John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, was a great feat of literature that inspired numerous writers, particularly Romantic poets such as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. First published in 1667, Milton sought to ‘justify the ways of God to men’ in his reimagination of Genesis, but he extends this to include other stories of biblical precedent such as the rebellion and justification of Satan, as well as the other fallen angels. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the work is his depiction of the mother of humanity, Eve, which we can use to understand the role of women in early modern society, and also beliefs surrounding their nature and souls.
Milton’s first interpretation of Adam and Eve is founded on the idea that they represent every man and every woman on Earth, and that they therefore reflect the anthropological roles of men and women in early modern society. Milton’s poem is directly steeped in this understanding, acting as a reflection of the society in which it was created. Numerous examples occur throughout the text of the dichotomy of gender roles in the period:
“For nothing lovelier can be found
In a woman than to study household good” or “safest and seemliest by her husband stays”
These are examples of how Milton presents women pre-Fall, representing the historical European notion that women, formed from the bone of Adam, are lesser than their husbands and male peers, and should be devoted to male existence in an almost divine manner. Within this, Milton draws on ancient interpretations of women as weaker vessels, those not truly created from God but a mere imitation of his first, perfect creation: man.
However, to truly understand the belief surrounding the role and nature of women in Milton’s time, the focus must shift to the perception of her in a post-lapsarian environment. During the fall, ‘The woman, opportune to all attempts’, the weaker form of humanity, is tempted by the satanic serpent to indulge in the Tree of Knowledge, where she ‘greedily ingorge[s] without restraint’ in lust. This image is common to all of our minds, the moment of the Fall through the seduction of Eve by the devilish Satan. It has been depicted numerous times, particularly through art such as Michelangelo’s The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, where Eve is presented in her nakedness, as a seductress and a temptress to Adam with her sinful soul. These stories and understandings are integral to female perception in society, corresponding with social doctrine that frowned on women and any representation they had of sexuality, with even female-led households rumoured to be engaging in malicious social malpractice, due to their lack of subjugation to a male authority.
Biblical women have always had a great deal of influence on historical understandings of women, their place in society and how their nature is formed. In pre-Reformation Europe and remaining Catholic areas post-1517, the most undoubtedly influential figure was that of the Virgin Mary, the archetype of womanhood as the people of that era understood it: a woman untainted by sexual sin and deviance and, therefore truly pure. Mary acts as the polar opposite of Eve – as one obeys, the other rebels; one is praised, the other is punished – building the ideal expectation of the passive woman.
The act of ‘the fall’ and the sexual connotations that follow it, are seen as the cause of transition from a state of purity, of ‘lustlessness’, to a contaminated and sinful soul, with the expulsion from Paradise as its consequence. This transition, as Milton presents it, is a moment for Eve to become more than subservient to Adam and, thus, ‘render [her] more equal’. Instead he portrays her transformation as one of degradation, a stark reminder to women that they are fated for the same, should they give into temptation. It is therefore in this sense of post-lapsarian lust that women are deemed to be a burden troublesome to society, and unless “rigorously controlled could lead the unwary to eternal damnation” not only of the woman, but also any son of Adam that could fall into her temptation. Examples of these beliefs can be seen in numerous historical events, particularly that of the Jacobean witch craze, during which beliefs surrounding diabolism were based around the sexual temptation of women to the devil, with prominent figures such as Matthew Hopkins and James VI and I extorting the supposed weakness of women to fuel trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Overall, Milton’s interpretation of Eve and the attitudes of early modern society that he reflects allows us to gain an understanding of how women were seen in society, through a religious lens. The foundation of Eve in the Bible, not only as the mother of humanity, but also as the mother of sin, lust, and carnal temptation allowed for beliefs surrounding the nature of women to thrive and integrate themselves into social expectations and condemnations.
Written by Melissa Kane
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Image: John Martin (1827), British Library