Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Classical and Medieval Women Writers

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SOURCE: Swann, Nancy Lee. "The Moralist." In Pan Chao: Foremost Woman Scholar of China, pp. 133-39. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1932, Swann examines the moral precepts of Pan Chao's first-century A.D. treatise Lessons for Women, the oldest known work of its kind.

Pan Chao holds a unique place in the history of Chinese philosophy, as the first thinker to formulate a single complete statement of feminine ethics. Despite its brevity, her "Lessons for Women" not only contains an elucidation of the science of the perfecting of womanly character—a system of theoretical moral principles,—but also lays down rules for the practical application of these principles. Although the basis of this science is an unchanging moral code, which is affirmed in the most absolute manner, many of its rules are such as could easily be restated in new terms to meet the conditions of a new age, so that the work may be considered as involving in some degree the concept of relative ethics.

According to the Mémoires concernant les Chinois, followed by S. Wells Williams in his article, "Education of Woman in China," Pan Chao composed the "Lessons" in her position as instructress to the young consort of the emperor Ho (89-105 a.d.), intending them also, however, "for the improvement of her sex at large."1 Perhaps there is, or was, a Chinese written source for these statements; but Pan Chao's own explanation, given in her introduction, is that the book was intended for "unmarried girls," whom she asked to make, each for herself, a copy for personal use.2 The term chu nü could never be interpreted to include the empress. That she wrote primarily for the girls in her own family seems to be clear from the fact that a reference to her son is followed by the reflection that "a man is able to plan his own life … but I do grieve that girls just at the age of marriage have not at this time training and advice." In writing the treatise she may well have had in view also "the improvement of her sex at large;" but she does not say so in any definite statement. However the work was handed, as soon as it was completed, to Ma Rung, who so highly approved of its contents that he "ordered the wives and daughters (of his family) to practise it."

Indisputably the "Lessons" were designed to meet the needs of the women of the period, as Pan Chao saw them. By the use of the phrase chih mien êrh,3 "I know how to escape (from my fears or my faults)," she suggested her desire that her daughters, and no doubt young women in general, should be spared the terrors which she had herself experienced as a young bride in a strange house. Although the Classical Writings which she knew and loved are filled with moral teachings illustrated by precept and example, there existed then no treatise4 especially devoted to the practical everyday life of woman in the home. It was from her own studies and experiences that Pan Chao evolved her ethical system with its homely rules for training girls in personal deportment and right appreciation of family relationships.

In this system the cardinal virtue of the ideal young woman is precisely that humility which is now so strongly condemned by modern Chinese youth. Pan Chao made no attempt to raise the question of the equality of the sexes. She assumed the superiority of man over woman as a matter of course, just as she did that of the old over the young, whether man or woman. Through her interpretation of the symbolic customs of the ancients at the time of the birth of a girl she inculcated humility, and formulated practical rules of conduct implying that the young woman must claim nothing for herself. While strength was the chief glory of man, the beauty of woman's character lay in gentleness, and the most important lesson for woman to learn was that of respectful acquiescence. In the home, however, woman should fill her place as perfectly as man fills his in the larger and perhaps more important world of affairs. "That which must be done, let her finish completely, tidily, and systematically." Probably implying that she must bear sons for this purpose, Pan Chao assigned to the woman the duty of ensuring the continuance of worship in the home, as well as the tasks of preparation for the rites. She went so far as to say that boys and girls are equally important, and though it must be the woman who should seek to win5 her husband's heart, she "need not use flattery, coaxing words, and cheap methods of intimacy." It was the modest and obedient gentlewoman who would become illustrious in her district and win honor and fame for herself and her parents.

The conduct of such a woman would be dictated by her own respect for her husband. In the high place accorded to her as his consort in the family line of ancestors and descendants, she should take upon herself as a sacred duty the preparation of the offerings of food and wine for worship. The routine tasks which ensure cleanliness in person, food, and household must be carefully and systematically performed, with no waste of time in gossip and silly laughter. In quietness of spirit, attending to her own affairs, thinking before speaking, the wife should follow the correct way in thought, action, and speech. With full control of self, and with mind at peace, she must be content.

The gentlewoman should be industrious. "Late to bed, but early to rise" meant long hours, with many tasks, some easy, some difficult. Always ready and willing to serve others, orderly and neat in her work, giving her whole heart to the duties of the household, she would have neither leisure nor inclination to stand in the gateway or to gossip in the courtyard. She would find her joy in the womanly vocations of sewing and weaving, sanctified by her illustrious predecessors in the homes of her forbears.

Tucked away in chapter two of Pan Chao's treatise is her remarkable plea for the education of girls, a plea which would of itself be sufficient to ensure its author a place of first importance in the history of the advancement of women not only in China but in the world. She was just as convinced that girls needed education in order to fulfill their duties in the home as she was that boys needed it in order to perform the tasks of their own sphere of life. She wished to apply to girls as well as to boys the ancient rule that children should be occupied from the age of eight to fifteen in what may be termed primary studies as distinguished from the higher or cultural instruction after that age. For this later period Pan Chao proposed no changes in the customary procedure of her time regarding young women. Some idea of this procedure may be obtained from passages in the Li Chi,6 which may be taken as a fair indication of the ideals if not the practices of the Han age. It is there stated that a girl at fifteen years of age "assumed the hair-pin; at twenty she was married, or, if there were occasion (for the delay) at twenty-three." "Three months before the marriage of a young lady,…she was taught in … the public hall (of the members of her surname) … the virtue, the speech, the carriage, and the work of a wife."

It is significant that Pan Chao's stand for equal education up to fifteen was taken at a time when boys were already receiving a classical education with a view to official employment. There was no question in the minds of the cultured men of the period that boys ought to be taught, but about girls they had no such conviction. To Pan Chao this neglect to instruct girls meant a disregard of an essential requirement for the proper relationship between men and women. Her appeal for the education of girls in the primary studies was based on the argument that it was necessary for the correct relationship between the married woman and the family into which she married. Had her appeal been listened to by her own generation, it is possible that later moralists might have incorporated this reform in their teachings, and Chinese women might have been spared the eighteen centuries of illiteracy and the long ages of foot-binding to which they have been subjected.

But the doctrine that the early education of boys and girls should be the same was too radical not only for Pan Chao's contemporaries but for all the moralists who succeeded her. It was not until the eighteenth century that the appeal was renewed. In 1738 a work entitled "Women's Culture"7 by a Fukienese, Lan Lu-chou, was published in two volumes. Its author accepted the principle that education is fundamentally necessary for training girls in morals. "Their dispositions incline contrary ways," he wrote in his preface, "and if it is wished to form them alike, there is nothing like education."8 "A Chinese Declaration of Rights of Women" was made in no uncertain terms by Li Ju-chên in his novel, "Flowers in the Mirror,"9 which was published about 1825. This man spoke out frankly not only for the moral training of girls according to the four womanly qualifications of Pan Chao's ideal, but also for political as well as educational rights for women as members of society. He advocated the opening of the then prevailing system of examinations for political office to women, which would of course have necessitated the classical education prerequisite to such examinations. This bold advocate of women's education and political rights is a worthy forerunner of the hundreds of young men and women in China who to-day are striving for the equality of the sexes in education and politics as well as in the home.

The relationship of wife to husband is easily the most important of those with which Pan Chao dealt, and she devoted to it three out of the seven chapters of her "Lessons." Her belief in the superiority of man over woman involves no idea of any degradation of womanhood. Rather she took for granted a differentiation of functions in two entirely distinct spheres of life. In their relation to others the husband and wife had but one purpose; in their relation to one another the man controlled the woman, the wife served her husband. The two constituted a single link in the chain of the life of the family, but the functions of that link were divided; the man's share was without, the woman's within the home. For the man remarriage was authorized by the "Rites," but for the woman no such canonical sanction existed. Her will must be the will of her husband, whether he were alive or dead, and throughout her life her endeavor must be to learn the lessons of respect and obedience, of devotion and tenderness, and of contentment with her lot.

The "Lessons" were addressed to women only, and they portray the model woman as one who by her attitude of respect and acquiescence has succeeded in accomplishing the adaptability necessary for wedded life. Yet throughout the delineation of the model woman's conduct there surely runs the thought that respect and caution were also necessary on the part of the husband towards the wife; that the need in fact was mutual. The method inculcated for the practical application of the moral principles involved is that of constant self-examination and self-restraint. Since for the woman the marriage agreement was final, and the power of the husband over his wife absolute, she affirmed the need of a lasting devotion by wife to husband, and of correct behavior on the part of the woman in order to gain and to hold the affection of the man.

Further, the daughter-in-law must obey the parents-in-law.10 Although the man had authority over the woman, the old, whether man or woman, was superior to the young. Thus there should always be supreme respect for old age. In all the affairs of the home the mother-in-law was supreme; the daughter-in-law was bound to obey the parents-in-law. "If a daughter-in-law," quoted Pan Chao, "is like an echo and a shadow, how could she not be praised?" If her views differed, the daughter-in-law must sacrifice her personal opinions. There could be no question of right and wrong; it was hers only to obey.

