Monday, 3 October 2016


       This little picture which hangs in my study is a wedding portrait of the devoted wife of one of the more extraordinary humanist scholars of the Renaissance. Her maiden name was Jeanne Louise Tissie and in 1524 she married Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), polymath, doctor, lawyer, theologian and compulsive controversialist. He was as devoted to his young bride (17 years his junior) as she was to him. After her untimely death he wrote 'There was never anger between us on which the sun set'. This married relationship must have had influence on the treatise he published around the time of Jeanne's demise - Declamation on the Nobility and Pre-eminence of the Female Sex - a runaway bestseller rapidly translated into most European languages.
     This contemporary of Erasmus, Luther and Rabelais deserves to be as well known as such luminaries. The fact that he is not is because, in an age when old ideas and beliefs were being challenged by unconventional and controversial scholars, Agrippa was that little bit more unconventional and controversial - too much the maverick to be embraced even by intellectual rebels. At various stages of his life he was accused of Lutheran heresy, of pro-Jewish sympathies, of defending a woman accused of witchcraft and dabbling in black magic - and there was some truth in all these accusations. Like several other truth seekers of the age, Agrippa travelled extensively, studying at various universities, seeking patronage at royal and noble courts, lecturing, earning his living as a physician. He grew up at Nettesheim and graduated from the nearby University of Cologne. He served in the army of the Emperor Maximilian I. He visited England where he impressed John Colet and was later invited to return to add his intellectual weight to Henry VIII's case for having his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled (an honour he declined). In 1529, having spent some years as physician to the mother of Francis I, Louise of Savoy, whom he managed to offend with his straight-talking, he moved to Antwerp where the Habsburg Regent, Margaret of Austria, one of Europe's most cultured rulers appointed him as official archivist and historiographer. It was at this time that his beloved Jeanne, who had borne him five children in five years, died of plague. He now published his encomium on women and dedicated it to Margaret.
     Into this extraordinary little treatise he crammed no less than 238 biblical references and numerous allusions to classical and more recent history to demonstrate the superiority of women in every department of life. He contradicted just about every contemporary assumption on the status, social standing and religious evaluation of women.

               Contemporary Thinking                                                 Agrippa’s response
1.Adam was created first and was, therefore, superior.
2.Eve was created to be Adam’s helper.

3.Sin entered the world because Eve succumbed to temptation.

4.God incarnate was a man.
5.St Paul told women to be subservient to their husbands.
1.Eve was created last and was, therefore, the summit of God’s creation.
2.In both Old and New Testaments woman is called the ‘glory’ of her husband.
3.Adam, not Eve, was forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of life. So the sin was his.
4.God took male form to expiate man’s sin.
5.But it was women Christ first revealed himself to after the Resurrection.

Agrippa has an answer to every objection urged from holy writ and he then goes on to cite the lives and accomplishments of scores of women in antiquity who excelled in philosophy, art, science and politics. Some of Agrippa's arguments from the Bible and history might strike us as suspect. He is on surer ground when he describes the plight of contemporary women. They are, he states:

     "... obstructed by unjust laws, suppressed by custom and usage, reduced to nothing by education. For as soon as she is born a woman is confined in idleness at home from her earliest years, and, as if incapable of function more important she has no other prospect than needle and thread. Further, when she has reached the age of puberty, she is delivered over to the jealous power of a husband, or else is enclosed forever in a workhouse for religious. She is forbidden by law to hold public office. Even the most shrewd among them are not permitted to bring a suit in court."

     This denunciation of gender inequality has a decidedly modern ring. However, it was a huge step from women's lib to women's superiority but this Agrippa did not shrink from asserting. According to his argument, it was self-evident that the female of the human species is more beautiful, more virtuous and more constant than her male counterpart. If all this is so obvious, he concludes, why is it not openly acknowledged? The answer, in a word, is 'tyranny'.

