More from "The Other Voice" in early modern Europe. (Review Essay).
The relative novelty of women's studies, not recognized as a discipline before the 1970s, is overshadowed by its prominence in the curricula of today. Courses in the liberal arts take account of the different experiences of men and women; some specifically feature the study of cultural practices establishing distinctions of gender; others consider how concepts of masculinity and femininity figure in the exercise and representation of authority and power. The series of works by or about early modern women published by the University of Chicago Press therefore finds a ready market, and its most recent publications, reviewed here, maintain the high standard of editing and translating shown earlier. The choice of what to publish and the degree of information required for these works to be attractive to non-specialist readers make this series a distinguished and necessary addition to early modern cultural studies. It goes far to establish a tradition of women authors and a literature for women at a time when the b est evidence still suggests that most women could neither read nor write.
As interest has grown in analyzing illustrations of power and how it is deployed, the figure of woman has often been equated with that of the male subordinate. Their social functions are often quite comparable: to please their master, to serve his needs, and to echo his thoughts. Such a structuralist vision of gender allows for an understanding of the critical importance of rank: a female prince is a masculine agent, in that she has authority and power; by contrast, a male servant is a feminized entity, in that he is beholden to his superiors. The history of political thought conveys further how the figure of the feminized subordinate informs notions of the state. The self-definition of James I as king of all Britain is illustrative: he is, he declared, the "Husband" of "the Isle, his Wife." Of course, what being a subordinate means is variable: it may entail an obligation to give counsel to a superior, as a wife should do in a marriage; or to withhold support from a sovereign, as a people might do in a const itutional monarchy. In all these discourses, the question of gender, the difference between maleness and masculinity on the one hand, and femaleness and femininity on the other, is critical to an understanding of conflicts of interest.
In the course of some fifty years, from the publication of Ruth Kelso's Doctrine for the Gentlewoman of the Renaissance, 1956, through Joan Kelly's cogent critique of the notion of a genderless Renaissance in "Did Women have a Renaissance," 1977, scholarship on the culture of early modern Europe has progressively defined and refined the perspectives in which the nature and status of women may be regarded. The idea of woman as a functional male, whether as a result of rank (gentle, noble) or status (widow), suggests that concepts of gender were susceptible to improvisation and even playful innovation. As a rule, of course, the figure of the masculine woman was inherently intriguing and celebrated, while that of the feminized male was rejected and derided.
Seeking themes or positions common to the works noted above is a somewhat arbitrary business, given that so much has to be left aside. Nevertheless, I want to begin by making a general claim: in these works, the representation of gender and its difference is linked to the representation of human agency. Where gender is of little interest and provokes no sense of disparate natures or goals as between men and women, history is usually represented as providential. Problems of human agency, whether of a man or a woman, are not at issue. What counts for these authors is a unitary social order, one in which differences of all kinds are subsumed in the concept of a human nature and reason. By contrast, works featuring gender tend to represent agency in human terms and hence also to recognize the decisive effects of circumstance and contingency. They focus on problems of power and authority; they show who is allowed to speak and to act and what consequences flow from this activity. Celebrating a unified harmony of pu rpose are works by Riccoboni, Fedele, and van Schurman; testifying to a divided sensibility are those of Tornabuoni, Franco, and Marinella. Vives' treatise on the education of women is in a class by itself. Less experiential than the works by women writers, it represents a detached and doctrinal conformity.
Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni's chronicle and necrology of the church and convent of Corpus Domini in Venice focus entirely on the spiritual dimension of human life. Riccoboni does not and perhaps cannot distinguish a gendered way of reading experience: for her, the inspired teacher of her convent, Giovanni Domenici, simply corroborates what she and her sisters agree is meaningful. Her methodology suggests the real risks in writing historical narrative: it is that such narrative cannot escape making some sort of claim about why things happen. Considered in general and rhetorical terms, historical narrative can be characterized as an extended exercise in the transpositive figure of metalepsis: it establishes the cause of an event as a reflection upon the event itself and thus as a kind of afterword.
