Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Women and literature.

In discussions with people about literature, I have often encountered the question, or the remark followed by a question, that women have played a very small role in world literature, and why is this? There is often an implication of women's lack of literary quality or talent. We needn't even mention the fact that differences in education and upbringing are extremely influential here (oddly enough, most people I have spoken to seem to have very little knowledge about such matters in the past), we can just jump to the forgotten women. The number of productive women was naturally much smaller than that of productive men since most women were busy giving birth to children and raising those children, but those women that did actually produce something are often not even mentioned. Even I haven't heard about many of the women I am now reading about for my summer class in Women's History, which perhaps stresses the importance of this branch of history (which is often questioned and made out to be irrelevant and uninteresting).

Reading the books I am supposed to read, listening to the lectures from the University, I have all of a sudden been seized by the desire to learn Latin! Latin has never before interested me, but I would very much enjoy being able to read texts from the middle ages written by women who were successful enough to actually be remembered up until this day, even though they may often be neglected, but that is another matter. I did not know for example, that the nun Hrotsvitha was the one who reintroduced the drama in the West in the 10th century, and that she didn't only write one play, but that actually three books have been preserved to this day. I had no idea that she was also the one who reintroduced the Faust myth!

Another interesting woman was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), another nun (back in those days, being a nun was a good alternative to getting married, since you could then educate yourself and actually become someone, but this was made more and more difficult from the ninth century onwards when misogyny started kicking in, and up until this point, there were several very important women that helped build up Christianity) wrote the world's first opera, as well as numerous plays, but also books on medicine, zoology, botany, geology, all in all 14 works that belonged to the most important scientific writings of the middle age.

A woman that is sometimes given the role of having written the world's first novel is a Japanese noblewoman, the author of The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (early 11th century). This lady is not part of my class it seems like, at least not yet, and that may have something to do with Eurocentrism...

Troubadours could also be mentioned, because there were actually quite a number of female ones. All in all, approximately 400 troubadours are known today (by name that is), and among those there is for example Marie de France, the Countess of Dia, Lombarda, Castelloza and Bieris of Romans, etc, (and a bunch of nameless women). While studying French, we went through troubadours, but the only female name that sounds familiar to me is Marie de France. As one of my books point out, the female troubadours never wrote anything about man's bravery in honor of ladies, which was otherwise a popular theme. Their depictions of love is considered to be more realistic and sensual, even though in many aspects their works are similar to their male colleagues' works. I was trying to find an English version of a poem from my book, the name of it should be "Alais, Iselda and Carenza", but I wasn't very successful. I wanted to share it because I found it rather amusing, but there is probably little point in sharing it in Swedish... However, in searching for it, I found this page which may be of interest to anyone interested in female troubadours. I am intent on reading it clear when I have finished the things I actually have to read for my class. It's in French.

Most people probably recognize the name Christine de Pizan (1365-1434), who made a living out of writing and who was the only person who wrote about Joan of Arc at that time, besides from her writings the only things that are preserved about Joan are protocols from the trials. Christine also instigated a debate about women that would last for 200 years, la Querelle des Femmes.

What I am also learning, and which is very interesting, is that the Renaissance isn't necessarily a positive period of time in all aspects. From a male perspective, it is, but for women it generally meant reduced freedom and being dumbed down, and we mustn't forget the witch hunts (in which 40,000 to 100,000 women were executed, at least according to Wikipedia), which could either be said to belong in the middle ages, or in the Renaissance. The "Hammer of witches" was written in 1487 by two monks from the Dominican Inquisition, and following this any woman who did not meekly sit by and act chastely could be considered by witch. I'm thinking that this is no point in time when you choose to raise your voice as a woman (even though Christine de Pizan actually did this earlier, protesting that if woman was as vile as she was made out to be by some of the men of the church, then why on earth would God have made her?). The Reformation and counterreformation weren't either all that positive for women.

To sum things up, we could go back even to the time before Christianity and nuns, and remember Sapho, who wrote a large number of poems and who was actually famous in her own time (she lived around 650 B.C., and 300 living conditions for women in the antique world started getting more restrictive). Not Sapho is actually one of those women who are mentioned today, so I won't say anything more about her.

I better stop now, but there are many more individuals that could be mentioned. And I find all of this very fascinating! If women had nothing to do in literature in earlier times, then why do they constantly pop up as the instigators of this and that genre?


  1. I admit, I don't belong to the "most people", who recognize the name Christine de Pizan. Interesting reading, though I'd say witch hunts mainly belong to after Renaissance.

  2. Where do you place the Renaissance? My book says the witch hunts really started in the 14th century and continued until the 17th.

  3. It takes more than talent to achieve fame and success. It takes a strong fighting spirit and a certain amount of arrogance. Which is not necessarily good. Very successful people often (fortunately not always) turn out to be quite arrogant and not too pleasant company. I think it is part of the reason why women writers are less known.

  4. Leo, speaking about the Renaissance and witch hunts, the book I'm currently reading actually deals with them. Here's a quote I have tried to translate (the prose is quite difficult to translate): "And at the same time we shall notice that these two centuries of witch hunts did not at all take place during the Middle Ages, but in the Renaissance. The witch trials were the splendid introduction to our time, accompanied by a complete revolution of our conception of the world, of empiric science and scientific heresy. And they flourished precisely here in our beloved, our beautiful Alsace. The most beautiful pictures were painted and the most marvelous cathedrals were built, while old women and small children were at the same time relentlessly roasted."

    And Szabolcs, just now I realized I had forgotten to reply to your comment. I don't think any particular female nature is the cause for women being less known; they were actually (some of them) well known in their own time. Afterwards, they were forgotten, and they have quite often been left out when literary histories have been written, either because they dealt with women in particular (and even though this makes up half of the world's population, it is rarely deemed interesting, whereas accounts dealing with mostly men are... universal; the same perspective can be applied to white western people versus people from the east or black people who probably don't think that white history is universal) or because they were written by women, who have just recently been deemed the intellectual equals of men. I may already have mentioned it, but one of the books I was reading for my class was actually published as a protest against another book on the global "history of ideas" were not a single woman, or text on women, was present.