Famous Women

Famous Women

by Giovanni Boccaccio


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After the composition of the Decameron, and under the influence of Petrarch's humanism, Giovanni Boccaccio(1313-1375) devoted the last decades of his life to compiling encyclopedic works in Latin. Among them is Famous Women, the first collection of biographies in Western literature devoted exclusively to women.

The 106 women whose life stories make up this volume range from the exemplary to the notorious, from historical and mythological figures to Renaissance contemporaries. In the hands of a master storyteller, these brief biographies afford a fascinating glimpse of a moment in history when medieval attitudes toward women were beginning to give way to more modern views of their potential.

Famous Women, which Boccaccio continued to revise and expand until the end of his life, became one of the most popular works in the last age of the manuscript book, and had a signal influence on many literary works, including Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Castiglione's Courtier. This edition presents the first English translation based on the autograph manuscript of the Latin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674003477
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 04/26/2001
Series: The I Tatti Renaissance Library , #1
Pages: 560
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Virginia Brown is Senior Fellow, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

De Eva parente prima

Scripturus igitur quibus fulgoribus mulieres claruerint insignes, a matre omnium sumpsisse exordium non apparebit indignum: ea quippe vetustissima patens, uti prima, sic magnificis fuit insignis splendoribus. Nam, non in hac erumnosa miseriarum valle, in qua ad laborem ceteri mortales nascimur, producta est, nec eodem malleo aut incude etiam fabrefacta, seu eiulans nascendi crimen deflens, aut invalida, ceterorum ritu, venit in vitam; quin imo—quod nemini unquam alteri contigisse auditum est—cum iam ex limo terre rerum omnium Faber optimus Adam manu compegisset propria, et ex agro, cui postea Damascenus nomen inditum est, in orto delitiarum transtulisset eumque in soporem solvisset placidum, artificio sibi tantum cognito ex dormientis latere eduxit eandem, sui compotem et maturam viro et loci amenitate atque sui Factoris letabundam intuitu, immortalem et rerum dominam atque vigilantis iam viri sociam, et ab eodem Evam etiam nominatam.

    Quid maius, quid splendidius potuit unquam contigisse nascenti? Preterea hanc arbitrari possumus corporea formositate mirabilem. Quid enim Del digito factum est quod cetera non excedat pulchritudine? Et quamvis formositas hec annositate peritura sit aut, medio in etatis flore, parvo egritudinis inpulsu, lapsura, tamen, quia inter precipuas dotes suas mulieres numerant, et plurimum ex ea glorie, mortalium indiscreto iudicio, iam consecute sunt, non superflue inter claritates earum, tanquam fulgor precipuus, et apposita est et in sequentibus apponenda veniet.

    Hec insuper,tamiure originis quam incolatus, paradisi civis facta et amicta splendore nobis incognito, dum una cum viro loci delitiis frueretur avide, invidus sue felicitatis hostis nepharia illi suasione ingessit animo, si adversus unicam sibi legem a Deo impositam iret, in ampliorem gloriam iri posse. Cui dum levitate feminea, magis quam illi nobisque oportuerit, crederet seque stolide ad altiora conscensuram arbitraretur, ante alia, blanda quadam suggestione, virum flexibilem in sententiam suam traxit; et in legem agentes, arboris boni et mali poma dum gustassent, temerario ausu seque genusque suum omne futurum ex quiete et eternitate in labores anxios et miseram mortem et ex delectabili patria inter vepres glebas et scopulos deduxere.

    Nam, cum lux corusca, qua incedebant amicti, abiisset, a turbato Creatore suo obiurgati, perizomatibus cincti, ex delitiarum loco in agros Hebron pulsi exulesque venere. Ibi egregia mulier, his facinoribus clara, cum prima—ut a nonnullis creditum est—vertente terram ligonibus viro, colo nere adinvenisset, sepius dolores partus experta est; et, quibus ob mortem filiorum atque nepotum angustiis angeretur animus, eque misere passa; et, ut algores estusque sinam et incomoda cetera, fessa laboribus moritura devenit in senium.

