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Listening to "the other voice" in early modern Europe.

Under the general heading of "The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe," the University of Chicago Press has planned the publication of a series of works describing the experience of women, the first six of which are now in print. Edited by Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil, Jr., the series will represent a range of writers, mostly women, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, who lived in the Low Countries, Italy, France and Spain. The publications under review here are absolutely first-rate. Deftly translated and edited, each work has a double preface; the first is King and Rabil's introduction to the series, the second the particular editor's introduction to the author, generic character, and literary antecedents of the work in hand. These volumes should travel widely - from an undergraduate classroom to the shelves of research libraries.

The inauguration of the Chicago series marks an important moment in women's studies: English-speaking readers will now be able to assess literary works in early modern Europe, especially Italy, that engaged the late medieval discourse on the nature and status of women. Commonly known as the querelle des femmes, this discourse was progressively transformed by the revisionary political philosophies promoted by Renaissance humanists, Reformation attitudes on social order, and a burgeoning interest in the evidence of experience as opposed to doctrine and theory. Especially important for scholars of early modern England, continental literature by and about women demonstrates a prodigiously innovative quality of thought not matched in England much before the last quarter of the sixteenth century. The exception here is, of course, the debate on women's rule, which, through an accident of history, forced English clerics and ministers to argue for the competence of a women in authority long before there was much popular support for the idea.

Certain features of this continental literature on women are, I think, remarkable. They emerge with particular clarity in two contexts: that of political order, in which the question of the author's rhetorical power to persuade a reader is set against the historical evidence of various kinds of institutionalized authority; and that of Christian doctrine, in which a theoretical scheme of creation privileging the more spiritual classes of creature over those more physical, earthy, and material is qualified by accounts of diversity. The two contexts inform each other, particularly in discussions of sex and gender: if males are assumed to be more rational and educable than females, their social and political preeminence may be justified. If not, then not: a different and more complex order must obtain. Pro-woman argument engages both these contexts. Works such as the autobiography of Cecilia Ferrazzi reveal not that a woman lacked power - to persuade, to inform, to engage an audience - but rather that because she could not identify her interests with those of any existing institution, she lacked authority. And works such as Moderata Fonte's dialogue asserting the superiority of women to men undermine the notion of a creational hierarchy by illustrating the diversity within nature, a move that opens many possibilities: at the very least, women can imagine relations with men that approach something like virtual parity.

Here I need to take some exception to King and Rabil's claim that "Women were excluded from power: the whole cultural tradition insisted on it" ("Editors' Introduction," Declamation, xxii). I find less consensus in the cultural tradition and would instance the works in their series for a start. Women were powerful: they were eloquent, persuasive, and influential. What they were not was authoritative; they lacked the means to make their desires more than the motive force behind a request, petition, or plea; for the most part, they were excluded from those institutions that would have given their positions legitimacy. This liability informs the general character of their literary output and of works by men who argued in their behalf. With no grounding in a recognized form of collectivity, writers who spoke with "the other voice" had to appeal the reason, the sense of fair play, and the affection of men to authorize the changes they themselves could not.

The most desperate and alienated of "other voices" recorded in this series is surely Cecilia Ferrazzi's. Born in 1609, she was accused and convicted of "pretense of sanctity" by the Inquisition, in Venice, in 1664-65 (14). Schutte's well-documented introduction discusses the substance of Ferrazzi's testimony in four official interrogations; these are supplemented by the material in her life story, as she told it to a secretary - a story solicited as corroboration for the information gathered in the interrogations and constituting, in Schutte's words, an "inquisitorial autobiography" (5). Together, Ferrazzi's words reveal how her contemporaries looked at her and her extraordinary activities: while she acted as if she were divinely inspired, they reacted with fear and disbelief. Her career at the margins of society followed the death of her parents and her position as governess in the family of the Venetian patrician, Paolo Lion, where she also began to care for young women who, without a dowry or property of any kind, were in danger of falling into prostitution. This activity became suspect when Ferrazzi, an epileptic and probably tubercular, asserted that she heard voices and had visions. She denied a rumor that she received the stigmata, listened to confession, and administered communion, but these events and her irregular behavior, together with the fact that some people regarded her as "a living saint" (14) eventually drove the process of her trial.

