Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Medieval Women (and their fans)

Miniature of a woman painting, from a 1440 manuscript of Boccaccio's "De claris mulieribus"
The role of women in medieval mediterranean culture was the subject of a large-scale debate, carried out in the writing of various intellectuals throughout the XV century. Not only male intellectuals but also several women writers participated in the debate. Among the female writers who offered contributions to the discourse on women was Sor Teresa de Cartagena. She suffered illness most of her life and subsequently penned the "Grove of the Infirm," a work which extolled the inherent virtues of women and the holiness of all those who suffered bodily sickness. Her stance is considered today (somewhat anachronistically) as "proto-feminist," although I think that a more appropriate designation would be "pro-women," as the term "feminism" tends to conjure up a repertoire of 20th-century issues and stances not present in the medieval mediterranean context.
Woman painting self-portrait; from 1440 manuscript of Boccaccio's "De claris mulieribus"
The work of the poet and humanist of the French court, Christine de Pizan, also circulated widely and was responsible for adding formidable arguments to the debate: she demonstrated both in her writing and in the example of her own life, the many ways women could enrich intellectual and political culture.

These women's voices were joined by male contemporaries, such as Diego Valera and Juan Rodríguez de la Cámara, who both defended the value and virtue of Christian women by revindicating the narrative of Eve, displacing to Adam any role in the Fall and the creation of Original Sin. Martín de Córdoba added to this chorus of male voices with his El jardín de nobles doncellas ("The Garden of Noble Maidens"), which was written specifically for the soon-to-be Queen Isabel the Catholic.

A significant contributor to the debate over women was the courtier, Álvaro de Luna. The Libro de las virtuosos e claras mugeres ("Book of Virtuous and True Women") is a collection of exemplary tales that he wrote about illustrious female figures from the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, and ancient history. He begins this work with the Virgin Mary, whom Álvaro de Luna writes is responsible for the reversal of Original Sin. He follows his marian narrative with the story of Eve, in which he relieves her of any guilt in the Fall, placing blame instead on Adam, in line with the reasoning of the other authors mentioned above. He continues to enumerate the exceptional lives of various biblical women (including Judith, one of my favorites).

Peter Paul Rubens, "Cimon and Pero" c. 1630
Example after example of extraordinary women makes up the body of Álvaro de Luna's text. Like female Hercules they form a pro-woman narrative that makes women seem saintly, unerring, and ever-wise. In two short chapters, the author recalls the Classic stories of women who allowed their parents to survive dire circumstances by feeding them with their breast milk. The proliferation of stories of women doing whatever necessary to ensure the utmost moral conduct eventually begins to make the mere mortal female reader (such as myself) doubt her ability to ever live up to such expectations - or even wish to. The physical and psychological torment that many of these exemplary women experience makes it seem near impossible to live a comfortable life and be a virtuous woman. The women of the Libro are prepared to endure hideous torture and death to preserve their extraordinary virtue, guided always by their own moral compass and the hand of God Himself. Meanwhile, a contemporary text that addresses virtuous men, written by Fernando del Pulgar, offers a much more attainable vision of masculine virtue (think: "sure, he may have committed adultery a bunch of times... but he's such a great soldier!").

And yet Álvaro de Luna's enthusiasm for women resounds with an optimism for the future role of women in his society. His series of prologues offers the reader an important framework with which to understand the rest of his text. On multiple occasions, he notes that women are not "inherently" bad or good, they are a product of their habits and habitual actions, as are men. Last week I got the opportunity to discuss this work with my colleagues in a seminar and we all noted how modern Álvaro de Luna's thesis seemed to be. After discussing his Libro, we proceeded to read aloud several of his poems. ...They were so saucy! I can't say that I was surprised to read sensual poems about being hopelessly in love with women (including women other than his wife) from a man who vehemently defended his female contemporaries.
Woman painting self-portrait from 1440 manuscript of Boccaccio's "De claris mulieribus" 
Álvaro de Luna's Libro was greatly influenced by Di claris mulieribus by Italian author, Boccaccio. Interestingly, Boccaccio wrote works that fit into both the pro-women and the anti-women categories. Of course, Di claris mulieribus fits into the former category. Although I have not yet read the Italian author's text, I plan to do so soon, especially after finding this article which displays various miniatures adorning the original manuscript and depicts women as painters and sculptures!

Finally, in honor of today being Fat Tuesday, I leave you with a picture of my 9-year-old self at carnivale in Venice. Donning a mask my parents got for me earlier that day from a magical little mask shop perching above the glass-green water of the canal, I have my arms outstretched, as if trying to embrace the whole city, all of its masked inhabitants, and the women-loving tricksters that had populated its narrow streets since medieval times...

Happy Fat Tuesday!

Until next time -- keep rustling!

No comments:

Post a Comment