Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Caterina Sforza: "I Am the Daughter of One Who Had No Fear"

Caterina Sforza (takes control of Imola and Forlì, 30 April 1488)


As any of my friends or former students can tell you, I have been obsessed with Caterina Sforza for many years--my long-suffering son even indulged me during one memorable trip to Italy several years ago when a leisurely vacation suddenly and unexpectedly became a full-on historical stalking of all sites even remotely connected with Caterina Sforza. Whatever his thoughts may have been, he kept them to himself.

I had hoped and planned to write a biography of this remarkable woman one day, though I was never sure my Italian would be good enough, no matter how many classes I took. Now I have given up that project, but you'll have to excuse me if my entry for today runs even longer than usual.*

Caterina Sforza, as Saint Catherine of Alexandria,
painted by Botticelli, 1475
Caterina Sforza's birth gave no hint of the role she would come to play for a brief time in the tumultuous world of Italian politics. Her name first appeared in a letter from her father, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, to his mother, Bianca Maria Visconti.

In his letter, Galeazzo did not refer to the baby's mother, but she was Galeazzo's mistress, Lucrezia Landriani, wife of Giampietro Landriani. Caterina was the second child Lucrezia bore Galeazzo Maria; she would later have two more. In 1466, when Caterina was three years old, her father became duke of Milan, and she became part of the ducal household.

Two years later, her father married Bona of Savoy; he legitimized Caterina, and his duchess "adopted" her husband's daughter. According to Pier Desiderio Pasolini, the author of an extended biography of Caterina, Bona "loved her as a true daughter, bringing her up with maternal love." 

Caterina's fortunes began to take shape early in 1473 when the ten-year-old girl was betrothed to Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. Between the time of his betrothal and marriage, Girolamo gained possession of the city of Imola, inherited his older brother's wealth, and, more important, became the padrone della barca vaticana ("the captain of the Vatican ship of state")--more prosaically, he became the "designer and executor of papal policies."

When Galeazzo Maria Sforza was assassinated in 1476, the pope and his nephew, eager to protect their relationship with the city of Milan, moved quickly to press forward their alliance with the Sforza family. The fourteen-year-old Caterina was married by proxy to Girolamo in January 1477 and left the ducal palace of Milan to join her new husband in late April; she stopped briefly in the Riario city of Imola, leaving on 13 May. By the end of May, she had arrived in Rome. 

Ernst Breisach, who also wrote a biography of Caterina Sforza, regards her years in Rome as her "apprenticeship in quattrocento politics." While in the papal city the young Caterina observed Girolamo's "partial authorship" of the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici of Florence, witnessed the resulting war that engulfed the Italian states, and benefited from her ambitious husband's acquisition of the strategically located city of Forlì. During this "apprenticeship" period, Caterina provided Girolamo with an heir, managed the Riario estates, and cultivated personal relationships in pursuit of Riario interests, both political and economic. 

Marriage, motherhood, maintaining and manipulating important family relationships and personal contacts: these were the obligations and responsibilities expected of women in her social position. But Caterina's role developed in an unexpected way as a result of her political "apprenticeship." In Pasolini's words, she soon realized that her husband "lacked courage"; in her "bitterness of humiliation," Caterina, as a true "woman of the house of Sforza," was forced to become "ruthless" and "formidable" in her desire to protect her son's future.

To this end, in 1483, Caterina found a new occupation. While helping Girolamo gather arms and men in preparation for a threatened war, Breisach reports that Caterina "soon commanded enormous respect"; she also commanded fear, learning what she could accomplish by her "iron discipline cruelly enforced." Her martial activity seems not only to have stimulated her but to have defined her in some essential way. Within months, the effect of her transformation was evident. 

On 12 August 1484 Sixtus IV died. On hearing the news of the death of his uncle and patron, Girolamo immediately lifted his siege of the city of Paliano, moving quickly toward Rome. Caterina, who had been living near Girolamo and his troops, also headed for Rome; seven months pregnant, she travelled on horseback. While Girolamo was halted outside the city, denied entry, Caterina rode directly to the Castle Sant'Angelo. She entered the fortress, "standing on her reputation," and had the gates closed behind her. There, "very brave," she announced her intention; she would hold the fortress until the election of a new pope. 

Although a woman--and a pregnant woman, at that--she nonetheless compelled admiration and, more important, obedience. A contemporary observer described her: 
Wise, brave, tall, fine-complected, well-made, speaking little, she wore a dress of satin a with train of two-arms' length, a black velvet hat in the French fashion, a man's belt and a purse full of gold ducats, a curved falchion at her side; and among the footsoldiers and the horsemen she was much feared because, when she had a weapon in her hand, she was fierce and cruel. 
When urged to compromise, to leave the fortress to resolve the situation or to allow an advisor entrance to talk with her, she responded that they should know that she had "the brains of Duke Galeazzo," her father--and that she possessed a spirit like his as well. She would not surrender.

Ultimately, of course, she did surrender the castle, but not until 25 August, after her husband had been assured that he would retain his possession of Imola and Forlì. Eleven days after seizing the castle, Caterina left it. About the conclusion of the affair, Breisach remarks, "A virago emerged from the Castel Sant'Angelo where a young gentlewoman had entered only days before." At least in part this assessment of her action seems to reflect the attitudes of Caterina's contemporaries: she challenged notions of appropriate female behavior.

Georgio Vasari's portrait of
Caterina Sforza, 1555
Girolamo's rights to Riario possessions in Romagna were confirmed as promised, but he was plagued by financial difficulties and ill health. As her husband's strength failed, Caterina's seemed to grow. By 1487, when the fortress of Ravaldino was captured by conspirators, the governor of Forlì sent word not to Girolamo but to Caterina. She did not hesitate.

Pregnant once again, she nevertheless mounted a horse and rode from Imola to Forlì. She was refused entrance to Ravaldino at first, but she effected the surrender of the fortress after three days of negotiations. With Ravaldino once more in her possession, she appointed a new castellan, Tommaso Feo. She returned to Imola immediately, once again by horseback. The day after her return, she gave birth to her seventh child.

There was trouble again in Forlì several months later when enemies of the Riario briefly took control of one of the towers of the city. The governor had regained control of the tower before Caterina arrived. This time she came to judge, not to negotiate; Girolamo had delegated his wife to act for him in Forlì. The conspirators were interrogated in her presence, and she had the authority to condemn them or to pardon them. They were condemned, executed in public, their heads displayed as a warning to others who might contemplate rebellion. According to one contemporary chronicler, "This lady left the fortress as true ambassador of the count her husband, and as a lady of great justice," one who had acted "not by force but by reason." 

Several months later Caterina and her family were in residence in Forlì when, on 14 April 1484, Girolamo's enemies stabbed him to death in his own hall after dinner. A horrified witness to the murder ran at once to warn Caterina, who quickly dispatched messengers to her uncle in Milan and to allies in Bologna and sent orders to Tommaso Feo not to surrender the fortress of Ravaldino for any reason. She barricaded herself and her children into her apartments, but the doors eventually gave way, and Caterina was taken prisoner by the conspirators who had assassinated her husband. 

