12 November 2011

'Lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant'

                            'Yes, Zeus made this the greatest pain of all:
                            A man who's with a woman can't get through
                            a single day without a troubled mind.'
                                                      Semonides of Amorgos, 'Woman,' 7th century B.C.

           Receptionist, to novelist Melvin Udall:   'How do you write women so well?'
        Melvin Udall:   'I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.'

                                           Mark Andrus, 'As Good As It Gets,' 1997 A.D.

Those born and raised amid the Late Twentieth Century Delusion were force-fed many lies.  'Race is only skin-deep,' for one.  'Anything unpleasant happening anywhere on the planet is somehow attributable to Europeans'-- We've all heard that one.  But perhaps the most insidious?

'There are no real differences between women and men.'

How silly it sounds, and yet how thoroughly this bêtise has seized the spirits of our educated classes.  Denying it can cost you your professional reputation, the respect of your peers, even your plum job as president of Harvard.

But reaction has set in. The radical (for our days) notion that women are not the same as men has found eloquent defenders, from the unsentimental Chateau Heartiste to the optimistic Dalrock.  Perusing such sites could prove demoralizing for woman weaned on Late Twentieth Century Delusion.  Yet it is often the case that in criticism lies truth.  Disagreeable truth, but isn't much truth disagreeable?

In this realm as in many others, men who came before us had things to say, though they are today considered high heresy. When a group we belong to is criticized, our first reaction is to shift blame.  The problem lies not with us, no, it lies with you, you hater of the feminine, you misogynist.  And yet... Looking at ourselves through the eyes of this Other Tribe, these Men, could tell us much.   Dare we meet these dead men's gazes unflinchingly?

Scholars Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus have been bold enough to gather a tome of texts--pamphlets, guides, correspondence--about women in Renaissance-era England. (1)  (With which to decry misogyny, but little matter.) 

Some men in that far-off time, burnt by unpleasant encounters, let fly with a candor that will not be unfamiliar to readers of either website cited above.  Joseph Swetnam in The Arraignment of Lewd, idle, froward [contrary], and unconstant women (2) (1615), for example:

Women are all necessary evils and yet not all given to wickedness; and yet many so bad, that in my conceit if I should speak the worst that I know by some women, I should make their ears glow that hears me, and my tongue would blister to report it.
Moses describeth a woman thus: 'At the first beginning,' saith he, 'a woman was made to be a helper unto man.'  And so they are indeed, for she helpeth to spend and consume that which many painfully getteth.

After the comedy, things get serious:
For women have a thousand ways to entice thee and ten thousand ways to deceive thee and all such fools as are suitors unto them: some they keep in hand with  promises, and some they feed with flattery, and some they delay with dalliances, and some they please with kisses.  They lay out the folds of their hair to entangle men into their love; betwixt their breasts is the vale of destruction; and in their beds there is hell, sorrow, and repentance.  Eagles eat not men till they are dead, but women devour them alive.  For a woman will pick thy pocket and empty thy purse, laugh in thy face and cut thy throat.  They are ungrateful, perjured, full of fraud, flouting and deceit, unconstant, waspish, toyish, light, sullen, proud, discourteous, and cruel.

A stinging rebuke, sure to be discounted by many as sour grapes.  Swetnam admits as much:

Yet perhaps some may say unto me that I have sought for the honey, caught the Bee by the tail, or that I have been bit or stung with some of these wasps, otherwise I could never have been expert in betraying their qualities.

He admits to being a rambling man:

Indeed, I must confess I have been a Traveler this thirty and odd years, and many travelers live in disdain of women.  The reason is for that their affections are so poisoned with the heinous evils of unconstant women which they happen to be acquainted with in their travels; for it doth so cloy their stomachs that they censure hardly of women ever afterwards.

He is sure that he'll be rebuked for his candor:

When I first began to write this book, my wits were gone awool-gathering,...and so in the rough of my fury I vowed forever to be an open enemy to women.

[...]  I esteem little of the malice of women.  For men will be persuaded with reason, but women must be answered with silence.  For I know women will bark more at me than Cerberus, the two-headed Dog, did at Hercules when he came into Hell to fetch out the fair Prosperina, [...] For I have known many men stung with some of these Scorpions, and therefore I warn all men to beware the Scorpion. 
I know women will bite the lip at me and censure hardly of me, but I fear not the cursed Cow, for she commonly hath short horns.  Let them censure of me what they will, for I mean not to make them my Judges, and if they shoot their spite at me, they may hit themselves.  And so I will smile at them as at the foolish fly which burneth herself in the candle.  And so, friend Reader, if thou hast any discretion at all, thou mayest take a happy example by these most lascivious and crafty, whorish, thievish, and knavish women, which were the cause of this my idle time spending.

