Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Are Women Human? Not According to a Majority of the U. S. Supreme Court

Are Women Human? Nope (draft opinion of Supreme Court leaked, 2 May 2022)

Protestors outside the U. S. Supreme Court,
Tuesday, 2 May 2022
photo by Reuters

For the last few weeks, I've been madly updating a recent post about women's status as autonomous human beings while more and more states moved to strip women of their ability to control their own bodies--you can read it here

But, to the question that has been asked for millennia--are women human?--it now seems that the U. S. Supreme Court has decided, "Nah."

For the story, from Politico, click here.

For the leaked draft opinion, click here

Welcome to Gilead.

Protestors outside the U. S. Supreme Court,
Tuesday, 2 May 2022
photo by Reuters

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Amalasuintha of Italy, "An Ill-Fated Gothic Queen"

Amalasuintha of Italy, regent and queen of the Goths (assassinated 30 April 535)

Theodoric, son of an Amali nobleman, spent much of his childhood in Constantinople, a hostage to ensure the Goths kept to the terms of a negotiated peace settlement. He spent ten years at the imperial court, where he was well cared for and educated. By the time Theodoric returned home as a well-educated young prince, his father had become king of the of the Ostrogoths--and Theodoric had an empire of his own to gain.

Detail of a contemporary ivory diptych (c. 530)
showing Amalasuintha (r) and her son,
flanking a cross
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
Taking up arms immediately upon his return, Theodoric fought in the Balkans, defeating rival forces in territories that had been under his uncle's rule. After his father's death, Theodoric succeeded him as king of the Ostrogoths in 475. 

Two decades later, he was made king of Italy, and after defeating the Visigoths in Spain, Theodoric was then recognized as king of the Visigoths. 

He also managed to gain control over the Goths in the Balkans, in Germanic Burgundy, and the kingdom of the Vandals, eventually ruling over a significant part of what had been the Western Roman Empire. He also turned his attention to the Eastern Roman Empire, eventually threatening the city where he had spent much of his youth.

Successful in gaining an empire, Theodoric was less successful in planning for its continuation. Without a son, the seventy-two-year-old Theodoric named his grandson Athalric, a boy of about ten years old, to succeed him. 

Athalric was the son of Theodoric's daughter Amalasuintha--one of a remarkable number of women of the Amali dynasty who surrounded Theodoric. A

In his discussion of "the Gothic queens of Italy," Massimiliano Vitiello notes that "the female part of the royal family in Ostrogothic Italy deserves special attention." Among the notable female members of the Amali dynasty are Theodoric's sister, Amalafrida, who became queen of the Vandals in a marriage arranged by her brother, and Amalafrida's daughter, Amalaberga, who was married into the Thuringian family and whose husband became co-ruler in Thuringia.* Amalafrida's granddaughter, Theodonantha, about whom little is known, is nevertheless believed to have been the author of a poem showing "remarkable literary ability" that has survived in fragments. 

But it is Amalasuintha of Italy who is most widely recognized for her virtue, knowledge, diplomacy, and political role in the sixth century.

Probably born in Ravenna in 495, Amalasuintha was the only child of Theodoric and his wife, Audofleda--who was the sister of Clovis, queen of the Franks. After his defeat of the various Gothic kingdoms, Theodoric had sought an alliance with the Franks, and his marriage with Audofleda took place about the year 493.

(At about the same time as this marriage, Theodoric used his two older daughters, both born while he was in the Balkans, to secure additional political alliances. The older of the two was Theodegotha, who was married c. 493 to Alaric II, king of the Goths, the younger was Ostrogotho, who was married c. 494-96 to Sigismund, king of the Burgundians. The identity of the mother of Theodoric's two older daughters is unknown--Latin sources differ about whether this unknown woman was Theodoric's wife or concubine.)

Contemporary ivory diptych (c. 530)
showing Amalasuintha (r) and her son,
flanking a cross
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
In the palace at Ravenna, Amalasuintha received an excellent (Roman) education--she was trained in grammar and rhetoric, "the nurse and mother of the liberal arts," and learned both Latin and Greek (in addition to Gothic and Frankish). But her qualities went beyond mastery of language and literature--she was equally imbued with Roman virtues of chastity and modesty, and would later be described as "the most wisest of women." (According to Vitiello, Amalasuintha's teachers seems to have included the Roman noblewoman Barbara.) 