Control of the city was eventually placed in the hands of Giovanni Battista Savelli, papal governor of the nearby city of Cesena. In a meeting he arranged with Caterina, Savelli counseled her to return to Imola and to renounce any claims she might make to Forlì on her son's behalf. Caterina refused Savelli's advice. Twice she was taken by Riario enemies to the walls of Ravaldino where she "ordered" Feo to surrender the castle: "Surrender the fortress to them so that I will not be killed with all my children," she pleaded. "They will assassinate me." But Feo remembered her original message and stood firm. "I will surrender to no one," he replied. Frustrated, one of the men holding Caterina threatened her, pressing the point of his weapon to her chest. She responded "quietly": "Do not try to frighten me--do what you will, but do not try to frighten me, because I am the daughter of one who had no fear."

On 16 April Caterina was taken to the fortress for the third time. This time the castellan indicated that he would surrender--if he could first have a private interview with Caterina inside Ravaldino. Although suspicious, Savelli and the council of the city agreed to the meeting because they still held her children as hostages. Caterina entered the fortress. 

Once inside Ravaldino, Caterina did not return--not at the end of the three hours she had been granted for her meeting with Tommaso Feo, not at the protests of the citizens who had accompanied her, not after her children were dragged crying to the moat surrounding the fortress. What is clear is that Caterina had no intention of surrendering Ravaldino to her enemies. What is less clear is exactly was she said and did once inside.

This portrait by Lorenzo di Credi, c. 1480, is
frequently said to be of Caterina Sforza,
though the identification is not certain
Contemporary accounts indicate that Caterina refused to submit to her husband's assassins. When they threatened to kill her children, held as hostages, she responded that she was pregnant once more, another child already growing inside her body. Within a relatively short time, however, accounts of Caterina's reply to her enemies were transformed, the incident metamorphosing into what Pasolini describes as "the legend of the fortress." Among the earliest of these "legendary" accounts is recorded by Niccolò Machiavelli: 
Some Forlì conspirators killed Count Girolamo, their lord, and took his wife and his children, who were small. Since it appeared to them that they could not live secure if they did not become masters of the fortress, and the castellan was not willing to give it to them, Madonna Caterina (so the countess was called) promised the conspirators that if they let her enter it, she would deliver it to them and they might keep her children with them as hostages. Under this faith they let her enter it. As soon as she was inside, she reproved them from the walls for the death of her husband and threatened them with every kind of revenge. And to show that she did not care for her children, she showed them her genital parts, saying that she still had the mode for making more of them.
Ultimately, the "legend of the fortress" came to include the very words Caterina was supposed to have said as she challenged her enemies. In his account of the incident, for example, the Florentine diplomat and historian Guicciardini reported that, when one of the conspirators threatened her children with a knife, Caterina lifted her skirts and cried out, "And isn't it obvious to you, fools, that I have the body with which to make others?"

Whatever Caterina said and did at that moment on the ramparts of the fortress of Ravaldino, her enemies did not convince her to surrender to them by threatening her children. The stalemate lasted for two weeks. Contemporary chroniclers note the uneasiness of the people of Forlì on 29 April: "And on that day the people started to murmur and to fear and to wonder that the envoys sent to the pope had returned no word and no succor." Sensing the mood of the people, Caterina had messages shot into the city: 
My people, people of Forlì! I tell you to punish and kill all enemies. For it I will consider you my good brothers for evermore. Do not hesitate to act, and fear nothing, because the deed will benefit you and your children. And if you fail to act you will regret it in a few days.
When the conspirators realized that they had lost popular support, they decided to kill the Riario children, perhaps to enrage Caterina, who might be tempted into revenging herself on the people of Forlì, turning them against her. But the guards into whose care the children had been placed refused to turn them over to the conspirators. In desperation, the assassins rode out of the city. The people of Forlì filled the streets, raising cries of "Duca! Duca! Ottaviano! Ottaviano!" But, the chroniclers reported, many of the men and women began to "behave badly," threatening yet another sack of a city that had been in turmoil for two weeks. A voice was heard rising above the crowd, warning them against more violence because "Madonna would not wish it." And, for the "honor of the merciful and kind lady," it was reported, the people did no "evil." To the cries of "Duca! Duca! Ottaviano! Ottaviano!" were added cries of "Duca! Duca! Contessa! Contessa!" 

On 30 April 1488, two weeks after the assassination of her husband Girolamo Riario, Caterina Sforza left the fortress of Ravaldino, where she had taken refuge, and was reunited with her children. She made a triumphal tour of the city of Forlì with her eight-year-old son Ottaviano, Girolamo's heir. Within days her husband's assassins had been hunted down and punished, and Caterina had received a delegation from the citizens of Imola, another Riario possession, reaffirming their loyalty to her and her children. Although she had become the effective ruler of both Imola and Forlì, she herself had no legal right to govern these strategically located Italian cities. In an effort to remedy that situation, Caterina compelled the men of Forlì to swear an oath of allegiance to their "new lord," Ottaviano--and to her as his temporary regent. With her "merciful heart" she gave her thanks to all "as soon as it was possible"--all, that is, but her enemies. Those who had supported the conspirators were hunted down and punished.

To offer his counsel to Caterina, and perhaps to supervise a woman who was not entirely trusted, Cardinal Raffaello Riario, Girolamo's nephew, travelled to Forlì. Also arriving in the city from Milan was an advisor sent by Caterina's uncle, Ludovico Sforza, who had his own reasons for offering to "protect" Ottaviano's interests: He expected to control the city himself. In a letter to Lorenzo de' Medici, one of Ludovico's advisors wrote that "because the Contessa is . . . the sister of the duke [of Milan] and [because] the boy [Ottaviano] is small, it shall fall to us, in the end, to govern that state until he is grown." By August a bull from Rome had also arrived in Forlì, vesting control of Girolamo's possessions in the young Riario heir. The bull named Caterina as Ottaviano's tutrice et curatrice, that is, as his guardian and trustee.

Her triumph was relatively short-lived; within months opinion of Madonna had begun to shift. As the courageous daughter of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, as the loyal wife of Girolamo Riario, and as the strong mother of Ottaviano, Caterina was "very brave," even "merciful and kind." Though she could be "fierce and cruel," her fierceness and cruelty were understood, even approved. As her father's daughter, she represented Sforza interests; as Girolamo's wife, she defended Riario interests; as Ottaviano's mother, she preserved her son's interests. But once she came to power as regent in Imola and Forlì, she seemed to act in her own interests. Accounts of her rule--and of her nature--shift, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. 

Ludovico Sforza, her uncle, disparaged her "disorderly" way of life; the pope ultimately condemned her as a "daughter of iniquity." The events that resulted in such changed attitudes can be narrated fairly briefly. Having established her position in Imola and Forlì, Caterina heeded the advice of both Rafaello Riario and the advisor sent by Ludovico Sforza, pursuing a policy of moderation. She reduced taxes, skillfully avoided being drawn into hostilities between Florence and Milan, and conducted business with the Bentivogli of Bologna, the Este of Ferrara, the Gonzaga of Mantua, and the Orsini of Rome. But these political decisions are not what affected Caterina's reputation. Attitudes toward the regent of Imola and Forlì changed as the result of her sexual behavior, rather than her political abilities. 

