Fear of the Feminine
Europe’s Gender-Identity Crisis
With females of every species holding all the proverbial cards when it comes to the continuation of the species, and the male instinct to impose his genetic material on the next generation often leading to mistrust among females of male intentions and therefore to the relegation of males as outsiders and thus necessitating fierce intra-sexual competition, commonly fostering in human societies a deep resentment among males toward the selective power of the female gender, many human societies have historically dealt with this by expressing a need for males to define themselves as valuable in their own right, sometimes taken to patriarchal extremes and resulting in systemic repression of females and even outright misogyny. Nevertheless, a reverential awe for such aspects of femininity as motherhood, the ability to bear children and a seemingly indefatigable propensity for nurturing have persisted throughout all human societies.
“The fourteenth century brought Western Europe out of the Middle Ages and into the early Modern Era,” writes Gloria Fiero in the first sentence of the first chapter in Book 3 of The Humanistic Tradition (Chapter 15 in the series, enumerated as such in the text). While traditional gender roles and beliefs regarding the nature of the sexes differ from one society to the next, the social havoc wreaked by such dramatic upheavals in civilization as what occurred in Europe during this period almost inevitably comprises intense tumult respecting the views of the sexes toward one another as well as their mirage upon themselves. In the ongoing tedium of human self-discovery, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era marks a time in which European ideas of gender roles and gender identity had crumbled to an almost infantile level of uncertainty. (“A Baby is a European”, Ewe Poem, 91)
ca. 1340 — Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Madonna del Latte, or “Nursing Madonna” (18, figure 15.14) depicts the biblical Mary nursing the infant Christ. The depiction humanizes but does not sexualize, depicting genuine reverence for the motherhood aspect of femininity. It would not be until the 21st century that the Roman Catholic Church would allow mothers to nurse their children during mass.
1351 — Giovanni Boccaccio’s Tale of Filippa from the Decameron (8) represents either an early endorsement of female sexual objectification by pretending to “take the woman’s view” (9) while insidiously romanticizing female promiscuity, or, less likely (since Boccaccio describes her as a woman “who truly love[s]”), a cautionary tale alerting the reader to the dangerously beguiling influence of charming, promiscuous females. In the text, the protagonist, Filippa, is caught in the act of cheating on her husband, Rinaldo de’ Pugliesi, with “a high-born Adonis of a youth” (8) named Lazzarino de’ Guazzagliotri, and against the advice of her friends and relatives goes to testify on her own behalf in court. She uses the “too much love to give” defense and successfully charms the court into acquitting her. This seems to anticipate 21st century pseudo-intellectual neo-feminist dogma which preaches that women may empower themselves through self-objectification and sexual licentiousness, retroactively casting figures such as Marilyn Monroe as feminist role models, declares that the concept of romantic love was created by the greeting card industry to control women, or that monogamy was created by “the patriarchy” to control women, and otherwise attempts (rather successfully, it seems) to sell today’s women on the idea that they can achieve self-actualization by playing into baser males’ puerile desire for women to embrace casual sex, eschew commitment, and “give it up” more easily and each to a variety of prospective males, thus thwarting monogamous female selection processes and giving each non-monogamous male a better chance at “scoring”. The roots of this insidious strategy for undermining the goals of feminism can be clearly seen forming in Boccaccio’s work, later criticized by such feminist writers as Mary Wollstonecraft (111).
ca. 1390 — Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales features in its prologue the now familiar archetype of the serially monogamous and implicitly adulterous gold-digger in the Wife of Bath, who is described as having been premaritally unchaste in her younger days, and the explicitly “wanton” Miller’s wife in The Miller’s Tale, described as “a primsrose [�] fit to grace the bed of any lord or to marry any good yeoman” (12). These characters contrast to some degree; while the facile Wife of Bath is more an overtly sexual femme fatale in her rosy garb and audacious behavior, the comely Miller’s wife is the more coquettish seductress, her sexuality advertised blatantly by her deceptively innocent appearance and vibrant, youthful impetuosity. Although Fiero describes Chaucer’s work as “realism”, his female characters’ flaws seem exaggerated to larger-than-life proportions, effectively lampooning female sexuality; the use of such negative female stereotypes would later be criticized by the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (111).
Book of the City of Ladies
1405 — In Christine de Pisan’s Book of the City of Ladies (9-11), Christine asks Lady Reason if, as the men of her time were wont to say, the minds of women are feebler than those of men (Book I, excerpt, 9-10), and in the continued exchange in Book II (excerpt, 10-11) makes the case that women should have equal access to education, and Lady Reason cites such persons as the already ancient rhetorician Quintus Hortensius and more recent law professor Giovanni Andrea as examples of men who would agree. In the second to last paragraph, Lady Reason remarks, “thus, not all men (and especially the wisest) share the opinion that it is bad for women to be educated [�] but it is very true that many foolish men have claimed this because it displeased them that women knew more than they did,” and reminds Christine of her own father, a brilliant scientist-philosopher, who took great joy in seeing her learn, and was opposed by Christine’s mother who wanted to see her toiling in more “girlish” activities.
