Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love

Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love

by R. Howard Bloch

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Until now the advent of Western romantic love has been seen as a liberation from—or antidote to—ten centuries of misogyny. In this major contribution to gender studies, R. Howard Bloch demonstrates how similar the ubiquitous antifeminism of medieval times and the romantic idealization of woman actually are.

Through analyses of a broad range of patristic and medieval texts, Bloch explores the Christian construction of gender in which the flesh is feminized, the feminine is aestheticized, and aesthetics are condemned in theological terms. Tracing the underlying theme of virginity from the Church Fathers to the courtly poets, Bloch establishes the continuity between early Christian antifeminism and the idealization of woman that emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In conclusion he explains the likely social, economic, and legal causes for the seeming inversion of the terms of misogyny into those of an idealizing tradition of love that exists alongside its earlier avatar until the current era.

This startling study will be of great value to students of medieval literature as well as to historians of culture and gender.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226059907
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/15/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 308
File size: 462 KB

About the Author

R. Howard Bloch is the Sterling Professor of French at Yale University and the author of God’s Plagiarist: Being an Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbé Migne, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love

By R. Howard Bloch

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1991 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-05990-7


Molestiae Nuptiarum and the Yahwist Creation

The persistence—in theological, philosophical, and scientific tracts; in literature, legend, myth, and folklore—of so many of the earliest formulations of the question of woman, from the church fathers to the nineteenth century, means that anyone wondering where to begin to understand the Western current of antifeminism must recognize that it is possible to begin just about anywhere. We begin our study with a passage from among the many antimatrimonial tirades of Jean de Meun's Roman de la rose:

Ha! se Theofrastus creüsse,
ja fame espousee n'eüsse.
Il ne tient pas home por sage
qui fame prent par mariage,
soit bele ou lede, ou povre ou
car il dit, et por voir l'afiche,
en son noble livre Aureole,
qui bien fet a lire en escole,
qu'il i a vie trop grevaine,
pleine de travaill et de paine.

Ha! If I had only believed Theophrastus, I would never have taken a wife. He holds no man to be wise who takes a woman in marriage, whether ugly or beautiful, poor or rich. For he says, and you can take it for truth, in his noble book Aureole, which is good to read in school, that there is there a life too full of torment and strife.

Though the Theophrastus referred to—identified alternately as the author of the Characters and as a pupil of Aristotle—and his livre Aureole are mentioned by Jerome in Adversus Jovinianum (1,47), they are otherwise unknown, which does not prevent their being cited by almost every antimatrimonial writer of the Middle Ages. Together they constitute an absent locus classicus of the tapas of molestiae nuptiarum) the pains of marriage, which was read, Jean maintains, "in school."

Of what do the pains of marriage consist?

This question brings us to one of the grand themes of gender, which passes in the High Middle Ages from Christian orthodoxy to vernacular culture:

qu'il i a vie trop grevaine,
Pleine de travaill et de paine
et de contenz et de riotes,
par les orgueuz des fames sotes,
et de dangiers et de reproches
qu'el font et dient par leur
et de requestes et de plaintes
qu'el treuvent par achesons
Si ra grant paine en eus garder
Por leur fous volairs retarder.

That there is there a life too full of torment and strife and arguments and riotousness because of the pride of foolish women—and dangers and reproaches which they do and say with their mouths, and requests and complaints which they invent on many occasions. It takes a great effort to keep them and to hold back their foolish wills. (Rose) vv. 8539–48)

According to the topos of the molestiae nuptiarum) wives are portrayed as contentious, prideful, demanding, complaining, and foolish; they are pictured as uncontrollable, unstable, and insatiable: "si ra grant paine en eus garder / Por leur fous volairs retarder." To push a little further, one cannot help but notice the extent to which the pains of marriage involve verbal transgression, so that the reproach against women is a form of reproach against language itself—"that which is said by the mouth" ("qu'el font et dient par leur boches"), or more precisely, contenz (contention, garrulousness, bickering, and quarrels), reproches (criticism, reproach), plaintes (complaint), requestes (demands), orguelz (pride). A wife is depicted as a constant source of anxiety and dissatisfaction, an anxiety expressed—or, as the text suggests, "composed"—with words: "qu'el treuvent par achesons maintes." The protest against women as a form of verbal abuse, addressed to "anyone who marries," is thus posited as universal.