Caterina's relationship with Antonio Maria Ordelaffi developed in the summer of 1489, more than a year after her husband's death. The Ordelaffi family had ruled Forlì before the city was handed over to Girolamo Riario, and an alliance with the Ordelaffi might thus seem an acceptable solution for ongoing tensions in Forlì: Caterina was a twenty-six-year-old widow, Antonio Maria the twenty-nine-year-old heir of the Ordelaffi. The prospect of a marriage between the two was celebrated by the people of Forlì. But, in condemning his niece's "disorderly" manner of living, Ludovico Sforza seemed to fear a loss of interest in the strategic city. His letter notes papal interest in the affair; he warns that Innocent VIII (Giovanni Battista Cibo) might remove the city from the Riario and put it in the control of his own son, Franceschetto Cibo. Ultimately, the affair was broken up. In an effort to preserve Riario interests, Cardinal Raffaelo Riario arranged for Ordelaffi's removal from "danger" to safety in Venice.

In 1490 Caterina confounded her critics by consolidating her power--and asserting what Antonia Frasier has called her "sexual freedom of choice." Her first move was against her once-loyal castellan Tommaso Feo, who had helped to effect Ordellafi's removal. On 30 August she entered Ravaldino with Tommaso's younger brother, Giacomo, and her son Ottaviano. Offended by what she called Tommaso's "indecent behavior," she had her castellan arrested. Caterina described what had happened in a letter to the duke of Ferrara: 
Today at the fourteenth hour it was necessary to proceed with all firmness at my disposal against Tommaso Feo who had been my castellan in said fortress and who during all of today has shown an indecent behavior toward me; thus I had to take him prisoner.
The chronicle accounts, including that of the now antagonistic Cobelli, describe the series of events in Ravaldino as entrapment: Caterina entered the fortress dressed provocatively and deliberately lured Feo into her apartment. But in a confidential letter about the incident, the governor of Caterina's city of Imola notes only that Caterina had acted against Tommaso Feo in concert with her new lover, Tommaso's brother Giacomo.

The fortress of Ravaldino, in Forlì
Caterina appointed Giacomo Feo as the new castellan of Ravaldino. In the months that followed, Caterina restored the governing councils of Forlì and relieved the people of the city of an annual tax that supported soldiers who had occupied the city since the assassination of Girolamo in 1488. But Caterina's relationship with Giacomo scandalized her contemporaries. He was despised for his arrogance and hated for his influence over Caterina. Diplomatic reports to Florence indicate that the two shared "one sentiment": "without [his] presence [she] does not speak; in fact, that which Madonnna says Giacomo confirms, and [vice versa]." Indeed, "they will bear any fate, and Madonna will sacrifice her friends and children and property; they will give their souls to the devil and the state to the Turk before abandoning one another or being separated from one another."

In spite of her involvement with Feo and despite the disapproval of her contemporaries, Caterina maintained her control of Imola and Forlì and the neutrality of her cities during the tumultuous events of this same period: a conspiracy against Ottaviano in September 1491, Ludovico's usurpation of power in Milan, and the French invasion of Italy in 1494. Giacomo Feo was brutally assassinated in August of 1495, however, and Caterina's own sons, Ottaviano and Cesare, were among the conspirators. Caterina then revealed that Giacomo had been more than her lover; she had been secretly married to him. Her vengeance against those responsible for Giacomo's death was swift and brutal. Through all the conflict and its aftermath, Caterina survived in power. 

A year after Giacomo's assassination, Caterina's "appetite" once more shocked her contemporaries. In October of 1496 a Milanese diplomat reported to Ludovico Sforza that Caterina planned to marry Giovanni de' Medici. While her proposed alliance with the Medici of Florence might disrupt the delicate balance of power in Italy, the relationship was not discussed in terms of its political implications. Instead, it was reported in terms of Caterina's nature as a woman. The Milanese diplomat reporting Caterina's plan to her uncle Ludovico Sforza wrote that the match was intended "to satisfy her appetite." Venetian officials, too, professed shock at her behavior. While noting that "the nature of the female sex excuses her," the Doge nevertheless condemned her conduct, concluding that her failures and mistakes could not be allowed to continue. 

Ludovico Sforza received a series of letters about his niece and her relationship. Francesco Tranchedini was able to tell the new duke of Milan about the "many caresses" and "great honors" Caterina bestowed on Giovanni, but he failed to sort out the exact nature of their connection. In January 1497, months after he began reporting to Milan, Franchedini sent a third- or fourth-hand account to Ludovico Sforza; a Florentine who was "very familiar" with Giovanni de' Medici had told Giovanni Bentivoglio of Bologna that Giovanni de' Medici had told him he had married Caterina and that they were keeping their marriage secret. Tranchedi closed his letter on a note of frustration: "cursed is the man who trusts in men," he noted, but even more unfortunate, is the man who trusts "in women."

Caterina's political position was a difficult one. It was acceptable for the duke of Milan to take a mistress; it was not acceptable for the lady of Forlì to take a lover. Just as she had kept her marriage with Giacomo Feo secret, she kept the nature of her relationship with Giovanni de' Medici secret: to admit her marriage would be to place her position as regent for Ottaviano in jeopardy. Complicating her effort to maintain secrecy was another pregnancy. Caterina and Giovanni de' Medici were probably married before the birth of their son in April 1498.

Throughout the period of her marriage to Giovanni de' Medici, Caterina fortified her possessions in Imola and Forlì; work on the fortress of Bubano was completed in 1497. She skillfully negotiated her way out of a proposal from the Gonzaga of Mantua for a marital alliance with her son Ottaviano. More difficult to refuse was a proposal for an alliance between Ottaviano and Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Imola and Forlì were papal territories, the pope Caterina's overlord. But Ottaviano's marriage would have necessitated a loss of her position as regent of Imola and Forlì; she would have to relinquish her position in favor of Ottaviano. Caterina avoided the Borgia proposal by claiming that the subject of Ottaviano's marriage would have to be delayed so that the young man could dedicate himself to his preparation as a soldier. 

War also threatened Caterina's position. Florence's effort to regain control of the city of Pisa endangered the strategically located cities of Imola and Forlì; at the outset of the conflict, Venice and Milan cooperated, sending help to the Pisans as they fought against Florence. Eventually, however, their cooperation ended; if Venice attacked Florence directly, Caterina's position in Romagna put her in the middle of the conflict. Although she pleaded her neutrality, Venetian mercenaries raided her territories. She received support--of a kind--from Florence, which granted her citizenship and employed her son Ottaviano as a mercenary. Lodovico Sforza sent an advisor and troops. Caterina wrote to him that "war is not for ladies and children like mine." "If I might be more fearful than [is] desirable," she apologized, "your excellency must ascribe that to my being a lady . . . and thus by nature fearful." 