Riccoboni's chronicle is a case in point, one that displays a happy inventiveness when it deals with causality. Reviewing the origin of her order in the vision of its founder Sister Lucia Tiepolo, Riccoboni asserts the prophetic and explanatory power of certain events whose meanings were understood only belatedly. They were assigned, as causative, to other and earlier events. Thus they became part of a seamless narrative. Speaking of the foundation of the altar of Corpus Domini, the convent's church, Riccoboni declares that its location was miraculous, signaled by an August snowfall. The snowfall acquires its significance when the location of the altar needs an explanation; otherwise, it would have remained an empty sign. In fact, there are many such empty signs in Riccoboni's chronicle. Here's an example: "before she came to live here [the place of Corpus Dominil this Sister Lucia saw a gold brood hen with all her chicks, and when she tried to embrace or grasp it, it plunged underground and she saw it no mo re" (29). The reader is never told what the strange history of this hen means nor why Riccoboni saw fit to include it in the history of her convent. In its curious synchronism, Riccoboni's narrative resembles paintings of this period in which the life of a saint is depicted at several distinct moments in time but displayed in one unified space, on a single canvas.
Riccoboni shows no discrepancy between her pious understanding of events and what the men who teach her and her sisters state as true and sufficient. When, for example, she reports to Giovanni Domenici that the wind knocked down the sacrament from its place of storage, he explains that this happened because the Lord desired that (like him) the convent should suffer tribulation. Giovanni's allusion to an imitatio Christi is followed by his prophecy of further but unspecified afflictions, which Riccoboni confesses "indeed came true soon thereafter" (41). Because what she reports as an explanation is really an effect (an afterthought, a reflection) of what it is supposed to explain, events in Riccoboni's chronicle seem always already to be happening. Why such a notion of history would make sense to her is suggested in the necrology she appends to her history. What counts there is how the sisters passed from this life to the next; their translation out of time and into eternity is the reason their lives are wort h telling. Sister Marina Pisani's death is quickly summarized: sick after a life of "fasting and good works," she "received all the holy sacraments very devoutly." These slender facts are important because they demonstrate that Sister Marina indeed "went to the Lord" (95).
In quite a different way, Cassandra Fedele's Letters and Orations also show a kind of a-historicity. Shaped by a humanistic training unavailable to most Women in her day, they draw on a rhetoric of argument that collapses distinctions of gender into a uniform set of references to a masculine experience. Inevitably, this argument places the notion of exceptionalism in the forefront of Fedele's thinking about her place in the intellectual life of her city, Venice, and in a larger sense Italy. Her elegant and tempered writing shows the equivocal effects of humanism on habits of thought associated with the woman question. Fedele's standards are masculine and chiefly assigned to males; she responds to them as if acknowledging a demi personhood - a status she attains not as a woman but rather as a quasi-man. Diana Robin, her editor, introduces Fedele's ambiguous condition by prefacing her introduction with an epigraph by Scaliger: "If no woman is able to explore the truth hidden in God's mind and bosom or bring di vine inspiration to nature, then you [Cassandra Fedele] never were a woman, but you were a man" (3). This hypothetical statement points to Fedele's exotic womanhood. The sense of wonder that it conveys is consistent with conventional compliments Fedele received in letters from her correspondents, all men, as well as those she gave to women. In each case, the figure of the woman who competes and excels in the masculine domain of learning is made to be exceptional.
So the rector of Schio declares that by her learning she is incorporated into the body of "men" (65). Pier Dabuson represents her as "an unprecedented marvel," one that confirms "that a manly mind can be born in a person of the female sex" (110). Poliziano insists that "sex did not stand in the way of your mind"; and although he is not one to "believe that the female sex was naturally consigned to stupidity and dimness," he regards her achievements in literature a "miracle" (90-91). Angelo Tancredi also considers her "divine," since her "voice hardly sounds human" (68), and Ponzano concurs, judging her to be a "sybil" (120). In short, her nature, so far from that of ordinary womankind, is either masculine or supernatural. Writing to women (although we have only a few of these letters), Fedele resorts to a comparable language of praise: she calls Isabella of Castile an Amazon because she protects the earth from infidels (20); she celebrates Bona Sforza because she has "enobled her sex" through a knowledge of literature (25); and she asks Beatrice of Aragon whether she can deny that because she guards all peoples, she "equals the gods, not mere mortal men" (27). The question to ask of these tropes so obviously establishing the category of the exceptional is whether or not Fedele was herself capable of understanding them facetiously or ironically. In other words, was she playing with her readers when she subscribed to the idea that the best woman is like a man?