Identified as a non-conformist and deprived of any ordinary or customary means to understand what was happening to her or why, Ferrazzi's words suggest that she never knew who she was or should strive to be. Separated from the church, the institution to which she most belonged by conviction and temperament, she floated in a kind of cognitive limbo. Once, as commanded by her confessor, she told a dove who habitually visited her in her room to go to him; she concluded that she did not "consider whether it [the dove] was God or the Devil"; her task was not to know but to obey (43). And after undergoing exorcism, she reflected that "whether the aforementioned things (her visions) were illusions of the demon, as I've always suspected and feared, I leave to the appropriate people to judge, submitting entirely and forever to their will" (73-74). Thus she functioned as a kind of conduit for official pronouncements on her state of being - they testified to the power of her image while they also sought to control its effects.

The case of Antonia Pulci is an inversion of Ferrazzi's; her voice had power but it also spoke for the interests of an institution designed to determine her way of life. The plots of Pulci's plays derive their motive force from a need, and perhaps a requirement, to celebrate the virtue justifying cloistered life: virginity. In The Play and Festival of Rosana, for example, virginity retains its value despite a plot that suggests romance: the heroine Rosana, imprisoned in the Sultan of Babylon's harem, succeeds in defending herself from his advances, and is rescued by the Prince of Cesaria, Ulimentus, a companion from childhood who has all the generic features of a lover. The couple returns to the King of Cesaria, who, with the prince, converts to Christianity and then retires "to give himself to God" (275). Ulimentus concludes the play by beginning his monarchy as a bachelor; Rosana is silent throughout these final scenes although apparently she remains on stage. The convent audience knew, I assume, why it was appropriate that they watch a romanzo interrotto, a play which hyperbolically illustrated the chief features of their own lives and common fate. Pulci's editors state that she represents women as "proactive forces" in society (3) - while this is certainly true, one has also to notice that her characters are, in a sense, company women: their voices are made audible within the confines, literal and symbolic, of the cloister.

The conceptual framework within which both Ferrazzi and Pulci represented a feminine experience was constructed to value the male above the female and feminists had, therefore, an obvious stake in inverting its terms. Agrippa's Declamation does just this: it places woman as preeminent over man and, in theory, it makes impossible the experiences of a Ferrazzi and a Pulci. But the interest of his treatise is to be found in passages in which he turns from the theory of sexual difference to an account of the authoritative institutions that make the speaking or writing outside a sanctioned social order so very problematic. Having cited various laws in ancient Rome that would appear to acknowledge the social role of women by granting them certain privileges (some merely honorific [89-91]), Agrippa goes on to mention others that gave women a public status and instrumentality equal to those of men. Roman women were able to be "judges and arbitrators, to have power to invest or be invested with a fief, and to decide a matter of law among their vassals. For the same reason a woman, as a man, can have slaves of her own, she can render justice even among foreigners, and she can give her name to her family, so that her sons receive the name of their mother rather than their father" (91-92). In short, a Roman woman could obtain an institutional identity and derive her authority from it. These images of parity trouble Agrippa's picture of a creation in which women are supposed superior. Equality or parity of access to institutions means, finally, that there is a presumption of sameness among those who are seeking and getting access.