Given her own past, it is hard to accept her Caterina's characterization of herself as "fearful" by nature. Certainly she was not fearful when she learned that her husband Giovanni's illness, which had kept him from any prominent role in the conflict, had grown more serious. On 15 September she once again undertook an arduous journey on horseback, but she did not reach her husband before he died. Since she had never formally acknowledged her marriage to Giovanni de' Medici, she neither announced the death nor received condolences. Although Venice continued to threaten, soldiers even approaching the city, Forlì ultimately escaped without a direct assault. By spring of 1499 a peace treaty ended the hostilities between Venice and Florence, and Caterina's cities were left in peace. But peace would not remain for long: The French king, Louis XII, invaded Italy. 

Some years earlier, in 1494, Charles VIII of France had invaded Italy, claiming to be the rightful king of Naples. He was encouraged, at least initially, by Ludovico Sforza. In response to the French king's successes, Venice had joined with Ferdinand of Aragon and the Emperor Maximilian to form the League of Venice and to expel the French invaders. After the 1495 battle of Fornovo, Charles had left Italy, but France had not abandoned its ambitions. Charles died in April of 1498, and Louis, his nephew and successor, had his own reasons for invading Italy. On his succession, he claimed title not only to France but to Sicily and to Milan. 

In return for territory in the Po Valley, Venice aligned itself with France; the treaty of Blois was signed in February 1499. To secure papal support, the new French king arranged an advantageous match for the pope's son, Cesare Borgia, with Charlotte d'Albret, a Navarrese princess. Louis also promised to return control of papal possessions--including Imola and Forlì--to Alexander VI. In a papal bull issued on 9 March 1499, Cesare Borgia was invested with the cities of Imola and Forlì along with other papal territories that had been granted to the Riario. The same bull condemned Caterina Sforza as a "daughter of iniquity."

In 1499, then, as the Italian cities prepared for a renewed French invasion, Caterina moved to solidify her alliances. Her support for her uncle in Milan was firm. Her overtures to Lorenzo de' Medici in Florence resulted in a visit from a Florentine envoy on his first diplomatic mission, Niccolò Machiavelli, who met with Caterina three times between 16 July and 24 July. He sent a favorable report back to Florence, recommending payments to her for past services and a new contract for Ottaviano--but Machiavelli was not authorized to grant her what she wanted, assurances of a Florentine alliance. Even so, Caterina maintained contact with Lorenzo de' Medici, negotiating with him over the return of her late husband Giovanni's possessions, over money Lorenzo had borrowed from Caterina and Ottaviano, and over the guardianship of the son she had borne Giovanni.

Although she did not get the alliance with Florence that she had wanted, Caterina still had the support of her uncle in Milan. But by the end of August, Ludovico Sforza had fled from the city, taking refuge with the Emperor Maximilian. In October Louis XII was in Milan. Caterina had not been entirely abandoned; although unable or unwilling to support her openly, Florence did attempt to offer her aid, trying to arrange a treaty for mutual defense for her with, among others, Bologna and Ferrara. The city also offered her refuge; perhaps, at some point in the future, she might be reinstated in her possessions. But Caterina made a different choice. A year earlier, in the letter quoted at the beginning of this chapter, Caterina had written to her uncle in Milan about her intentions: "If I have to lose," she had said, "I want to lose in a manly way." In the event, Caterina did not react in "a manly way": her uncle Lodovico Sforza had already fled, and her kinsman Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, would soon abandon his possessions as well. Unlike these men, Caterina would not flee. Nor would she surrender. 

Instead she prepared the city of Forlì to withstand a siege. She also sent a delegation to Alexander VI requesting a compromise. She may have sent more than letters; it was widely reported that her letters had been treated with a poison intended to kill the pope. The Florentines, who had offered her a refuge, were accused of having aided Caterina; in a papal brief sent to Florence on 21 November 1499, she was again condemned, this time as a "daughter of perdition," for her supposed attempt on Alexander VI's life. 

Despite her preparations and despite her son Ottaviano's efforts to ensure Imola's loyalty, that city surrendered to Cesare Borgia on 25 November without offering any resistance. The fortress of Imola held out for some time, however; the castellan finally surrendered on 11 December. Undaunted, Caterina determined to "show the Borgia that a woman, too, can handle artillery." She sent her son Ottaviano to join her other children in Tuscany and set about final preparations in Forlì, attempting to solidify the citizens' support for her, destroying bridges around the city, and provisioning Ravaldino. She finally withdrew into the fortress with some nine hundred soldiers, advisors, and relatives.

While Caterina was prepared to resist, the citizens of Forlì were not. Despite Caterina's efforts to ensure their loyalty, the citizens decided to surrender to Cesare even before he reached the city. On 18 December a document was sent from Forlì to Cesare offering the city's capitulation; it was signed at once. Cesare Borgia entered the city the next day, 19 December. Although the citizens of Forlì had hoped to avoid the destruction of a siege, their surrender did not, in the end, spare them. Instead, Cesare's troops looted the city. 

Then the siege began. When Christmas came and Caterina had not surrendered, Cesare decided to negotiate with her. On 26 December he stood outside Ravaldino. Caterina appeared on the battlements. Cesare began by reminding her that the fortunes of states were mutable--a safe surrender was better than the risk of battle. If she surrendered, she could be assured of a safe haven in Rome, perhaps even a new state. "Surrender! Surrender then, Madonna!" he implored. 

"Signor duke," Caterina is reported to have replied, "Fortune helps the intrepid and abandons cowards. I am the daughter of a man who did not know fear. Whatever may come, I am resolved to follow the course until death."

A second attempt to negotiate was made the next day. Again Cesare approached the fortress. Again Caterina rejected his offers. A suit from the the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, followed; the pope's envoy assured Caterina of her safety and that of her children, promised to safeguard and return to her her possessions, and offered a yearly pension. These attempts at negotiation, too, were rejected. The siege of Ravaldino began in earnest on 28 December 1499; the fortress finally fell on 11 January 1500.Cesare's revenge was bloody. Before detailing the horrors, Breisach writes, "For thirty-six hours to be one of Caterina's soldiers or subjects caught in the fortress meant to be a victim of the cruelest torture."

Nor was Caterina spared. A French chronicler commented that, despite her "female body" Caterina "showed a masculine courage." But Cesare's revenge for her "masculine" courage was directed toward her female body; she was taken prisoner and raped by her conqueror. Cesare was said to have boasted that Caterina had "defended her fortress better than her virtue." 

Although he possessed both the city and its regent, he had not gained possession of Ottaviano Riario, the heir of Imola and Forlì. Nor could he be assured of his control over the papal territories without Caterina's formal surrender of her son's rights. Cesare maintained possession of Caterina until he completed his Italian conquests and made a triumphal entry into Rome with her late in February. After an attempt at escape, Caterina was imprisoned in the dungeon of the Castel Sant'Angelo; it is grimly ironic that she was defeated and imprisoned in the fortress she herself had once held and from which she had emerged in her first martial and political triumph. Caterina was to be held until she surrendered. Her Riario sons, meanwhile, were less intransigent; Caterina's resistance was an obstacle to their attempts to negotiate new positions and new possessions for themselves. 