Pan Chao maintained that the wife could live in cordial relationship with her husband's brothers and sisters. This was best assured by the young woman's yielding to the wishes of her husband's family instead of exalting her own. It is true, said Pan Chao, that a young girl going into a strange home will inevitably make mistakes, but if like Yen Tzû she never repeat an error, then she will win the love of her husband's family and they will stand by her. The concrete picture of the model young woman which Pan Chao drew in this connection is certainly applicable only to the family system of the Orient, but the underlying principle upon which it is based is true in East and West alike.

Pan Chao did not, unfortunately, formulate any general principle to summarize the detailed precepts which she laid down. Her treatise is severely practical, and follows a definite plan. Having accepted the two beliefs of her age that man was superior to woman and that the old were superior to the young, she set out to present the picture of a model young bride in three relationships, namely, in relation (1) to her husband, (2) to her parents-in-law, and (3) to her brothers- and sisters-in-law. The humility required in all three of these relationships must be taught to her from birth. For the maintenance of the right relationship with the husband, Pan Chao pleaded that the girl should be educated in the same subjects as the boy up to the period of cultural training. After that, the special cultural training of the girl along the lines of the four "womanly qualifications" of "virtue, suitable language, good bearing, and industry" would fit her to win and hold her husband's affection by "whole-hearted devotion" and correct manners. At the same time the entire educational process—the lessons in humility, the primary studies of childhood, the cultural training—should, when aided by lasting attachment for her husband, in no wise hinder the young bride from rendering the proper obedience to her parents-in-law, and should likewise make her more able to adapt herself in her new home to the wishes of her brothers-and sisters-in-law. Thus she would become an example to the world, the model young bride in her husband's home.

It is regrettable that the form of Pan Chao's instructions gives to permanent truths so impermanent an application. The feminine virtues are immutable, and what is required by modern conditions is a restatement rather than a rejection of Pan Chao's instructions. Twentieth century China can more easily repudiate the rules of the Li Chi for the "Inner Apartments,"11 or the pious platitudes of Pan Chao's successors in the field of morality, than the profound psychological truths which underly the "Lessons." Perhaps it is because Pan Chao understood and valued the position of women in an age of culture and refinement such as the Han period, that her interpretation of the ideals of the ancients has so much value even for the present time. Modern Chinese womanhood needs a leader who, like Pan Chao, can interpret anew for a new age the permanent truths of the functions and relations of the sexes in human society.


  1. III, 367: Chinese Recorder, XI (1880), 50.
  2. [Chinese characters deleted.]
  3. [Chinese characters deleted.]
  4. The Nü Hsien or "Pattern for Women" is twice quoted by Pan Chao, but no further information concerning the contents of this lost book has been discovered.

    It may be that the manners and customs in the homes of the women of the Eastern Han period, as well as the responsibilities for the duties involved in them, will be revealed from further study of the Han relics discovered in Han tombs in Korea, see Harada: Lo-Lang.

  5. The Chinese marriage agreement is still generally made for the couple by their families. It is customary for the bride and groom not to meet before the wedding ceremony. Any such courting as may take place in these circumstances is done as man and wife.
  6. Legge: Li Ki, SBE, XXVII, 479, XXVIII, 432. Cf. pp. 84-87.
  7. Nü Hsüeh.
  8. Trans. from Chinese Repository, IX (1840), 542. The object of education he thus conceived to be uniformity. Lan Ting-yüan, (1680-1733), district magistrate of P'u-ning. The Nü Hsüeh in six chüan consists of extracts from classical and historical writings. It is divided into four parts devoted respectively to the illustration of the virtues, sayings, conduct, and works of renowned women of past times, see Wylie: Notes, pp. 37 and 88; Giles: Biog., no. 1083. Without following Pan Chao's order, it quotes her entire treatise.
  9. For "Flowers in the Mirror," see Hu Shih, "A Chinese Declaration of Rights of Women," Chinese Soc. and Polit. Review (1924), VIII, no. 1, 100-109. Preface by Hu Shih.
  10. For the reaction in contemporary China against the frequently intolerable despotism of the mother-in-law, see an article by Ku Chieh-kang. The Renaissance, chüan 2, vol. 4, May, 1920.
  11. Legge: Li Ki, SBE, XXVII, 449-479.


SOURCE: Radice, Betty. Introduction to The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice, pp. 9-55. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1974.

In the following excerpt from her introduction to the collected letters of the twelfth-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, Radice outlines the principal events of their forbidden passion.

Nothing at all is known of Heloise's parentage, though much has been conjectured.1 She is thought to have been about seventeen at this time and born in 1100 or 1101. Fulbert's possessiveness has suggested to some that she was really his daughter, but taken with his brutal treatment of Abelard it would seem to have a strong sexual element, probably subconscious. Every credit is due to the nuns at Argenteuil for her early education, and to Fulbert for his encouragement of her remarkable gifts at a time when women were rarely educated at all. During the short time she was studying with Abelard they probably worked on philosophy; it was certainly a trained logical mind which argued so cogently against the marriage he proposed.

Heloise saw clearly, as Abelard would not, that a secret marriage was not going to satisfy Fulbert for a public scandal and, indeed, 'that no satisfaction could ever appease her uncle'. She therefore opposed any form of marriage, first because of the risk to Abelard, secondly because it would disgrace them both. Both have a low view of marriage, derived from St Paul and St Jerome; they see it from the Christian monastic standpoint as no more than legalization of the weakness of the flesh. As a scholar Abelard was a clerk (clericus), and as magister scholarum of Notre Dame he would be a member of the Chapter and a canon. Neither was a legal bar to marriage; though a married magister might be unusual, one feels that his personality could have made the situation acceptable. It is not known whether he was a priest in orders at this time: probably not. In any case, the Church forbade marriage only to the higher orders of the clergy. It is important to remember that there was no career open to an educated man at this time except in the Church, and that Abelard was prepared to sacrifice his ambitions for high office in order to secure Heloise for himself. He admits in a later letter (p. 149) that 'I desired to keep you whom I loved beyond measure for myself alone.' Any marriage, open or secret, would be an effective bar. An open marriage would damage his reputation but might, just possibly, appease Fulbert, though Heloise who knew him well thought not. A secret marriage would not be damaging but would be dangerous in its effects on Fulbert.

All the authorities are now agreed that the question of reputation is crucial to Heloise's arguments and refers to something much deeper than self-interest on Abelard's part. If her arguments are read closely it is clear that she was much less concerned with the possible loss of Abelard's services to the Church than with the betrayal of the ideal which they both admired, that of the philosopher as a man who is set apart and above human ties. She argues from a classical rather than a Christian viewpoint, and she takes her illustrations from Theophrastus, Cicero, Seneca, and Socrates as recorded by St Jerome. 'The great philosophers of the past have despised the world, not renouncing it so much as escaping from it, and have denied themselves every pleasure so as to find peace in the arms of philosophy alone.' (p. 72) She points out the distractions and petty hindrances of domestic life which are inimical to philosophic contemplation, and compares the philosophers with 'those who truly deserve the name of monks', that is, the dedicated solitaries such as John the Baptist or the ascetic sects of Jewish history. She concludes (Abelard says) that 'the name of mistress instead of wife would be dearer to her and more honourable for me', because then they would both be free from a permanent legal tie and Abelard would not incur the disgrace of renouncing the realization of his true self as a philosopher. They should be bound only by gratia—love freely given; marriage can add nothing of significance to an ideal relationship which is also classical in concept: that described in Cicero's De amicitia, a work they both knew, which sets the standard for true friendship in 'disinterested love' where physical love would be sublimated.

Heloise amplifies this point in her first letter (p. 114), in the well-known passage where she says that if the Emperor Augustus offered marriage she would still choose to be Abelard's whore; she says this in the context of preferring 'love to wedlock and freedom to chains'. She has loved Abelard only for himself, not for anything he could give her, and indeed, in her view, marriage for what either party could get from the other was no better than prostitution. By contrast, a lasting relationship should rest on the complete devotion of two persons; this is true disinterested love, based on what she calls 'chastity of spirit'. To such an ideal union a legal marriage could add nothing, and the presence or absence of an erotic element is, in a sense, irrelevant. The intention towards the ideal relationship is all-important. This is the 'ethic of pure intention' in which both Abelard and Heloise believed and to which she often returns. 'Wholly guilty though I am, I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it is done. What my intention towards you has always been, you alone who have known it can judge.' (p. 115-16).

