Isotta Nogarola

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Isotta Nogarola

Excerpt from "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam" (1451)

Reprinted in Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works
By and About The Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy

Edited and translated by Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil Jr. Published in 1983

The Italian scholar Isotta Nogarola (1418–1466) is considered the first major female humanist. "Humanism" is the modern term for the intellectual movement that initiated the Renaissance. The humanist movement originated in Florence, Italy, in the mid-1300s and was introduced into other European countries shortly before 1500. Humanist scholars believed that a body of learning called studia humanitatis (humanistic studies), which was based on the literary masterpieces from the classical period of ancient Greece and Rome, could bring about a cultural rebirth, or renaissance. The texts included not only classical literature but also the Bible (the Christian holy book) and the works of early Christian thinkers. Humanists were committed to the revival of ancient works as a way to end the "barbarism" (lack of refinement or culture) of the Middle Ages (also called the medieval period), the thousand-year era that followed the downfall of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Humanistic studies were nearly always developed with the education of boys and the careers of men in mind. Nonetheless, a few educators promoted classical education for women.

During the fifteenth century humanism spread rapidly from Florence to the elite social classes in other Italian cities, such as Venice, Padua, Verona, Bologna, Milan, and Genoa, then extended south to Rome and Naples. Many scholars, writers, intellectuals, and patrons contributed to the development of humanism. Women were active in the earliest stages of the movement, which created an environment for the free expression of their ideas. The first to emerge was Isotta Nogarola. Born into a literary family in Verona, she received a humanist education along with her sister Ginevra. During an intellectual career that spanned more than thirty years, Isotta wrote Latin prose and poetry and participated in learned conferences and debates. She is most famous for her extensive correspondence with humanist friends. These letters demonstrate Nogarola's knowledge of early Christian and classical authors, as well as her awareness of current political events and the historical tradition of heroic women. The letters also show that she had close relationships with the intellectual and political leaders of northern Italy. Many of the people who corresponded with Nogarola showered her with praise, suggesting that she was widely known for exceptional achievements.

Among Nogarola's admirers were leading humanists in Venice, Lauro Quirini and Ludovico Foscarini. Quirini outlined a program of study that urged Nogarola to reach beyond literature written in Latin to read philosophical works in the original Greek. He argued that Greek philosophy (the search for an understanding of reality through speculation) is superior to Roman rhetoric (the art of effective speaking and writing). He suggested that a learned woman had the capacity to master the difficulties of philosophy. Of special interest is the letter exchange between Nogarola and the Italian humanist Ludovico Foscarini, who was a Venetian statesman and governor of Verona. In 1451 Nogarola composed a dialogue (written work in the form of a conversation) titled "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam." It is a debate between herself and Foscarini on the question of whether Eve had committed a greater sin than Adam in the Garden of Eden. This is Nogarola's best-known work.

Things to Remember While Reading an Excerpt from "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam":

  1. "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam" was written entirely by Nogarola. She composed the dialogue, with Foscarini's encouragement, from letters she and Foscarini had exchanged on the subject of Adam and Eve.
  2. According to the story in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament (the first part of the Bible), Adam and Eve were the first two people on Earth. They lived in the Garden of Eden, a perfect world, and they had no awareness of evil because they had been forbidden by God to eat apples from the tree of knowledge in the garden. One day an evil serpent, or snake, appeared in the tree and tempted Adam and Eve to eat an apple. Eve took a bite from the apple and then persuaded Adam to do the same. God later expelled them from the garden for disobeying his command and committing the first sin. Nogarola quotes extensively from the book of Genesis in "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam."
  3. The Adam and Eve story was used first by Jewish prophets, or wise men, and later by Christian thinkers to prove that Eve was responsible for the fact that all humans are born with original sin. That is, sin is a part of human nature from birth because Eve (woman) had tempted Adam (man) into an awareness of evil.
  4. In "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam" Foscarini takes Adam's side on the question of who had committed the greater sin. Thus he presents the traditional argument for Eve's guilt. He points out that Eve's moral weakness, not the serpent, or evil, was the temptation that made Adam surrender to a sinful act.
  5. Nogarola defends Eve, saying that Eve "had less intellect" than Adam and therefore was incapable of choosing between good and evil. For this reason, Nogarola argues, Eve should not be held responsible for original sin.
  6. The following excerpts from "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam" represent only a portion of the lengthy and complex debate between Nogarola and Foscarini. The dialogue is typical of philosophical works written in this form on a wide variety of topics by humanists during the Renaissance.

Excerpts from "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam"

Ludovico begins: If it is in any way possible to measure thegravity of human sinfulness, then we should see Eve's sin as more to be condemned than Adam's [for three reasons]. [First], she was assigned by ajust judge to a harsher punishment than was Adam. [Second], she believed that she was made more like God, and that is in the category of unforgivable sins against theHoly Spirit. [Third], she suggested and was the cause of Adam's sin—not he of hers; and although it is a poor excuse to sin because of a friend, nevertheless none was more tolerable than the one by which Adam was enticed.