Meanwhile, the Medici threatened to take custody of her son by Giovanni de' Medici. On 30 June 1501, after eighteen months of imprisonment, she finally agreed to renounce her rights as regent of Imola and Forlì and promised to remain in Rome under papal supervision. But on 13 July, after reaching an agreement with Florence, Alexander VI agreed to "graciously set free" Caterina Sforza, that "most noble lady . . . whom we had to detain for certain reasons and for some time." 

She spent the rest of her life in Florence, at first trying to regain control of her lost position and possessions. When Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, died in August of 1503, Caterina attempted to regain the cities of Imola and Forlì. She urged Ottaviano to return to Romagna to renewal Riario rule, but her son preferred to remain in Rome, looking instead for a cardinal's hat or a wealthy bride. Despite her ambitions, Imola and Forlì were returned to direct papal rule in 1504.

Caterina spent nearly twelve years in power, from her husband's assassination in April 1488 until the fall of Ravaldino in January of 1500. She lived the last nine years of her life in imprisonment or retirement. She died in Florence on 28 May 1509.

I may have given up on the idea of writing my own biography of Caterina Sforza--but in 2012, Elizabeth Lev published The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza di' Medici (not quite sure why her name is given as Riario Sforza, but . . . )


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church

Catherine of Siena (died 29 April 1380)


Catherine of Siena,
Chapel of Catherine of Siena,
Basilica San Domenico
One of the most active and acclaimed women in Christianity, Catherine di Benincasa was born in the Tuscan city of Siena in 1347, during the midst of the plague. Her father was a tradesman, a cloth dyer, while her mother, Lapa Piagenti, may have been the daughter of a local poet.

As one of twenty-five children, Catherine was described by her first biographer as both a delightful, merry child and one who experienced visions that would transform her life. By the age of five, six, or seven (accounts vary), she had decided to devote herself to a life of perpetual virginity and to give her life to God.

Although her parents wished her to live a more "normal" life for a girl of her class--they wanted her to marry--by age sixteen Catherine was allowed to join the third order of the Dominicans (for a discussion of tertiary orders, click here).

Throughout her short life (she died at the age of thirty-three), Catherine of Siena continued to experience visions, including a "mystical espousal" (the infant Jesus offers her a wedding band) and a vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven.

She left the cell  in which she had, at first, isolated herself in order to devote herself to caring for the sick and the poor; she eventually undertook a more public role, advocating clerical reform, urging the return of the papacy to Rome, and taking up her pen to write a series of letters to a wide range of men and women, from kings to poor, troubled souls who wrote to her with their questions and requests for help. 

Catherine of Siena is a complex, sometimes off-putting character. Despite pleas for peace in Europe, she called for a new crusade to the Holy Land. She practiced extremes of self-denial and penance--her refusal to eat led to her early death, for example, and she was disappointed that she escaped assassination during the Ciompi riots in Florence in 1377 because she was denied martyrdom. She "received" the stigmata, and she is said to have levitated. She practiced flagellation, endured extended periods of ecstatic rigidity, put sticks in her throat to make herself throw up, and drank the puss of her patients' sores.

She also wrote: over 400 letters, a treatise, The Dialogue of Divine Providence, and a group of prayers composed during the final year of her life. 

The sarcophagus of Catherine of Siena,
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome
Catherine of Siena was buried in Rome, where she died--today you can see her remains in a remarkable tomb in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. Her head and thumb, however, were removed to Siena, to the Basilica San Domenico. She was canonized on 19 June 1461.

In 1970, Catherine of Siena was declared one of the Doctors of the Church--by that date, some thirty men had been recognized as significant theologians by the Catholic Church, but in 1970, two women were added to that number, Catherine of Siena and Theresa of Ávila, (Saint Thérèse of Lisieux was named a Doctor of the Church in 1997, Hildegard of Bingen in 2012.)

Relics of Catherine of Siena,
Basilica San Domenico, Siena
All of her letters are available online in an English translation (you can access them by clicking here or here). They are also available in print, of course, in numerous editions, as is her Dialogue. Editions of the first biography of Catherine of Siena, written by Raymond of Capua, are also widely available. (Capua was her spiritual director--he completed his life of Catherine in the mid-1380s.)

Some of the most interesting work on Catherine of Siena analyzes the meaning of her extreme physical deprivation. Jennifer Egan's 1999 essay, "Power Suffering," is a good place to start. I also recommend Rudolph Bell's 1985 Holy Anorexia and Caroline Walker Bynum's 1988 classic, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Marie Souvestre: An Inspiration to Eleanor Roosevelt

Marie Souvestre (born 28 April 1830)


An important influence on the intellectual development of many young women, Marie Souvestre founded two important boarding schools, Les Ruches, in Fountainebleu, France, in 1863, and Allenswood Academy, outside London, in 1870--in their own way, each of Souvestre's schools served as a "city of ladies," helping shape young girls into independent, forward-thinking young women.

Marie Souvestre, c. 1900
Among her many pupils who went on themselves to shape the futures of young women is Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a pupil at Allenswood Academy from 1899 to 1902. According to the brief essay on Marie Souvestre posted at the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, Souvestre's independence of mind, intellectual accomplishment, and "commitment to human justice" inspired Roosevelt, who wrote, observing the model of Souvestre, "I think I came to feel that the underdog was always the one to be championed."

In addition to Roosevelt, Souvestre's pupils included Dorothy Strachey Bussy, whose novel Olivia included a fictionalized account of her education at Les Ruches; the American Natalie Clifford Barney, an openly lesbian writer and activist who established a female academy, L'Academie des Femmes; and her younger sister, Laura Clifford Barney, a teacher and activist who represented the International Council of Women at the League of Nations.

Souvestre is also an important figure in gay and lesbian history--she founded Les Ruches with her partner, Caroline Dussaut. After a break in their relationship and her relocation to England, Paolina Samaïa, who taught Italian at Allenswood Academy, became Souvestre's long-term partner.

There is a biography of Marie Souvestre, though it is in French--but you can easily order David Steel's Marie Souvestre: (1835-1905): Pédagogue pionnière et féministe from Amazon if that is not a deterrent. Otherwise the essay I've linked to, above, is a good start, if brief. Otherwise, information about Marie Souvestre seems to be most readily found in biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt, at least for American readers and/or English speakers.

Dorothy Strachey's fictionalized account of Marie Souvestre and Les Ruches, Olivia, considered a classic in lesbian literature, is available in print and in a Kindle edition.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Aelia Eudoxia, "Abnormally Willful"

Aelia Eudoxia, Byzantine empress (married 27 April 395)


Although very little is certain about Eudoxia's early life, whether she is of Frankish descent, as some claim, or of Roman descent, as still others insist, she was clearly "barbarian" or "semi-barbarian" in the eyes of her contemporaries. (Her father may or may not have been the Frankish officer Flavius Bauto, a military commander in the late Roman Empire and mentioned as a consul in 385; nothing is known of Eudoxia's mother.) 