Some passages in her letters suggest as much. To Girolamo Campagnola she confesses she is studying law. Why? so that her "weak, fragile, and meager talent" can deal with creditors. For, she continues, "it is a very sweet victory indeed to outstrip men of eloquence." She also wants not to present herself as "uncorrected," and she adds, "besides you know, Campagnola, how my meager talent responds to correction." In other words, she insists that she is both eloquent and trained, accomplishments that are predicated on but also represent a triumph over her "meager talent" (71). In short, she has it both ways: she conforms to stereotype by being "meager"; she transgresses norms by knowing the sweet victory of success over men. Something similar happens in her letter to Filomeno, in which she dedicates herself to reading Aristotle, a laughing matter, she says, in that she, a mere girl," aspires "to things extremely difficult, even for a man" (76). She confesses that she is sometimes angry, "because Aristotle's beli efs don't want to be understood by me." Then, she concludes, she begs Aristotle with the sweetest words: "0 charming leader, I beg you to allow me to understand you, even though you are considered the prince among philosophers" (76). To me at least, her plea betrays her sense of the ludicrous: Aristotle is less difficult than his reputation for difficulty is pretentious.
Fedele's orations, her most substantial output, were delivered at the beginning and end of her life, and illustrate something of its strange pathos. Born in 1465. she was active in university circles in Padua for ten years, from 1487 to 1497. In 1499 she married and for forty-eight years kept out of the public eye, first as a wife and then as a widow. In 1547, at the age of eighty-two, she was made the prioress of an orphanage. In 1556, at the age of ninety-one, she delivered her third and last oration before the Doge of Venice, in honor of Bona Sforza, queen of Poland. The first two orations demonstrate the resources available to the humanist. They celebrate "higher learning," the "advantages obtained through virtue and intellect," and "intellectual struggle." The second oration is particularly self-conscious. While urging her male listeners to assume the philosophical challenges that Plato described as necessary for good government, Fedele apologizes for her "female sex" and its "small intellect" (160-61), as if tacitly acknowledging that she cannot take her own advice. Her final oration is curious in one detail; apart from predictable compliments, it contains an allusion to "many distinguished and renowned women" (163). Who these women are is unclear. It is as if a feminist content has slipped into Fedele's consciousness, a vaguely conjectured fragment designed to accompany her praise of Sforza. But the lacuna it speaks to is evident in the larger absence of women in almost all her work. It is also registered in a different way in the half century in which she herself, a female voice, was silent. Dedicated to a humanist ideal that purported to be eternally valid, her literary output remains unmarked by considerations of time and history.
Perhaps the most curious example of an a-historical perspective is that of Anna Maria van Schurman, who began her life as an exponent of education for women and ended it by repudiating all secular learning in the hope of securing eternal life. The daughter of a noble Protestant family of German origin who settled in Utrecht, the precocious Anna Maria was noticed by the Protestant theologian Gisbertus Voetius. He allowed her to attend lectures at the University, although in doing so she had to remain behind a screen and invisible to male students. (In this respect, her position was like that of the first woman president of Bryn Mawr College, M. Carey Thomas, who earned her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins also attending lectures behind a screen.) Van Schurman's literary output, which to me seems strangely retrograde, defeats all efforts to read the cultural history of early modern women in Whiggish terms. Whether Protestantism offered women greater authority within their households and communities than did Catholic pra ctice is a moot question. But in van Schurman's case, the extraordinary inwardness of her later adult life, apparently demanded by the mystical Calvinism of her teacher Jean de Labadie, made impossible any realization of the courageous program of self-education she had devised in her youth.
This was a program she announced and defended in a logical manner in her Dissertatio logica. It rests on the important distinction between a private person on the one hand, and a public person on the other. The latter will necessarily require education, she declares, but the former, a private person, can also pursue and cherish it. The distinction cuts across differences of gender and equates the situation and attributes of the private man with that of the typical woman, who is necessarily private (with notable exceptions among royalty). it allows van Schurman to dilate upon the advantages of education in a broad sense: it provides the private person (one who need not work) with prudence, knowledge against heresies, and honest delight, among other benefits (31). Van Schurman's rather arid reasoning in the Dissertatio becomes inspired pleading in her several letters to the theologian Andre River, her self-assigned mentor. There van Schurman rejects Rivet's charge that women lack the desire for learning, howev er apt they are for it. Rather, she asserts that such a view depends on "received custom" and that reason would represent the case differently. To van Schurman, the benefits of women's education include one conferred particularly on the body politic. Because women are part of the polis, they need to derive knowledge of public life through letters if the polis is to thrive, however much they are also prevented from actively participating in its life. A "whole economy of moral virtue" depends on educating the "crowd" (including uneducated women) to abandon "ignorance" (46). Educated women are necessary if a society is to remain stable. This is a principle, she argues, that must not be regarded as susceptible to the Lesbian rule of a flexible and discriminatory application (42). It must be honored as a universal.