Isotta: But I see things—since you move me to reply—from quite another and contrary viewpoint. For where there is less intellect and lessconstancy, there is less sin; and Eve [lacked sense and constancy] and therefore sinned less. Knowing [her weakness] that crafty serpent began by tempting the woman, thinking the man perhapsinvulnerable because of his constancy…

[Adam must also be judged more guilty then Eve, secondly] because of his greater contempt for the command. For in Genesis 2 it appears that the Lord commanded Adam, not Eve, where it says: "The Lord God took the man and placed him in the paradise of Eden totill it and keep it," (and it does not say, "that they might care for and protect it") "… and the Lord God commanded the man" (and not "them"): "From every tree of the garden you may eat" (and not "you" [in the plural sense]), and, [referring to the forbidden tree], "for the day you eat of it, you must die," [again, using the singular form of "you"]. [God directed his command to Adam alone] because he esteemed the man more highly than the woman.


Gravity: Seriousness.

Just judge

Just judge: God.

Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit: The third person of the Christian Trinity (God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).


Constancy: Fidelity, loyalty.


Invulnerable: Incapable of being wounded, injured, or harmed.


Till: Work soil by plowing, planting, and raising crops.


Christ: Name for Jesus of Nazareth, founder of Christianity.


Incarnate: In bodily form.


Posterity: Future generations.


Perdition: Loss of the soul.


Synagogue: Jewish house of worship.


Purged: To become rid of sin.

Moreover, the woman did not [eat from the forbidden tree] because she believed that she was made more like God, but rather because she was weak and [inclined to indulge in] pleasure. Thus: "Now the woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for the knowledge it would give. Shetook of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband and he ate," and it does not say [that she did so] in order to be like God. And if Adam had not eaten, her sin would have had no consequences. For it does not say: "If Eve had not sinnedChrist would not have been madeincarnate, " but "If Adam had not sinned." Hence the woman, but only because she had been first deceived by the serpent's evil persuasion, did indulge in the delights of paradise; but she would have harmed only herself and in no way endangered humanposterity if the consent of the first-born man had not been offered. Therefore Eve was no danger to posterity but [only] to herself; but the man Adam spread the infection of sin to himself and to all future generations. Thus Adam, being the author of all humans yet to be born, was also the first cause of theirperdition. For this reason the healing of humankind was celebrated first in the man and then in the woman, just as [according to Jewish tradition], after the unclean spirit has been expelled from a man, as it springs forth from thesynagogue, the woman ispurged [as well].

Moreover, that Eve was condemned by a just judge to a harsher punishment is evidently false, for God said to the woman: "I will make great your distress in childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children; for your husband shall be your longing, though he have dominion over you." But to Adam he said: "Because you have listened to your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I have commanded you not to eat" (notice that God appears to haveadmonished Adam alone [using the singular form of "you"] and not Eve) "Cursed be the ground because of you; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, since out of it you were taken; for dust you are and unto dust you shall return." Notice that Adam's punishment appears harsher than Eve's; for God said to Adam: "to dust you shall return," and not to Eve, and death is the most terrible punishment that could be assigned. Therefore it is established that Adam's punishment was greater then Eve's…

When God created man, from the beginning he created him perfect, and the powers of his soul perfect, and gave him a greater understanding and knowledge of truth as well as a greater depth of wisdom. Thus it was that the Lord led to Adam all the animals of the earth and the birds of heaven, so that Adam could call them by their names. For God said: "Let us make mankind in our image and likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, the cattle, over all the wild animals and every creature that crawls on the earth," making clear his own perfection. But of the woman he said: "It is not good that the man is alone; I will make him a helper like himself." And sinceconsolation and joy are required for happiness, and since no one can havesolace and joy when alone, it appears that God created woman for man's consolation. For the good spreads itself, and the greater it is the more it shares itself. Therefore, it appears that Adam's sin was greater than Eve's…


Admonished: Warned.


Consolation: Comfort.


Solace: Source of relief.

Free will

Free will: The power to make one's own choices.

Adam either hadfree will or he did not. If he did not have it, he did not sin; if he had it, then Eve forced the sin [upon him], which is impossible… God could himself, however, remove that condition of liberty from any person and bestow some other condition on him. In the same way fire cannot, while it remains fire, not burn, unless its nature is changed and suspended for a time by divine force. No other creature, such as a good angel or devil can do this, since they are less than God; much less a woman, since she is less perfect and weaker then they… Thus Adam appeared to accuse God rather thanexcuse himself when he said: "The woman you placed at my side gave me fruit from the tree and I ate it."

Let these words be enough from me, an unarmed and poor little woman.

Ludovico: So divinely have you encompassed the whole of this problem that I could believe your words were drawn not from thefonts of philosophy and theology but from heaven. Hence they are worthy of praise rather than contradiction. Yet, lest you be cheated of the utility [you say you have begun to receive from this debate], attend to these brief arguments which can be posed for the opposite view, that you may sow the honey-sweet seeds of paradise which will delight readers and surround you with glory.