A gold solidus from 400-402,
bearing the image of Aelia Eudoxia
Theodosius, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, died on 17 January 395. Three months later, on 27 April, Arcadius, the son and heir of Theodosius, married Eudoxia. Why Arcadius chose Eudoxia as his bride is just one other unknown, about which there is even more speculation--according to one story, she was just so beautiful that he couldn't resist. (The name "Aelia" is used by Byzantine empresses, as a tribute to Aelia Flavia Flacilla, the honored wife of Theodosius I.)

Her marriage raised Eudoxia to the rank of empress. Now Aelia Eudoxia, she lived fewer than ten years, but during that time, she fulfilled her "natural" and political role admirably, producing seven children, five of whom survived infancy, including a son, Theodosius, born in 401, who would succeed his father as emperor. 

Aelia Eudoxia proved also to be an influential empress. Although much of the blame laid on her for her role in court politics may have been misplaced, she did involve herself personally and energetically in church affairs, which brought her into conflict with John Chrysostom, the patriarch of Constantinople, who railed against her as Herodias: "again Herodias rages," he preached in a famous sermon, "again she dances, again she seeks to have the head of John on a plate." (Herodias still generates a great deal of spleen--check out this invective-filled essay from Bible Gateway.)

Aelia Eudoxia was also condemned as Jezebel, and it was suggested when her son was born that Arcadius was not his father--that he was the result of Aelia Eudoxia's affair with a member of the court at Constantinople. And then, of course, there is the dreadful charge that she was "arrogant," that there was in her "no little insolence," and that she was "abnormally willful."

Aelia Eudoxia, given the title of "Augusta" after the birth of her third child (a daughter), died in 404. When Arcadius died in 408, his seven-year-old son became Theodosius II, but in 414, Eudoxia's eldest surviving daughter, Pulcheria, then fifteen, declared herself as his regent--we will meet this remarkable woman later in the year on the Fourth of July!).

There is an excellent chapter on Aelia Eudoxia Augusta in Kenneth Holum's Theodosian Empresses: Women and Imperial Dominion in Late Antiquity. An excellent essay by Wendy Mayer is posted online.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mary Arden, Shakespeare's Mother

Mary Arden Shakespeare (son baptized 26 April 1564)


We don't know exactly when Mary Arden, William Shakespeare's mother, was born--it may have been as early as 1537, which is the date many sources suggest, though she may have been born as late as 1540. She had eight children between 1558 and 1580. Her third child (and first son) was William--and although we don't know his date of birth either, we do know William Shakespeare was baptized on 26 April 1564, and so I've used that date for this post about his mother, Mary.

We know Mary Arden was the daughter of Robert Arden and his wife Agnes Webbe Hill (Agnes was the widow of John Hill). While the Arden family had a long and distinguished history, Robert Arden himself was not a member of the wealthy and distinguished Arden line--but neither was he impoverished. He was a prosperous man, and his marriage to Agnes enhanced his holdings. When he died in 1556, he left his daughter, Mary, money and land. Mary Arden was also one of the executors of her father's will, which may provide some clue about her age--if she had been born in 1540, she would have been very young to be an executor; a birth in 1537 would have made her about age nineteen.

We don't know exactly when Mary Arden married John Shakespeare, but it was probably in 1557, shortly after her father's death. Her first child, a daughter named Margaret, was baptized in Stratford on 15 September 1558. 

Mary Arden's family may have been Catholic (several recent biographers, notably Stephen Greenblatt, suggest Robert Arden and his family were Catholic). In his biography of Shakespeare, Greenblatt notes that Mary signed legal documents with a mark, which suggests she could probably not write (though neither could her husband, John, who also signed with a mark). Not being able to write didn't necessarily mean that Mary Arden couldn't read, but we don't know. 

Plague broke out in Stratford shortly after William was born--in her biography of Ann Hathaway, the woman who married Shakespeare, Germaine Greer notes, "We can only imagine Mary's terror for her newborn son." Greenblatt speculates too: "Perhaps Mary Shakespeare packed up and took her newborn to the country for several months, away from the pestiferous streets."

We don't know what Mary Arden thoughts were about her husband's downwardly mobile career--in particular about his mortgaging of part of her inheritance in 1578, the sale of some of her property, or his loss of still more her property in 1580, when he failed to repay debts for which the property had been collateral. 

We don't know what she thought of her son's marriage in 1582, or how she regarded her husband's legal actions throughout the rest of the decade of the 1580s. 

We don't know if Mary Arden was at the funeral of her grandson, Shakespeare's son Hamnet, who died in 1596 and was buried on 11 August.

We don't know if she was at the marriage of her granddaughter, Shakespeare's daughter Susanna, on 5 June 1607.

We don't know if she was at the burial of her youngest son, Edward, who was buried on 31 December 1607.

We don't know when Mary Arden died, though her funeral was in September of 1608. We don't know whether Shakespeare left London and attended the funeral in Stratford--there is no evidence for it, though according to Greer, "most scholars" agree he was there "mainly because they think he should have" been there.

Mary Arden did not leave a will.

The house that was long regarded as Mary Arden's house--a large and beautiful timbered frame house visited by thousands and thousands of tourists over the decades since it was bought by the Shakespeare Trust in 1930--is not Mary Arden's house. In 2000 it was correctly identified as a farmhouse owned by Adam Palmer. The actual childhood home of Mary Arden, smaller and much less picture-postcard-worthy, is next door.

There is no biography of Mary Arden. And there is no portrait.

This is not Mary Arden's house.


The newly identified home of Mary Arden










Saturday, April 25, 2015

Anna Sewell, Mother of the Pony Book

Anna Sewell (died 25 April 1878)


Anna Sewell, c. 1878
Although she only published one book in her lifetime, Anna Sewell made sure that one book counted: Black Beauty, written in the last years of her life, when she was an invalid, was published in 1877.

In 2008, The Times reported that fifty million copies of Black Beauty were in print.

Cover of 1877 edition of Black Beauty
And, as an additional note for today: Anna Sewell's mother, Mary Wright Sewell (1797-1884) was herself a writer of fiction for children. 

For a biography of Anna Sewell, you might enjoy Adrienne Gavin's Dark Horse: A Life of Anna Sewell. There are many editions of Black Beauty available, in a wide array of formats, from hardcover and paperback to electronic versions. If you are interested in looking at works by Mary Wright Sewell, a quick look at Google Books will show several available titles.


A title page of Black Beauty,
from a copy owned by Anna Sewell's
mother, Mary Wright Sewell



Friday, April 24, 2015

Hatshepsut, "Foremost of Noble Ladies"

Hatshepsut (assumes regency, 24 April 1479 BCE)


When I was in elementary school, I wanted passionately to be an Egyptologist, although I am not sure I knew that word at the time. I dreamed about pyramids, the Sphinx, and King Tutankhamun. I wanted to spend my life on digs, making fabulous discoveries.