But Swetnam is far from alone in warning against the weaknesses of women.  Marriage advice poured from the pens of 16th- and 17th-century writers.  Considered among the worst one can find in a wife is the dreaded scold or shrew.   John Taylor, from A Juniper Lecture (3), in 1639:

It is better for a man to have a fair Wife that himself and every man else will love, or a deformed wife that would hire others to make much of her, or a drunken Wife that would make much of herself, or an old wife that were bedridden of her tongue, or a thievish wife that should steal from himself and others, or a sluttish wife that would poison him and end all his misery [...] than to be matched and overmatched with a scold
For a scold will be melancholy malicious, [...] she will knit the brows, frown, be wayward, froward [contrary], cross, and untoward on purpose to torment her husband.  Her delight is chiefly to make debate abroad and to be unquiet at home.  In her house she will be waspish, peevish, testy, tetchy, and snappish.  It is meat and drink to her to exercise her spleen and envy, and with her twittle twattle [idle chatter] to sow strife, debate, contention, division, and discordant heartburning amongst her neighbors. 
I have heard a husband ask a wife such a mild question, and she hath snapped him up so disdainfully with an answer, that no Mistress would have used her apprentice boy so scornfully [...] Therefore I advise all men--young and old, rich and poor--to marry any woman of any bad condition other than a scold.

Here is the advice of William Whatley to women in 1619:

If ever thou purpose to be a good wife, and to live comfortably, set down this with thyself: mine husband is my superior, my better; he hath authority and rule over me; nature hath given it to him... God hath given it to him.

In the anonymous but oft-recited Homily on Marriage (1562), we are warned that

The woman is a weak creature not endued with like strength and constancy of mind; therefore, they be the sooner disquieted, and they be the more prone to all weak affections and dispositions of mind, more than men be; and lighter they be, and more vain in their fantasies and opinions.

A woman's gossiping tendencies were seen as of potential harm. Samuel Rowland, in The Bride (1617), warns the wife to

 ...be no gadding gossip up and down
 To hear and carry tales amongst the rest
 That are the news reporters of the town.

Once sexually experienced, a woman whose husband had died (common in this age) was seen as a potential seductress, and thus should remarry.  According to McManus and Henderson, "Thomas Becon (1547) advises remarriage as the only course that enables a young widow to avoid unchastity,

'for how light, vain, trifling, unhonest, unhousewifelike, young widows have been in all ages and are also at this present day experience doth sufficiently declare."'
[Today's context requiring us to perhaps replace 'young widows' with 'young divorcees'? 'young non-virgins'?]

Indeed, the sexual voracity of some women was immortalized in verse, as we have here Ben Jonson, from 'A Celebration of Charis' (1630s), giving the words of a woman defining her 'ideal' lover:

For his Mind, I doe not care,
That's a Toy, that I could spare:
Let his Title be but great,
His Clothes rich, and band [ruff] sit neat,
Himselfe young, and face be good,
All I wish is understood.
What you please, you parts may call,
'Tis one good part I'ld lie withall.

As for the education of a woman, Spanish Catholic humanist Juan Luis Vives (who had studied under Erasmus), author of Instruction of a Christian Woman, (1523), Plan of Studies for a Girl (1524), and Duty of Husbands (1529), recommends, say McManus and Henderson,

'the moral philosophers for their efficacy in subduing women's tumultuous passions; for this purpose, a woman should read Plato, Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, and Aristotle.'

Elizabeth Brooke Jocelyn, an educated bourgeoise Englishwoman, wrote the following to her husband while pregnant with her first child.  Fearful of dying in childbirth, she expressed her wishes on the future tot's education, if it be a girl (emphasis ours):

I desire her bringing up to be learning the Bible, as my sisters do, good housewifery, writing, and good works; other learning a woman needs not, though I admire it in those whom God hath blest with discretion.  Yet I desired not so much in my own, having seen that sometimes women have greater portions of learning than wisdom, which is of no better use to them than a mainsail to a flyboat, which runs under water.  But where learning and wisdom meet in a virtuous disposed woman, she is the fittest closet of all goodness. [...]  But, my dear, though she have all this in her, she will hardly make a poor man's wife.  Yet I leave it to thy will.  If thou desirest a learned daughter, I pray God give her a wise and religious heart, that she may use it to his glory, thy comfort, and her own salvation.

Much to consider in these words, much to perhaps repulse us, but what repulses us can often be useful to reflect upon.  Our own weaknesses, after all, are always the hardest to see.

       (1) Usher Henderson, Katherine and McManus, Barbara, Half Humankind, Contexts and Texts of the Controversy About Women in England, 1540-1640, U. of    Illinois Press, 1985.
       (2) Full title: The Arraignment of Lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women or the vanity of them, choose you whether, With a Commendation of wise, virtuous, and honest Women, Pleasant fro married Men, profitable for young Men, and hurtful to none. (1615)
       (3) Full title: A Juniper Lecture, With description of all sorts of women, good and bad: From the modest to the maddest, from the most Civil to the scold Rampant, their praise and dispraise compendiously related.  The Second Impression, with many new Additions.  Also, the Author's advice how to tame shrew or vex her. (1639)

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