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1 - The Cultural Background of Female Portraiture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 November 2022

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Summary

Abstract

The views that women earn respect by disciplining their behaviour, and that such a respect is fused with their domestic identity are key aspects of the woman question in patriarchal culture. This chapter explains the roots of the arguments of the querelle des femmes from a selection of late medieval social and amorous literature. The quantity of male authors in this chapter is high because limited access to education meant that there were fewer women engaged in literary activities. However, this chapter also discusses women's writings, their tone and contents. These are in the crucible of the biosocial ideal of femininity promoted by patriarchal tropes. A prolific strand also underscores a spiritual dimension, which women felt to be out of patriarchal control. This is explored in the final pages of this chapter, which altogether provides the theoretical framework for the contents of this book.

Key words: Aristotle – Christianity – Humanism – Medieval Literature – Misogyny – Neo-platonism

“I’d really like to know why it is that men claim women to be so slow-witted,” the first professional female writer, the Italo–Franco Christine de Pizan (1364–ca.1430) asked in 1405. To explore the answer is to trace the legacy of the Greco-Roman patriarchal culture and the Judeo-Christian explanation of how humankind came to populate the Earth. For the Greeks, women were physiologically imperfect. Furthermore, the uterus, free to wander inside the body, caused irrationality and sexual lust. The purported inferiority of the female gender found evidence in the Christian explanation of the creation of Eve and the set of incidents that, spawned from her garrulity, arrogance, and coercion, lead to what would become a keystone of the Western cultural tradition: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden [Fig. 1.1]. This marriage of ideologies has since justified the patriarchal, patrimonial and patrilineal system mentioned in the Introduction.

This chapter looks at the querelle des femmes in late medieval literature. One strand, which I call social, discussed female conduct and social identity. Another, which I call amorous, explored the realm of love. The overwhelming majority of these authors were men, as men were also the policymakers, thus indicating the extent of their control in shaping this narrative about women. There were only few female writers in these genres.

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Netherlandish and Italian Female Portraiture in the Fifteenth Century
Gender, Identity, and the Tradition of Power
, pp. 39 - 68
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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