Feminism and Renaissance Studies

By Lorna Hutson | Go to book overview

6 Women on Top

Natalie Zemon Davis


I

The female sex was thought the disorderly one par excellence in early modern Europe.” Une beste imparfaicte,” went one adage, “sans foy, sans loy, sans craincte, sans constance.” Female disorderliness was already seen in the Garden of Eden, when Eve had been the first to yield to the serpent's temptation and incite Adam to disobey the Lord. To be sure, the men of the lower orders were also believed to be especially prone to riot and seditious unrest. But the defects of the males were thought to stem not so much from nature as from nurture: the ignorance in which they were reared, the brutish quality of life and conversation in the peasant's hut or the artisan's shop, and their poverty, which led to envy.1

With the women the disorderliness was founded in physiology. As every physician knew in the sixteenth century, the female was composed of cold and wet humors (the male was hot and dry), and coldness and wetness meant a changeable, deceptive, and tricky temperament. Her womb was like a hungry animal; when not amply fed by sexual intercourse or reproduction, it was likely to wander about her body, overpowering her speech and senses. If the Virgin Mary was free of such a weakness, it was because she was the blessed vessel of the Lord. But no other woman had been immaculately conceived, and even the well-born lady could fall victim to a fit of the “mother,” as the uterus was called. The male might suffer from retained sexual juices, too, but (as Doctor François Rabelais pointed out) he had the wit and will to control his fiery urges by work, wine, or study. The female just

From Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Polity Press, 1965),
124-51. © Natalie Zemon Davis. Reprinted with permission.

-156-

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Feminism and Renaissance Studies
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Notes on Contributors vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Humanism After Feminism 19
  • 1: Did Women Have a Renaissance? 21
  • 2: Women Humanists 48
  • 3: The Housewife and the Humanists 82
  • 4: The Tenth Muse 106
  • Part II - Historicizing Femininity 125
  • 5: The Notion of Woman in Medicine, Anatomy, and Physiology 127
  • 6: Women on Top 156
  • 7: The 'Cruel Mother' 186
  • 8: Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany 203
  • Part III 231
  • 9: Diana Described 233
  • 10: Literary Fat Ladies and the Generation of the Text 249
  • 11: Margaret Cavendish and the Romance of Contract 286
  • 12: Surprising Fame 317
  • Part IV - Women's Agency 337
  • 13: Women on Top in the Pamphlet Literature of the English Revolution 339
  • 14: La Donnesca Mano 373
  • 15: Guilds, Male Bonding and Women's Work in Early Modern Germany 412
  • 16: Language, Power, and the Law 428
  • 17: Finding a Voice 450
  • Bibliography 468
  • Index 475
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