If SS Jerome or Ambrose or Augustine or any of the grim Fathers had been watching television in spring this year, they wouldn’t have had much trouble seeing Marlene Dietrich for what she was. Those lids, those lips, that pillowy mink, those sidelong glances, those shimmering legs and – above all – that voice, would have rendered her lightly accented modern English as plain as the Latin of the Mass to the patriarchs and their friends and forerunners in the penitential Thebaid. The world, the flesh and the devil embodied in a woman, and speaking in a woman’s voice: the siren incarnate against whom you have to plug your ears or else, like Adam, you will feel the plunge as you fall. It is odd how wholeheartedly women have given themselves to playing this part – to believing it, too. Or perhaps it’s not all that odd: the femme fatale offers more opportunities than several of the other sacrificial parts in the repertoire. But it is remarkable how the constituent elements of the contemporary fatal woman, the stories that underpin her charms, as well as the ornaments she assumes, match the fulminations of two thousand years ago against the counterfeit of women’s fascination and the seductions of their tongues.
As Howard Bloch points out in his short and combative study Medieval Misogyny, the flesh was seen as feminine, set in opposition to soul or mind, and the spirit wears the body like a concealing garment; to adorn this fleshly raiment with yet more artifice and paint doubled the distance that separated the incarnate and fallen world from the disembodied condition of the angels. When Jean-Luc Godard, in his update of the Nativity story, Je vous salue Marie, closed with a shot of his Mary painting herself a bright red mouth in the wing mirror of her car, he was offering an orthodox theological rebuttal of the ascetic tradition, asserting the value of the material, of the sensual, the enfleshed and female, in the person of Mary. But his Mary, a fleshly image reproduced as illusion on screen, is also the vision of a seductress, Eve all over again, whose body and speech could persuade a man to eat ... anything. As Bloch says, the story misogyny tells is repeated again and again; it’s a room with a hundred entrances and exits – different societies, different moments, different voices – but when you try each door in turn you find yourself back in the same room.
Does this mean that misogyny is an inevitable condition? Bloch writes at the start of his book: ‘misogyny is a way of speaking about, as distinct from doing something to, women ... It is a speech act.’ But speech acts underlie as well as justify other acts, political, legal, economic. Fear of women’s tongues connects to the historical restrictions on their public speech, misprision of women’s minds as light and ‘feminine’ helps to explain the long reluctance to educate daughters as well as sons.
One of the first principles of misogyny sets up a huge stumbling block in the path of any analyst or historian, for the misogynist thinks every woman is All-Woman, that the varieties of the species don’t make a bit of difference. The questor after the Eternal Feminine could find the face of the witchhunter in his looking-glass; taking individual women out of their context, ignoring their class, place, work, family, to corral them in a realm of universal ascriptions constitutes the founding act of misogyny. All the books considered here wrestle with this problem, they reach for the particular moment, the detailed cluster of circumstances, the individual story, in order to avoid the prejudice of blanket categorisation. In this, they flow with the lively current of women’s studies, which is bringing back the sound of different, personal voices and particular tales. Margaret King’s richly researched Women of the Renaissance explores the lives and works of foundlings and drudges, poets and princesses in a painstaking mesh of social, financial and legal detail. But it has to be said that the discourse of misogyny, divorcing women from history and reality, continues to seep through the growing evidence of women’s defiance and achievement. That discourse was always something individuals had to reckon with and try to bend to their purposes; Margaret King describes how a determined and learned philosopher like Laura Cereta of Brescia, spent a great amount of energy attacking women who conformed to more conventional notions of femininity than herself: ‘I cannot bear the babbling and chattering women ... Inflamed with hatred, they would noisily chew up others, [except that] mute, they are themselves chewed up within.’ When Laura Cereta spoke up, she was trapped in the ancient conundrum, too: how to speak as a woman and not herself become a babbler or a shrew.
Finding a voice presented less of a challenge than getting a hearing; the Church offered a forum, on certain conditions – chastity, principally. The Golden Legend, compiled by the Dominican Jacopus de Voragine in the 13th century, has exercised an incalculable influence on Christian ideas about sanctity; its savage accounts of martyrdoms conjure images in the mind’s eye more like the covers of slasher movies in video shops than anything pious, while its unabashed anti-semitism prefigures modern demons of another kind. The Golden Legend was approved literature for well-born, literate women, when most other narrative works in the vernacular – romances, for example – were frowned on and banned. Margaret King, navigating the narrows the female sex had to ply, mentions copies of The Golden Legend, in English and French, being handed down from mother to daughter in the noblest families. The violent lives – and prolonged agonies in death – of the virgin martyrs were seen by these women as offering them lessons in life. Women are even known to have written such hagiography, but the two examples Brigitte Cazelles cites in the helpful introduction to her collection of saints’ lives unfortunately fall outside her chosen century. As does the most famous exponent of exemplary feminist biography, Christine de Pizan, who rebutted male poets’ laments on female frailty, with her own City of Ladies which gave room to heroines from Circe to Deborah.