Here we touch upon one of the touchstones of the genre which is latent, of course, well before the thirteenth century and even before the Christian era—the link of the feminine to the seductions and the ruses of speech. It is to be found, for example, in Homer's sirens who implore the wandering Odysseus to "Bring your ship in so that you may listen to our voice. / No one has ever sped past this place in a black ship / Before he listened to the honey-toned voice from our mouths." It is present in Hesiod's version of the simultaneous creation of woman and "lying speech" in the figure of Pandora, "this ruin of mankind" molded from the earth as part of Zeus's vengeance for the theft of fire. The view of woman as the one who through speech sowed discord between man and God lies at the core of the narrative of the Fall, the Old Testament association of the feminine and verbal allurement. Nowhere, however, is the cosmic misogyny of the classical world—a world that includes the terrible figures of the Furies, the Harpies, the Fates, but at least accords woman a powerful place in the order of nature—nowhere is the founding antifeminism of the Genesis story more powerfully domesticated (literally, taken into the home) than in the late Latin and Christian world where wives are the equivalent of an annoyance of speech implicit to everyday life. With the first centuries of our era antifeminism becomes synonymous with anti-marriage literature. Juvenal, for example, claims that it would be "impossible for a lawyer, a public crier, or even another woman, to speak, so abundant is the sea of a wife's words," which he compares to a "cacophony of cauldrons and bells." "What if a husband is moderate but his wife is wicked, carping, a chatterbox, extravagant (the affliction common to all womankind), filled with many other faults, how will that poor fellow endure this daily unpleasantness, this conceit, this impudence?" asks John Chrysostom. "The man who does not quarrel is a bachelor," Saint Jerome seems to answer.

The notion that women are by nature more talkative than men is, of course, a staple of antifeminist prejudice, one of "our culture's deep roots in medieval culture," in the phrase of Eleanor McLaughlin. And lest one think that such abusive language about women as verbal abuse is restricted to the Middle Ages, it is only necessary to scan the canonical misogynistic texts of subsequent centuries to see that neither the association of woman with verbosity nor the specific terms of thecliché have changed very much. The topos of thegarrulous female is a persistent feature of the discourse of antifeminism in the West. That guardian of literary probity of the seventeenth century, Boileau, for example, repeats the tiresome traditional list of the molestiae nuptiarum. Marriage, he claims, holds the promise of unceasing contradiction, argument, scolding, and harangue. Worse, the verbal abuse to which the husband submits implies the use of terms not to be found in the dictionary, as woman herself becomes the equivalent of aneologism and marriage threatens the purity of the French language. Boileau's own pen "tracing these words alphabetically," he claims, "might increase by a tome the Richelet Dictionary."

The topos of the talkative female is particularly prevalent in the century directly preceding our own. A medical encyclopedia from the early 1800s, under the entry "Femme," characterizes women as being instinctually given to conversation. Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly in Les Bas-bleus (1878), a vitriolic tract against women writers, transforms the classical and medieval topos of the garrulous wife into the woman who writes too easily and too much: "Ah! quand les femmes écrivent, c'est comme quand elles parlent! Elles ont la faculté inondante; et comme l'eau, elles sont incompréhensibles" ("Ah! when women write, it is like when they speak! They have the ability to inundate; and like water, they are incomprehensible"). P.-J. Proudhon, whose De la Justice dans la Révolution et dans l'Eglise (1858) contains an enormous pseudoscientific and legal justification for the political disenfranchisement of women, attributes what he judges to be a certain decadence in the arts to female loquacity, which he calls "literary nymphomania" ("une espéce de nymphomanie littèraire"). This is a theme to which we shall return in chapter 2. Cesare Lombroso, whose La Femme criminelle et la prostituée had a tremendous influence at the end of the nineteenth century, roots the belief that women naturally talk more than men in his own version of impressionistic biologism. He makes the claim, for example, that science proves that female dogs bark more than the male of the species, that young girls are more precocious in their speech than boys, and that old women continue to speak later in life than old men. Lombroso offers a series of proverbs as abundant as the words of the garrulous women he denounces in order to back up the wisdom of science with that of popular belief. His presentation of folk sayings from practically every region of Italy, France, and even China resembles nothing so much as Sganarelle's list of the women whom Don Juan has seduced: two from Tuscany ("Fleuve, gouttière et femme parleuse chassent l'homme de sa maison," "Trois femmes parleuse chassent l'homme de sa maison"); one from Venice ("Deux femmes et une oie font une foire"); three from Sicily ("Discours de femme et cris de perroquet," "Deux femmes et une poule font un marché," "Trois femmes font une foire"); one from Naples ("Une femme et un perroquet revolutionnent Naples"); one from Umbria ("Sept femmes et une pie, c'est une foire complète"); one from Bologna ("Trois femmes et un chat c'est un marche complet"); one from Milan ("Deux femmes et une oie font un marché"); one from France ("Deux femmes font un plaid, trois un grand caquet, quatre un marché complet"); and one supposedly from China ("La langue est l'épée des femmes qu'elles ne laissent jamais rouiller").