For Heloise the issue was clear and unequivocal, however difficult it is for us to follow her. Conventional morality would speak of a young woman who is willing to 'live in sin' with a man, so as not to stand in his path, as sacrificing herself, but for her living wholly for Abelard is self-realization. Abelard was torn by an impossible conflict between his desire for Heloise and all the jealous possessiveness which went with it, and his belief that his duty was to realize himself as a philosopher and to preserve his intention towards that ideal. It has been pointed out2 that the quotations used by Heloise all appear in a work of his own (Book II of his Theologia Christiana) written after they parted but several years before the Historia. It certainly seems likely that he filled in the outlines of her arguments with references to chapter and verse when he wrote his account for circulation. But there is no suggestion that he did not accept their validity; he simply refused to be persuaded. Perhaps it was too much to expect of an ardent lover and a proud and hypersensitive man. 'But at last she saw that her attempts to persuade or dissuade me were making no impression on my foolish obstinacy, and she could not bear to offend me; so amidst deep sighs and tears she ended in these words: "We shall both be destroyed. All that is left us is suffering as great as our love has been." In this, as the whole world knows, she showed herself a true prophet.' (p. 74)

Heloise never reproaches Abelard for the secrecy of the marriage, which to her must have seemed an act of hypocrisy and another betrayal of the ideal. She was even ready to lie on Abelard's behalf and deny it when Fulbert broke his promise and spread the news. Years later, however, in a bitter moment she pointed out the irony of the fact that they had been spared when guilty of fornication but punished 'through a marriage which you believed had made amends for all previous wrong-doing' (p. 130). There were furtive meetings followed by scenes with Fulbert, which made Abelard decide to remove her from her uncle's house. The convent at Argenteuil where she had spent her childhood was the obvious place to take her, and it was near enough Paris for further meetings to be fairly easy. We know that Abelard could not keep away; he argues in one of his letters (p. 146) that they were more justly punished for their conduct when married than for anything they did before, because of their sacrilege in making love in a corner of the convent refectory, the only place where they could snatch a moment together alone. What he had in mind when he made her wear a postulant's habit no one can know, unless it was to give greater protection from Fulbert, but it was a disastrous thing to do. She could have stayed indefinitely with the nuns without it, and Fulbert very naturally assumed that Abelard was trying to get rid of her by making her a nun. This was the immediate cause of his horrible revenge: his servants broke into Abelard's room at night and castrated him.

Long afterwards Abelard could write of this to Heloise with hindsight as an act of God's mercy which rid him of his personal dilemma along with the torments of the flesh. But in the Historia what he vividly recalls is the pain and horror, his urge to escape and hide from the noisy sympathy of the crowds outside and the outcry of his pupils pushing into his room, his feelings of humiliation and disgust at being a eunuch, the unclean beast of Jewish law. He admits that 'it was shame and confusion in my remorse and misery rather than any devout wish for conversion which brought me to seek shelter in a monastery cloister' (p. 76).


  1. McLeod, Enid, Héloïse, 2nd edn, Chatto and Windus, London, 1971, p. 8 ff. and notes.
  2. J. T. Muckle, Mediaeval Studies, Vol. XII, pp. 173-4.


SOURCE: Snyder, Jane McIntosh. "Women Philosophers of the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds." In The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome, pp. 99-121. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

In the following excerpt, Snyder recounts the life of the martyred Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia.

Of all the women discussed [here] none—with the possible exception of Sappho—has enjoyed more enduring fame than Hypatia, the philosopher-mathematician who was murdered in Alexandria, Egypt, by a mob of antipagan Christians in 415 a.d. In the nineteenth century the figure of Hypatia was romanticized in Charles Kingsley's lengthy novel, Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face. Kingsley offers what no doubt tells us more about his own peculiar views of a woman scholar than about the real Hypatia. Here is the Kingsley Hypatia—literally quivering with emotion after delivering a lecture to her students on Book 6 of Homer's Iliad:

And the speaker stopped suddenly, her eyes glistening with tears, her whole figure trembling and dilating with rapture. She remained for a moment motionless, gazing earnestly at her audience, as if in hopes of exciting in them some kindred glow; and then recovering herself, added in a more tender tone, not quite unmixed with sadness—

"Go now, my pupils, Hypatia has no more for you today. Go now, and spare her at least—woman as she is after all—the shame of finding that she has given you too much, and lifted the veil of Isis before eyes which are not enough purified to behold the glory of the goddess.—Farewell."1

Far from being represented as a figure of authority imparting information to her students, this Hypatia is a curious mixture of helplessness, pretentiousness, and titillation.

Hypatia seems to have fared somewhat better in the present century. She has been mentioned in recent popularizing accounts of the history of science such as Carl Sagan's television series, "Cosmos," and she (along with Sappho) has a place setting among the women honored in the artist Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party." She has also been written about in journals of the history of mathematics, and her name appears routinely in recent biographical dictionaries of women in science. As Alic notes, she is often the only woman cited in contemporary histories of astronomy and mathematics.2 Moreover, an American journal founded in 1983 as a forum for research in feminist philosophy was appropriately [titled] Hypatia.

Although not a word of anything that can be definitely attributed to Hypatia remains to us today, a rough idea of the circumstances of her life and death and a reasonably complete sketch of her interests in mathematics, astronomy, Platonic philosophy, and what might be termed engineering can be reconstructed through the accounts of the fifth-century a.d. ecclesiastical historian, Sokrates, and especially through several letters of her student Synesios of Cyrene. The correspondence of Synesios (who was elected Bishop of Ptolemais in Libya) with and about Hypatia represents the closest we can come to Hypatia's own thinking. Further details of more dubious accuracy can be supplied from late sources such as the Suda or the ninth-century scholar Photius, whose hostile comment nevertheless shows Hypatia's continuing reputation in the Byzantine period: "Isidore (of Seville) was much different from Hypatia, not only as a man differs from a woman, but also as a real philosopher differs from a woman who knows geometry."3

Before we examine what can be deduced about Hypatia's written contributions to scholarship, let us first review briefly the main facts of her life and death insofar as they can be gleaned from the ancient sources. The task of presenting a coherent sketch of her biography is complicated by inconsistencies among these sources and even within the same source; the unusually long encyclopedia entry on Hypatia in the Suda, for example, is quite obviously a patchwork of at least two variant sources, for it begins with a very brief description of her family, works, and death, claiming that she was the wife of Isidore, and then begins over again with the phrase "Concerning Hypatia the philosopher"; in the second (much lengthier) account, she is described not as anyone's wife but as a beautiful virgin.4

The ancient sources do agree that Hypatia was the daughter of the Alexandrian geometrician and philosopher Theon, who may have been connected with the research institute known as the Museum in Alexandria, where Hypatia was raised and educated. She herself is described as a geometrician, mathematician, astronomer, and exponent of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy—interests that are borne out by the known titles of her works. The sources also generally agree on the period of her activity; she was born in 370 a.d. and was murdered at the age of forty-five in 415.

As has been recently noted, the "spectacularly brutal murder …" as well as its subtle political and religious overtones encouraged both friends and enemies to remember her. Not surprisingly, all of the reports place more emphasis on the social impact of her life than on her contributions to science and mathematics.5 The first section in the Suda provides only the barest outline: "She was torn to pieces by the Alexandrians, and her body was shamefully treated and parts of it scattered all over the city. She suffered such treatment on account of envy and because of her superior wisdom, especially in the area of astronomy; some say the envy was on the part of Cyril [Bishop of Alexandria], while others claim that these events took place on account of the innate rashness and proclivity towards sedition among the Alexandrians."6 For a more detailed report, we must turn to the contemporary account provided by the ecclesiastical historian, Sokrates:

There was in Alexandria a certain woman named Hypatia, daughter of Theon the philosopher. She had achieved such heights of erudition that she surpassed all the philosophers of her time, succeeded to the Platonic school derived from Plotinus, and delivered all the philosophy lectures to those who wished to listen. Accordingly, everyone who wanted to study philosophy flocked to her from all directions. On account of the majestic outspokenness at her command as the result of her education, she came face to face even with the magistrates without losing her composure, and felt no shame at being in the presence of men. Everyone revered her for her outstanding composure, and at the same time found her a source of amazement. It was at that time that envy arose against this woman. She happened to spend a great deal of time with Orestes [Prefect of Egypt], and that stirred up slander against her among the people of the Church, as if she were the one who prevented Orestes from entering into friendship with the Bishop [Cyril]. Indeed, a number of men who heatedly reached the same conclusion, whom a certain Peter (who was employed as a reader) led, kept watch for the woman as she was returning home from somewhere. They threw her out of her carriage and dragged her to the church called Caesareum. They stripped off her clothes and then killed her with seashells. When they had torn her body apart limb from limb, they took it to a place called Cinaron and burned it. This deed brought no small blame to Cyril and to the Alexandrian Church. For murder and fighting and other such things are completely alien to those who profess Christianity. These deeds were done in the fourth year of Cyril's bishopric, in the tenth consulship of Honorius and the sixth of Theodosius, in the month of March during Lent.7

Ironically, Hypatia's unfortunate end seems to have led Sokrates, as a Christian historian, to regard her as a kind of pagan martyr whose Christian murderers should be condemned for their violent act. It is worth remarking that both in the Suda and in Sokrates' contemporary account, although the exact reasons behind the plot to assassinate Hypatia are not clear, the exceptional character of her position as an outstanding woman scholar is noted as a source of hostility toward her. As Lefkowitz remarks, "We may well ask whether her death was to some extent caused by her being a woman."8 Whether or not we agree with Gibbon, who argued that Cyril "prompted, or accepted, the sacrifice of a virgin," it is clear that Hypatia's fame as a learned woman made her a vulnerable target for the antipagan factions in Alexandria.9 In the ancient biographies, at least, she takes on the mythical proportions of an Anti-gone figure—a female whose extraordinary nature and deeds are the source of her downfall at the hands of male authority.

