The Voices of Counsel: Women and Civic Rhetoric in the Middle Ages

The Voices of Counsel: Women and Civic Rhetoric in the Middle Ages

Shawn D. Ramsey

Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 42:5, 472-489  


Women’s rhetoric in the Middle Ages reflects their participation in the deliberative rhetorical genre inherited from classical antiquity. The deliberative tradition, which was often theorized by medieval rhetoricians as existing in consular practice, can thus serve as an example of women’s rhetoric which, as Christine Mason Sutherland has noted, could take place in sermo. Women’s letters were often hortatory, civic, and sometimes agonistic in tone. These rhetorical artifacts demonstrate that women operated in the rhetorical tradition as eloquent, powerful agents of persuasion in the civic arena, and they also show that, although unmoored from traditional spaces and practices associated with deliberation in antiquity, deliberative rhetoric was a more viable form of rhetoric in the Middle Ages than previously believed.

In The Treasure of the City of Ladies , late medieval author Christine de Pizan suggested that in preceding centuries there existed a cultural expectation for noble women to participate in rhetorical activities relating to peace, and these activities were fundamentally civic. De Pizan counseled, ‘‘The good princess will always be the means of peace as far as she can be, just as good Queen Blanche, mother of St. Louis, formerly was, who in this manner always exerted herself to make peace between the king and the barons’’ (51). As Samuel McCormick has demonstrated, De Pizan herself provided consular advice to queens in the late Middle Ages (276). It is relatively easy for contemporary readers to conclude that De Pizan was advo- cating an idealized social role for noble women, or at best was describing an emerging set of corresponding roles and practices that developed only in the 1400s. Many tacitly assume that the Middle Ages had little or no room for civic discourse, and if it did, that it silenced and marginalized women; however, this is far too general a conclusion which the evidence does not support. The idea of civic discourse is frequently overlooked outside of classical rhetorical contexts.

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