By Danièle Cybulskie
Although you may not know it from history books you may have read in school, the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries saw a rise in treatises in defense of women, written by women themselves. The most famous of these women would probably be Christine de Pizan, writing in the French court, but she was by no means alone. In Italy, the nature and capabilities of women were being debated by both women and men, who fell on both sides of the argument. One voice among those was Laura Cereta’s.
Cereta was born around 1469 in northern Italy, and educated at a convent school for a few years between the ages of seven and eleven. She was married around the age of sixteen, and widowed in eighteen months. Both before and after her widowhood, Cereta dedicated herself to reading classical texts from Ancient Greece and Rome, and to writing letters that explored her thoughts and experiences. She left behind a treasure in her Epistolae familiares, a collection of letters, some personal, some impersonal, before dying, aged thirty. Diana Robin has translated Cereta’s work into English in Laura Cereta: Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist (all quotes below are from this edition).
While many of Cereta’s letters follow very familiar forms and functions, one letter stands out head and shoulders among the rest. This letter is dedicated “To Bibolo Semproni”, which Robin suggests (I think rightly) is “a fictional creation and vehicle for her polemic”, as it loosely translates to mean someone who’s always drinking. It seems that Semproni gave Cereta the backhanded compliment of saying he is
not only surprised but pained that [Cereta is] said to show this extraordinary intellect of the sort one would have thought nature would give to the most learned of men – as if [he] had reached the conclusion, on the facts of the case, that a similar girl had seldom been seen among the peoples of the world.
I would remain silent, believe me, if you, with your long-standing hostile and envious attitude towards me, had learned to attack me alone…. But I am angry and my disgust overflows. Why should the condition of our sex be shamed by your little attacks? Because of this, a mind thirsting for revenge is set afire; because of this, a sleeping pen is wakened for insomniac writing. Because of this, red-hot anger lays bare a heart and mind long muzzled by silence.
She then goes on to outline amazing feats of women from literature and legend, showing off her training and wide range of knowledge in Greek and Latin. Surprisingly, she lists classical examples to almost the complete exclusion of Biblical examples, unlike Christine de Pizan. She also mentions learned Italian women who were writing in the fifteenth century, “Nicolosa of Bologna, Isotta of Verona, and Cassandra of Venice”, making a clear case for great literacy and learning among women in her own time and place.
Like all of us, Cereta was a product of her time and her culture, so it’s not surprising that she draws a line between women who care about their appearance and women who care about learning – she implies that those things tend to be mutually exclusive, following the conventional medieval worldview:
For some women worry about the styling of their hair, the elegance of their clothes, and the pearls and other jewelry they wear on their fingers. Others love to say cute little things, to hide their feelings behind a mask of tranquility, to indulge in dancing, and lead pet dogs around on a leash. For all I care, other women can long for parties with carefully appointed tables, for the peace of mind of sleep, or they can yearn to deface with paint the pretty face they see reflected in their mirrors. But those women for whom the quest for the good represents a higher value restrain their young spirits and ponder better plans. They harden their bodies with sobriety and toil, they control their tongues, they carefully monitor what they hear, they ready their minds for all-night vigils, and they rouse their minds for the contemplation of probity in the case of harmful literature.
As we know, fashion doesn’t factor into intelligence or “the quest for the good”, although this is still – sadly – in debate.
The bombshell in this letter, though, isn’t that women can be intelligent, but that Cereta says it is the God-given right of women to make the choice to become learned, just as it is for men. She blasts Semproni, saying:
My point is that your mouth has grown foul because you keep it sealed so that no arguments can come out of it that might enable you to admit that nature imparts one freedom to all human beings equally – to learn.
If you only read the classic medieval treatises written by men (and most of the men writing at the time were clergy), this sentence is definitely revolutionary. In no uncertain terms, Cereta says it is an unshakeable truth that men and women are equally capable of becoming learned, given the opportunity. She elaborates, saying, “choice alone, since it is the arbiter of character, is the distinguishing factor” and “Nature has granted to all enough of her bounty; she opens to all the gates of choice”. Despite her personal judgements about what those choices may entail, Cereta nonetheless certainly gets at the heart of feminism by suggesting that, when it comes to learning, it is not the chromosomes that count.
I have been too much burned, and my injured mind has accumulated too much passion; for tormenting itself with the defending of our sex, my mind sighs, conscious of its obligation.
Despite the fatigue, Cereta vows to keep up the good fight the way she knows best: with her pen. She writes,
I… shall wear down and exhaust my pen writing against those men who are garrulous and puffed up with false pride. I shall not fail to obstruct tenaciously their treacherous snares. And I shall strive in a war of vengeance against the notorious abuse of those who fill everything with noise, since armed with such abuse, certain insane and infamous men bark and bare their teeth in vicious wrath at the republic of women, so worthy of veneration.
True to her word, Cereta was to continue to write and hold her head high amongst other writers in Italy until her death eleven years later. While none of Cereta’s other letters get at her beliefs in intellectual equality quite so forcefully, she was to continue to regard herself not as an exception, but as the natural result of making a decision to become a learned member of society.
When we look back at Europe in the Middle Ages, it’s important to remember that although there was a dominant worldview that centered around Christianity and patriarchy, medieval people were individuals whose thoughts both conformed to and challenged the status quo. Laura Cereta was one of many who believed in the intellectual equality of women, people whose voices existed whether or not we can always hear them. Fortunately for us, Cereta comes across loud and clear, advocating for women to have an equal opportunity to learn.
For more of Laura Cereta’s writing, check out Diana Robin’s Laura Cereta: Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist.
Top Image: Portrait of Laura Cereta from 1640