Turning from Hypatia's life and death to the question of her writing, we must again note that our only sources of information about her scientific and philosophical interests are the titles of her works (insofar as they have been preserved), and a collection of eleven letters of her pupil, Synesios, in which she is either the addressee or the subject of a passing reference. According to the Suda, Hypatia wrote three major works: a commentary on Diophantos (an Alexandrian author of a treatise on algebra), a treatise entitled Astronomical Canon (presumably on the movements of the planets), and a commentary entitled On the Conics of Apollonius, in which she treated the subject of conic sections previously expounded upon in the third century b.c. by Apollonius, yet another scholar from Alexandria.10 But for one book, Apollonius' treatise survives to this day (either in the Greek original or in Arabic translation), but not a word of Hypatia's study is extant. (Ironically, several works by her less famous father, Theon, do survive.) These three titles suggest a focus on mathematics and astronomy, but the ancient biographical notices and the letters of Synesios imply that Hypatia's intellectual interests ranged from Plato and Aristotle to Homer to technological inventions as well.

Since we do not have even fragments of Hypatia's work, the nearest we can come to some sense of her as a thinker and a writer—rather than as a martyr—are the letters of her student, Synesios, who, despite his interest in Neoplatonism, was a Christian who held office as Bishop of Ptolemais. Three of these letters are translated here as representative samples of this one-sided correspondence between master and pupil. The first is interesting for its allusion to Synesios' hope for regular correspondence from his former teacher, whom he depicts as flourishing in a group of like-minded individuals:

To the philosopher Hypatia:

Blessed lady, I send greetings both to you yourself and, through you, to your most fortunate companions. For a long time I would have been eager to accuse myself of not being worthy of your letters; but now that I know that I have merely been overlooked by all of you—in this case, while I have done no wrong, I have encountered a good deal of ill luck, as much ill luck as a man could encounter. But if indeed I were able to receive letters from you, and to learn how you are spending your time (certainly you are in good company and are experiencing good fortune), I would fare only half so badly, and in all of you I would find my own good fortune. But as it is, this is only one of the difficulties that have overtaken me. I am deprived both of my children and of my friends, and of goodwill from everyone; and most of all, of your divine spirit, which alone I had hoped would remain with me as a force stronger than this heaven-sent ill fortune and the fluctuations of fate.11


HYPATIA (C. 370-415)

Widely regarded as the first female mathematician, Hypatia was born and spent most of her life in Alexandria, a center—with Athens—of late fourth-century Greek intellectual activity. She was greatly influenced by her father, Theon, a noteworthy mathematician, astronomer, and teacher who supervised her early education. As a young woman, she began instructing a privileged circle of students in private classes at her home, and later added public lectures as her fame increased. She was reputed to be a woman of intelligence, modesty, dignity, and beauty. Despite the widespread respect she enjoyed in Alexandria—or perhaps because of it—Hypatia apparently became the object of factional hatred in a city troubled by conflicts between Christians, Jews, and pagans. In 415 she was attacked by a mob in the streets of Alexandria and brutally murdered.

The letters of Synesius of Gyrene (c. 370-413), a philosopher and churchman who studied with Hypatia for many years and was devoted to her, refer to Hypatia's mechanical abilities and credit her with several inventions, including astronomical instruments and an apparatus that measured the density of liquids. Socrates Scholasticus (c. 379-450) documented Hypatia's life in his Ecclesiastical History and reported that she attracted students from throughout Egypt and beyond, exerting considerable influence in Alexandria's political and social life. The Suda, an anonymous tenth-century historical and literary collection, indicates that Hypatia was awarded an official appointment as public lecturer in philosophy, drawing audiences from the highest ranks of society as well as from the academy. Three major works are commonly attributed to Hypatia: a commentary on the Arithmetica, Diophantus's great treatise on algebra; an edition, with commentary, of the geometrician Apollonius of Perga's Conic Sections, and the Astronomical Canon.

After Hypatia's death in 415 a.d., the philosophical school of thought that she represented—the blend of Platonic, Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Stoic elements conveniently known as Neoplatonism—continued as a dominant intellectual force through the end of the ancient world and even on into the medieval and Renaissance periods. Other Neoplatonist philosophers (such as Hierocles and Hermeias) succeeded to the leadership of Neoplatonic teaching in Alexandria, but none seems to have captured the imagination of later writers in the way that Hypatia did.12 One of the Greek epigrammatists, Palladas (fifth or sixth century a.d.), honors her place as philosopher, astronomer, and teacher in the following poem:

Whenever I look upon you and your words, I pay reverence,
As I look upon the heavenly home of the virgin.
For your concerns are directed at the heavens,
Revered Hypatia, you who are yourself the beauty of reasoning,
The immaculate star of wise learning.

Some scholars have argued that the second line of the poem refers to the constellation Virgo, but it may be that the "virgin" ("parthenon") is Hypatia herself and that her home is "heavenly" because of its occupant's astronomical concerns (as explained in the next line).14 The metaphor is extended through the last line of the poem, in which the addressee herself, in her role as teacher, becomes a star.


  1. Charles Kingsley, Hypatia, or New Foes with an Old Face (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1897), 127.
  2. Margaret Alic, Hypatia's Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 41.
  3. Photius, Biblioteca 24-2.38 in Photius: Bibliothèque, ed. and trans. R. Henry, 3 vols. (Paris: Société d'édition "Les belles lettres," 1959-62).
  4. See Karl Praechter, "Hypatia," Real-Encylcopädie der Klassischen Altertumswissenschaft.
  5. Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 104.
  6. "Hypatia," in Suidae Lexicon.
  7. Sokrates, Historia Ecclesiastica 7.15, in Patrologiae, Patrum Graecorum Traditio Catholica, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: 1864).
  8. Mary R. Lefkowitz, Women in Greek Myth London: Duckworth, 1986), 107.
  9. For an excellent discussion of Gibbon's account in particular and of Hypatia's philosophical interests in general, see J. M. Rist, "Hypatia," Phoenix 19 (1965): 214-25. A very detailed study of the ancient and Byzantine sources may be found in R. Hoche, "Hypatia, die Tochter Theons," Philogus 15 (1860): 435-74.
  10. "Hypatia," in Suidae Lexicon.
  11. Synesios, epistle 10, in Epistolographi Graeci, ed. R. Hercher (Paris: Didot, 1871), 638-739. For Synesios' letters in the context of early Christianity and the classical background, see Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986).
  12. On the succession, see R. T. Wallis Neoplatonism (London: Duckworth, 1972), 138-78.
  13. Palladas, Anthologia Palatina 9. 400, in The Greek Anthology, ed. and trans. W. R. Paton, 5 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1948).
  14. Georg Luck, "Palladas—Christian or Pagan?," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 63 (1958): 455-71. Points out that "oikos" in line 2 cannot mean "constellation." He argues, however, that Palladas is not the author of the poem and that the Hypatia referred to is not our Hypatia.


SOURCE: Barratt, Alexandra. "The Fourteenth Century and Earlier." In Women's Writing in Middle English, edited by Alexandra Barratt, pp. 27-136. Essex: Long-man, 1992.

In the following excerpt from her collection of medieval women's writing, Barratt briefly summarizes the lives and careers of Marguerita Porete, Elizabeth of Hungary, Birgitta of Sweden, and Julian of Norwich. The critic also provides concise commentary on the major works of these writers that have appeared in Middle English.

Marguerite Porete

Marguerite Porete was a late thirteenth-century béguine from Hainault in Flanders (béguines were laywomen vowed to chastity who were self-supporting and led a disciplined life, either at home, in convents or in béguinages, i.e. settlements or special areas within a town). Some time between 1296 and 1306 she wrote a lengthy and obscure mystical treatise in Old French, Le Mirouer des Simples Ames, a dialogue between Lady Love, Lady Reason and the Free Soul, which was condemned by the local bishop as heretical and publicly burnt. The bishop considered that Marguerite's book was associated with the heresy of the Free Spirit, a loosely organised Continental movement whose adherents (many of them women) taught that Free Spirits, i.e. advanced and favoured souls whose wills were united with the Divine, no longer needed to observe the moral law or avail themselves of the Church and the sacraments (see Lerner 1972). In spite of this condemnation, Marguerite Porete continued to circulate copies of Le Mirouer and seek approval from theologians of its orthodoxy. She was therefore arrested by the Inquisition, brought to Paris and imprisoned. In 1309 fifteen suspect articles extracted from Le Mirouer were examined and condemned by twenty-one prominent Paris theologians. In 1310 she was condemned by the Inquisition as a relapsed heretic and burnt at the stake, having refused to speak in her own defence (see Verdeyen 1986: 47-94).

