Who Is Mary? Three Early Modern Women on the Idea of the Virgin Mary (The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe)
For women of the Italian Renaissance, the Virgin Mary was one of the most important role models. Who Is Mary? presents devotional works written by three women better known for their secular writings: Vittoria Colonna, famed for her Petrarchan lyricverse; Chiara Matraini, one of the most original poets of her generation; and the wide-ranging, intellectually ambitious polemicist Lucrezia Marinella. At a time when the cult of the Virgin was undergoing a substantial process of redefinition, these texts cast fascinating light on the beliefs of Catholic women in the Renaissance, and also, in the cases of Matraini and Marinella, on contemporaneous women’s social behavior, prescribed for them by male writers in books on female decorum.
Who Is Mary? Testifies to the emotional and spiritual relationships that women had with the figure of Mary, whom they were required to emulate as the epitome of femininity. Now available for the first time in English-language translation, these writings suggest new possibilities for women in both religious and civil culture and provide a window to women’s spirituality, concerning the most important icon set before them, as wives, mothers, and Christians.
In western Europe and the United States, women are nearing equality in the professions, in business, and in politics. Most enjoy access to education, reproductive rights, and autonomy in financial affairs. Issues vital to women are on the public agenda: equal pay, child care, domestic abuse, breast cancer research, and curricular revision with an eye to the inclusion of women.
These recent achievements have their origins in things women (and some male supporters) said for the first time about six hundred years ago. Theirs is the “other voice,” in contradistinction to the “first voice,” the voice of the educated men who created Western culture. Coincident with a general reshaping of European culture in the period 1300–1700 (called the Renaissance or early modern period), questions of female equality and opportunity were raised that still resound and are still unresolved.
The other voice emerged against the backdrop of a three- thousand- year history of the derogation of women rooted in the civilizations related to Western culture: Hebrew, Greek, Roman, and Christian. Negative attitudes toward women inherited from these traditions pervaded the intellectual, medical, legal, religious, and social systems that developed during the European Middle Ages.
The following pages describe the traditional, overwhelmingly male views of women’s nature inherited by early modern Europeans and the new tradition that the “other voice” called into being to begin to challenge reigning assumptions. This review should serve as a framework for understanding the texts published in the series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Introductions specific to each text and author follow this essay in all the volumes of the series.
TRADITIONAL VIEWS OF WOMEN, 50 0 B .C. E.–1500 C. E .
Embedded in the philosophical and medical theories of the ancient Greeks were perceptions of the female as inferior to the male in both mind and body. Similarly, the structure of civil legislation inherited from the ancient Romans was biased against women, and the views on women developed by Christian thinkers out of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament were negative and disabling. Literary works composed in the vernacular of ordinary people, and widely recited or read, conveyed these negative assumptions. The social networks within which most women lived—those of the family and the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church—were shaped by this negative tradition and sharply limited the areas in which women might act in and upon the world.
GREEK PHILOSOPHY AND FEMALE NATURE.
Greek biology assumed that women were inferior to men and defined them as merely childbearers and housekeepers. This view was authoritatively expressed in the works of the philosopher Aristotle.
Aristotle thought in dualities. He considered action superior to inaction, form (the inner design or structure of any object) superior to matter, completion to incompletion, possession to deprivation. In each of these dualities, he associated the male principle with the superior quality and the female with the inferior. “The male principle in nature,” he argued, “is associated with active, formative and perfected characteristics, while the female is passive, material and deprived, desiring the male in order to become complete.” Men are always identified with virile qualities, such as judgment, courage, and stamina, and women with their opposites—irrationality, cowardice, and weakness.
The masculine principle was considered superior even in the womb. The man’s semen, Aristotle believed, created the form of a new human creature, while the female body contributed only matter. (The existence of the ovum, and with it the other facts of human embryology, was not established until the seventeenth century.) Although the later Greek physician Galen believed there was a female component in generation, contributed by “female semen,” the followers of both Aristotle and Galen saw the male role in human generation as more active and more important.
In the Aristotelian view, the male principle sought always to reproduce itself. The creation of a female was always a mistake, therefore, resulting from an imperfect act of generation. Every female born was considered a “defective” or “mutilated” male (as Aristotle’s terminology has variously been translated), a “monstrosity” of nature.
For Greek theorists, the biology of males and females was the key to their psychology. The female was softer and more docile, more apt to be despondent, querulous, and deceitful. Being incomplete, moreover, she craved sexual fulfillment in intercourse with a male. The male was intellectual, active, and in control of his passions.
