The Ideological Barriers faced by Renaissance Women Humanists

Written by: Joshua Al-Najar.

On a preliminary reading, humanism appears to be wrought with misogynistic tendencies, providing little space for women’s engagement. Joan Kelly-Gadol points to male humanists such as Juan Luis Vives, whose misogynistic writings were informed by Aristotelian biology and the hyper-masculine nature of classical humanism. Women’s apparent biological, religious and historical inferiority inferred that ‘few see her, and none at all hear her.’ Thus, Kelly-Gadol ponders whether the presence of such exclusionary thought renders the term ‘renaissance’ incompatible with the female experience.

Despite these castigations, women humanists contributed considerably to the Querelle des Femmes, an academic movement which sought to define women’s abilities, capacities and function within society. Though scholars such as Kelly have imagined the renaissance as a masculine endeavour, W. Caffero refers to the Querelle as the ‘aspect of women’s experience that fits most comfortably under the “Renaissance” label’. In entering the debate, women utilised the same general humanist framework that their male counterparts had developed, by using themes such as antiquity, religion and value of education. For some, this successfully defended and enhanced women’s status, though contradictions could arise from using a male-oriented paradigm. 

The Querelle is thought to have emerged in earnest with the formative works of Christine de Pizan (1364-c.1430), a Venetian author who lived in France. De Pizan began writing in response to the deeply misogynistic academic climate of her contemporaries, that advocated women’s inferiority. She wrote:

Judging from the treatises of all the philosophers and poets and from all orators […] it seems that they speak from one and the same mouth […] that the behaviour of women is inclined to and full of every vice.

De Pizan contended with the prevailing view of women in her work, Le Livre de la cité des dames (c. 1405). Here, she was given the intellectual space to promote women’s learning and qualities; she creates three allegorical, female figures representing reason, rectitude and justice. They command the creation of a separate city for women, drawing inspiration from the mythological Amazon warriors. Furthermore, she launches into an attack on the sexist views of ancient philosophers, whose writings legitimised her sexist contemporaries. De Pizan’s use of myth and criticism of ancient scholars demonstrated her classical learning, and serves as a rebuff to the idea that women’s education was for the purpose of promoting the chaste, Christian ideal. Her work built upon earlier pieces, such as Boccaccio’s De Mulierbus Claris (1362), but their approaches are distinct: where men, such as Boccaccio, praised women who had overcome their feminine traits, Pizan lauded women on their own terms. In addition, many of the male humanists who highlighted the virtuous nature of some women, did so under the patronage of wealthy, powerful women – Boccacio dedicated his work to Andrea Acciaioli, Countess of Altavilla.

Reference to classical antiquity was a common aspect of male humanism, but it could be deployed to aggrandise women’s status too. This is apparent in the letters of Laura Cereta (1469-1499), of which some eighty are known. In one such example, Cereta addresses ‘Bibolo’ – a play on words, linking men to drunkenness – and uses classical examples of women’s achievement to present the worthiness of their education. She writes of Zenobia’s mastery of Greek; Subbu’s triumph over Solomon; etc. Cereta’s skilled deployment of these classical examples reinforce her own learnedness and justifies her belief education was crucial for ‘all human beings equally.’ She re-works antiquity’s legacy – which had so often been the source of renaissance scholars’ misogyny – into something which can extol the mental capabilities of women. Cereta wrote at a time when women were institutionally barred from higher learning, and even from certain administrative buildings, such as the Florentine Podesta. She writes of herself as a ‘Medusa, who will not be blinded by a few drops of olive oil.’ Therefore, her letters serve as a powerful reminder that women’s intellectual output will weather male anxiety.

At times, women humanists engaged in open critique of such anxieties. The Venetian Lucrezia Marinella’s The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men (1601) arose in direct response to the deeply misogynistic Dei Donneschi Diffeti (1599) from Guiseppe Passi. Passi’s work derived much of its basis from the Aristotelian concept of the ‘imperfect female’ and the inferiority of Eve to Adam. Marinella lambasts her opponent’s views, dividing her work into two parts: the first extolls the virtues of women, whilst the second lambasts the defaults of men. She cleverly warps many of Passi’s arguments to her own advantage. In one example, she reverses Passi’s critique of women’s beauty and vanity, by utilising neo-Platonic theory to explain ‘what is beautiful outwardly is beautiful inwardly.’ In another, she rejects Aristotle’s theory of female imperfection, by claiming that women are perfect realisations of God’s creation. By arguing in such a manner, Marinella is able to use traditionally masculine arguments to advance women’s case. She not only advocates equality, but asserts women superiority to men, by boldly claiming:

If women […] wake themselves from the long sleep that oppresses them, how meek and humble will those proud men become.

However, in later life, Marinella would come to contradict her earlier ferocity. In the Essirtazioni alle donne e agli altri (1622), Bronzino recorded that Marinella’s religious devotion had strengthened with her age, and that she had renounced much of her earlier writings. Instead, she considered a life of piety and domestic dedication as the pinnacle of womanhood.

Integrating religion could be an issue for women humanists who sought to strengthen their standing in society. The ideal Christian woman was thought to be moral, chaste and somewhat submissive to her husband – her inferior place having been earned by Eve’s folly. In Of the Equal or Unequal Sins of Adam and Eve (1451-3), Isotta Nogarola sparks a literary debate with Ludovico Foscarini, where she attempts to justify Eve’s fault. Somewhat ironically Nogarola defends Eve – and thus, womankind – by conforming to societal understanding of women’s inferiority. She argues that Eve’s apparent weakness was the cause of her error, as oppose to a pride-based motivation, which could be considered guiltier. She also reinforces the imperfection of women by claiming that Adam, as the fully realised man, should have exerted greater control over Eve’s deficiencies. Though Nogarola presents great skill in her argument, her loss is inevitable due to the fact she argues within parameters which consider Eve (and all women) as untrustworthy and weak. Nograola herself was a devout Christian, and was reportedly celibate until her death in 1466. Her compliance with the prevailing, Christian attitude to women somewhat hinders her argument. 

Historiographically, there is some debate. The aforementioned women humanists clearly provide something of an obstacle for theory put forward by Kelly-Gadol. Women’s efforts at defending and enhancing their status display clear engagement with general ‘renaissance’ themes. However, she clearly identifies the adverse effect that some aspects of humanism had on women’s standing. This sentiment has, at times, gone unconsidered by scholars such as Jacob Burckhardt. Burckhardt (1860), mistakenly supported the idea the so-called ‘renaissance individualism had led to “both sexes existing on an equal footing”’.

The reality appears to be somewhere in-between. When defending or enhancing their status, women humanists utilised many of the same arguments as their male counterparts: religion, antiquity and the virtuous nature of education. However, at times, the usage of a male-oriented structure forced contradictions of their argument.

Bibliography

Caferro, William., and Wiley InterScience. Contesting the Renaissance. Contesting the past. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 

Laura Cereta, Two ‘Familiar’ Letters, in K. Gouwens (ed.), The Italian Renaissance: The Essential Sources (2004).

Crum, Roger J., and John T. Paoletti. Renaissance Florence: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Kelly, J. “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” in Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (eds.) Becoming Visible. Women in European History (1977) Boston 137-165.

Panizza, L. “Introduction to the Translation” in Lucrezia Marinella, The Nobility and Excellence of Women, 1-34.

Elissa B. Weaver “Gender” Chapter 11 of A Companion to the Worlds of the Renaissance, edited by Guido Ruggiero, 2007, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 

Image Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08sksb4

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