Sunday , May 26 2024
A distinguished feminist historian says there were 300 learned women up until 1700. Stevenson multiplies that figure by ten.

Book Review: Women Latin Poets – a Revolutionary Text

“Ground-breaking”, “revolutionary” and “astonshingly erudite” are the sorts of labels all too often used in book reviews – and even more often in press releases – which leaves me without adequate words to describe Jane Stevenson’s Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century. Only a decade ago, so distinguished a feminist historian as Gerda Lerner was saying there were no more than 300 learned women up until 1700 in the entire Christian era, suggesting an almost total exclusion from the central language of scholarship through that great arc of history. Stevenson, however, multiplies that figure by at least a factor of ten, and suggests many avenues of research by which it might be further increased.

But this is more than a charting of new, fascinating women from history, as important as that is. By finding these women, bringing them together and exploring their lives, Stevenson is forcing a rethink about the basic position of women over 1,880 years – in the societies of ancient Rome, in the medieval and later nunnery, and of the social role of the city’s “showpiece educated woman” across a wide swathe of early modern Europe. Every scholar interested in women in any of these periods should, I’d suggest, read this book shed new lights, from different angles, on their period.

But, I can hear potential readers say Latin poetry, particularly neo-Latin poetry, is deadly dull stuff. Do I have to?

Well while it is true that some of the verses are paens to dull princes, dutiful religious professions or formulaic odes to nature, there’s plenty of genuinely good poetry here. (Sensibly always provided in translation as well as the original.)

Just listen to the astonishing Martha Marchina, the daughter of a Neapolitan soap-boiler living in Rome, whose precocious talent was recognised when her brothers, left under her care after their mother died, made astonishing progress in school. But one of the boys – none of whom wrote verses themselves – was mocking the quality of her verse. She responded:

You appear to be a straitlaced fellow, and too severe,
My brother, since none of my verses ever please you.
This one is silly, you say, this is harsh, the other is wordy,
This is flat, these are tumid, this one has a hole in it, those others collapse —
You criticize innumerable faults in my verses –
And yet it is I who compose the no-good poems, you compose none. (p. 310-11

(She remained single, living at home with her father, acquiring a cardinal as a patron, and published a collection of letters and verse that was dedicated to Christina, ex-queen of Sweden.)

Or if you prefer your poetry heartfelt, what about the work of the Frenchwoman Camille de Morel, who mourns her sister:

Lucrece, why did you leave the earth alone,
To ascend into heaven, why did the fates give this to you without me?
You who were once the sweet solace of my sad mind,
My darling, and half of my soul …
Above all, dead sister, it is my grief to remember
You used to cultivate the sacred gifts of the divine Muses,
It is my grief to remember, since I lack you, my dear,
And what you are in your excellence, so swiftly snatched.
But it helps to remember, since a person who lived without sin
Lived long, and does not know how to die.”
(p. 193)

Starting in republican Rome, Stevenson makes a case for groups of women poets in the Ancient city as more established, and establishment, figures than they are commonly portrayed. (I’ve already posted on the aristocrat Sulpicia and her relationship with her lectrix.) Male scholars have been inclined to assume that the women poets of whom we know, such as this Sulpicia (there were other later ones), were no more than educated courtesans (directed, surely, by the predjudices of their own times).

Instead Stevenson presents an image of a rich, aristocratic, respectable young woman from an educated family – her father having a literary reputation for translating Greek verse. So, Stevenson says: “Sulpicia insists on her control over the relationship [in a love poem], where her male counterparts insist on their lack it it … she makes no claim to be either sexually libertarian or even socially independent .. she never implies that she has had lovers in the past, threatens to take another lover, or suggests that she might be unfaithful.” (p. 41.)

Then, through the Christian period, Stevenson, through her writers from within and without convents across the continent, provides a sensible, nuanced discussion of the way in which the walls that surrounded nuns were sometimes a prison, sometimes a welcome protection. But whichever was the case at a particular time and place, Stevenson shows the nuns doing their best to improve their condition. Hildegard of Bingen, one of her best-known characters, who’d begun to see visions at the age of three and went on to produce “a prodigious oeuvre in cosmology, ethics, medicine and mystical poetry”. Hers was also a political mind, moving her nunnery to a more independent position, away from the close supervision of male clerics by asserting she had been forbidden by God “to utter or write anything more in that place”. Pressure from her extensive international following did the rest.