These psychological polarities derived from the theory that the universe consisted of four elements (earth, fi re, air, and water), expressed in human bodies as four “humors” (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm) considered, respectively, dry, hot, damp, and cold and corresponding to mental states (“melancholic,” “choleric,” “sanguine,” “phlegmatic”). In this scheme the male, sharing the principles of earth and fire, was dry and hot; the female, sharing the principles of air and water, was cold and damp. Female psychology was further affected by her dominant organ, the uterus (womb), hystera in Greek. The passions generated by the womb made women lustful, deceitful, talkative, irrational, indeed—when these affects were in excess—“hysterical.”
Aristotle’s biology also had social and political consequences. If the male principle was superior and the female inferior, then in the household, as in the state, men should rule and women must be subordinate. That hierarchy did not rule out the companionship of husband and wife, whose cooperation was necessary for the welfare of children and the preservation of property. Such mutuality supported male preeminence.
Aristotle’s teacher Plato suggested a different possibility: that men and women might possess the same virtues. The setting for this proposal is the imaginary and ideal Republic that Plato sketches in a dialogue of that name. Here, for a privileged elite capable of leading wisely, all distinctions of class and wealth dissolve, as, consequently, do those of gender. Without households or property, as Plato constructs his ideal society, there is no need for the subordination of women. Women may therefore be educated to the same level as men to assume leadership. Plato’s Republic remained imaginary, however. In real societies, the subordination of women remained the norm and the prescription.
The views of women inherited from the Greek philosophical tradition became the basis for medieval thought. In the thirteenth century, the supreme Scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas, among others, still echoed Aristotle’s views of human reproduction, of male and female personalities, and of the preeminent male role in the social hierarchy.
ROMAN LAW AND THE FEMALE CONDITION.
Roman law, like Greek philosophy, underlay medieval thought and shaped medieval society. The ancient belief that adult property- owning men should administer households and make decisions affecting the community at large is the very fulcrum of Roman law.
About 450 B.C.E., during Rome’s republican era, the community’s customary law was recorded (legendarily) on twelve tablets erected in the city’s central forum. It was later elaborated by professional jurists whose activity increased in the imperial era, when much new legislation was passed, especially on issues affecting family and inheritance. This growing, changing body of laws was eventually codified in the Corpus of Civil Law under the direction of the emperor Justinian, generations after the empire ceased to be ruled from Rome. That Corpus, read and commented on by medieval scholars from the eleventh century on, inspired the legal systems of most of the cities and kingdoms of Europe.
Laws regarding dowries, divorce, and inheritance pertain primarily to women. Since those laws aimed to maintain and preserve property, the women concerned were those from the property- owning minority. Their subordination to male family members points to the even greater subordination of lower- class and slave women, about whom the laws speak little.
In the early republic, the paterfamilias, or “father of the family,” possessed patria potestas, “paternal power.” The term pater, “father,” in both these cases does not necessarily mean biological father but denotes the head of a household. The father was the person who owned the household’s property and, indeed, its human members. The paterfamilias had absolute power—including the power, rarely exercised, of life or death—over his wife, his children, and his slaves, as much as his cattle.
Male children could be “emancipated,” an act that granted legal autonomy and the right to own property. Those over fourteen could be emancipated by a special grant from the father or automatically by their father’s death. But females could never be emancipated; instead, they passed from the authority of their father to that of a husband or, if widowed or orphaned while still unmarried, to a guardian or tutor.
Marriage in its traditional form placed the woman under her husband’s authority, or manus. He could divorce her on grounds of adultery, drinking wine, or stealing from the household, but she could not divorce him. She could neither possess property in her own right nor bequeath any to her children upon her death. When her husband died, the household property passed not to her but to his male heirs. And when her father died, she had no claim to any family inheritance, which was directed to her brothers or more remote male relatives. The effect of these laws was to exclude women from civil society, itself based on property ownership.
In the later republican and imperial periods, these rules were significantly modified. Women rarely married according to the traditional form. The practice of “free” marriage allowed a woman to remain under her father’s authority, to possess property given her by her father (most frequently the “dowry,” recoverable from the husband’s household on his death), and to inherit from her father. She could also bequeath property to her own children and divorce her husband, just as he could divorce her.