     "Our modern legislators are of such bad faith that they have made null and void the commandment of God. They have decreed according to their own traditions that women, no matter how otherwise naturally eminent and of remarkable nobility, are inferior in status to all men. And so these laws compel women to submit to men as conquered before conquerors ... under the pressure of custom, education, chance, or some occasion favourable to tyranny."
     No other brave new thinker of this brave new world went as far as Agrippa in championing women's rights but the changes in education, the impact of printing and, particularly, widespread study of the Bible (to which literate women now had as much access as their menfolk) did open up the debate. That debate continued in scholarly circles for more than a generation. Meanwhile, more than ever before women emerged in the public arena as writers, teachers and preachers.
     And Agrippa? He was not taken seriously to task for the views aired in the Declamation but he soon had other things to worry about. His opinions on the occult got him into theological hot water, obliging him to renounce opinions he had expressed on magic. But as to his opinions on women, he retracted not a word. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

The Summer of Discontent

     The king was dead. After 37 years of monumental forced change Henry VIII's vice-like grip was no longer on the tiller. Power lay in a council of peers. A council divided between men wanting to turn the clock back and others convinced that Henry's Reformation had not gone far enough. While England's leaders jostled for power the nation was in turmoil. Scythe-brandishing mobs ranged the countryside, demanding redress of grievances, ready to take the law into their own hands.
     Everything came to a head in the middle of 1549 - the Summer of Discontent. Exeter was under siege. Norwich, England's second city, was captured by rebels led by local landowner, Robert Kett. London's citizens braced themselves to face a march on the capital.
          Image result for Robert Kett images
     In that same summer, life - and death - went on as usual in the Tower of London. Two of the prisoners held there were of particular concern to the nation's leaders. William West was accused of trying to murder his uncle, Lord de la Warre, one of the pillars of society. Robert Allen was no less a threat to the peace of the realm. He had been caught practising black magic and prophesying the death of the king.
     So much for the facts. How are they - or how might they have been - related?  
   That is the subject of The Devil's Chalice, a novel that 'perfectly balances fact and enhance the tense, rebellious atmosphere of 16th century London' (History of Royals).

Wednesday, 16 March 2016


Part 2:  'The Renaissance and the Reformation were, for a moment, one'
In the early years of the Reformation Martin Luther and other revolutionary teachers needed all the powerful friends they could find. Some of them were women. If that created problems for the reformers because women conventionally exercised subservient roles in society (a situation apparently supported by the Bible), such scruples had to be set aside in the quest for influential patrons. None was more influential than Margaret of Navarre (1492-1549), of whom it has been said 'in her the Renaissance and the Reformation were, for a moment, one'.

Margaret was one of the more remarkable individuals of a remarkable age - intelligent, cultured and courageous, she managed to combine independence of thought with tactfulness and diplomacy. She was the elder sister of Francis I, the flamboyant and warlike king who inherited the crown of France in 1515. Margaret was his closest confidante. As such she was able to protect writers and preachers who came under suspicion from church leaders and to express opinions which, in others, would have been branded as heresy.
Margaret's salon was renowned throughout Europe and was illuminated by several of the more avant garde writers and thinkers of the day. The most famous was Francois Rabelais, popularly thought of as an apostle of hedonism. In fact, he brought gifts of wit and imagination to a traditional Catholic world in confusion. He satirised the establishment - particularly the religious establishment - and ruthlessly exposed hypocrisy. Margaret herself took a leaf from his book with her collection of bawdy tales called the Heptameron (published posthumously) in which she poked fun at errant clergy. Such racy satires were very much in vogue but if they mocked bishops and monks it was to make readers realise just how serious the malaise in European religion really was.

She took as her spiritual director Guillaume Briconnet, Bishop of Meaux, who headed the leading humanist cell in France, the Meaux Circle. Two of its more prominent members were Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples, who produced the first French translation of the Bible, and the poet, Clement Marot. Both men ran into difficulties with the ecclesiastical establishment for encouraging the study of Scripture in the original languages. When Marot lampooned the Paris schoolmen as ignoramuses, he was imprisoned and only the king's intervention saved him from a worse fate. Lefevre was obliged to flee to Strasbourg.