Whether it was River's reply that actually forced van Schurman to begin her recantation of this program, or the later influence of Jean de Labadie, is unclear. In any case, Rivet's position denied all validity to van Schurman's argument, largely because it insisted on the propriety of the status quo: reality will not follow the lead of your words"; "men are destined to one set of things, women another"; women are not suited for "political and ecclesiastical duties, especially public reaching," and therefore they should not be educated to practice them (50). And finally, there is Rivet's trump card: even if women were so suited, it would nor be "in the public interest" to have them develop their talents to public ends. No reason is given. By abandoning the public/private criterion which allowed women the privileges of men in education and by insisting on the male/female difference, even though it was no more than customary, Rivet forced van Schurman into a position that was essentially impractical, antisocial , and a-historical. In Eukleria, she renounces her early work as erroneous, admits to the "grossest of faults" in endorsing it, and vows herself to thoughts and works of piety. "I am nothing but the dream of a shadow" (85), she declares. Her words recall the trope of life as a dream, familiar to readers of Montaigne and made popular on the English stage by Shakespeare's Prospero: "we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep." That van Schurman believed that she had embraced a reclusive piety "only too late" (88), suggests how completely, after her turn to a mystical religion, she discounted the things of this world and the ordinary terms of human life in favor of the hope of eternity.
Women writers were not, however, altogether bound by restrictions that required them to deny either their difference or their agency. If they did not challenge the norms of patriarchy overtly, they could at least reveal how to circumvent them. As her editor Jane Tylus notes, Lucrezia Tornabuoni is intrigued with the possibility that women can "meddle" in the business of men (22, 27), and while her stories of Susanna, Tobias, Judith, Esther, and John the Baptist display an acute sense of the differences of sex and gender they also show how conflict between and among men and women establish agency for women. This agency is not of course unqualified.
When made of a woman, the demand to exhibit virtu -- the kind of strength and skill normally assigned to men -- required some kind of accommodation, for typically a woman's virtu was recognized only as the virtue of chastity. In the stories of Susanna and Tobias, the female principals lack virtue but acquire virtue when men speak for them. Tornabuoni's Daniel has the wit and the status to interrogate the elders who have accused Susanna of fornication. He reasonably discovers contradiction and refutes the charges of the elders; she does not and cannot, not only because as a woman she is categorically incredible but also because she is given no power to reason or speak. Her virtu is only in the chastity of her mouth, her silence. Correspondingly, the virtu of Tobias, his abstemious sexuality, an act both generative and sober, conforms to the virtue of chastity expected of his bride Sarah. In that sense, he is himself feminized, a trait that may explain why he is so often pictured as an young adolescent. His vi rtue is expressed as the "familiarity" of the angel Raphael (114). Like Susanna, Sarah is validated through the action of a man. By contrast, Tornabuoni's stories of Judith and Esther show the virtu of women as actual and independently instrumental in preserving the integrity of their tribe.
Judith, a widow, "honest and virtuous," unwilling "to seek another husband," and possessing a "manly heart" (d'animo virile), is all virtu (145). Like Daniel and Tobias, she is assisted directly by a "divine power" (154). The conflict she confronts is clear enough: Nebuchadnezzar's deputy Holofernes is instructed to torture the Hebrews, Judith arranges to be seized by Holofernes' spies, she dupes and drugs Holofernes with the promise of assistance in order to behead him in his sleep. Esther's virtu is similarly her own and unmediated, although it is translated into the strategies of art and not feats of arms. One of many wives of the Babylonian king Ahasuerus, who does not know that she is a Hebrew, Esther learns of the threat to her people that is posed by Haman, a deputy of her husband. She averts that threat by making two confessions: the first is to God, to whom she admits that her people are in danger because "we sinned" (192); the second is to Ahasuerus, to whom she admits she is a Hebrew (202). In her, the virtue of chastity is both assumed and regarded as an extension of her prudent behavior. Unlike the unruly Vashti, a wife whom Ahasuerus must repudiate, Esther is cunningly silent until she knows it is time to speak. In all these stories from Hebrew scripture, the outcome is essentially the same: chaste women save the tribe by guaranteeing its proper generation, either indirectly and through male surrogates, or directly by themselves. Time is historical and its meanings are not perceived as subsumed in the mystery of eternity.
