Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A tale of two vulvas

In the piece from Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great) that I posted yesterday this curious sentence stands out:
Woman is strictly speaking not cleverer but slyer (more cunning) than man. Cleverness sounds like something good, slyness sounds like something evil.  thus in evil and perverse things woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man.
Just what is lying underneath this statement?  The only thing that could have prompted it is a desire to refute the suggestion that women are cleverer than men.  He would not have bothered to do so unless there were  contention over the matter and that there were some people who asserted female intellectual superiority.  Such apparent superiority is, however, he explains due to a confusion in categories.  Women's intelligence is of a different nature to men's due to a superfluity of water. Albert was of the strong, Aristotelian, position women were the result of a failure in intrauterine development and therefore imperfect men.  They were, as he says, "misbegotten". As they are imperfect it is very difficult if not impossible for them to acquire true intelligence.  Whereas they might appear to be intelligent, this appearance is deceptive. It is a diabolical imitation of the true glory of the intellect, driven by emotion rather than reason.  It is cunning.  Like a fox.  A foxy lady.  The connection between cunning and women still pertains to this day

Although there may be no basis for claim made by Barbara G Walker and many others that there is an etymological connection between "cunning" and "cunt" the similarity in sound has led to many puns such as this from Antony and Cleopatra:
ENOBARBUS: ...There's mettle in death which commits some loving act upon her, she [Cleopatra] has such celerity in dying.ANTONY: She is cunning past man's thought.
Here the pun is double, depending on the secondary meaning of "dying" as "having an orgasm".  In other words, Cleopatra's orgasms surpass all male imagining.  (There remains, however, the initial meaning; that Cleopatra possessed a mental ability that was way beyond man's use of reason).  Albert was, of course, writing in Latin, where to the best of my knowledge the pun does not apply.  However, we still speak of the fox as being cunning and still speak of women as "foxes".  Cunning, be it linguistically connected with the cunt or not, is still associated with the human being who owns it.

Women, according to Albert, are like, Cleopatra, sexually curious and demanding. They fantasize of threesomes. They are inconstant. Perhaps the most famous formulation of this idea comes in the Malleus Maleficarum which states that "all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable". Kramer was certainly not the first to say this; all the weight of Catholic tradition agreed with him. Women embody lust and must therefore be shunned.

It is clear from the existence of this passage, however, that there was a counter-discourse. Some among his intended readership must be of the opinion that women are cleverer than men. He is not, after all, writing for women but for men. He is, above all, addressing a church in the middle of a struggle to impose universal priestly celibacy. Although such celibacy had been the ideal proclaimed by popes for a long time, many of the clergy were still resistant to it, although "wives" had now been degraded to the status of "concubines". (It is worth noting here that whenever the drive towards clerical celibacy was successful, the erstwhile partners of the priests - be they regarded wives or concubines - often became the property of the Bishop and were many times sold on into further slavery - a really good incentive for a Bishop to be zealous!)  Instiling the belief that a woman's seeming intelligence is nothing other than diabolical cunning was maybe, in part a propaganda attempt to persuade reluctant clerics that they must surely shun them for fear of being led into perdition. 

There is also the danger that some, like Peter Abelard a century before, may enter a relationship that is both sexual and intellectual. All his readers undoubtedly would have been all too aware of the results of Abelard's love of Heloise, his castration. A salutory warning from history is thus reinforced with the reminder that women have no intellectual pretensions worthy of the name. Where Hildegard of Bingen stood in Albert's estimation I do not know but assume she had the status of honorary man. For she was, like Mary, untainted by the sins of the flesh.

The same cannot be said for Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Her Prologue in The Canterbury Tales depicts her as one who was both sexually immoral and one who challenged the validity of the clerical notion of morality. How can, she asks, a celibate clergy speak about marriage? Her experience is a far better qualification:
Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage;
For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve,

A very rough and ready prose translation is :
Experience, even if there were no Authority in the world, gives me the right to speak about the woes of marriage. For, sirs, since I was twelve-years-old, I have, thanks to God who lives in eternity, had five husbands at the church door.

She then, however, with typical Chaucerian irony, cites biblical precedence for her apparent immorality. The wedding at Cana is referenced; as is the Samaritan woman at the well. She asks questions about them and their relevance to her own particular situation as a sexually active woman.
I do not want to go too much into Chaucer here. There is simply too much to write and will need to be the subject of another post. I include it here to show that the attitude to women articulated by Albert was a still being challenged actively enough for the challenge to be satirised by Chaucer nearly two centuries after Albert's death.

The conflict articulated by the Wife of Bath is very much the conflict between theory and practice. Male celibates can, by definition, only speak in theoretical terms whereas, for her, it is a living reality. From very early in Christian history a theory of sexuality was developed that had its base in a neurotic rejection of the body and its pleasures, and thus of women, that is totally at odds with the Jesus described in the gospels No matter how they have thundered in the pulpits, their body-hating, woman-hating, rhetoric has failed to succeed. Human beings are simply not built that way. 

And what is most ironic is that, in orthodox theology, a central matter of faith is the condition of a woman's genitals. Inanna's vulva was celebrated as a source of pleasure and wonder. Mary's is celebrated as unsullied by either.

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