Cazelles argues strongly that Christine did not insist on woman as victim in her section on the virgin martyrs; but she is stretching the evidence, I feel. After Sade the spectacle of cruelty can no longer be read as it was in the High Middle Ages – as innocently heroic. Cazelles has collected companion biographies to The Golden Legend, from the same century, and of similar ferocity. Bizarre, hyperbolic torments are visited on paragons like Saint Christina, who, after she has been beaten by her father, hanged, tied to a wheel, set fire to, thrown in the sea with a millstone round her neck, and had snakes fastened to her breasts, finally has her tongue cut out. Nothing daunted, she throws the severed portion at her tormentor: it pierces him through the eye. Her original fault lay in refusing to marry according to her father’s wish, and insisting on proclaiming the true God. A woman could be a witness; she could, in certain circumstances, use her tongue to blind an oppressor.
Caroline Bynum, in her remarkable book about Late Medieval mystics, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987), put forward a startling theory of the female body’s role in Christian tradition which none of the books discussed here attempts to confront, let alone integrate into their arguments (though most cite her reverently). She argued that the bodily practices of the women saints – severe fasting, stigmata, scourging, and other even more violent mortifications – were not a consequence of Christian contempt for the female. Rather the opposite: the incarnational doctrine led Christian men to honour the carnal condition and to want the experience of fleshliness in its consummate form, femaleness; that the bleeding, starving, broken, sacralised bodies of women mystics and martyrs were perceived to enact the imitatio Christi more perfectly and aptly than men’s precisely because women were closer to the desired lowly condition of the carnal. For this reason, men found in women’s bodies the instruments of their own quest for knowledge of God – the priest-poets who wrote the lives of the martyrs like Christina spoke of their own salvation in the descriptions of her tortures, her torn-out tongue. In one sense, women’s bodies became vehicles of men’s speech; men defined themselves through the flesh they evoked, in the case of hagiographers, or beheld and consecrated, in the case of the confessors who accompanied most living saints and acted as witnesses and praise-singers.
Elizabeth of Hungary, a historical figure who was canonised four years after her death in 1231 by her friend Pope Gregory IX, was written up by the poet Rutebeuf among others: although she was married (the exception among exemplary women), she also turned her body into a spectacular theatre of divine manifestations, by giving up eating and drinking, having her servants beat her all night, until after death, ‘in great haste, a crowd/Came to cut out a piece of her/Parts of her hair and breast were cut’. Later still, her body in the tomb begins to exude myrrh: ‘This oil oozed like so many drops of dew’ – which brought about many cures. The saint’s body becomes, like the Eucharist itself, a means to transcendence. But as the word ‘martyr’ implies, it also acts as a witness. Bynum’s point is that women speak through their own bodies, their own ‘suffering and generativity’, rooted in biological metaphors like birthing and nursing, to which the female sex has a prior claim; female somatic presence abolishes the intermediary stage men occupy, which makes them need women to speak through, to think with.
As vessels of symbolic language and definition, however, they needed to be closely watched and controlled. Exchanges of symbolic meaning between bodies, food, language and law recur in the relations between fathers and daughters, emperors and subjects, husbands and wives in all the material surveyed by the books under review, in fact and fiction, and never more notably than in Renaut de Beaujeu’s Lai d’Ignauré, recounted by Bloch. Ignauré, a knight, makes love to all 12 wives of the 12 peers of the realm, and is discovered. The husbands castrate him, kill him, and dish up his genitals and heart in a stew for their wives’ table. When the women discover what they have done, they refuse ever to eat again, and die. This lai is ‘a story prophane’, as the writer Margaret Tyler would later call her translation of a Spanish romance, and it turns upside down the terms of the communion feast; but for all its impiety and even ribaldry, the poem doesn’t alter the place of women as privileged participants in the great mysteries of love and transcendental union. Sacrilegiously, the adulteresses take the place of the Apostles at the Last Supper, but unlike them, they sacrifice themselves along with their beloved, paying the supreme price like the paschal victim himself: was Renaut de Beaujeu jesting against female piety’s extremism as well as giving a new twist to tales of cuckoldry? Howard Bloch does not take his account this far, nor, for someone who professes interest in material circumstances, does he vouchsafe information about Renaut de Beaujeu’s dates or context.
The case of Maria Janis, tried and condemned by the Inquisition in Venice, in 1664, focused on food: as Fulvio Tomizza comments in Heavenly Supper, the verb ‘to eat’ is conjugated in every tense and mood in the trial transcripts he read in the Venetian state archives. His book has a strange publishing history, for it appeared as a romanzo, a novel, in 1981, under the title La Finzione di Maria – The Pretence of Maria, though ‘make-believe’ or even ‘fiction’ might catch the nuance of finzione. Tomizza’s book belongs in the wave of micro-histories, which began with the voices of the accused of Montaillou, of Menocchio the miller in Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, and continued with Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre. Maria Janis, like these protagonists, makes herself heard from the pages of a trial, with a peculiar, powerful and, in her case, poignant story to tell: these are the particular lives which might topple the great monolith of misogynist discourse. Except that Maria Janis, in the tiny scale of her specialness, and the pathos of her ultimate defeat, only goes to prove the power of that monolith in the topography of the Counter-Reformation.