Of the French original only one late and somewhat corrupt manuscript survives, from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. Four manuscripts, three from the fourteenth century, survive of the Latin translation, which may have been made by the Inquisition as part of their investigation, and translations were made into Italian as well as into Middle English. None of the surviving manuscripts of the original or of the translations identifies the author or indicates that the text had been condemned as heretical. It was not until 1965 that an Italian scholar, R. Guarnieri, linked the historical Marguerite Porete, of whose trial and condemnation there are full historical records which do not, however, name her heretical book, with the French, Latin and English versions of Le Mirouer. Since then there has been much discussion of whether Porete was indeed a heretic, and much favourable comment on the literary value of her writings, which combine the conventions and language of courtly love with a passionate and exalted mysticism (see Dronke 1984: 217-28).

The Mirror of Simple Souls is a late fourteenth-or fifteenth-century Middle English translation of Le Mirouer, probably made by a Carthusian, a member of a strict and austere contemplative order of monks who led the lives of hermits within their monasteries. We do not know his name, only his initials, 'M.N.', with which he signed various editorial comments inserted to explain passages in his translation that he feared might be misunderstood. He tells us that his original version had indeed been poorly received and misinterpreted.

Although the Carthusians avoided all contact with women, they took a great interest in women's mystical texts and we owe to them the preservation of both the Short Version of Julian of Norwich's A Revelation of Love and The Book of Margery Kempe. But it is interesting that this translator clearly had no suspicion that his original was composed by a woman who had been condemned as a heretic (see Colledge and Guarnieri 1968). In medieval England, therefore, The Mirror of Simple Souls was not perceived as a woman's text, but this very fact is significant for it indicates the difficulty of assigning gender to texts in the absence of external evidence.

Comment: Generally, The Mirror of Simple Souls is a difficult and challenging text; as the translator puts it, it is written 'full mistily'. His translation is literal and consequently does not always make obvious sense, nor does it read elegantly; it also contains a number of mistranslations which may be due as much to the corruption of the original as to the translator's shortcomings. And his own translation is further corrupted in the three surviving manuscripts. (Most notably, they all have the garbled phrase 'Far night' for what must have been the translator's original rendering of Marguerite's term for God, OF loing-pres, as 'Far-nigh'.) But fortunately these factors still cannot obscure the intellectual daring, spiritual passion and profound originality of Marguerite Porete.

The dialogue form is not in itself unusual in visionary and mystical writings, which often consist largely of exchanges between the visionary and God or the Virgin (cf. The Revelations of St Elizabeth). In medieval didactic literature, from Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy to Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies, dialogues between the narrator and various abstract personifications are also common. But Marguerite's use of the form, with its three female protagonists, is distinctive. Reason when personified in medieval literature is invariably female because L. ratio and OF raison are grammatically feminine nouns. 'Lady Reason' is usually a direct descendant of Boethius's Lady Philosophy; she is prominent in the great thirteenth-century French allegorical dream poem Le Roman de la Rose, and also appears in Christine's Book of the City of Ladies. But Marguerite's Lady Reason is very different: she is seen as earth-bound and must die before the soul can progress. The figure of Lady Love is also unusual. L. amor is masculine, though its OF derivative is usually a feminine noun and Love is more usually personified as a male figure, especially as the God of Love, in medieval literature. However, Marguerite's near-contemporary, Mechtild of Hackeborn, also personifies Divine Love as a female figure. Finally, the soul too, as always in Christian tradition, is female.

The first passage, from the dialogue between Lady Love and Lady Reason, comes from the early part of the text and contains those daringly paradoxical and extravagant statements about the freedom of the 'free', 'surmounted' (i.e. sublime) soul which led ultimately to Porete's condemnation. The second passage comes from very near the end of the book, after the death of the invincibly ignorant and incorrigible Lady Reason, and records a crucial but agonising stage in the soul's progress towards perfection and complete union with the Divine, when she is faced with the need completely to annihilate her own will in order to mature spiritually and finally enter the Country of Freedom. The extreme passivity which this requires, though cultivated by male as well as female mystics, can be seen in part as a logical extension of the role forced on women in the Middle Ages.…

Elizabeth of Hungary

Two Middle English translations of The Revelations of Saint Elizabeth are extant. One (like most of the manuscripts of the Latin) attributes the original to the Elizabeth of Hungary who died in 1231, i.e. to Elizabeth of Thuringia (b. 1207). Elizabeth, who was the widow of the Count of Thuringia and the mother of his three children, was devoted to poverty and to the care of the sick. She never became a nun but was a Franciscan tertiary (i.e. a member of the Third Order of St Francis, lay people who led a disciplined and dedicated life in the world), and there is no authentic early tradition that she was a visionary. Although St Elizabeth of Schönau, a twelfth-century German Benedictine nun and mystic, has been suggested as a more likely candidate for the authorship of the Revelations, a better case can be made for Elizabeth of Toess (c. 1294-1336), the great-niece of Elizabeth of Thuringia and also, like her, daughter of a king of Hungary. This Elizabeth was a Dominican nun in the Swiss convent of Toess whose life, together with those of her sisters in religion, was written in Middle High German by Elsbeth Stagel, the close friend and spiritual daughter of the great Rhineland mystic Henry Suso.

As an account of her spiritual experiences, the Revelations must have originated with Elizabeth. But she apparently communicated them orally to another person, presumably a fellow nun (probably Elsbeth Stagel), who was responsible for the literary form of the work. The Middle English versions were translated from a Latin text, but the original text of the Revelations may not have been in that language. There are two, rather different, Latin versions extant and both may be translations from a now vanished original, possibly composed in Middle High German (see Barratt 1992). In the Middle Ages the Revelations also circulated in Italian, French, Spanish and Catalan translations.

The Book of Margery Kempe almost certainly refers to this text when it speaks of 'Saint Elizabeth in her treatise', whose tears were like Margery's. There are many references in the Revelations to Elizabeth's noisy and boisterous weeping and other points of contact make it clear that either Margery herself or her scribe knew this text well, in a Latin or Middle English version (see Ellis 1990: 164-8).

Comment: As nine out of the thirteen individual visions consist of dialogues with the Virgin, she is a central figure in Elizabeth's Revelations. Generally she both models and validates the visionary's own ecstatic, affective (i.e. emotional) and unrestrained spirituality. In the first passage, which opens the Revelations, the Virgin is also presented as a multivalent figure of supreme power: as 'lady' with all its feudal overtones, as mother and as 'maystresse'. (L. magistra, like 'mistress', can specifically mean 'teacher' as well as, more generally, 'woman in a position of authority'.) Elizabeth swears allegiance to her with the traditional gesture of feudal submission which establishes a contractual relationship between them. The written charter, which the notably silent St John the Evangelist is later commanded to provide, acts merely as a record.…

Bridget of Sweden

Bridget of Sweden (1302 or 1303-1373) was a devout noblewoman who, before she was widowed, spent much time at the Swedish court attempting to influence King Magnus and his French wife Blanche by her own example and her constant exhortations to moral reformation. A mother of eight, after her husband's death in 1344 she started to experience visions which led her to found a religious order dedicated to the Virgin, whose apotheosis Bridget took to new heights. The Order of the Most Holy Saviour was a double order for nuns and monks, ruled by an abbess; Bridget's own daughter Katherine presided over both the men and women in the mother house at Vadstena in Sweden.

Although Bridget was the first woman in the Western Church to found a religious order, she never herself became a nun. She travelled to Rome to seek papal approval for her new order and stayed to press for the return of the pope from Avignon in France where, for political reasons, all the popes had lived with their courts since 1304. As a result of her efforts Pope Urban V did indeed return in 1367 but, finding conditions intolerable, left again in 1370, only to die a month later. It was left to another woman visionary, Catherine of Siena, to help bring about the permanent resettlement of the papacy in Rome and to accidentally precipitate the election of a rival pope, leading to the crisis known as the Great Schism.

Bridget died in 1373 and, renowned for her holiness, her works of charity and her miracles, was canonised in 1391. But she was as well known for her numerous visions, many of which denounced the corruption of the Church in general and of certain individuals in particular, and stressed apocalyptic themes of the judgemental wrath of God. Other visions were vivid recreations of events in the lives of Christ and the Virgin, which had a strong influence on the representation of the Nativity and the Crucifixion in the later Middle Ages.