Woman as Riot

According to the medieval topos of talkative women, which is no doubt motivated by the desire to silence them, wives are portrayed as perpetual speech with respect to which no position of innocence is possible. Woman is conceived as an overdetermined being with respect to which man is always at fault. If she is poor, one must nourish, clothe, and shoe her: "Et qui veust povre fame prendre, / a norrir la l'esteut entendre / et a vestir et a chaucier" (Rose, w. 8549–51). But if she is rich, she is uncontrollable:

et s'il tant se cuide essaucier
qu'illa prengne riche forment,
au soffrir la ra grant torment,
tant la trove orgueilleuse et fiere
et seurquidee et bobanciere.

And if one thinks he can escape by taking a rich one, he will suffer great tonnent again—so arrogant and prideful will he find her, so outrageous and full of presumption. (Rose, w. 8552–56)

If a woman is beautiful, all desire her (Rose, vv. 8557–66), and she will in the end be unfaithful; yet if she is not beautiful, she will need all the more to please and, again, will eventually betray: "Maintes neïs par eus se baillent, / quant Ii requereìr defaillent" ("Many will give themselves willingly when suitors lack," vv. 8629–30). If she is reasonable, she is subject to seduction ("Penelope neïz prendroit / qui bien a lui prendre entendroit; / si n'ot il meilleur fame en Grece" ["One could take Penelope herself, and there was no better woman in Greece," vv. 8575–77]); yet if she is irrational, she becomes the victim, like Lucretia, of madness and suicide (v. 8578).

Nor is such a view restricted to the Romance vernacular. The original source is, again, Jerome: "If a woman be fair she soon finds lovers; if she be ugly, it is easy to be wanton. It is difficult to guard what many long for. It is annoying to have what no one thinks worth possessing." Isidore of Seville proffers the same motif in the seventh century. John of Salisbury repeats it almost verbatim in the twelfth: "A beautiful woman is quick to inspire love; an ugly one's passions are easily stirred. What many love is hard to protect; what no one desires to have is a humility to possess." Yet even possession is no guarantee against the agony of overdetermination, for marriage is conceived as a constant struggle for mastery, over who possesses what. "If you entrust your whole establishment to her," John warns, "you are reduced to a state of servitude; if you reserve some department for your personal direction, she thinks you lack confidence in her.... If you admit beldames, goldsmiths, soothsayers, tradesmen in jewels and silks, her chastity is imperiled; if you shut the door on them there is your unjust suspicion. After all, what does a strict guard avail, as a lewd wife cannot be watched and a chaste one does not have to be?" Chaucer echoes the motif in the Wife of Bath's reproach of all such reproaches: "Thou seist to me it is a greet meschief / To wedde a povre womman, for costage; / And if that she be rich, of heigh parage, / Thanne seistow that it is a tormentrie / To soffre hire pride and hire malencolie." Woman by definition finds herself in a position of constant overdetermination, or movement. She is, as Jean contends, full of "contenz et ... riotes"; and also, as Jehan Le Fèvre, author of the fourteenth-century translation of the Lamentatwns de Matheolus, adds, of "tençon rioteuse."