I never fulfilled that long-ago dream, obviously, but I wonder now if I might have devoted myself to Egyptian studies if I had known about Hatshepsut. 

A sculpture of Hatshepsut,
Metropolitan Museum of Art
I can't remember now when I first learned about the powerful female pharoah, but, then, Hatshepsut was erased from history's memory for thousands of years. She reigned from approximately 1479 to 1458 BCE, at first as a regent for Thurmose III, but eventually as co-ruler with him, and, more importantly, as the dominant partner.

Her reign was peaceful and economically prosperous. After her death, however, every effort was made to eliminate all traces of Hatshepsut--her name was removed from official records, her images were defaced, her statues were torn down.

For more than three thousand years, Hatshepsut--or, rather, knowledge of her--was gone. In the early nineteenth century, the groundbreaking French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion, was "confused" by references to her that he discovered on the Deir el-Bahri temple walls. Through the next decades, historians continued to misread or misinterpret references to her, but in 1845 the Prussian archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius finally identified the presence of a "female Egyptian king," though he assigned her period of rule to the seventeenth, rather than the eighteenth, dynasty. It wasn't until 1875 that Hatshepsut and her "titles and principal monuments" were fully restored and correctly identified in Egyptian archaeology.

Hatshepsut's sarcophagus was discovered by Howard Carter in 1903. In 1927, the American archaeologist Herbert Winlock discovered a pit at the Deir el-Bahri temple site filled with smashed sculpture--pieces of Hatshepsut. For Winlock and his colleagues, the destruction "proved" that Egyptians "could scarcely wait to take the vengeance on her dead that he had not dared in life." 

Hatshepsut's beautiful colonnaded mortuary temple
at Deir el-Bahri

Most historians today do not regard the erasure of Hatshepsut as an act of personal hatred; rather, as Egyptologist Peter Dorman argues, the reign of a female pharoah may have been regarded as "a dangerous precedent," one that was "best erased" in order "to prevent the possibility of another powerful female ever inserting herself into the long line of Egyptian male kings."

There is an excellent article on Hatshepsut (one in which Dorman is quoted) published in the online version of Smithsonian; titled "The Queen Who Would Be King," you can access it by clicking here. A Discovery Channel documentary, with the same title, is available on YouTube; to link to it, click here.

There are several good biographies, but I like Joyce Tyldesley's Hatchepsut: The Female Pharoah. There is also a wonderful discussion of Hatshepsut available by podcast from BBC radio's In Our Times; you can listen by clicking here. Also on the site are links to related programs and a great reading list.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Gaspara Stampa: "Love Has Made Me Live in Ceaseless Fire"

Gaspara Stampa (died 23 April 1554)


Gaspara Stampa was born in Padua, probably in 1523, and although online sources suggest that the Stampa family did not have much social status, Stampa's recent editors and translators, Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lillie, make it clear that her father, Bartolomeo, was a member of "a noble Milanese family," though one "in decline," and that her mother Cecilia, too, was from "a good family."

After Bartolomeo's death, Cecilia Stampa relocated the family to Venice. There Gaspara was well educated, learning Greek, Latin, and rhetoric, reading excellent literature, and studying music. More importantly, the Stampa home became a place of notable series of conversazioni ("conversations")--literary and musical ridotti, or salons, attended by notable writers, philosophers, scholars, and musicians.

A 1554 drawing of Gaspara Stampa
Gaspara and her sister, Cassandra, were both noted for their musical talents--Gaspara sang and excelled at the lute--but it is as a poet she is now best remembered. Inspired by a love affair, Stampa produced a cycle of sonnets in the Petrarchan model. 

The sonnets in Stampa's sequence reverse the Petrarchan model--Stampa is no silent, elusive object of desire like Petrarch's Laura. Instead, the fictionalized "Gaspara" becomes the lover--we hear her voice and experience her emotions; the male object of her desire is silent.

When Gaspara Stampa died, she was just thirty-one years old. Although her poems circulated among readers in her lifetime, only three of them were published, in poetic anthologies, before her death. Gaspara's collected sonnets, Rime, were published posthumously. 

I recommend Stortoni and Lillie's Gaspara Stampa: Selected Poems, a bilingual edition, with Italian and English on facing pages. More expensive but containing all of Stampa's work is Troy Tower and Jane Tylus's Gaspara Stampa: The Complete Poems.

If you'd like to work with the Italian originals, you will find an electronic text at the Italian Women Writers website.

The first sonnet in the 1554 edition
of Rime.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Emily Davies: A College of Her Own

Sarah Emily Davies (born 22 April 1830)


The pioneering English feminist and suffragist Emily Davies was born on this date in 1830. The daughter of a clergyman and educated informally at home, Davies went on to become one of the foremost advocates of women's education, in particular of opening universities to women.

An 1880 portrait of Emily Davies
In 1869, Davies and a few colleagues opened a college for women at Hitchin (in Hertfordshire). In 1873, the institution, Girton College, moved to Cambridge. But unlike Oxford, which admitted women fully to the university in 1920, Cambridge did not accept women’s "full membership" in the university until 1948; formal efforts to admit women to the university were defeated in 1887, 1897, and again, after World War I, in 1920.

The very question of granting young women Cambridge degrees was deemed so offensive, in fact, that the protests of male students in 1897 resulted in significant property damage.

Celebrating their exclusion of women in 1920, male undergraduates destroyed the college gates at Newnham. (The gates memorialized Anna Jemima Clough, an English suffragist who was the first principal of Newnham when it opened to house women attending a series of lectures "for ladies" at Cambridge.)

Davies died in 1921, long before Cambridge women could earn degrees. Nor was she alive in October 1928, when Virginia Woolf delivered a pair of lectures on women and fiction that would be published a year later as A Room of One's Own.

An excellent biography, Barbara Nightingale Stephens's 1976 Emily Davies and Girton College is still in print, and used copies are also available. Davies's 1866 The Higher Education of Women is also available.

It is also easy to find out about Davies and Girton College at the college's website.

Girton College today

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Charlotte Brontë, English Novelist

Charlotte Brontë (born 21 April 1816)


Today is the birthday of novelist Charlotte Brontë, best known for her 1847 Jane Eyre, published under a male pseudonym, Currer Bell. 

An 1854 photograph of Charlotte Brontë
About the difficulties women faced when publishing their work, and the decision of Charlotte and her two sisters to use male pseudonyms, Brontë wrote, 
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called "feminine"—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.
Before her death in 1855, Brontë published two additional novels, Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853); The Professor, which had been written before Jane Eyre, was published posthumously (1857). 

A volume of poetry, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, was published in 1846.

There are more resources available than I could possibly list here, so I'll just include a link to the Bronte Parsonage Museum, a good place to start. Well, I suppose the best place to start is with the novels themselves--there are many editions, print and electronic. Sit down today and read!