Tornabuoni's story of John the Baptist also speaks of agency but it is informed by Christian irony. John, who is the passive victim of his own story, is mysteriously triumphant at its end; others, who have shown virtu but nor virtue, are defeated. Figuratively, John's story reworks the elements of Judith's but with extraordinary inversion. While Judith beheads the enemy of the Hebrews and guarantees their survival in time, Herodias arranges for the beheading of John, whose survival in time is a matter of indifference: his destiny is in the next world. Women here have a diabolical virtu but are notoriously without virtue. It does not matter in the long run. The fact that Herodias goes mad (loses her head, 263) merely underscores the irony of a Christian tragedy. It is always, in effect, comedic.
The considerable play Tornabuoni gives virtu, whether displaced from women to men or seized exceptionally by women, prevents her from representing the agency of women as nugatory. For her, it is motivated, albeit by a divine will, and it is effective; it registers deliberation, choice, acumen, and courage. Its end is in some human institution: marriage, the city, the tribe. The differences occasioned by gender are mitigated by relations that depend on reciprocity and exchange; her historiography is bound by essentially humanistic determinants.
Placed for the sake of discussion in Jacob Burckhardt's perspective on the civilization of the Renaissance, a period in which he claims that "objectivity" and the "individual" first become apparent to statesmen, artists, and thinkers of every stripe, the figure of Veronica Franco achieves a special exemplarity. Not only a woman but a courtesan, Franco's prodigious literary talent and extraordinary independence of mind illustrate an unapologetically mortal and time-bound agency. The "common veil" that bad in Burckhardt's words obscured reality in favor of a dreamy faith during "the Middle Ages," seems particularly torn aside in Franco's work, and perhaps most dramatically in its frankly erotic moments. The terms of her biography, usefully recorded by her editors Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal, find additional meaning in relation to the social structures in which she lived and worked. As a totality, her letters and especially her poetry effect a recentering of interests and voices usually relegate d to a marginal status. This transposition of value from outside to center is managed by the rhetorical power of Franco's writing, a power that expresses formally a literary competence and strategically a social acumen. Not overtly feminist, Franco's project was, according to her editors, "to overcome [her] actual lack of freedom by constructing a poetic realm in which she dramatizes the mind and soul of courtesan interacting in forceful, even triumphant ways with her male critics and patrons" (13). Her letters reveal their vigor in the detail with which she invests her arguments. Thus in Letter 4, in which she consoles an unidentified friend in adversity, she notes that she is repaying a favor "in exactly the same coin you gave me. For the fair repayment of virtue requires that I proceed not only in a way like yours, but in exactly the same way" (28). Letter 17 chides her correspondent for his infatuation with her: it makes her consider him "an idle and empty-headed young man" -- "I have nothing else to writ e you," she concludes (35). And in Letter 22 she warns a mother against prostituting her daughter: it is a most wretched thing.. . a slavery terrifying even to think of' (39). Like her letters, Franco's poems are punctuated by details of speech and setting; they are also brilliantly argumentative.
As Jones and Rosenthal point out, Franco's verse is modeled on the medieval capitolo, a form popular with the Venier circle in which Franco had a place and one that particularly lent itself to debate (7). Her capitoli are typically paired, so that an argument by a male protagonist is followed by her response to it. It is she who controls the contest by having the last word. Answering the Magnifico Marco Venier, who in Capitolo 1 complains that she offers him "no relief' from his "suffering" and that he longs to "fall upon [her] in bed" (lines 2-3, 124-25), she replies tartly that she will demand payment for her favors, described literally as her "work in bed," opra nel letto (Capitolo 2, lines 166-67). She demands not money but a virtuous respect. In other words, she seeks a commerce that rewards her with an honorable status, granted by gracious association and not to be achieved by mercantile exchanges. Her demands are given a context in an extended section in Capitolo 24, in which she reprimands a man for h aving insulted a woman. She charges him with being "unworthy," and she describes her own sex as "unfortunate" because "always subjected and without freedom" (lines 56-7). Taking a line from the pro-woman side of the querelle des femmes, she insists that in the vigor of mind and soul women have given "more than one sign of being greater than men" (line 66). Women tolerate men and their abuse only "to avoid pursuing wrongdoing" -- so a woman "adapts and endures being a vassal" (lines 80-8 1). One of Franco's subtlest poem, Capitolo 25, touches only obliquely on questions of sex and gender and in that way perhaps illustrates more thoroughly how poetry provided her with resources to sustain her independence from the social system on which her real life depended.