Birth of Venus
1482 — Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (45, figure 17.4) depicts the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, or Roman goddess of love, Venus (the two being largely interchangeable by this point in history), standing immodestly naked as she emerges from the sea on her half-shell platform, perhaps as a Madonna-surrogate serving to sexualize the Christian Mary in effigy. Although sexualized, the depiction implies nothing so scandalous as the sexualized depictions of women in Chaucer or Boccaccio’s works. On the contrary, the work is exceptionally tasteful and flattering, glorifying Venus/Aphrodite rather than vilifying her, and seems to anticipate Alejo Fernandez’s Our Lady of the Navigators (83, figure 18.2). This image can be interpreted both as narrative of the birth of feminism, begun with Christine de Pisan 78 years earlier, and prophetic of what was to come: “Venus” would later become a figurative term for any idealized female nude depicted in this manner, regardless of the medium she appeared in.
Defense of the Liberal Instruction of Women
1488 — Just four years after the publication of the Malleus Maleficarium, or “Witches’ Hammer” (126), which claimed that women were particularly susceptible to carnality and diabolical influence, a view popularly reinforced, albeit probably unintentionally, by the likes of Chaucer and Boccaccio’s hypersexualized female characters of dubious morality, and was used as justification for the brutal execution of at least 70,000 persons accused of Witchcraft (most of them women and few of them actually involved in the use of magic, divination, or any other “occult” practices), Laura Cereta’s Defense of the Liberal Instruction of Women (35) takes the opposite position, much in the same vein as Christine de Pisan’s 1405 work, Book of the City of Ladies, written 83 years earlier, criticizing women overly concerned with carnal impulses like vanity, remarking on the “inborn excellence” of women and lamenting its misapplication toward vain endeavors which do naught to advance the human race.
ca. 1503-1505 — Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (51, figure 17.13), were it untitled, could easily be mistaken for a Madonna, and has a decidedly maternal air (indeed, the caption in Fiero’s text refers to a scientific analysis showing that an earlier version of the paining depicted the subject in a nursing mother’s transparent gown), though the expression on the woman’s face is astonishingly complex: appearing quite deadpan at first glance, careful inspection reveals a thoughtful gaze, a subtle, knowing grin, a slight kirk of the brow, and an overall look of peace and contentment. One could hardly ask for a better visual depiction of the psychological complexity of the feminine, or a better mascot for the feminist / female humanist intellectual movement of this time and the intellectual achievements so far won.
Book of the Courtier
1513-1518 — Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (31-33) asserts that well-roundedness for a male means to be expertly skilled in all things, well-roundedness for a proper “Court Lady” is only to be learned enough to be appreciative of potential suitors, and to remain physically and intellectually inferior to men in all ways. From the perspective of a modern, enlightened male, this seems unsettlingly patronizing to the masculine gender. Why, after all, should a man need to be convinced of his superiority to women in order to feel secure in his masculinity? While Castiglione at least agrees with Christine de Pisan and Laura Cereta enough to admit that a woman should be learned, he concedes to this only with a degree of reservation that to the modern reader suggests a deep insecurity regarding the possibility of being proven inferior to a woman.
Our Lady of the Navigators
1535 — Alejo Fernandez’s Our Lady of the Navigators seems a continuation of a story begun with Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The robes with which the other gods hastened to clothe Aphrodite in Botticelli’s work 53 years earlier have now become the cloak with which the Madonna of Mercy shelters her children; the sea that bore her is now her purview, for although her head tilts the same direction, her gaze has shifted down toward her charges instead of ahead of her as when she first emerged from the sea, and the sea itself is now populated with ships. The Maid has become the Mother.
Venus of Urbino
1538-1539 — Titian’s Venus of Urbino (74) portrays the Venus lying inclined on a disordered bed in a casual setting, while the image of the dog curled up at the foot of the bed suggests loyalty. Though sensual, the message conveyed is that the woman is trustworthy, contrasting works which depict women as scandalous, or which equate female sexuality with promiscuity. In this image, the Maiden has become the Bride.
The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men
1600 — While other works had hereunto sought to esteem women, Lucretta Marinella’s The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men (36-38) makes the case unreservedly that men are prone to all the same character defects as women, and are hypocritical to speak ill of women. Marinella takes this further than Christine de Pisan or Laura Cereta before her, claiming that women are in fact nobler than men and that men are envious of women.
Venus Consoling Love
1751 — Whereas the image of the Madonna had been transformed into the Venus 269 years prior by Sandro Botticelli’s 1482 Birth of Venus, Fran�ois Boucher’s Venus Consoling Love (143) takes Venus full-circle by casting the Goddess of Love in a maternal light evocative of how Mary consoles the infant Christ in Cimabue’s ca. 1280-1290 Madonna Enthroned (13, figure 15.7), Giotto’s ca. 1310 work of the same name (figure 15.8), or even Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s aforementioned Madonna del Latte, deftly reuniting maternity with sexuality and deity with nature in a single image. Just as in Alejo Fernandez’s 1535 work, Our Lady of the Navigators, the Maiden has become the Mother.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
1792 — Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman refers to “books written on the subject by men who, considering females as women rather than as human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers�” (111). This statement contrasts so starkly against the cardboard female characters in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (The Miller’s Tale) and the hyper-sexualized pseudo-feminism found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Tale of Fillippa, written 441 years prior, that one cannot help but think it a direct reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and to the rather transparent objectification-masquerading-as-feminism in The Decameron.
Flowers in the Mirror
1828 — While Boccaccio is credited with “taking the woman’s view”, Li Ruzhen’s Flowers in the Mirror (129) literally places a man into a woman’s shoes.
Fiero, The Humanistic Tradition, Book 3
Fiero, The Humanistic Tradition, Book 4