Eve, Our First Mother

As I am going to write about the glories for which women have become famous, it will not seem inappropriate to begin with the mother of us all. She is the most ancient of mothers and, as the first, she was singled out for special honors. She was not brought forth in this wretched vale of misery in which the rest of us are born to labor; she was not wrought with the same hammer or anvil; nor did she come into life like others, either weak or tearfully bewailing original sin. Instead (and this never happened to anyone else, so far as I know), after the most excellent Creator of all things had formed Adam from earthly clay with his own hand and had taken him from the field later called Damascene to the garden of delights, he made Adam fall into peaceful slumber. With a skill known only to himself, God brought forth a woman from Adam's side as he lay sleeping. Adult, ripe for marriage, joyful at the beauty of the place and at the sight of her Maker, she was also the immortal mistress of nature and the companion of the man who, now awake, named her Eve.

    Could anything greater and more glorious ever happen to someone at birth? We can imagine, besides, how marvelously beautiful her body was, for whatever God creates with his own hand will certainly surpass everything else in beauty. Beauty, to be sure, perishes with old age, and even in the flower of youth it may vanish from a slight attack of illness. Yet, since women count beauty among their foremost endowments and have achieved, owing to the superficial judgment of mortals, much glory on that account, it will not seem excessive to place beauty here and in the following pages as the most dazzling aspect of their fame.

    Eve, furthermore, became a citizen of Paradise as much by right of origin as of residence, and she was cloaked in a radiance unknown to us. While she and her husband were eagerly enjoying the garden's pleasures, the Enemy, envious of her happiness, impressed upon her with perverted eloquence the belief that she could attain greater glory if she disobeyed the one law that God had laid upon her. With a woman's fickleness, Eve believed him more than was good for her or for us; foolishly, she thought that she was about to rise to greater heights. Her first step was to flatter her pliant husband into her way of thinking. Then they broke the law and tasted the apple of the Tree of Good and Evil. By this rash, foolhardy act they brought themselves and all their future descendants from peace and immortality to anxious labor and wretched death, and from a delightful country to thorns, clods, and rocks.

    The gleaming light which clothed them disappeared. Rebuked by their angry Creator and covered by a girdle of leaves, they were driven out of Eden and came as exiles to the fields of Hebron. There, while her husband tilled the soil with the hoe, this distinguished woman, famous for her above-mentioned deeds, discovered (so some believe) the art of spinning with the distaff. She experienced the pains of frequent childbirth and also suffered the grief which tortures the mind at the death of children and grandchildren. I shall pass over the cold and heat and her other sufferings. Finally she reached old age, tired out by her labors, waiting for death.