In 515, Amalasuintha was married to an Ostrogothic prince from Iberia who was, like Theodoric (and Amalasuintha), a member of the Amal dynasty. Theodoric's presumed heir, Eutharic became a consul under the Emperor Justinian in 519--but by 522, he was dead, leaving behind a son, Athalaric (b. 516) and a daughter, Matasuintha (b. c. 1517, Matasuintha is another of the notable women of the Amali dynasty--Vitiello describes the praises of her upon the occasion of her marriage to the king of the Goths in 536).

In 526, Theodoric died, succeeded on the throne by Amalsuintha's son. Since Athalaric was just ten years old, Amalsuintha assumed the regency. For a woman, political authority was always difficult to maintain, even in the best of circumstances. For Amalsuintha, the task was extremely fraught:
The military values of the Gothic world were insufficient to govern the complex reality of Italy, where Roman culture still pulsed in the cities. In Rome, the Senate was still politically active. . . . In the east, clouds were gathering, as the imperial couple Justinian and Theodora dreamt of a reconquest of the western kingdoms.
While the Goths might recognize women's roles in achieving and maintaining political alliances and they might accept them as important counselors for their husbands, they had no tradition of female rulers. In Rome, there was a recognition of the tradition of female regents--but, while Amalasuintha's regency was welcomed, she was still regarded as a barbarian. As Vitello notes, "Many Roman subjects, particularly members of the Italic aristocracy or of the Roman Senate, disdained a Gothic culture that seemed to them inferior." They may have "welcomed" her role as a regent for her son, "perhaps understanding it in light of the legacy of powerful Byzantine empresses," but "in the Italy of the two peoples, this experiment was something very new, and Amalasuintha­­, a Gothic queen with a Roman education, belonged to both worlds, and to neither."

Despite the difficulties of her position, Amalasuintha retained her role until her son's death in 534, after which she took on a new role as queen of the Ostrogoths. After a year as queen regnant, she named her cousin, Theodohad  (Amalafrida's son), as co-ruler. Although Amalasuintha seems to have intended to keep the reins of power in her own hands, using her male co-ruler to bolster her own position, her effort soon failed.

Within a short time, Theodohad had engineered Amalasuintha's fall and, ultimately, her death. She was imprisoned on the island of Martana (in Lake Bolsena). On 30 April 535, she was assassinated, murdered in her bath.**

The scholar Cassiodorus, who was one of Theodoric's administrative officials, would write of her, "Happy the commonwealth which boasts the guidance of such a mistress. It was not enough that already liberty and convenience were combined for the multitude . . .: her merits have secured the fitting reverence for the person of the Sovereign." (Ironically, he puts this assessment into the mouth of Theodohad! For his own extravagant praise of Amalasuintha, in a letter to the Roman Senate, click here and scroll down to Letter 1).

For the historian Procopius, who write at the court of Justinian, Amalasuintha had surpassed the weaknesses of her sex; displaying "extraordinary masculine bearing" and her "masculine nature," she had overcome those who had threatened her son. But, despite her virtue and strength in this unusual circumstance, even this exceptional woman was defeated in the end.

A much later, imagined "portrait"
of Amalasuintha--which I like
just because of the great headgear
(Austrian National Library)
Almost all the current work on Amalasuintha is by Massimiliano Vitiello. I have already linked here to three of his online pieces, "'Nourished at the breast of Rome': The Queens of Ostrogothic Italy and the Education of the Roman Elite," Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 149: 398-412 (click here), "Amalasuintha: The Transformation of Queenship in the Post-Roman World," Ancient Jew Review (click here), and "Amalasuintha: Woman Ruler of a Divided People," University of Pennsylvania Press's Penn Press Log (click here). Vitiello has also published a full-length study, Amalasuintha: The Transformation of Queenship in the Post-Roman World. 

The phrase "an ill-fated Gothic queen," used in the title of this post, comes from Marcelle Thiébaux's The Writings of Medieval Women: An Anthology. In addition to including four letters attributed to Amalasuintha, Thiébaux presents an excellent biographical overview of the queen's life and her political role.

Several biographies of Theodoric and histories of the Goths also contain accounts of Amalasuintha, including Thomas Hodgkin's 1891 Theodoric the Goth: The Barbarian Champion of Civilisation (click here), Henry Bradley's 1891 The Story of the Goths: From the Earliest Times to the End of the Gothic Dominion in Spain (click here and go to Chapter XX), and Herwig Wolfram's The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples, trans. Thomas Dunlap (click here for limited access). 

Also very useful for its analysis of Amalasuintha and gender is Michael Edward Stewart's The Soldier’s Life: Martial Virtues and Hegemonic Masculinity in the Early Byzantine Empire (click here).

*We have met Hermanfrid, Amalaberga's husband, before--he killed his brother and co-ruler, taking his niece, Radegund, home to be raised by Amalaberga. Amalaberga seems to have encouraged her husband to eliminate his brothers--I said they were "remarkable" women, not necessarily pefect. 

**In case you were wondering, things didn't work out so well for Theodahad. Soon after he had Amalsuintha killed, Theodahad himself was killed on the order of Vitiges, the husband of Amalsuintha's daughter, Matasuntha. As for Vitiges, he was taken captive by Justinian and, along with Matasuntha, taken to Constantinople. He soon died, but Matasuntha survived and married Emperor Justinian's nephew. 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Confirmed: Ketanji Brown-Jackson

Ketanji Brown-Jackson (confirmed 7 April 2022 as U.S. Supreme Court Justice)

Ketanji Brown-Jackson, currently serving as Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has just been confirmed as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Photo by Greg Nash, The Hill
Judge Brown-Jackson will be the 116th justice to serve on the court, the first Black woman to serve on the court in its 233-year history. (And, by the way, she is one of only 70 Black women to have served as federal judges--of 3,843 federal judges in the history of the U.S.)

She will follow in the footsteps of the very few but distinguished women to have served on the court, including Sandra Day O'Connor, (appointed 1981) Ruth Bader Ginsburg (appointed 1993), Sonia Sotomayor (appointed 2009). and Elena Kagan (appointed 2010).

Interviewed by Elena Kagan in 2010, Ruth Bader Ginsburg reminded her--and all of us--that "we should appreciate the women on whose shoulders we stand." Many young women and girls will find their strength and inspiration in Ketanji Brown-Jackson.

Photo taken in 2010, on the occasion of
Elena Kagan's investiture,
(U.S. Supreme Court website)

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Gwerful Mechain, Fifteenth-Century Author of "Playfully Erotic Poems"

 Gwerful Mechain, Welsh poet (c. 1462-1505)

A "playfully erotic" detail from a
fifteenth-century Book of Hours,
Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 33

In his introduction to the poems of Gwerful Mechain, Donald Foster writes that she "is the only female poet of medieval Wales with a substantial body of work to have survived." 

Foster speculates that Mechain's work--perhaps as many as thirty-eight poems survive--may have been preserved "because the male scribes who controlled the transmission of Welsh poetry were amused by Gwerful's saucy and frank celebration of sexual intercourse." 

But Mechain's work also seems also to have survived because of her "respect" for the "complex Welsh poetic meters." She knows the tradition, but she can also play with it. And play with it she does.

While a substantial body of work exists, little biographical detail about Mechain's life is available. She was one of five children born to a Welsh nobleman, Hywel Fychan from Mechain, Powys. Her mother was a woman named Gwenhwyfar. She was married to a man named John ap Llewelyn Fychan, with whom she had a daughter, Mawd. And that's it.

Mechain may or may not have had a sexual relationship with the poet Dafydd LLwyd--the two exchange some frank verses, among them his poem in praise of a penis and her response, variously translated as "The Female Genitals," "To the Vagina," or "Cunt," depending on the squeamishness of the translator.

In her Broadview edition of Mechain's poetry, Katie Gramich goes with "To the Vagina," as she does in her online essay, to which I've linked, above. There Gramich refers to her "blushes" when reading aloud the Welsh version of the poem, with its "extremely rude words." I prefer Donald Foster's approach--in translating the Welsh, he titles the poem "Cywydd [Welsh verse form] of the Bush," which seems to be the meaning of the title in its original, "Cywydd y Cedor," Instead of Gramich's use of the obscure "quim" in her English translation of the Welsh cedor, Foster goes for the gusto--in addition to the "bush" of the title, he uses "twat," "snatch," and "cunt." That's my kind of translation. 