Neither Laura Cereta, whose literary output consists of a collection of letters, nor Tullia d'Aragona, who wrote an anti-neo-Platonic dialogue on love, are clearly distinguished by their relations to authorizing institutions. Cereta's letters were private, not published before the nineteenth century; and d'Aragona's feminist dialogue has a formal correspondence to comparable works by Ficino, Castiglione, Equicola, Leone Ebreo, and Speroni. Separated by half a century (Cereta was born in 1465, d'Aragona in 1510), Cereta's closeted oeuvres show an alienation of spirit comparable to that revealed by Ferrazzi's testimonies. Robin's introduction suggests that Cereta's most political letters are feminist works despite their theoretical character. Like Agrippa, Cereta argues for parity between men and women: "nature has granted to all enough of her bounty; she opens to all the gates of choice, and through these gates, reason sends legates to the will . . . ." She remarks on the cultural and constructed basis for sexual difference: "Yours [i.e., men] is the authority [auctoritas]; ours is the inborn ability [ingenium]" (97). In other words, were the power of women given institutional scope, the consequences of their choices would have a public and not merely a private character. As it is, Cereta observes, women become powerful in a public sense when they assume the office of mother: 'The powers of maternal authority are great, i.e., manly, masculine [ingentes maternae auctoritatis vires sunt]" (68, 64).

For Cereta, however, there remained unfinished business. Reading her letter to Mario Bono, one feels that her feminist claims gave her little satisfaction; throughout her correspondence, she frequently complains that she is subject to male "envy." The letter describes Cereta's encounter with the figure of a fury, a half-naked woman, "nervous, noisy, and incessantly babbling," wielding a snake, who "danced at the crossroads without embarrassment" (174). The crowd turned on her; she burned as if the fires of Cocytus were inside her. At last she vanished: "I have no idea what path she took in her flight," Cereta concludes. Was she a "spirit from the Underworld," or "an appearance sanctioned by God"? But Cereta denies her first premise: because "the earth is a dwelling place for man [and not infernal spirits]," the figure is actually a "portent" of things to come (175). Robin's suggestion seems apt: the fury "may be a figure for the writer herself" (174). If so, it signals an alienation of the self from society that, though expressed in terms of great sophistication, is comparable to Ferrazzi's pathetic isolation.

D'Aragona's dialogue does more than imply that creation equally benefits men and women, although it does do that. Her editors state that her dialogue "establishes a new morality of love" by grounding it in nature; moreover, "by positing a parity between the sexes, she removes women, traditionally defined with physicality and sin, from the marginal position they occupied in men's progress to spiritual life . . ." (21). Certainly the character Tullia argues for a conception of love that celebrates the experience of the body, by contrast to her opponent, identified as the Florentine writer, Benedetto Varchi, who, with Ficino, believes that true love transcends bodily experience. But I think Tullia's position is registered in ways more subtle and unexpected, particularly if it is understood in light of her comments on finitude and what, in real terms, they suggest about the institutionalized settings in which she lived. Her own identity was shaped by her position as a cortegiana honesta; like her more famous compatriot, Veronica Franco, she lived under the protection of a nobleman and in some sense as his servant. She was, in other words, in a position to assess the extent to which the subject of her dialogue, love, was subject to the material constraints and limitations on women who are dependent on men for their well-being.

Declaring that love is not infinite but has an end, Tullia asks that Varchi "bow to experience, which I trust by itself far more than all the reasons produced by the whole class of philosophers" (71). Love is infinite, she asserts, only "in potential": in reality, love is registered in a series of encounters, one after the other, each of which eventually succumbs to the lovers' satiety (84). Love's finitude is a consequence of its physical expression - lovers grow old and tired. Putting the matter bluntly, she tells Varchi "many who love youthful partners ... cease to love them when the flower of their youthful beauty fades, and sometimes their love may even turn into repulsion" (101). Here she speaks as a courtesan and subject to the passions of men, their serial affection strictly geared to a time and place; her "other voice" gains authority because its terms are borrowed from the institutions of marriage and concubinage. Its power, however, derives from its subtle expressions of vulnerability and alienation.