Table of Contents

I.Eve, Our First Mother7
II.Semiramis, Queen of the Assyrians8
III.Opis, Wife of Saturn12
IV.Juno, Goddess of Kingdoms13
V.Ceres, Goddess of the Harvest and Queen of Sicily14
VII.Venus, Queen of Cyprus19
VIII.Isis, Queen and Goddess of Egypt21
IX.Europa, Queen of Crete23
X.Libya, Queen of Libya24
XI-XII.Marpesia and Lampedo, Queens of the Amazons25
XIII.Thisbe, a Babylonian Maiden27
XIV.Hypermnestra, Queen of the Argives and Priestess of Juno30
XV.Niobe, Queen of Thebes33
XVI.Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos35
XVII.Medea, Queen of Colchis37
XVIII.Arachne of Colophon39
XIX-XX.Orithya and Antiope, Queens of the Amazons41
XXI.Erythraea or Herophile, a Sibyl42
XXII.Medusa, Daughter of Phorcus43
XXIII.Iole, Daughter of the King of the Aetolians45
XXIV.Deianira, Wife of Hercules48
XXV.Jocasta, Queen of Thebes49
XXVI.Almathea or Deiphebe, a Sibyl50
XXVII.Nicostrata or Carmenta, Daughter of King Ionius52
XXVIII.Pocris, Wife of Cephalus56
XXIX.Argia, Wife of Polynices and Daughter of King Adrastus57
XXX.Manto, Daughter of Tiresias60
XXXI.The Wives of the Minyans61
XXXII.Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons64
XXXIII.Polyxena, Daughter of King Priam65
XXXIV.Hecuba, Queen of the Trojans66
XXXV.Cassandra, Daughter of King Priam of Troy67
XXXVI.Clytemnestra, Queen of Mycenae68
XXXVII.Helen, Wife of King Menelaus70
XXXVIII.Circe, Daughter of the Sun74
XXXIX.Camilla, Queen of the Volscians76
XL.Penelope, Wife of Ulysses78
XLI.Lavinia, Queen of Laurentum81
XLII.Dido or Elissa, Queen of Carthage82
XLIII.Nicaula, Queen of Ethiopia90
XLIV.Pamphile, Daughter of Platea91
XLV.Rhea Ilia, a Vestal Virgin92
XLVI.Gaia Cyrilla, Wife of King Tarquinius Priscus94
XLVII.Sappho, Girl of Lesbos and Poetess95
XLVIII.Lucretia, Wife of Collatinus96
XLIX.Tamyris, Queen of Scythia98
L.Leaena, a Prostitute100
LI.Athaliah, Queen of Jerusalem102
LII.Cloelia, a Roman Maiden106
LIII.Hippo, a Greek Woman108
LIV.Megullia Dotata109
LV.Veturia, a Roman Matron110
LVI.Tamaris, Daughter of Micon114
LVII.Artemisia, Queen of Caria115
LVIII.Virginia, Virgin and Daughter of Virginius120
LIX.Irene, Daughter of Cratinus123
LXI.Olympias, Queen of Macedonia125
LXII.Claudia, a Vestal Virgin127
LXIII.Virginia, Wife of Lucius Volumnius129
LXIV.Flora the Prostitute, Goddess of Flowers and Wife of Zephyrus131
LXV.A Young Roman Woman133
LXVI.Marcia, Daughter of Varro135
LXVII.Sulpicia, Wife of Fulvius Flaccus137
LXVIII.Harmonia, Daughter of Gelon of Sicily139
LXIX.Busa of Canosa di Puglia140
LXX.Sophonisba, Queen of Numidia143
LXXI.Theoxena, Daughter of Prince Herodicus146
LXXII.Berenice, Queen of Cappadocia149
LXXIII.The Wife of Orgiago the Galatian151
LXXIV.Tertia Aemilia, Wife of the Elder Africanus153
LXXV.Dripetrua, Queen of Laodicea155
LXXVI.Sempronia, Daughter of Gracchus156
LXXVII.Claudia Quinta, a Roman Woman157
LXXVIII.Hypsicratea, Queen of Pontus159
LXXIX.Sempronia, a Roman Woman162
LXXX.The Wives of the Cimbrians165
LXXXI.Julia, Daughter of the Dictator Julius Caesar167
LXXXII.Portia, Daughter of Cato Uticensis168
LXXXIII.Curia, Wife of Quintus Lucretius170
LXXXIV.Hortensia, Daughter of Quintus Hortensius171
LXXXV.Sulpicia, Wife of Truscellio172
LXXXVI.Cornificia, a Poetess174
LXXXVII.Mariamme, Queen of Judaea175
LXXXVIII.Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt178
LXXXIX.Antonia, Daughter of Antony184
XC.Agrippina, Wife of Germanicus185
XCI.Paulina, a Roman Woman187
XCII.Agrippina, Mother of the Emperor Nero189
XCIII.Epicharis, a Freedwoman194
XCIV.Pompeia Paulina, Wife of Seneca196
XCV.Sabina Poppaea, Wife of Nero198
XCVI.Triaria, Wife of Lucius Vitellius201
XCVII.Proba, Wife of Adelphus202
XCVIII.Faustina Augusta205
XCIX.Symiamira, Woman of Emesa207
C.Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra210
CI.Joan, an Englishwoman and Pope215
CII.Irene, Empress of Constantinople217
CIII.Gualdrada, a Florentine Maiden219
CIV.Constance, Empress of Rome and Queen of Sicily221
CV.Camiola, a Sienese Widow223
CVI.Joanna, Queen of Jerusalem and Sicily230
Note on the Text235

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