Despite this greater freedom, women still suffered enormous disability under Roman law. Heirs could belong only to the father’s side, never the mother’s. Moreover, although she could bequeath her property to her children, she could not establish a line of succession in doing so. A woman was “the beginning and end of her own family,” said the jurist Ulpian. Moreover, women could play no public role. They could not hold public office, represent anyone in a legal case, or even witness a will. Women had only a private existence and no public personality.
The dowry system, the guardian, women’s limited ability to transmit wealth, and total political disability are all features of Roman law adopted by the medieval communities of Western Europe, although modified according to local customary laws.
CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND WOMEN’S PLACE.
The Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament authorized later writers to limit women to the realm of the family and to burden them with the guilt of original sin. The passages most fruitful for this purpose were the creation narratives in Genesis and sentences from the Epistles defining women’s role within the Christian family and community.
Each of the first two chapters of Genesis contains a creation narrative. In the first “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27). In the second, God created Eve from Adam’s rib (2:21–23). Christian theologians relied principally on Genesis 2 for their understanding of the relation between man and woman, interpreting the creation of Eve from Adam as proof of her subordination to him.
The creation story in Genesis 2 leads to that of the temptations in Genesis 3: of Eve by the wily serpent and of Adam by Eve. As read by Christian theologians from Tertullian to Thomas Aquinas, the narrative made Eve responsible for the Fall and its consequences. She instigated the act; she deceived her husband; she suffered the greater punishment. Her disobedience made it necessary for Jesus to be incarnated and to die on the cross. From the pulpit, moralists and preachers for centuries conveyed to women the guilt that they bore for original sin.
The Epistles offered advice to early Christians on building communities of the faithful. Among the matters to be regulated was the place of women. Paul offered views favorable to women in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul also referred to women as his coworkers and placed them on a par with himself and his male coworkers (Phlm 4:2–3; Rom 16:1–3; 1 Cor 16:19). Elsewhere, Paul limited women’s possibilities: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3).
Biblical passages by later writers (although attributed to Paul) enjoined women to forgo jewels, expensive clothes, and elaborate coiffures; and they forbade women to “teach or have authority over men,” telling them to “learn in silence with all submissiveness” as is proper for one responsible for sin, consoling them, however, with the thought that they will be saved through childbearing (1 Tm 2:9–15). Other texts among the later Epistles defined women as the weaker sex and emphasized their subordination to their husbands (1 Pt 3:7; Col 3:18; Eph 5:22–23).
These passages from the New Testament became the arsenal employed by theologians of the early church to transmit negative attitudes toward women to medieval Christian culture—above all, Tertullian (On the Apparel of Women), Jerome (Against Jovinian), and Augustine (The Literal Meaning of Genesis).
THE IMAGE OF WOMEN IN MEDIEVAL LITERATURE.
The philosophical, legal, and religious traditions born in antiquity formed the basis of the medieval intellectual synthesis wrought by trained thinkers, mostly clerics, writing in Latin and based largely in universities. The vernacular literary tradition that developed alongside the learned tradition also spoke about female nature and women’s roles. Medieval stories, poems, and epics also portrayed women negatively—as lustful and deceitful—while praising good housekeepers and loyal wives as replicas of the Virgin Mary or the female saints and martyrs.
There is an exception in the movement of “courtly love” that evolved in southern France from the twelfth century. Courtly love was the erotic love between a nobleman and noblewoman, the latter usually superior in social rank. It was always adulterous. From the conventions of courtly love derive modern Western notions of romantic love. The tradition has had an impact disproportionate to its size, for it affected only a tiny elite, and very few women. The exaltation of the female lover probably does not reflect a higher evaluation of women or a step toward their sexual liberation. More likely it gives expression to the social and sexual tensions besetting the knightly class at a specific historical juncture.
The literary fashion of courtly love was on the wane by the thirteenth century, when the widely read Romance of the Rose was composed in French by two authors of significantly different dispositions. Guillaume de Lorris composed the initial four thousand verses about 1235, and Jean de Meun added about seventeen thousand verses—more than four times the original— about 1265.
The fragment composed by Guillaume de Lorris stands squarely in the tradition of courtly love. Here the poet, in a dream, is admitted into a walled garden where he fi nds a magic fountain in which a rosebush is reflected. He longs to pick one rose, but the thorns prevent his doing so, even as he is wounded by arrows from the god of love, whose commands he agrees to obey. The rest of this part of the poem recounts the poet’s unsuccessful efforts to pluck the rose.