Bridget was a very popular saint in fifteenth-century England and in 1415 Henry V founded Syon, the only English Bridgettine house, at Twickenham in Middlesex (it later moved to Isleworth). Until its closure in 1539 it continued to enjoy close ties with the Lancastrians and their descendants, including Lady Margaret Beaufort (see Keiser 1987b: 11-13). It was renowned for its austerity, its influence at court and its learning. Bridget, who had learnt Latin late in life, encouraged scholarship as much as asceticism among her nuns; her Rule, which otherwise stressed personal poverty, allowed them as many books as they needed for reading. Syon continued its corporate existence abroad after the Reformation and, having returned in the nineteenth century, is the only religious community in England that can claim an unbroken existence since the Middle Ages.

Bridget's revelations, too, were widely known. Indeed, of all the continental women mystics included in this anthology whose writings were translated into English, she is the only one to have achieved real popularity and widespread circulation among layfolk as well as religious.…[A] first set of passages … derives from the Liber Celestis, the vast collection of Bridget's visions originally dictated by her in Old Swedish, translated and recorded in Latin by her spiritual directors, and then checked by her. The visions were later translated into Middle English in several versions; there are two translations of the complete text and in addition numerous extracts and selections (see Ellis 1982). The passages … come from a collection which has extracted and rearranged individual revelations to construct a life of the Virgin, as told by her to Bridget; this forms an interesting parallel with the preference of so many medieval women visionaries for hagio-autobiography.

[Another] set of extracts comes from The Rule of St Saviour, the Middle English translation of the Latin Rule that was dictated by Christ himself, Bridget claimed. The translation was one of the official legislative documents of the Bridgettine monastery at Syon and was presumably made for the benefit of the nuns, who could not read the original Latin.

Comment: … Bridget's best-known revelation [is] a vivid and emotional vision of the Nativity which had an immediate and continuing influence on its representation in art (Butkovich 1972: 31-4). It stresses the supernatural, if not anti-natural, aspects of Christ's birth, with a passion for ingenious detail that clearly derives from the visionary's own experience of childbirth (contrast the very different treatment of the subject by the lifelong nun Mechtild). Thus it emphasises the status of the Virgin as the Mother of Christ in a way that could not have occurred to male commentators.

… [A] second passage shows Bridget's passion for detail extending to a curiosity that goes beyond what would now be considered the bounds of good taste. It also asserts the Virgin's supremacy as head of the apostles after Christ's Ascension, a position used in the final extract to justify the unusual power structure of the Bridget-tine order within which the abbess, elected by the sisters alone, had absolute authority over all the temporal affairs of the monastery.

… [A] third passage shows the same concern for detail finding a practical outlet in prescribing the distinctive, not to say eccentric, habit of the Bridgettine nuns. The good sense of their winter outfit, with its sheepskin cloak, boots and stockings, reminds us that Bridget was not only the first woman but also the first Northern European to draft a religious rule.…

Julian of Norwich

Very little is known about Julian of Norwich, not even her baptismal name. She was born in 1342. On 8 or 13 May 1373, when aged thirty, she experienced a series of visions as she lay dying, followed by a miraculous recovery. She wrote two accounts of this experience, one almost at once and another up to twenty years later. Before 1413 she became an anchoress at St Julian's Church, Norwich, from which she may have taken her name in religion. She was still alive in 1416, when a will of that year left her a bequest, but was dead by 1426 when another will refers to the male recluse at St Julian's.

Julian was not a nun or an anchoress at the time of her revelations. She mentions that her mother, the parish priest and a small boy were present at her sick-bed, which would have been impossible if she were an enclosed religious. She had probably been married, for unmarried lay-women of thirty were virtually unknown in medieval England, but as there is no mention of her husband we may deduce that she was a widow (like Bridget of Sweden, Christine de Pisan, Eleanor Hull and Lady Margaret Beaufort) and that, if she had borne children, they too were dead by 1373.

Julian has been the object of much ill-informed adulation and dubious interpretation. She was a profound thinker, a difficult writer and an original theologian, not at all the simple, homely and cheerful woman of popular perception. Although one manuscript asserts that 'she did not know a letter', i.e. was illiterate or at least without Latin, and Julian describes herself as 'lewd' (i.e. uneducated), she was clearly literate in English and in the Latin of the Vulgate at least; how much further her learning extended is, like so much about her, a subject of dispute.…A passage in the Short Version of A Revelation of Love apologising for her temerity in writing as a 'woman, lewd, feeble and frail' has been removed from the later Long Version. She was also unlike other women visionaries in her tendency to engage in theological speculations on the most intractable of topics, such as the reality of sin and the constitution of the Trinity, rather than in affective, emotional recreations of events from the life of Christ. Her probing, analytical mind is most like that of her near-contemporary Catherine of Siena.

Comment: … [T]wo passages are from the Short (Carthusian) Version of A Revelation of Love. The first, which provides the context for Julian's visionary experiences, makes it clear that Julian was originally a medieval pious woman of a not uncommon type who, like many others, desired personal religious experience to enhance her faith based on the authority of the Church. Her longing for a more intense realisation, a 'bodily vision', of Christ's Passion, as if she had herself been present at the Crucifixion, is similar to that of Margery Kempe or Bridget of Sweden. What is slightly unusual, however, is her choice of St Cecilia as a role model; a combative early Christian martyr who converted her husband and his brother, she was popular in the Middle Ages (her legend is told by, among others, Chaucer in his Second Nun's Tale) but she represented a type of heroic, apostolic spirituality out of sympathy with late medieval piety. She was a preacher and teacher, a role Julian too ultimately adopted.

… [A] second passage is one of six revelations concerned with Christ's Passion, granted Julian in response to her request for her first 'grace'. The vision is painfully vivid, though not morbid or grotesque as late medieval devotion can so often be: the physical description of the suffering Christ is balanced and ultimately obliterated by her perception that even such physical pain is less than the spiritual pain of Christ's thirst for souls or the anguish of despair. Above all, Christ's love is stronger than his pain, and finally the suffering of Christ, of the visionary and of the whole of creation is transformed into joy.

… [A] third passage, from the Long (Benedictine) Version of the text, is part of Julian's radical attempt to reconstruct the traditional model of the Trinity on a Father-Mother rather than Father-Son basis. The latter part of the argument, in which Julian describes Christ's motherhood as an aspect of the humility of the Incarnation, his Passion as the travail of childbirth, and the Eucharist as his feeding his children with his body and blood as a mother does with her milk, is clear enough. So is her moving description of how Christ deals with the individual soul as a mother relates to her growing child, providing nurture, support and an education in which mistakes and setbacks (i.e. sins) actually play a positive role. No experience is wasted, for sin is not so much something from which we must dissociate ourselves as a part of ourselves through which we grow but which we eventually outgrow. The model is developmental, a very modern idea of fulfilling one's potential, through God's grace, and becoming the ideal, complete person whom God has eternally in mind.

But it would misrepresent the complexity of Julian's thought to omit the earlier part of the passage, difficult and obscure though it is. For the motherhood of God is a truth which operates on more than one level and springs ultimately from a conception of the Trinity as primarily a Father-Mother relationship, and of Christ—who as the Second Person of the Trinity was traditionally both the masculine logos or cosmic Reason and the feminine Wisdom or divine creative activity—as God our Mother in relation to God our Father. One cannot consider Julian's teaching on the motherhood of God without remembering that it is complementary to her concept of God's fatherhood, nor can it be fully understood without some knowledge of medieval theories about the biological roles of father and mother. Some medieval physiologists, following Aristotle, gave the mother a subordinate role in reproduction; she retained and nourished the father's seed and in due course produced it, but did not contribute anything herself to the initial conception (Rousselle 1988: 27-32).

… [A] final passage illuminates the compositional history of the texts. In this moving conclusion Julian draws a careful distinction between the visions and their meaning. For all their complexity, she finally sees that their meaning is single: 'Love was Our Lord's meaning.' All that ever can be drawn out of the revelations can neither exceed, nor exhaust, that parameter.…


Butkovich, A. (1972), Revelations: Saint Birgitta of Sweden, Los Angeles.

Colledge, E. and Guarnieri, R. (1968), 'The Glosses by M.N. and Richard Methley to "The Mirror of Simple Souls"', AISP, Vol. v, pp. 357-82.

Dronke, P. (1984), Women Writers of the Middle Ages, Cambridge.

Eccles, A. (1982), Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Tudor and Stuart England, Kent, Ohio.

Ellis, R. (1982), '"Flores ad fabricandum … coronam": An Investigation into the Uses of the Revelations of St Bridget of Sweden in Fifteenth-century England', Medium Aevum, Vol. li, pp. 163-86.

——(1990), 'Margery Kempe's Scribe and the Miraculous Books' in H. Phillips (ed.), Langland, the Mystics and the Medieval English Religious Tradition, Woodbridge, Suffolk, pp. 161-75.

Keiser, G. (1987b), 'Lady Margaret Beaufort and the Economics of Devotionalism' in M. Glasscoe (ed.), The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England: Exeter Symposium IV, Cambridge, pp. 9-26.

Lerner, R. E. (1972), The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London.