For Maria Janis wanted to be a saint, and she was a hundred or more years too late to be believed. Several 16th-century English women, Tina Krontiris points out in Oppositional Voices, chafed against the restrictions of their families, and consequently joined the old, forbidden religion: Catholicism at least offered the cloister as well as the hearth, whereas the Protestants only sanctioned the domestic and maternal role. But in Maria Janis’s Italy, the old faith was stripping away the superstitious excesses of the past, the extreme fervour of the people and their cults, and through its Inquisitors assessing dubious claims to holiness. The advance of the Jesuit mission, for instance, tended to mark a corresponding retreat of popular faith: bleeding icons, visions in trees, apparitions in grottoes, all were examined and found to be hollow dreams. This was to be Maria Janis’s fate too. She was the seamstress daughter of poor villagers from the mountains near Bergamo (the book badly needs a map) who joined up with a country priest, Don Pietro Morali. Don Pietro had won an enthusiastic local following as a preacher and miracle-worker, and she in turn gained his attention, and eventually, in her claims to sanctity, his allegiance and veneration.
Her god-granted ‘privilege’ was to live on communion alone. Like a 13th-century saint, she did not eat or drink anything except the Eucharist for five years. The priest administered it to her daily, and sometimes more than once, which was in itself heterodox, and he did so in the privacy of her room as, during their wanderings, he could not often enough obtain the correct permissions to say Mass in another priest’s church. She kept the hosts in a pyx on a ribbon round her neck; as the first witnesses told the Inquisition, Don Pietro drew the little box out from between her breasts with his own hands. These witnesses were the couple’s landlady’s daughters, and they had been watching through a crack in the door.
Fulvio Tomizza considered his book a novel because he imagines the couple’s thoughts and attributes motives to them; in other words, he flouts recent historiographical conventions about evidence. In his view, Maria Janis had a crush on the parish priest, and thanks to her finzione made it possible for herself to travel with him, co-habit with him and become as necessary to him as he was to her. He believed in her holiness, as did many others who gave them money and shelter and help, and testified on their behalf. But it was no good: Don Pietro was condemned, ‘vehemently suspected of heresy’, and she ‘lightly’ suspected of the same fault; his sentence was less severe, however – only four years’ detention. Maria was enclosed at the pleasure of the Holy Office – that is, for ever – in a paupers’ foundation. It is one of the many ironies of her story that she had originally wanted to enter a convent but did not have enough money for the dowry; she had managed instead to become a holy woman of temporary, local repute out in the world. She had also taught herself to read in the meantime, though not to write. Her signature on the trial confession was still only a cross.
Denied other routes, Maria Janis used prodigious self-denial to command attention, in the manner of the heroines of Christian folklore and history; though ecstatic mysticism still continued – with its somatic signs, like stigmata – the phenomenon dwindled as women gained access to literacy and other legitimate means of self-expression. Tina Krontiris’s short, level-headed study of writers points out the notable, though overlooked, relationship between independence and literacy; the catch was that it was hard to achieve one without the other, especially within the traditional family. ‘Placing out’, the custom of sending girls away from home to work as servants in other households, turns out to have been the path that led to the library, where Margaret Tyler, for instance, taught herself Spanish so well that she published, in 1578, a translation of a romance – The Mirour of Princely Deedes and Knighthood.
Romance was a category much attacked by patriarchs and pedagogues: it could turn the minds of young women from their obligations. It could also, as Tyler’s choice did, describe utopian codes of masculine conduct, in which men who offered violence were punished, love was esteemed and rewarded and adventures were sought by both sexes without censure. At a time when courtiers were composing odes comparing exemplary females to industrious silkworms, the romance stimulated dreams of possibility other than spinning cocoons. Isabella Whitney too, though born into a literary family (her brother composed the famous emblem book), was placed out as a servant and there learned her letters, and became a poet. She solicited male patrons to recommend her enterprise and justify it too; an anonymous gentleman wrote in the foreword: ‘She doth not write the brute or force in Armes.’
In fact, she did ‘write the brute’, for she protested, in ‘A Copy of a Letter ... to her un-constant Lover’, against the betrayals of sworn suitors. But, as Krontiris comments, she was caught in the fine mesh of inherited metaphor, and when she warned against men’s falsehood, she fell back on received imagery:
Beware of fair and painted talk,
beware of flattery tongues,
The Mermaides do pretend no good
for all their pleasant Songs.
The speaking woman, her tongue freed by the ability to write as well as read, found that the emblem books were still filled with the iconology of female wantonness and frailty and their contradictory companions, fatality and power. It was Whitney’s art that she sang like a siren but made believe that she had another kind of tongue. That was the fiction that individual women felt required to offer to the old gods who had decreed:
A womans Tongue that is as swift as thought,
Is ever bad, and she herself starke Nought.
The first wave of post-war feminist history and criticism, concerned with oppression, gave way to the celebration of heroic lives and the establishment of individual women’s fame. The new feminist historiography tends to dissolve these simple oppositions, revealing how women often had to work with the grain of misogyny, and then found the timber broke their tools.