The longer part of the Romance by Jean de Meun also describes a dream. But here allegorical characters give long didactic speeches, providing a social satire on a variety of themes, some pertaining to women. Love is an anxious and tormented state, the poem explains: women are greedy and manipulative, marriage is miserable, beautiful women are lustful, ugly ones cease to please, and a chaste woman is as rare as a black swan.
Shortly after Jean de Meun completed The Romance of the Rose, Mathéolus penned his Lamentations, a long Latin diatribe against marriage translated into French about a century later. The Lamentations sum up medieval attitudes toward women and provoked the important response by Christine de Pizan in her Book of the City of Ladies.
In 1355, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote Il Corbaccio, another antifeminist manifesto, although ironically by an author whose other works pioneered new directions in Renaissance thought. The former husband of his lover appears to Boccaccio, condemning his unmoderated lust and detailing the defects of women. Boccaccio concedes at the end “how much men naturally surpass women in nobility” and is cured of his desires.
WOMEN’ S ROLES: THE FAMILY
The negative perceptions of women expressed in the intellectual tradition are also implicit in the actual roles that women played in European society. Assigned to subordinate positions in the household and the church, they were barred from significant participation in public life.
Medieval European households, like those in antiquity and in non-Western civilizations, were headed by males. It was the male serf (or peasant), feudal lord, town merchant, or citizen who was polled or taxed or succeeded to an inheritance or had any acknowledged public role, although his wife or widow could stand as a temporary surrogate. From about 1100, the position of property- holding males was further enhanced: inheritance was confined to the male, or agnate, line—with depressing consequences for women.
A wife never fully belonged to her husband’s family, nor was she a daughter to her father’s family. She left her father’s house young to marry whomever her parents chose. Her dowry was managed by her husband, and at her death it normally passed to her children by him.
A married woman’s life was occupied nearly constantly with cycles of pregnancy, childbearing, and lactation. Women bore children through all the years of their fertility, and many died in childbirth. They were also responsible for raising young children up to six or seven. In the propertied classes that responsibility was shared, since it was common for a wet nurse to take over breast- feeding and for servants to perform other chores.
Women trained their daughters in the household duties appropriate to their status, nearly always tasks associated with textiles: spinning, weaving, sewing, embroidering. Their sons were sent out of the house as apprentices or students, or their training was assumed by fathers in later childhood and adolescence. On the death of her husband, a woman’s children became the responsibility of his family. She generally did not take “his” children with her to a new marriage or back to her father’s house, except sometimes in the artisan classes.
Women also worked. Rural peasants performed farm chores, merchant wives often practiced their husbands’ trades, the unmarried daughters of the urban poor worked as servants or prostitutes. All wives produced or embellished textiles and did the housekeeping, while wealthy ones managed servants. These labors were unpaid or poorly paid but often contributed substantially to family wealth.
WOMEN’ S ROLES: THE CHURCH
Membership in a household, whether a father’s or a husband’s, meant for women a lifelong subordination to others. In western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church offered an alternative to the career of wife and mother. A woman could enter a convent, parallel in function to the monasteries for men that evolved in the early Christian centuries.
In the convent, a woman pledged herself to a celibate life, lived according to strict community rules, and worshiped daily. Often the convent offered training in Latin, allowing some women to become considerable scholars and authors as well as scribes, artists, and musicians. For women who chose the conventual life, the benefits could be enormous, but for numerous others placed in convents by paternal choice, the life could be restrictive and burdensome.
The conventual life declined as an alternative for women as the modern age approached. Reformed monastic institutions resisted responsibility for related female orders. The church increasingly restricted female institutional life by insisting on closer male supervision.
Women often sought other options. Some joined the communities of laywomen that sprang up spontaneously in the thirteenth century in the urban zones of Western Europe, especially in Flanders and Italy. Some joined the heretical movements that flourished in late medieval Christendom, who’s anticlerical and often antifamily positions particularly appealed to women.
In these communities, some women were acclaimed as “holy women” or “saints,” whereas others often were condemned as frauds or heretics. In all, although the options offered to women by the church were sometimes less than satisfactory, they were sometimes richly rewarding. After 1520, the convent remained an option only in Roman Catholic territories. Protestantism engendered an ideal of marriage as a heroic endeavor and appeared to place husband and wife on a more equal footing. Sermons and treatises, however, still called for female subordination and obedience.