Monday, April 20, 2015

Damaris Masham, English Philosopher

Damaris Cudworth Masham (died 20 April 1708)


The daughter of a Cambridge philosopher, Damaris Cudworth (born in 1659) would herself become a philosopher. Although she eventually learned Latin, her father did not provide her with the kind of education, in particular the study of Greek and Latin, that a son might have received. She did, however, have the advantage of exposure to philosophical discussion and the advantage of making the acquaintance of the philosopher John Locke, probably when she was in her early twenties, around 1682. It was a deep and intimate friendship that was important to her development as a philosopher in her own right.

Oates, the Masham home.
Married in 1685 to Sir Francis Masham, a widower with eight children (Masham added a son to the household), Damaris Masham might have been expected to set aside her scholarly interests for purely domestic concerns, but she did not do so. Instead, in she continued her correspondence with Locke, and in 1691, the aging philosopher came to live in Oates, at the home of Sir Francis and Lady Masham. 

Damaris Masham published her first work (anonymously), A Discourse Concerning the Love of God, in 1696, her second, Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Virtuous or Christian Life, in 1705 (also published anonymously). After Locke's death, she also wrote a biography of the philosopher.

In addition to her printed work, Masham's correspondence not only with Locke but with the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz reveals her own philosophical reasoning and positions. 

According to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Masham's views reflected those of Locke, but she was not entirely a slavish disciple, incorporating as well philosophical ideas developed by the Cambridge Platonists and of her father, Ralph Cudworth:
Lady Masham held that morality is founded in reason and the freedom to act. They [Locke and the Cambridge Platonists] also agree that the end of ethics is human happiness, and that the exercise of virtue requires a right disposition of mind. While she is closer to Locke in epistemology, on ethics, she is closer to Cudworth than Locke on account of her acceptance that moral principles exist independently as part of the nature of things, her belief in free will and in her anti-voluntarism.
In addition to these philosophical traditions, Masham incorporated her own emerging feminist ideas, in particular arguing against a double-standard that viewed women as less rational than men and her arguments in favor of education for women.

Masham is buried in Bath Abbey.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Kathrine Switzer: "Run, Kathy, Run!"

Kathrine Switzer (ran the Boston Marathon, 19 April 1967)


On 19 April 1967, Kathy Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a "numbered" entry--women were not allowed to compete officially in the race in 1967 (women were first allowed to register and compete five years later).

Switzer registered for the race as "K. Switzer." Race officials tried to block Switzer and get her off the course--the photos are amazing!

Switzer finished the race. 

You can read her account of the race and check up on her life and career at Kathrine Switzer: Marathon Woman.

(Roberta Gibb, "Bobbi," was the first woman to run the marathon, in 1966, when she jumped into the race. She was running again in 1967, though not with an official number.)





Update: Fifty years after her first run in the Boston Marathon, Kathy Switzer ran--and finished--the race in Boston. In 2017, almost half of those who ran were women: 14,112 of the 30,741 runners who started the race were female. Of the women who entered, 94.5% finished. 

As for Kathy Switzer, she wore the same number, 261, she had in that 1967 race. Here she is, crossing the finish line (at age 70):


"It’s a phenomenal social revolution, and it has happened in my lifetime,” Switzer told Outside Magazine. “To be there in Boston to celebrate that moment, the place where it all began, is extremely gratifying and validating.”

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Isotta Nogarola: Finding a Place in the "Republic of Letters"

Isotta Nogarola (letter to Damiano del Borgo dated 18 April 1439/40)


Isotta Nogarola was born in the northern Italian city of Verona, probably in 1418.* After the death of her father, Leonardo Nogarola, Nogarola’s mother, Bianca Borromeo, made sure that not only her sons but her daughters were carefully educated; Isotta and her older sister Ginevra were tutored by the humanist scholar Martino Rizzoni. But at the age when most women were either married or became nuns, Nogarola chose a different “career” for herself: she decided on a life of scholarship.

A seventeenth-century "portrait"
of  Isotta Nogarola
Her first letters, from 1434-35, were addressed to family and friends, but the circle was widened as Isotta Nogarola engaged in a literary dialogue with scholars, educators, and statesmen. A letter to one of these correspondents, Damiano dal Borgo, dated 18 April 1439 or 1440, is used as the occasion for today's post.    
Like Nogarola, dal Borgo was from Verona, but he was living in Venice (Nogarola and her family would relocate to Venice in 1439). Between the years 1438 and 1441, the two exchanged letters, and a series of eighteen letters to dal Borgo from Nogarola survives.

In one of his early letters to her, dal Borgo had made a slighting remark about the talkativeness of women. In response, on 18 April, Nogarola writes, “I learned from [your letter] that you trust the words of our comic poet who claims a silent woman has never been found in any age.” Nogarola is “disturbed,” as she says, for two reasons: first, “because you were writing to me when you surely knew I would take offense,” and second, “because night and day you are reading about how many women surpass not only other women but also men in every kind of virtue and excellence and, we claim, in eloquence.” 

To refute dal Borgo’s slighting remark, Nogarola writes a brief history of women, including women noted for their eloquence (Cornelia, Camilla, and Sappho, for instance), but also, and more particularly, women who had earned their reputation by means of their accomplishments in battle and in government. Here she mentions the Amazons, who “increase[d]” their republic without men. The Amazons had “subdue[d] the greater part of Europe” and “occup[ied] a number of cities in Asia,” she reminds dal Borgo, and all “without men.” These women were “powerful . . . in their knowledge and virtue in war.”

As her recent editors note, Nogarola does not indicate any familiarity with the work of her slightly older contemporary, Christine de Pizan. Nor does she mention any other female contemporaries when she drew up her catalogue of women worthies, perhaps anxious about establishing herself as a humanist scholar; for whatever reasons, her “famous” women are all drawn from the mythological and historical past.

And although she characterizes herself in a way that is remarkably similar to Pizan’s opening scene in The City of Ladies—Nogarola writes about receiving her scholarly visitors in her libraria cella, her “little library”—she is not interested in constructing a republic for womankind, as Pizan was, at least figuratively. Nogarola’s interest is in finding a place for herself in the res publica litterarum, in the humanist republic of letters.

A 1497 woodcut, showing Isotta Nogarola
in her "book-lined cell"
Nogarola is also known for her spirited entry into the humanist debate about women in On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Adam and Eve, from 1451.

In this epistolary debate, Nogarola writes herself as “Isotta” and her “adversary,” Ludovico Foscarini, the friend she was debating, as “Ludovico.” Her work represents “the first work of its kind in European literature,” her editors note, one which moved beyond the relative sin of Adam and Eve to a larger discussion of gender; thus Nogarola’s dialogue “stands among the founding works of the controversy on gender and the nature of woman (the querelle des femmes) that persisted on the continent and in England until the end of the eighteenth century.”

On the life and “career” choice of Isotta Nogarola, I recommend Margaret L. King and Diana Robin's Complete Writings: Letterbook, Dialogue on Adam and Eve, Orations

According to King and Robin, Nogarola’s works were “published” in her lifetime by the circulation of copies; she herself “copied out and collected her letters to assemble them for publication in a bound manuscript volume." Some of her works are also “embedded in humanist miscellanies.” Her collected works were not published until the nineteenth century. 

*Portions of this post are adapted from Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe.