Crises, Tidings, & Revelations: A Charge of Misogyny

In recent years, especially, of course, in feminist criticism, it has become a, standard accusation that the medieval Church was misogynistic: that it was hostile, degrading, and insulting to women. But the evidence suggests that the standard view of the medieval Church as misogynistic is in many instances a tendentious oversimplification; in others simply false.

For example, I have now read and heard many feminist attacks on the Bishop of Hippo. Augustine is taxed with misogyny, for example, because he avoided being alone with women while he was a bishop; he always had someone else present at the interview (see Possidius’s Life of Augustine). This refusal to see a woman alone, it is said, shows that Augustine thought women were a source of sin, evil, and dangerous! Well, it is quite true that Augustine thought women were dangerous — but the danger was not in them, but rather (as he made it altogether clear) in himself! He always located the source of the lust not in women but in his own fallen nature. The women were only (to use terms taken from a later era) the potential occasions of his own sin. Let’s not forget that sex had been for Augustine a very serious problem. As a young man he had prayed: “Lord, make me chaste — but not yet!” He had no intention of falling back into his old habits. In a word, to accuse Augustine of being misogynistic here is simply to fail to grasp what is at issue.

But in the case of many medieval ecclesiastical writers, including Augustine, we must raise the central issue of rhetoric. Readers today expect writers to express their own opinions, and to express them truthfully, “sincerely.” Many modern readers, along with some medievalists, also believe that messages can be removed from their original context and purpose without any serious hermeneutical implications. But here the modern period is simply very different from Antiquity and the Middle Ages in its understanding of the function of discourse. Both of these periods conceived of language and its functioning in essentially rhetorical terms — as oratory. A discourse was intended either to be “demonstrative” — for praise or blame; or to be “deliberative” — to persuade someone to do something; or to be “judicial” — to prove something to someone. At any rate, a discourse was intended to have impact on the listener or reader, to influence belief and behavior. “Sincerity” was not an issue.

Nowhere perhaps is this deeply rhetorical understanding of discourse clearer than in the history of the writings of churchmen. For example, many Christian writers of the early and later medieval period are monks, writing much of the time for a monastic public on a variety of issues, including — tangentially, typically — women. Now, there must have been many monks whose vocations were imperfect by modern standards: many were in the cloister because they were younger sons whose families had nothing material to give them, and who therefore gave them to God. Part of the purpose of many such discourses was to remind — to persuade — these monks that they were better off in the cloister, better off away from the dangers and lures of the world, including women. Yes, women seemed attractive, but they were dangerous, they led men astray.

If we are going to accuse such writings, and such writers, of misogyny we might just as well accuse of the same mortal sin the coach who exhorts his players to stay away from women before a big game. Monks were, if you will, always in training for the Big Event. To keep fighting the good fight they needed frequent encouragement, in the form both of exhortations and of arguments to renew their conviction that they were doing the right thing to be inside the walls.

Similarly, religious writers — males and females alike — who addressed their works to nuns reminded them that they were better off in the convent: away from brutal or demanding husbands, tedious and life-threatening pregnancies, tiresome squalling children, the worries of the household, and the like. The nuns were praised for having turned away from these things. They were commended for having escaped from earthly lust — seen as a man’s problem — and for having turned toward the only truly worthwhile Spouse, Jesus Christ. All these discourses have as a major rhetorical thrust the inferiority and the dangerousness of the world, and of the love of the opposite sex. All seek to praise chastity and the celibate, to persuade those who have chosen the religious life to remain faithful to it, and to prove that earthly love is inferior.

When one person or virtue was praised, it was frequently at the expense of others. If praising chastity was typically at the expense of the married state, praising the Virgin was commonly in contrast to Eve and other women, just as praising Christ was at the expense of other men. One must be wary of thinking that the writer truly despised all but that which he was praising in his discourse. Hyperbole and a certain loss of moderation are natural in demonstrative rhetoric.

Where, then, shall we look to find the teachings of the Church on women? If we are to be fair, we should certainly look to hagiographers, and to bishops and priests whose function it was to preach the Gospel to all: the young and old, rich and poor, men and women. One must also look at penitentials, where the penalties for sins are laid out.

What did these writers say about women? They certainly said some things that we will not like. For example, some readers today might be irritated at hagiographers for implying that a heroic woman, an admirable woman, was a manly woman — but then haven’t many feminists said just the same thing? There are issues here that are still hotly debated today — even within feminist circles: Are the sexes intrinsically different — and how; how do women achieve “greatness”; what are the best ways to determine, punish, and attempt restitution for the crime of rape; how are we to balance out the legitimate needs of men, women, and society at large? These are not easy issues to resolve. Why condemn the Church for not having all the answers immediately at hand?

Where do we find true misogynists? We certainly find it in late medieval male secular writers. Such writers (and the culture for which they were the spokesmen) increasingly abandoned the religious reason — the Pauline injunction — behind the subordination of wives to their husbands. But while these worldly writers (and the male public that they addressed) had no intention of loving their wives as Christ loved the Church, or of being, themselves, obedient to God, they also had no intention of allowing women to free themselves from their subordinate position. It therefore became necessary to prove that if women were to be (and remain) subordinate to men, it was not because it was God’s will that it be so, but because they really were inferior to men.

It is precisely in this period, and in secular literature, that misogyny began to receive its fullest development. And what is the story of Patient Griselda if not the male fantasy of woman’s subordination to her husband as if he were God? It is in this period, and in fundamentally non-religious works, that we see the full cataloguing of antifeminist snippets culled from classical and, yes, Biblical and patristic sources. (If the Devil can quote Scripture, he can surely quote from the fathers, too.) Whether or not we think Christine de Pisan was right in her interpretation, it is as an anti-feminist compilation that she read The Romance of the Rose, and fought its influence. It is indeed in this period that we see women writers such as Christine and her intellectual descendence, for the first time, becoming aware of and attempting to expose the cynicism of secular male domination and exploitation of women.

Christianity teaches that all are equal in God’s eyes — a tenet the medieval church respected. The charge of misogyny against the medieval Church is, in my view, an erroneous projection of contemporary feminist pique onto the past, unjustly labelling our ancestors.”


  • Evelyn Birge Vitz

    Evelyn (Timmie) Birge Vitz is Professor of French, and Affiliated Professor of Comparative Literature, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and Religious Studies at New York University. She is the author of A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family and Faith throughout the Christian Year (Ignatius).

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