Rousselle, A. (1988), Porneia: On Desire and the Body in Antiquity, trans. by F. Pheasant, Oxford.

Verdeyen, P. (1986), 'Le procès d'inquisition contre Marguerite Porete et Guiard de Cressonessart', Revue d'histoire ecclésiastique, Vol. lxxxi, pp. 47-94.


SOURCE: Mumford, Marilyn R. "A Feminist Prolegomenon for the Study of Hildegard of Bingen." In Gender, Culture, and the Arts: Women, the Arts, and Society, edited by Ronald Dotterer and Susan Bowers, pp. 44-53. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1993.

In the following excerpt, Mumford focuses on the contemporary feminist rediscovery of Hildegard of Bingen as the embodiment of the "modern women's spiritual quest."

The past decade has seen a great surge of interest in the works of Hildegard of Bingen, abbess and visionary who lived from 1098 to 1179. One of the first persons to call attention to Hildegard in the 1980s was the feminist artist Judy Chicago, who invited her to the magical "Dinner Party" that has since appeared in twelve major museums in the United States and Canada.1

More recently, Hildegard's theology, music, poetry, and images have engaged the interest of both academic scholars and New Age seekers after spiritual truth. One critic claims, in his unrestrained enthusiasm for her work, that "records of her music are outselling pop stars; her opera is being performed on various continents; most of her books now exist in critical German and Latin editions and are being translated into English; her mystical writings are being studied, prayed, and danced to; plays are being written of her work and life.…"2

Barbara Newman, whose Sister Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine is the most illuminating scholarly analysis of Hildegard's work to date, acknowledges that "[the day is past] when St. Hildegard's theological enterprise could be dismissed as a curiosity in church history, and she herself patronized as a token woman and thereby marginalized.…Within the past decade, this exceptional woman of God has won considerable recognition in the English-speaking world."3 Newman laments the fact that Hildegard has been taken up as a kind of "New Age mystic" by "gurus of creation-centered spirituality" like Matthew Fox, partly because, as she justly observes, the translations of Hildegard's work on which Fox bases his analysis are "not to be trusted" (250).

The legendary "Sibyl of the Rhine" inspiring passionate interest in three such radically different groups—feminist artists, academic scholars, and New Age mystics—was a German visionary, poet, abbess, and founder of Benedictine communities who lived in what has been called "an age of great abbesses." As Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinnser observe in the first volume of their fine new history of women, "… the world of the great abbesses was disappearing. By the end of the next [13th] century, the circumstance and attitudes that had favored learned establishment and had allowed holy women like Hildegard intellectual achievement and spiritual power had gone forever."4

As a direct result of the church's derogation and suppression of women's creative and intellectual activity in all spheres of life, both in community and in secular contexts, the involvement of women in the formation of Christian theology was cut off at the root by an increasingly deliberate policy on the part of the church fathers of excluding women from the life of the mind. Millions of women died at the stake, on the rack, and in other ghastly torments as a result of this vicious suppression of the feminine. More than 800 years after the death of Hildegard, women are still suffering some of the effects of ecclesiastical and clerical fear and hatred of women. It is particularly important, given these circumstances, to go back to the work of Hildegard of Bingen to comprehend the magnitude of what has been lost. The extraordinary spiritual and intellectual power vested in Hildegard and many other women of the early and high Middle Ages, as Anderson and Zinnser have amply demonstrated, attests to the importance, for feminist teachers, of re-membering and reclaiming the distant past.

Hildegard's achievement, then, can be located in the context of the high Middle Ages, on the threshold of a new dark age for women. But in many ways she epitomizes the concept of the Renaissance woman long before the concept of the Renaissance man came into being. In addition to her powerful work as theologian and visionary, Hildegard was a poet, playwright, composer of innovative music, preacher, scientist, healer, correspondent, and spiritual biographer whose images of the inner life are often astonishing in their artistic power and authenticity. In the midst of a long and busy life as founder or administrator of three communities of Benedictine women, she wrote, among other things, seventy-seven songs and a morality play set to music; three great works of theology accompanied by illuminations of her mystical visions; treatises on medicine, physiology, and pharmacology; and hundreds of letters to the great, the near great, and the humble, in which she chastised the great for their spiritual corruption or offered wise counsel to those who sought her advice.

This essay attempts to suggest something of Hildegard's sense of herself not only as a child of God and as a Christian but also of herself as a woman, a woman whose insights into the nature of her spiritual life are sometimes expressed in startling images of unconscious feminine archetypal material.

In doing this work it would be tempting to define oneself as a "romantic feminist" in Barbara Newman's sense of the word, a label based on the distinction between liberal and romantic feminism in Rosemary Radford Ruether's Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (1976). A "romantic radical feminist" accepts an "absolute distinction between male and female modes of being in the world," (268) and rejects "the Christian tradition altogether in order to celebrate the feminine divine as Goddess …" (269). In the academy, romantic feminists are likely to be scorned as essentialist in their assumptions about female nature. Newman defines liberal feminists, on the other hand, as the "overwhelming majority of American and European feminists," who "… (veto) the notion that gender is a metaphysical category" (267). Feminists in this group believe that "gender-related differences are culturally conditioned rather than innate" (267) … in other words, they accept a deconstructionist or social constructivist point of view, although not all who embrace that critical stance would describe themselves as liberal.

I suspect that Newman's position on the feminist spectrum and my own position are not so far apart as would first appear. She speaks in terms of the "traditional framework of Christian symbolics … the great feminine paradigms of Eve, Mary, and Ecclesia, or Mother Church" (xvii). Obviously these are the literal terms in which Hildegard herself expressed her conceptions of the feminine. These paradigms, however, sound very like archetypes of the feminine divine perhaps unconsciously reflected in Hildegard's poems and illuminations. Newman observes that "… at the heart of [Hildegard's] world there stands the numinous figure she called Sapientia or Caritas; holy Wisdom and Love divine, a visionary form who transcends allegory and attains the stature of theophany" (xvii-xviii). This seems an apt description of a goddess archetype, except for holy Wisdom's transcendent separation from an earthly female body, and Hildegard supplied that missing aspect, as we shall see, in certain of her illuminations.

Newman's brilliant analysis of the intersection of gender and the feminine divine in Hildegard's theology must be the foundation for any feminist examination of archetypal material in the illuminations and songs. Basing her own work on the pioneering studies of Hildegard by Peter Dronke and of gender in twelfth-century religious life by Caroline Bynum, Newman rightly observes that "… as [Hildegard] pursued her highly 'unfeminine' career as writer, reformer, and preacher, she naturally encountered opposition, both from her enemies and from within her own psyche. As a result, she developed an unusual degree of self-awareness about her gender and its social and spiritual implications" (xviii). Furthermore, Newman agrees with romantic radical feminists that "We may boldly claim Hildegard as the first Christian thinker to deal seriously and positively with the feminine as such, not merely with the challenges posed by and for women in a male-dominated world" (xvii).

Newman is reluctant to see the works of Hildegard in the context of modern women's spiritual quest or in the context of women's writing, categories she feels are "too broad to give us a suitable context for Hildegard" (xvi). My own work suggests that Hildegard's spiritual autobiography reveals significant connections with the stages of women's spiritual quest identified by Carol Christ in the works of such modern writers as Kate Chopin, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich, and Ntozake Shange. Although such comparisons between Hildegard and modern women writers are ahistorical and thus in danger of universalizing women's experience, I am going to take what Diana Fuss, quoting Stephen Heath, calls the "risk of essence" to suggest the possibility of a spiritual connection between Hildegard and some modern women, myself included, who have seen in Hildegard's words and illuminations radical images of their own spiritual experience.5 Although Christ's description of these stages of "women's" spiritual quest is expressed in essentialist terms, it is possible to qualify the conception by suggesting that these stages can be said to refer only to the experience of some modern British and American women writers:

Women's spiritual quest takes a distinctive form in the fiction and poetry of women writers. It begins with an experience of nothingness. Such women experience emptiness in their own lives—in self-hatred, in self-negation, and in being a victim;…in the values that have shaped their lives.…The experience of nothingness often precedes an awakening, similar to a conversion experience, in which the powers of being are revealed. A woman's awakening to great powers grounds her in a new sense of self and a new orientation in the world …

Awakening often occurs through mystical identification, which women's traditional attunement to the body and mothering processes have prepared them for. Women's mystical experiences often occur … in community with other women.