Woman as riot is a topos in medieval literature and has a special sense in Old French. The word itself, meaning chaos or upset, also refers to a kind of poetic discourse belonging to the rich tradition of nonsense poetry—the fatras, fatrasie) dervie) sotie) and farce—as well as to the more specific type known as the Riote del monde) of which one example is the prose Dit de l'herberie and another the fabliau entitled "La Rencontre du roi d'Angleterre et du jongleur d'Ely." This last, placed in the context of the molestiae nuptiarum) enlarges somewhat the terms of the analogy between woman as abundant speech and her portrayal as overdetermined. For that which is characteristic of the female in the medieval learned conception of gender, as well as in popular belief, is transformed in the comic debate between king and jongleur into a conundrum involving the inadequacy of words to their referents, or of the signifier to the signified. After a series of nonsensical parries capped by the poet's reminder that "one often hears a fool speak sanely, and the wise man is the one who speaks wisely," the crafty jongleur—in anticipation of the fool of Renaissance drama—seeks to teach the king a lesson about language in general:

Et tot vus mostroi par ensample,
Qu'est si large et si aunple
Et si pleyn de resoun,
Que urn ne dira si bien noun.
Si vus estez simple et sage
Vus estes tenuz un feloun;....
Et si vus les femmes amez,
Et ou eux sovent parlez
Et lowés ou honorez ...
Donques dirra ascun pautener:
"Veiez cesti mavois holer,
Come il siet son mestier
De son affere bien mostrer".
Si vus ne les volez regarder
Ne volenters ou eux parler,
Si averount mensounge trové
Que vus estes descoillé! ...

And I will show you by examples that are so general and compelling and so full of reason that one cannot fail to agree. If you are a simple and wise man, you are taken for a rogue;.... If you like women and speak often with them, frequent them, and praise and honor them, ... someone will say: "Look at that evil pimp who knows his work and shows it." If you do not look at them or willingly talk with them, they will find the lie to prove that you are castrated! ... (Recueil, vol. 2, 249)

Jean de Meun's vision of women as overdetermined is thus complicated by the fabliau's positing of the problem of overdetermination in terms of subjective vision and, more precisely, of the prejudicial subjectivity of all speech acts where relations between the genders are concerned. There is, the anonymous poet asserts, no possibility of an objective regard upon the opposite sex and, therefore, no innocent place of speech. The mere fact of speaking to women makes one a pimp; a refusal to speak or even to look is the sign of a eunuch.

Thus, what began in our initial example as women's fickleness translates into the impossibility of a husband's ever replying adequately to the abundance of his wife's words, which are motivated by what is imagined to be the overdetermined nature of the feminine. Again, the source is Jerome: "Then come curtain-lectures the live-long night: she complains that one lady goes out better dressed than she: that another is looked up to by all: 'I am a poor despised nobody at the ladies' assemblies.' 'Why did you ogle that creature next door?' 'Why were you talking to the maid?' 'What did you bring from the market?' 'I am not allowed to have a single friend, or companion'." Yet none of themedieval misogynists is innocent where such a view is concerned, least of all Pope Innocent himself, who seeks to demonstrate not only that a married woman is the source of anxiety through her jealousy of others, but that no reply to her garrulous gossiping will ever be sufficient: "'This woman,' she says, 'goes out better dressed, that one is honored by everybody; but poor little me, I'm the only one in the whole group of women that they scorn—they all look down their noses at me.' She wants all his attention and all his praise; if he praises another she takes it as humiliation. He must like everything she likes, hate everything she spurns. She wants to master, and will not be mastered. She will not be a servant, she must be in charge. She must have a finger in everything."


Excerpted from Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love by R. Howard Bloch. Copyright © 1991 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Molestiae Nuptiarum and the Yahwist Creation
2. Early Christianity and the Estheticization of Gender
3. "Devil's Getaway" and "Bride of Christ"
4. The Poetics of Virginity
5. The Old French Lay and the Myriad Modes of Male Indiscretion
6. The Love Lyric and the Paradox of Perfection
7. Heiresses and Dowagers: The Power of Women to Dispose

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