Another detail from Bibliothèque de Genève,
Ms. lat. 33 (This manuscript has nothing
to do with Gwerful Mechain except for its few
--and randomly placed--explicitly 
sexual illustrations . . .
weird in a book of hours, but okay)

I also appreciate Foster's observation that, in this poem, Mechain writes back to the Petrarchan catalogue of the female beloved's beauties: she "lampoons the newly fashionable tradition of hyper-praising every female body part except the unmentionable one that the woebegone male lover has had in the back of his mind although not on the tip of his tongue." (For more on how a female writer responds to Petrarch's anatomization of the female body, click here and here.)

As vital and joyful as Mechain's "playfully erotic poems" are, she also addresses angry lines to her husband in "To Her Husband for Beating Her," a simple, frank curse that you will not forget: 

Through your heart’s lining let there be pressed, slanting down,
A dagger to the bone in your chest.
Your knee smashed, your hand crushed, may the rest
Be gutted by the sword you possessed.

(translated from the Middle Welsh by A.M. Juster)

In addition to Gramich's online essay and her edition of Gwerful Mechain's poetry, you may enjoy Danièle Cybulskie's "Gwerful Mechain and the Joy of (Medieval) Sex" (here) and Lauren Cocking's "On the Gleefully Indecent Poems of a Medieval Welsh Feminist Poet" (here).

Click here for the Dictionary of Welsh Biography entry for Gwerful Mechain.

The phrase "playfully erotic poems," used in the title of my post, comes from Katie Gramich. 

I have posted on Mechain today, 1 March, because it is the saint's day of St. David, patron saint of Wales.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg, Regent of Hesse-Kassel

Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg, Landgravine and Regent of Hesse-Kassel (born 29 January 1602)

In his 1801 Women of the Reformed Church, James Good referred to Amalie Elisabeth of Hesse-Kassel as "the Deborah of the Reformed Church of Germany." Some two hundred years later, in her biography of Amalie Elisabeth, historian Tryntje Helfferich dubbed her "the Iron princess," noting that, in her own time, she was a "towering figure," a woman of whom "every European leader was exquisitely aware" and to whom, in the words of a contemporary, "the empire owes a great deal of its liberty." Today, however, "few, even among scholars of the Thirty Years War, know much if anything about her."

Amelie-Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg
Count me among those who knew almost nothing about her, though I have come to know just a little. I first came across a reference to Amalie Elisabeth of Hesse-Kassel only recently, in Nadine Akkerman's biography of Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I of England, a woman who would became known as the ill-fated "winter queen."

There wasn't all that much about Amalie Elisabeth in Akkerman's book, but what caught my eye was her title: landgravine. For reasons unknown to me, I have always loved that title, and however deliriously stupid it might sound, I long ago decided that, if I ever had a royal title, I'd rather be a landgravine than a princess. 

Setting aside my oddities, I will note that Amalie Elisabeth was one of fourteen children born to Philip Ludwig II, count of Hanau-Münzenberg, and Countess Catharina Belgica of Nassau. (Catharina Belgica would serve as regent of Hanau-Münzenberg for her son, Philip Maurice, after the death of Philip Ludwig.)

Born a countess and well connected to the noble families that dominated the various territories that comprised the Holy Roman Empire, the young Amalie Elisabeth was carefully educated, an education that was greatly expanded when she was sent, at about the age of six, to the court of Heidelberg, where her aunt, Louise Juliana of Nasau, was married Frederick IV, Elector Palatine of the Rhine. (Amalie Elisabeth's mother was Louise Juliana's sister.) 

While the court itself was noted as a center of Calvinist theology and the new science, Louise Juliana had sent her sons to her sister in France, where they could be raised, free from the influence of their father, who spent his time drinking and preferred to leave governing to his ministers and advisers. 

But, after Frederick's early death in 1610 (he was only thirty-six), Louise Juliana participated in the regency for her son, Frederick V of the Palatinate (she also arranged for his marriage to Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, and raised her granddaughter, Elisabeth of Bohemia). The young Elisabeth Amalie's preparation for her later role in life was surely influenced by the time she spent with her aunt, whom she was able to see as an active participant in politics and government

When Philip Ludwig died in 1612, Amalie Elisabeth returned home after a four-year absence. The years immediately following her father's death saw increasing tensions within the empire that finally erupted in the bloody Thirty Years' War. The conflict would eventually move beyond the empire, drawing in France, Sweden, parts of northern Italy, and, given the involvement of Habsburg Spain and Portugal, extending to various colonies in "the new world." (Helfferich is particularly good with explaining the political and religious conflicts within the Holy Roman Empire and the various participants in the Thirty Years' War.)

