Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex
In 1509 Henricus Cornelius Agrippa (1486–1535) delivered an oration on the nobility and preeminence of women before a university audience at Doˆle, in southern France. In the audience was Margaret of Austria (1480–1530), daughter of Maximilian I (emperor of Austria from 1493 to 1519) and ruler of the Netherlands. Agrippa published his declamation in 1529, dedicating it to Margaret, who subsequently appointed him court historian, a post he held until her death just over a year later. Agrippa delivered a eulogy at her funeral. The declamation was one among many writings on women that began to appear after Christine de Pizan’s initiation of the querelle des femmes around 1400, in which women were the subjects and for which they were the patrons. Indeed, their patronage is one explanation for the proliferation of works of this nature. The printing press was, of course, decisive in the dissemination of such works, but their dissemination presupposes a ready audience of both men and women.
Agrippa’s text was important because it amassed the evidence against the entire misogynistic tradition stemming from the biology and psychology of Aristotle, Christian theology rooted in the Bible, Roman law, and medieval culture. Living in a period dominated by humanist scholarship, he had mastered the ‘‘classical traditions’’ in the broadest sense; there are more than five hundred references to Greek and Latin writers, the Bible, various Christian theologians, and Roman law in his hour-long declamation. The brevity of his oration, combined with the massive number of authors and texts to which he referred, account for the immediate importance of his text over those of his predecessors. The declamation was almost immediately translated from the Latin in which it was written and delivered into French (1530), German (1542), and Italian (1544); additional translations were made into French (1541, 1578) and English (1652, 1670, 1873, the latter from a French translation). The translations made his text accessible to those who had not mastered Latin; the result was that his arguments were pilfered by other writers for the next two hundred years—until the querelle des femmes had run its course and given way to different considerations than questions of equality, like the
education of women and more generally their role in public life.
Agrippa opens his declamation by arguing that women are superior to men in the order of creation, and their superiority involves the following: they were the last earthly creature to be created (and so the first in conception, the fulfillment of perfection of the whole), they were created in Paradise (rather than outside it, as Adam was), and they were created from a superior material (part of Adam rather than dirt). Women are more beautiful than men both spiritually (they are closer to God) and physically. The many virtues of women also point to their superiority: modesty, purity, primary role in procreation (contrary to Greek biology), piety and compassion, greater capacity for sex, positive qualities of pregnancy and menstruation, ability to conceive without a male, and superior eloquence. Turning to the Scriptures, he demonstrates that the original sin came through Adam and Eve. Christ took the form of a man because it was men who needed redeeming; but he was born of a woman without a man, and he first appeared to women following his resurrection. Agrippa reverses the misogynistic apocryphal text of Ecclesiasticus 42:14, which states that the evil actions of men are better than the good actions of women, demonstrating from the Scriptures that the reverse is the case. Moreover, the constancy of some women has led to the naming of
books of the Bible after them. Women’s activity in the world parallels in every kind of accomplishment that of men. Women have been priestesses, prophets, magicians, and philosophers; they have written poetry and legal briefs and are masters of oratory; they have excelled in dialectics and medicine; they have demonstrated great wisdom and ruled kingdoms; they have been the founders of empires with their inventions of letters and the arts; they have saved nations by their courage. Women played an important role in the founding of Rome and were always honored there (as many examples attest). There have been cultures in which the roles now played by men and women in contemporary culture have been reversed. It is social custom, based on the tyranny of men, that has prevented and continues to prevent women from taking on public offices and responsibilities.
Agrippa’s declamation moves by a series of contrasts, often using traditional texts to reverse misogynistic conclusions. A good example is Genesis 2, often cited to prove the superiority of Adam to Eve; Agrippa finds evidence of Eve’s superiority in her place (Paradise) and matter (Adam’s rib) of conception. He speaks in wholly positive terms of the physiology of women and its consequences, most notably arguing not only that women produce semen (as Galen had argued against Aristotle), but that female semen is decisive in human creation (which Galen had denied). Agrippa turns the Platonic conception of the womb as an autonomous creature (intended to prove how fragile women were) into an argument for the power of women. He argues as well against the traditional notion of the psychology of women, maintaining that children are more like their mothers than their fathers and so (against Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas) love their mothers more than their fathers.
The more positive aspects of female psychology lead to a reassessment of her mental capacities, for example her superior eloquence. Reversing one of the most pervasively derisive of misogynistic commonplaces, Agrippa argues that women are more fluent, eloquent, and expressive in speech than men. The proof is that we learn to speak from our mothers or nurses and that one hardly ever finds mute women. The fact that women are superior to men in precisely that trait in which humans are superior to all other animals is testimony to their superiority over all other creatures.
As he concludes his declamation, Agrippa makes a valiant effort to show that the strictures that prevented women from performing in the world in his day had not always been in effect. He portrays the ancient world as more inclusive of women than his own time. He cites Joan of Arc (1412–1431) as proof that the qualities possessed by classical women are also possessed by modern women. Agrippa did not say—although he implied it—that the legal constraints on women should be reversed. In the time in which he wrote, his treatise would have lost credibility had he attempted so to argue.
See also: Querelle des Femmes: Renaissance.
Bibliography: Nauert, Charles G., Jr. Agrippa and the Crisis of Renaissance Thought. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965; Agrippa, Henricus Cornelius. Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of Women. Ed. and trans. Albert Rabil, Jr. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996. (The series editors’ introduction provides a concise statement of the misogynistic tradition and the emergent tradition—‘‘the other voice’’—that challenged it.)
ALBERT RABIL, JR.
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