Eve's ignorance was very base, because she chose to put faith in a demon rather than in the creator. This ignorance actually is due to her sin, as sacred writings attest, and certainly does not excuse her of sin. Indeed, if the truth be plainly told, it was extreme stupidity to remain within the boundaries which the excellent God had set for her, [but] to fallprey tovain hope and lose what she had had and what she aspired to.

The issues which you have cleverly joined I shall not divide. The inconstancy of Eve which has been condemned was not inconstancy of nature but of habit. For those qualities which are in us by nature we are neither praised nor blamed, according to the judgement of the wisest philosophers. Actually, the woman's nature was excellent andconcordant with reason,genus and time. For just as teeth were given to wild beasts, horns to oxen, feathers to birds for their survival, to the woman mental capacity was given sufficient for the preservation and pursuit of the health of her soul.

If [as you say] Eve was naturally created to aid, perfect, console and gladden man, she conducted herself contrary to the laws [of her nature], providing him with toil, imperfection, sadness and sorrow, which the holy decrees had ordained would be serious crimes. And human laws, too, ordered through long ages by the minds of great men, by sure reasoning have established that the seizure of someone else's goods merits the more serious punishment the more it injures the owner…


Fonts: Sources; fountains.


Prey: Victim.


Vain: Useless.


Concordant: In agreement with.


Genus: Biological classification.

I have explained my views with these few words, both because I was ordered not to exceed the paper [you] sent me, and because I speak to you who are most learned. For I do not wish to be a guide on such a road to you for whom, because of your great goodness, allthings stand open in the brightest light. I, indeed—a single man and a mere mortal, as it were, a reflection of thecelestial life—have only pointed a finger, so to speak, in the direction of the sources. And although others may find that my writings suffer from the defect of obscurity, if you, most brilliant, accept them and join them to what you and I have already written, our views will become very evident and clear, and will shine amid the shadows. And if what I have written is clumsy, by your skill you will make it worthy of your mind, virtue, and glory. For you march forward to new battles to the sound of sacredeloquence (as do soldiers to theclamor of trumpets), always more learned and more ready. And you march forward against me, who has applied the whole sum of my thinking to my reading, all at the same time, and to my writing, that I might present my case and defend myself against yours, although the many storms and floods of my obligation toss me about atwhim. Farewell.

What happened next…

At the time Foscarini was considered to be the winner of the debate because Nogarola had admitted that Eve was inferior to Adam in being unable to choose between right and wrong. Nevertheless, "On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam" set the stage for a later feminist rethinking of the Adam and Eve story. Nogarola produced a number of other works. Among them was a study of the early Christian father Saint Jerome (c. 347–419), which she wrote in 1453. Six years later she sent a letter to Pope Pius II (1405–1464; reigned 1458–64), urging him to start a crusade, or holy war. Nogarola's last five years were marked by illness. In 1468, two years after her death, the humanist Giovanni Mario Filelfo dedicated a lengthy poem to her brother, in which he celebrated her achievement as a holy woman. However, he omitted any mention of Isotta Nogarola's intellectual work.


Celestial: Heavenly or divine.


Eloquence: Forceful or persuasive expressiveness.


Clamor: Insistent noise.


Whim: Sudden idea or turn of mind.

Did you know…

  1. When Isotta Nogarola and her sister Ginevra were teenagers they attracted the attention of northern Italian humanists and courtiers (members of noble courts). With these learned men Isotta and Ginevra exchanged books and letters that showed their classical training and lively intelligence. In 1438 Ginevra married and ceased her involvement in the discussions of humanist ideas.
  2. Isotta Nogarola continued to participate in humanist discussions until 1441, when she became discouraged by attacks on her character. Historians believe these attacks came from men who did not approve of learned women. Isotta Nogarola withdrew from humanist circles to join her mother in her brother's house. She lived, as she put it, in a "book-lined cell" where, like medieval holy women, she continued her studies in solitude.
  3. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries women became increasingly active in the humanist movement, which was given impetus by salons headed by women. A salon was an intellectual and literary discussion that became popular in the 1600s. Salons were instrumental in spreading new scientific and philosophical ideas and setting standards of literary taste. A salon was held at a royal or noble court and led by an aristocratic or high-born woman called a salonnière. The terms "salon" and salonnière were introduced in the nineteenth century. During the Renaissance salons were known as ruelles (companies). Many women who presided over and attended these gatherings exchanged ideas, then published their views in books and pamphlets.

For More Information


King, Margaret L., and Albert Rabil Jr., eds. and trans. Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works By and About the Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1983.

Web Sites

A Celebration of Women Writers: 1401–1500. [Online] Available, April 10, 2002.

"Nogarola, Isotta." Sunshine for Women. [Online] Available, April 10, 2002.