Outside the convent, as the early modern era progresses, Stevenson puts together a fascinating account of the way cities and even countries came to regard the possession of an extensively educated woman scholar as a mark of pride, and someone to be paraded before important visitors, at which point they usually delivered a formal oration or similar. (So much for the theory that women were always supposed to remain silent.)

This was one factor that led parents – usually fathers – to decide that educating a daughter in Latin – and other Greek, Hebrew and even more esoteric languages – might be good not just for her but as a way of advancing the whole family. Often, but not always, such fathers were professional educators themselves. I’m very interested in the most prominent English example of this – Bathsua Makin, but was fascinated to find it a phenomena spread virtually the length and breadth of Europe.

So Juliana/Julienne Morell (1593-1853) was writing letters to her Catallan father in Latin at age seven in Barcelona. He committed murder and they were forced to flee to Lyon, where she defended a Latin philosophical thesis in a public audience before Margaret of Austria at the age of about 14. Her father then removed her to Avignon, where he wanted her to study to become a doctor of law. However, she was determined to become a nun, and attracted the support of local nobles with another Latin public defence, and so was able to enter the convent of her choice. Her father refused to pay her dowry; the Pope eventually did so. But even there she didn’t escape, or chose to escape, speaking her various languages (which also included Greek and Hebrew) for distinguished visitors.

But since writing in Latin was so often regarded as a male preserve, were these women merely aping men’s work? Stevenson says not. She finds many cases in which the women Latinists wrote narratives in distinctly female ways.

To give just one example, she looks closely at a poem written by a German nun, Willetrudis, possibly in the early 1100s. It is the story of Susanna and the Elders who try to blackmail her into sleeping with them when they sneak into the garden where she is bathing. She instead cries out, and they claim they saw her with a lover. She is about to be judged when young Daniel steps forward, questions the men’s story, and reveals its falsity.

Stevenson compares the nun’s work with a roughly contemporary work by Petrus de Riga. She finds that the male writer in his choice of words subtly blames Susanna: “Her beauty captivates the old men; her desirability draws them.” (original itals) Even when she tests the water before bathing – surely an innocent enough act – he draws attention to her nuda and she is a temptare, a temptress. The poet then lingers on her beauty, her milky neck in what, in medieval terms, says Stevenson, is “mildly pornographic” and says she went to the garden all alone – seemingly in itself a suspicious act.

The nun, however, has Susanna go to a pool in her husband’s orchard, to cool herself on a hot day, using a verb that suggests not full disrobing, but possibly no more than splashing herself with water. Her chastity and goodness is held up as a model, possibly to other nuns, and when she is attacked “there is a torrent of metaphors: she is like a dove, or perhaps a swan, or a tender lamb in the mouth of a wolf”. And even before Daniel’s intervention, she is surrounded by a group of supporters inclined to trust her. She is then compared to a virgin martyr when she is taken before her judges, including her would-be assailants. The nun wrote:

“They have ordered the clothes stripped from her soft body,
And they violate with their gaze the secret parts of Susanna,
So that thereby a depraved mentality may be satiated by the sight:
Oh how wickedly perverse men become worse after the worst!”

Then, while Petrus de Riga has Susanna stumbling and falling silent before her accusers, Willetrudis makes a long and moving speech declaring her faith and trust in God. She then goes unflinchingly towards a martyrs death. And when Daniel intervenes, he is acting not for himself but as an agent of God – almost of her own prayer.

I think Stevenson is right; this is a woman telling a woman’s story.

These are voices that must become better known, incorporated into the much better explored arena of women’s writing in their vernacular languages. I’ve sought wherever possible in this review to provide links to internet resources about the writers mentioned; their scarcity tells its own story. This is a book whose important should be proclaimed from the rooftops – or at least should find a prominent place in the sources of any scholar of European women’s history.

Stevenson wrote about her book in The Guardian. She’s also been on Woman’s Hour.

Tags: Women, History, Poetry, Latin.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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