It was during these difficult years--when Amalie Elisabeth's brother was still a minor--that her mother acted as a regent on his behalf in Hanau-Münzenberg. As she struggled against imperial forces that threatened to overwhelm the strongly Calvinist territory, her daughter's marriage would prove to be one way to gain a strong ally. 

By 1618, Amalie Elisabeth was betrothed to a Bohemian nobleman who, unfortunately, died before their marriage could take place. A second marriage was soon arranged, this one to William of Hesse-Kassel, whose father, the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, opposed Habsburg power within the empire. The two were married in 1619. (Despite her efforts, Catharina Belgica was forced to flee Hanau-Münzenberg when it was overwhelmed by imperial forces in 1621.*)

Amalie Elisabeth gave birth to fourteen children between 1620 and 1637, the year of William of Hesse-Kassel's death. (Only six of these children would survive.) As for her husband--there was so much dissension in Hesse-Kassel that his father was forced to abdicate. In 1627, William succeeded his father as landgrave, making Amelie Elisabeth landgravine. 

But the pair inherited all the internal and external problems that had bedeviled William's father. By 1636, despite nearly a decade of fighting, William and his family were besieged in Hesse-Kassel by imperial forces and, like Amalie Elisabeth's mother a decade earlier, they were forced to flee (they took their eight-year-old son with them but had to leave their four surviving daughters behind).

Soon after reaching the city of Leer, which was controlled by the Hessian army, William fell ill. On 1 October 1637, he died, leaving Amelie Elisabeth the regency and an army. During her husband's many absences while he was away at war, Amalie Elisabeth had managed Hesse-Kassel in her husband's place. Now she was compelled to act on her young son's behalf.

I love James Good's sense of her mission: the recently signed Peace of Prague had removed many of the opponents of the empire from the field of battle. But "man's extremity" would be "woman's opportunity." Thus Amalie Elisabeth became "a Reformed Joan of Arc" who would take up the Calvinist cause and oppose the Catholic Habsburgs.

But rather than leading her army on the field of battle, Amalie Elisabeth chose diplomacy. She used typically "female" strategies to her advantage--flattery and delay. Not that she did not use the army she had inherited--rather than commanding the army herself, she kept her husband's general (and paid him well, to secure his loyalty), and she reinforced her son's position by having the army swear oaths to him. She also successfully played her enemy (the Habsburg emperor) against her allies (the French and the Swedes), happily winding up with subsidies that allowed her a measure of independence from the Hessian estates, who were not particularly enthusiastic about being governed by a woman.

Amalie Elisabeth's activities during the long decades of the Thirty Years' War are covered well by both Good and Helfferich. During the negotiations to end that war, she was dogged--her demands may have seemed unreasonable to her male contemporaries, and she herself may have been the source of much frustration, but she was relentless. In the end, she did not get everything she wanted, but she did get what she wanted most--Calvinists were granted the same standing that Catholics and Lutherans had had under the terms of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. The treaties ending the great conflict, known collectively as the Peace of Westphalia, were signed in 1648.

Amalie Elisabeth, 1640,
as landgravine of Hesse-Kassel,
portrait by Gerard van Honthorst
Two years later, worn down by her years in politics and war, Amalie Elisabeth transferred power to her son, who assumed his father's title as William IV, landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. She was able to travel with her daughter Elisabeth to Heidelberg, where she had spent those childhood years with her aunt, to visit her daughter Charlotte, who had married Charles I Louis, elector Palatine. (He was the son of Elizabeth Stuart, the "winter queen," whose husband had regained his state as part of the Peace of Westphalia).

Amalie Elisabeth of Hanau-Münzenberg and regent of Hesse-Kassel died on 8 August 1651, shortly after her return to Hesse-Kassel. She had an incredibly full life, but she was still only forty-nine years old. 

*To finish Catharina Belgica's story--while she was forced to flee to the Hague in 1621, her son, Philip Maurice, retained his claim to Hanau-Münzenberg. When the territory was liberated by Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden in 1631, Catharina Belgica undertook the negotiations that successfully returned Hanau-Münzenberg to her son. She died in the Hague on 12 April 1648.