Renaissance Misogyny, Biblical Feminism, and Helisenne De Crenne's Epistres Familieres et Invectives

Article excerpt

And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.

- Mark 14:9(1)

Je t'admonneste de . . . te repentir, d'avoir detracte de celles, pour lesquelles extoller tous vertueulx se travaillent (K ii).

- Crenne(2)

We will begin where all early modern feminists, from Christine de Pizan to Helisenne de Crenne and beyond, begin: in the beginning was the word, and the word was misogynist. This is the ideological, literary, and cultural context for reading and appreciating virtually every early modern feminist work. Stung and dismayed in particular by her reading of the tirade against women by the cleric and poet Matheolus in his Lamenta (1300), Pizan at the very beginning of her highly influential Livre de la Cite des Dames (1405) informs us that she is determined to come to terms with such a blatant and longstanding tradition of misogyny: "Je me demandais quelles pouvaient etre les causes et les raisons qui poussaient tant d'hommes, clercs et autres, a medire des femmes et a, vituperer leur conduite soit en paroles, soit dans leurs traites et leurs ecrits . . . . Philosophes, poetes et moralistes - et la liste en serait bien longue -, tous semblent parler d'une meme voix pour conclure que la femme est foncierement mauvaise et portee au vice.'(3) Pizan's commitment to revising and rewriting classical and especially clerical history in favor of woman and her moral worth is the first feminist project to truly debunk male vituperation of le sexe feminin, and the view in particular that "woman is evil by nature and prone to vice."

Much closer to Crenne were the misogynist and extremely disparaging words of Gratien du Pont, whose Controverses des sexes masculin et femenin are, I am now convinced, what occasioned Crenne's own literary activity in composing her Epistres familieres et invectives, or at least large parts of the Epistres. As the Renaissance master misogynist, Du Pont belabors his vitriolic perspective and attack on woman in a work that is remarkable for its unabated nastiness and its sheer length - three books covering over four hundred large folio pages in the 1534 Toulouse first edition. Following in the footsteps of his medieval misogynist brother Matheolus and other Christian and classical writers, Du Pont launches into diatribes against the offensive sexual behavior and highly questionable moral capacity of women to who that they are indeed "foncierement" mauvaise[s] et portee[s] au vice." But as far as Du Pont is concerned, he is simply recalling and recording the "authoritative truth" on women which has been put forth and tested from the beginning of time. Du Pont is pleased and proud to turn to his sources for "confirmation" of his own views, to these "autheurs tant Theologiens, Historiographes, Legistes, Canonistes . . . par lesquelz est conferme le dire de l'autheur." His long, two-page, single-spaced list of sources and authorities whom he invokes includes Genesis, Job, Mark, John, Moses, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Paul, Augustine, Thomas, the Biblia aurea, and the familiar name of Matheolus - all of whom appear at the very beginning of his work and give, as he sees it, "authenticity" to his views.(4)

Du Pont's concern with female ontological inferiority - that is, with male superiority - is an obsession that he justifies and feeds by turning especially to Christian tradition and scriptural authority. A man, even the most "wicked," we are assured, is of higher value in the eyes of his Creator (and thus in Du Pont's), than the "holiest woman": "Le createur a plus estime en somme / Le plus meschant, et le plus infaict homme / Le plus maulvais, et plus villain infame / Que la plus saincte, & plus devote femme" (fol. 23v). Forever invoking and interpreting, a sa facon, the story of creation and the fall in Genesis 2 and 3, Du Pont depicts woman as morally depleted and sexually conniving, always in collusion with the devil: "Luxurieuse, sans fin pensant en mal / La ayde et secours du grand prince infernal. …