Capitolo 25 is a dramatic encomium of place, in actuality the villa Fumane which belonged to Count Marcantonio della Torre, Canon of Verona. Modelled in part on Horatian tropes extolling country life, Franco's poem gains its real power from its manipulation of neo-Platonic figures of askesis. Transformed in part so that it is the beauty of place not a woman that elevates the mind, askesis also produces its opposite, a figure of descent in which the Canon's moral probity brings heaven's gifts to his estate. Franco's poem is pervaded with a sense of the harmony of art and nature, of an orderly pastoral world of shepherds with a mythical wilderness of nymphs and satyrs. Created in some sense, I suspect, to celebrate the poetic power that can achieve such a tranquil distancing of the poet from her life in Venice, her encomium contains three lines that are suggestively in error:
and she who sprang full-grown from her father's head, the goddess of woods and of the hunt, protects the olive tree among these hills. (427-29)
Conflating the figure of Minerva with that of Diana, Franco achieves the curious union of wisdom with chastity; not, one suspects, a chastity of the body but rather the spirit. Clinging to agency through an independence of mind, she draws on meaning preeminently available in this life, its terms susceptible to innovation, even in the interest of pursuing the cause of womankind. Admittedly, the terms proper to historiography are not here in Franco's verse. But the stuff of history is: agency, conflict, and a sense of evolving relations among human beings and within a society.
Lucrezia Marinella's philosophical refutation of the misogynist diatribe of Giovanni Passi displays the intellectual rigor that was absent from Fedele's humanism and the penetrating analysis that might have prevented van Schurman's escape into a pious quierism. At the same time, because Marinella attempts to reinstitute the conventional hierarchy of value and status by placing women on top, and in a manner more direct than did Franco, she does nor escape the thinking of a zero-sum game. These are inherently dangerous games to play. They require that on both sides the players renounce any hope of a shared accommodation of differences, a tolerant view of orherness, and a willingness to make room for the idiosyncratic. In that sense, Marinella's intelligence fails to deliver not, perhaps, what it promised -- it may be that she convinces her readers that women are better -- but rather a constructive hope that difference need not end in competition. Her most interesting observations suggest the wisdom of seeing di fference as both simple and ubiquitous. As Montaigne had noted a decade earlier, for every foot there is a different shoe. And, one could add, most people still manage to walk around without difficulty.
Marinella begins her defense of women with an attack on men and the inevitable self-interest that governs all their thoughts and actions about women. Ostensibly a study of intention, Marinella quickly moves from observing that some seek the truth; some, prompted by a feeling or desire, assert a truth. Yet others -- notably Aristotle and Giovanni Passi -- fail to apprehend any truth at all. They write simply from envy or hare. Marinella is especially critical of Aristotle, who, she relates, declared in his Economics that "women must obey men everywhere and in everything." This she terms a "foolish opinion and cruel pedantic sentence from a fearful tyrannical man," and she adds a reflection even more critical: "being a man, it is only natural he should desire the greatness and superiority of men and not of women" (79). Later, she elaborates on what causes a man's insistence on dominance. It is a his "unbridled desire," foiled by "the temperance and continence of a woman" (119). Aristotle's case, she asserts, wa s especially vexed. Because he made sacrifices to his wife that were like those made to Ceres of Eleusis, "he became envious of his wife and jealous of her state, since, not being worshiped like a god by anyone, he could not equal it" (120). In other words, he created his own misery.
