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.