The longest work to date in the Chicago series is Moderata Fonte's The Worth of Women: Wherein is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men. Although Fonte's treatise is formally directed to reconceiving the trope of a creational hierarchy, it actually illustrates another kind of world altogether - one in which the particularity of creatures endows each with a function that is both unique and at least by implication indispensable. The principal points in her argument are expressed by her two most vocal characters: Leonora, a young widow who is relentlessly bitter in her denunciation of men; and Corinna, a young unmarried woman who is devoted to learning. While Leonora's objections to men harmonize with general complaints against male envy in the conversations of the dfirst day, her comments become increasingly out of place in the conversations of the second day, in which the scope of debate is enlarged by Corinna's reflections on the variety in nature. Leonora's misanthropy - a deliberate inversion of a traditional misogyny - is mitigated only late in the second day, after Adriana, who has been chosen queen of the company, reminds her that time is running out, that since she is still a "slip of a girl," she can (or ought to) try "to seek out a worthy and charming companion for herself, with whom she can lead a long and happy life - if only to avoid the risk of giving occasion for malicious gossip and slander" (259). Leonora says she'll think it over. In effect, Corinna's picture of creation suggests possibilities not envisaged by the rigid typologies mandating distinctions of better and worse; it is, moreover, made realistically attractive by the fact of temporality. One is reminded of Rosalind's warning to nubile but recalcitrant Phoebe: "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets." Fonte's entire dialogue works to undermine her stated thesis, the superiority of women to men, and instead provides a powerful image of relational rather oppositional ways of thinking and being.

I conclude with a final word about a tricky matter - the question of intentionality. This arises particularly when a writer deploys figures that suggest facetiousness, as do Agrippa and Fonte. Rabil, Agrippa's editor, asks whether the Declamation can be counted a serious work, a question asked by earlier critics - Emile Telle, Marc Angenot, Ian Maclean, Linda Woodbridge and myself, among others. He concludes, correctly I think, that despite its paradoxical quality, the treatise has "serious and seriously intended" consequences (32). They derive, I have suggested above, from Agrippa's entertainment of a parity between the sexes in social, political, and legal spheres. Cox, Fonte's editor, who focuses on "sincerity" as well as "seriousness," takes the view that in general defenses of women are not always "sincere" (that is, I assume, without irony): "'Sincerity,' in the sense of a personal commitment on the author's part to the ideas expressed, should certainly not be assumed in Renaissance defenses of women. We are on safer ground with 'courtesy,"ingenuity,' or 'eloquence,' the qualities contemporary readers most frequently praised in such works . . . . The Worth of Women is certainly far from 'sincerity' in the sense of 'earnestness,' and its tone, like that of other defenses of women, is best defined by the contemporary notion of 'serious play'" (serio ludere [15-16]). Cox goes on to note, and I would agree, that Fonte, working within the convention of serio ludere, engages both humor and critique and that to ignore either is a mistake. What I think may benefit from further comment are Cox's distinctions between sincere and insincere, and serious and non-serious discourse.

Here I would keep two considerations in mind. First, as literary expression is governed by the generic conventions exemplified by a text or the rules of the language game a writer has chosen to play, so is all such expression intended to be taken seriously: a writer wants to persuade a reader of the merit of his or her work, to play as good a game as he or she can. What critical readers need to assess are how deftly a writer exploits the resources of language to rhetorical effect and a logical check-mate. Second, a writer's sincerity has, in my view, a limited bearing on the cultural meaning of a literary text, which may be intended but not necessarily received as ironic. Reception theory is replete with instances of such reinterpreted texts. As Quentin Skinner has observed, intentionality has two aspects: a writer intends to write a text, he or she also intends to persuade an audience.(1) The first intention is realized in the completed work, the second is notoriously open-ended. While a writer may be insincere or ironic in his representations, his or her readers, free in any case to reconceive the rules of the game for their own purposes, may become sincerely affected by them or choose strategically to promote them as their sincere beliefs. In such instances, while it is important to recognize that a writer is being ironic, it is also important to consider how his or her readers are responding. The point is especially worth keeping in mind when a discourse is as culturally charged as early modern literature on the nature and status of women. Readers of this literature should find appropriate contexts in which its cultural meanings may be assessed by analyzing evidence of institutional (especially legal and economic) changes affecting women during the long early modern period.


1 Quentin Skinner, "Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas," in Meaning & Context: Quentin Skinner and his Critics. In James Tully, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, 29-67.
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Author:Jordan, Constance
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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