 2018, 'Critical Texts Series', vol. 48), xi+ 264 pp.
  • Da madri a cittadine: le donne italiane fra l'Unificazione e la Repubblica, co-edited with S. Delmedico and M. Di Franco. Special issue of The Italianist, 2018, 38(3), 298-459, 162 pp.
  • Conduct Literature for and about Women in Italy, 1470-1900: Describing and Prescribing Life, co-edited with F. Lucioli (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2016), 438 pp.
  • 500 Years of italian Grammar(s), Culture, and Society in Italy and Europe: From Fortunio's Regole (1516) to the Present, co-edited with F. Lucioli. Special issue of The Italianist, 2016, 36(3), 154 pp.
  • Lodovico Dolve, Dialogo della instituzion delle donne, secondo li tre stati, che cadono nella vita humana (1545), ed. by Helena Sanson (Cambridge: MHRA, 2015, 'Critical Texts' Series, vol. 30), x+212 pp.
  • Women and Gender in Post-Unification Italy: Between Private and Public Spheres, co-edited with K. Mitchell (Bern and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013; 'Italian Modernities' series), x+272 pp.
  • Women, Language and Grammar in Italy, 1500-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2011), xiv+432 pp.32 illustrations (this volume was a winner of the British Academy Postdoctoral Monograph Series Competition)
  • Donne precettistica e lingua nell'Italia del Cinquecento: un contributo alla storia del pensiero linguisticio (Florence: Accademia della Crusca, 2007), xviii+382 pp.


Selected articles/book chapters:

  • 'Women's Social Status and their Access to Learning in Multilingual Early Modern Italy', in Literature, Learning, and Social Hierarchy in Early Modern Europe, ed. by N. Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 'Proceedings of the British Academy’, 2022), pp. 46-70
  • "Io che donna indotta e minima sono": Women, Translation and Classical Languages in Early Modern Italy, Women Language Literature in Italy, 2021, 3, 29-51
  • 'Women in the History of Linguistics: Distant and Neglected Voices', in W. Ayres-Bennett and H. Sanson (eds), Women in the History of Linguistics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 1-29 (with W. Ayres-Bennett)
  • 'Women and Language Codification in Italy: Marginalized Voices, Forgotten Contribution', in W. Ayres-Bennett and H. Sanson (eds), Women in the History of Linguistics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp.59-90
  • 'Women and Conduct in the Italian Tradition, 1470-1900: An Overview', in Conduct Literature for and about Women in Italy, 1470-1900: Prescribing and Describing Life, 2016, pp. 9-38
  • 'Vittoria Colonna and Language', in Companion to Vittoria Colonna, ed. by A. Brundin, T. Crivelli Speciale, M.S. Sapegno ( Leiden: Brill, 2016), pp. 195-233
  • 'Ma e in latino nulla? Qualcosa sì, ma tanto poco, che paja un nulla: donne e latino in Italia fra Sette e Ottocento', Romanische Forschungen, 2015, 127 (4), 449-81
  • "Simplicité, clarté et précision": Grammars of Italian 'Pour les Dames' and Other Learners in Eighteenth - and Early Nineteenth-Century France', Modern Language review, 2014, 109 (3), 593-616
  • '"Femina proterva, rude, indocta [...], chi t'ha insegnato a parlar in questo modo?": Women's "voices" and Linguistic Varieties in Written Texts ( Italy, 16th-17th Centuries)', The Italianist, special issue, 2014, 34 (3), 400-17
  • 'The Romance Languages in the Renaissance and After', in A. Ledgeway, M Maiden and J.C. Smith (eds), The Cambridge History of the Romance Languages, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), II, 237-82
  • '"La madre educatrice" in the Family and in Society in Post-Unification Italy: The Question of Language', in Women and Gender in Post-Unification Italy: Between Private and Public Spheres, eds K. Mitchell and H. Sanson (Bern and Oxford: Peter Lang: 'Italian Modernities' series, 2013), pp. 39-63
  • Annibal Guasco, Ragionamento del Signor Annibal Guasco a Donna Lavinia sua figliuola, della maniera del governarsi ella in corte (1586), ed. by Helena Sanson, Letteratura italiana antica, 2010, 11, 61-140
  • ‘Pietro Belmonti e l’Instituzione della sposa’, in Pietro Belmonti, L’Instituzione della sposa del cavalier Pietro Belmonte ariminese (1587), ed. by Helena Sanson, Letteratura italiana antica, 9, 2008, 17-76



For more information on Professor Sanson's publications and scholarship, see here.


Postdoc mentor to: Dr Malgorzata Trzeciak Cygan