It's worth pondering what kind of social order this reasoning produces. It is primarily an order in which place is determined hierarchically, where equality exists only in theory (as when two nearly identical persons enjoy the same privilege), and where it is possible to assign value according to the type rather than to an individual. In such a scheme, everyone is obliged to compete for a place according to the attributes of his or her type. Thus there are constant contests between men and women, nobility and commoners, laymen and clergy. The ladder of value and merit is constantly travelled, whether by those who ascend it or those who tumble down it. As a mode of social analysis, it relies heavily on a semiotics of rank and gender, signs that point to attributes. Marinella works her tropes to this end: because women are descended from Eve, which means "life," they are better and more vital than men; because they are beautiful and beauty is an attribute of nobility, they are nobler than men; because their dre ss is more elaborate than that of men, they are more dignified than men (50, 53, 71). Marinella's appreciation of women also relies on examples that invoke convention. Thus Petrarch's worship of Laura, whom he sees as a light in heaven, indicates the superior power of womankind (63; see also 65). Other conventions, such as bowing, saluting, and raising the hat, indicate the same generic superiority (69). And the hierarchy that places woman above man goes for learning, too: as woman are "nobler" than men, they ate also more skilled in the sciences (83). Examples of learned women prove Marinella's point.
Yet Marinella does not adhere to the logic of hierarchy throughout her defense. Rather, she adopts another and essentially skeptical stance, much as if she were attempting to engage a humanistic sensibility and to look at the evidence to be extracted from experience. Returning to her idea that intention shapes a writer's sense of her or his subject and its truthfulness, she asserts that Aristotle's pretended knowledge is really no more than opinion. Stating that "each and every person defends his or her opinion obstinately and with infinite arguments," she alludes to theories about the heavens, the cosmos, and the nobility of the fly (121). She does not acknowledge that her own apology must therefore also be vulnerable to critique as opinion, but her observation nonetheless calls it into question. The precariousness of her own argument becomes even more apparent when she questions the very notion of type. What we understand as such is, she states, no more than a combination of custom and body temperature (77- 78). Nor, as we discover later, is bodily temperature stable. Although men are supposed to be hotter than women, temperature is in fact a variable that defies type: "many women are hotter than men," especially if you take account of the regions in which they live. This randomness is also true of strength. Thus, women who are "practiced at hard work surpass and beat men," although the fact that such strength is "out of place" in creatures who are "gentle" makes it clear that women are as a rule more like noblemen, who do not work with their hands (131). In short, Marinella's apology, once free of the terms of hierarchy, endorses a sense of difference that if taken to its conclusion would have vitiated her first and more prominent position. Nevertheless, hers is a text that moves toward establishing a critical and inductive view of human nature that might well have served as a basis for later critiques of typology, although I think there is no evidence that it did. Although not historical in the usual sense of that term, Marinella's understanding of opinion and difference ties her vision of life firmly to the demands of the present and everyday.
I have left Vives' monumental The Education of a Christian Woman to the end of this review, in part because its very evident misogyny underlies and in a sense accounts for some of the pro-woman argument of the texts by women I have just rehearsed. Its insistence that women must learn only chastity, remain silent whenever possible, take responsibility for the sexual behavior of men (even those who rape them), and both be utterly different than a man and yet mirror his every need and desire speaks to a way of thinking that finds its principles in many works by early Christians. As such, it too is a-historical. Much of Vives' thinking suggests his close acquaintance with Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum, a book that Chaucer's 'Wife of Bath saw fit to have her husband Jankyn throw into the fire. Vives' recommendations for the education of women are well to remember, however, as they were doubtless respected if not actually put into practice. They correct any impression that early modern women could long assert their equality with men, let alone their superiority without raising protest, complaints, and accusations. Vives' praise for Clara Cervent, the wife of Bernardo Valdaura, is particularly troubling. It celebrates the devotion of a young woman who married a poxy husband before she knew anything about his condition -- thereafter, according to Vives, she cared for those "parts of his body [from which] foul suppurations exuded...anointed his ugly sores, bandaged daily his foul-smelling legs dripping with purulent matter," etc. (200-01). Now one could argue that this is the stuff of hagiography. But whether it has a place in a manual intended for the education of young women is another matter. At the very least it speaks to the tremendous power of prescriptive patriarchy, the actual oppression of women that many in early modern societies considered routine and divinely ordained. The edition and translation by Charles Fantazzi are excellent as is his full account of Vives' life, his sources and influences, and his summary of the numerous editions of the Education throughout the early modern period.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2002|
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