1525 was a turning point in Margaret's life. Her brother, at war with the Emperor Charles V, was captured at the Battle of Pavia. The negotiations for Francis' release fell largely on Margaret to carry out. This involved, not just tricky diplomatic bargaining but actual physical hardship. At one time she raced on horseback for several days during the dead of winter to make a vital rendezvous. One of the king's fellow prisoners was Henry II, ruler of the small Pyrennian kingdom of Navarre. He managed to escape his captors and, within months, Margaret married this dashing young man, nine years her junior. Thereafter, she resided mostly at her husband's court at Nerac. As soon as she had left the French court her orthodox enemies swooped. The Meaux group was broken up and Briconnet faced heresy charges.

Under the enlightened rule of Henry (who also inclined to reformed religion) and Margaret, Navarre became a haven for fugitives fleeing from persecution as the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants became more bitter. In the relative peace of Nerac Margaret welcomed Protestant fugitives, who found in the worship of her chapel biblical teaching and a congenial style of devotion. She became a kind of spiritual mother to the churches throughout her domain, visiting, encouraging and providing written manuals on worship and doctrine. She kept up an extensive correspondence with members of a wide humanist and reformed network. Through her writings and her letters we discern a Christian woman who thought for herself. As a result, she had to endure criticism from critics on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide. Her faith could not be labelled 'Lutheran' or 'Calvinist' but she certainly embraced the central Protestant doctrine of justification by only faith. Her own poetry reflected this:

                    To you I testify
                    That God does justify
                    Through Christ the man who sins.
                    But if he does not believe
                    And by faith receive
                    He shall have no peace,
                            From worry no surcease.
                    God will then relieve,
                    If faith will but believe
                    Through Christ the gentle Lord.
[C.f., R. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England, Minneapolis, 2007, p.21]

Her most personal testimony came in a little book published after her death. The Mirror of the Sinful Soul became a classic of the early Reformation, being widely read and translated (the future Elizabeth I of England made a copy for presentation to her stepmother, Queen Catherine Parr). It breathes the spirit of one who, in the words of St. Paul, worked out her own salvation with fear and trembling:

          The multitude of my sins are so hidden and overcome by thy great 
          victory that thou wilt never remember them, for thou seest in me  
          but the grace, gifts and virtues which it pleaseth thy goodness to 
          give me. O, charity! I see well thy goodness doth consume my 
          lewdness and maketh me a beautiful and godly creature.

Monday, 7 March 2016



Next year we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was in November 1517 that Martin Luther lit the blue touchpaper of this explosive sequence of events with his famous 95 Theses. There will be hundreds of books and academic articles published and TV programmes aired as well as conferences, seminars and festivals on both sides of the Atlantic. That means that all the old favourites will be brought out for re-examination: Luther and Calvin and Henry VIII, and Cranmer and all the other theologians, kings, writers, revolutionaries and martyrs who played prominent parts in the 16th century upheaval.

Well, at this point - before the brouhaha gets under way - I want to say, Stop! Think! Look at this foundational movement with eyes unclouded by male assumptions.


'We ought not, any more than men, to hide and bury within the earth that which God has revealed to us women' - Marie Dentière

'I believe women, no less than men, must embrace such studies [literature] alone for the pleasure and enjoyment they contain' - Cassandra Fedele

'When no man will or can speak, I am driven by the word of the Lord - "Whoever confesses me on earth will I confess [in heaven]"' - Argula von Stauff

'It is better to be hated by men than by God, who is able to torture, not only the body, but also the soul in perpetual fire' - Olympia Morata

'Being of the female sex did not turn me from the enterprise of publishing, nor the fact that it is usually a calling followed by men' - Jeanne Giunta

'Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christianity equal unto men ... we cannot help but wonder, and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy ... to present our grievances to this honourable house' - A petition to parliament.

These were not the words of 19th century pioneers campaigning for women's rights nor 21st century feminist crusaders assailing the battlements of male domination. They were Reformation heroines freed by their religious experience from the conventions that had bound their foremothers. In next week's blog I will be telling some of their remarkable stories.

Or, of course, you could buy the book.