Awakening is followed by a new naming of self and reality that articulates the new orientation to self and world achieved through experiencing the powers of being. Women's new naming of self and world often reflects wholeness, a movement toward overcoming dualisms of self and world, body and soul, nature and spirit, rational and emotional, which have plagued Western consciousness. Women's new naming of self and world suggests directions for social change and looks forward to the realization of spiritual insight in social reality—the integration of spiritual and social quests.6

Many of these psychological epiphanies can be recognized in Hildegard's spiritual autobiography, from her description of herself as "a poor little figure of a woman" (2) and as "wretched and more than wretched in the name of woman" (8) to the great mystical visions of the later years, when she envisioned the creation as the consequence of male and female aspects of divinity working through the cosmos.…


  1. Judy Chicago, "From the Creation to the Fall: A Discussion of the Birth Project, Power Play, and The Holocaust Project" (keynote address, Woman, The Arts, and Society, Susquehanna University, 5 November 1988).
  2. Matthew Fox, ed. The Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen (Santa Fe: Bear Press, 1985), 13.
  3. Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: Hildegard's Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), xv. Subsequent page references to this text are given parenthetically in the text.
  4. Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinnser, A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present, vol. I (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 190.
  5. Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989), 18.
  6. Carol Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980), 13-14.


SOURCE: Henitiuk, Valerie. "Virgin Territory: Murasaki Shikibu's Ôigimi Resists the Male." Agora: An Online Graduate Journal 1, no. 3 (fall 2002) http://www.humanities.ualberta.ca/agora/articles.cfm?ArticleNo=150 (accessed 21 October 2003).

In the following excerpt, Henitiuk offers a feminist reading of gendered space and female circumscription in Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji.

  We must not look at goblin men,
     We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed

       Their hungry, thirsty roots.
—Christina Rossetti

The controversial Japanese critic, author, and translator Setouchi Jakuchō has characterized the early 11th-century Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) as a sex education manual designed at least in part to guide Empress Akiko, who was brought to Court as a young child, through the complex maze of male/female relations.1 In this context, the Ôigimi story is highly instructive regarding author Murasaki Shikibu's attitude toward love and sexuality, dealing as it does with the ultimately fatal anorexia of a woman who feels an overpowering need to escape being wedded and bedded. Many episodes found in Japanese literature of the Heian period (8th through 12th century) show how, despite varying degrees of initial reluctance, women are married off. Michitsuna no Haha, author of the biographical Kagerô nikki written in the mid-to late-10th century, accepts Kaneie's suit and, in the Genji monogatari, the young Murasaki, the Akashi Lady, Tamakazura, and countless others do in the end become brides, to name but a few examples. Thus, while Heian heroines are frequently portrayed as offering a posture of resistance to the sexual demands made by men, most do at one time or another yield more or less willingly to such demands. In the darker Uji chapters that form the final third of the Genji, however, a unique female character appears, one who clings to her decision to resist marriage and all that it entails, even unto death. When viewed microscopically, the actions of this ie no onna (literally, "house woman," i.e., one not serving at the imperial court) may well appear paranoid and irrational (or, in Freudian terms, frigid), but macroscopically, taking into account the women's stories that have come before, they are all too justifiable. Through a discussion of the tactics she uses to resist her suitor, and especially of the rationale behind such resistance, this article will argue that Ôigimi's behaviour actually demonstrates a powerfully subversive response to male invasion and attempted appropriation of the self.

In the interests of readability, references to Murasaki Shikibu's text will be drawn primarily from Edward Seidensticker's 1976 English version (1989 Knopf edition), with Japanese terms and phrases introduced only where specifically relevant. While use of a translation rather than the original is necessarily problematic, this strategy has the not inconsiderable benefit of rendering my argument accessible to an audience beyond that versed in the Classical Japanese language.2 Critical works written in both English and Japanese (in the latter case, translations are my own) will, of course, be employed throughout.



Born into a noble family, Hildegard was entered at the age of eight by her parents into a hermitage attached to a Benedictine monastery, where she demonstrated a talent for leadership and theology. In 1136, when the abbess died, the nuns unanimously elected Hildegard as her successor. Although Hildegard possessed a gift for prophetic visions from an early age, it was not until she was in her forties that she revealed her visionary gifts to others. During this time, Hildegard worked toward the completion of the Scivias (c. 1151; Scito vias Domini; or Know the Ways of the Lord)—a documentation of the images and messages she received directly from God—while her fame as a prophet, healer, and visionary grew. Hildegard established her own convent at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, in 1150. Throughout the next decade, the convent flourished and Hildegard began to write works on medicine and natural philosophy, along with another visionary treatise, the Liber vitae meritorum (c. 1163; The Book of Life's Rewards).

Between 1158 and 1161 she embarked upon a series of preaching tours, and in 1163 she began the last of her visionary writings, the Liber divinorum operum (c. 1170; Book of the Divine Works). Often regarded by several scholars as Germany's first woman doctor and scientist, Hildegard's Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturarum creaturarum libri novum (c. 1158; Nine Books on the Subtleties of Different Kinds of Creatures), which is comprised of two parts—Physica and Causae et curae—is a pharmacopoeia and an encyclopedia denoting the characteristic medicinal properties of various plants, animals, and minerals, and contains discussion of the origin and treatment of disease. The later years of Hildegard's life were marked by her controversial yet successful defiance of church decrees when they were contrary to her own impulses and beliefs. This defiance has been the focus of much of the contemporary feminist criticism and analysis of Hildegard's life and works.

Similarly, while examples drawn from elsewhere in Japanese literature will be used to illustrate the various points, I have also chosen to engage with certain textual references more familiar to a Western reader. Given that both Comparative Literature and feminist research are largely interdisciplinary in scope, they expose the falsity of many purportedly common-sensical divisions, revealing that certain artificial barriers may have "obstructed a complete view of women's situations and the social structures that perpetuated gender inequalities" (Hesse-Biber 1) and suggesting that there is an inherent value to bringing disparate elements together, to moving beyond the bounds of national literatures. In a recent report on the status of the discipline, Charles Bernheimer argues convincingly that

comparative literature illuminates the artistic and cultural patterns of sameness and difference which exist both within and between societies, and it

thereby gives us a precious contrastive portrait of societies' values and beliefs, as well as their aesthetic and literary traditions.


New ways of seeing and theorizing the condition of women may well be revealed when the point of departure is located elsewhere than in Europe and North America. Ultimately, by focussing attention on a work of pre-modern Japanese literature, I am making an argument for a decentring move, questioning and destabilizing assumptions as to how our world can be understood and thus potentially leading to a re-thinking of certain feminist projects that have previously been rooted in the West.

Reading a 1000-year-old Japanese text from an early 21st-century Canadian perspective does inevitably run the serious risk of appropriation of voice. As Toril Moi rightly cautions, "it is not an unproblematic project to try to speak for the other woman, since this is precisely what the ventriloquism of patriarchy has always done: men have constantly spoken for women, or in the name of women" (67-8). Any analysis of a culture other than one's own needs to remain aware of the danger of daring to speak for the Other, of appropriating and (mis) interpreting what those from utterly different centuries and circumstances have said. While one could assert that every attempt to interpret a cultural artefact means a de facto act of speaking for its creator, whether sympathetically or not, it is a fact that the cross-cultural researcher must always remain especially conscious of the need to respect another's separate identity and experience if s/he is to avoid the pitfalls of misrepresentation and ahistoricism. One has also to be wary of anachronistic terminology such as "medieval feminist" and unjustified exploitation of early texts for supporting an unrelated, foreign perspective. Terms and phrases such as "patriarchal oppression" and "violation of personal space" certainly were not part of the vocabulary (be it Japanese or English) until very recent times indeed. Regardless, the ideas and emotions behind this modern-day wording are hardly new or geographically specific. Despite obvious and significant differences of culture and language, therefore, an examination of similar literary strategies can fruitfully exemplify and shed light on many of the concepts and arguments that have fascinated readers in both past and present, east and west.

Turning now to our main topic, we note that the reader is given a multitude of reasons for the elder Uji princess' rejection of Kaoru's advances. Her most often stated rationale is the desire to honour her father's wishes and protect the family name from ridicule (hitowarae). As Haruo Shirane explains at some length in The Bridge of Dreams, while her high rank requires Ôigimi to marry within an elite group or suffer social opprobrium, the family's status has diminished to the point where she has little hope of marrying well, if at all.3 The aristocratic Kaoru's offer should, therefore, logically be received as a welcome one. As for the purported parental disapproval, Hachi no Miya (the Eighth Prince) clearly had never intended his stricture against marrying to apply in this case; on the contrary, he entertained the fond hope that one of the daughters would indeed wed his trustworthy and admirable pupil. The Prince makes several rather vague comments about the nature of the relationship either Ôigimi or Nakanokimi might eventually enter into with Kaoru, such as "his thoughts have turned to you because I once chanced to hint at a hope that he would watch over you after my death" (Seidensticker 1989: 792). Nonetheless, other statements become much more explicit: "I have done what I could to bring you together. You have years ahead of you and I must leave the rest to you" (805), and especially: "Kaoru was exactly what he hoped a son-in-law might be" (801). Should a proposal be made, therefore, it would scarcely fall into the category of "unsuitable marriages" (807) against which he warns the sisters, and one is hard pressed to misinterpret the father's actual wishes in this matter.

So why does Ôigimi adamantly refuse the suitor? A far more convincing factor behind her decision not to accept this husband is a fear of what intimacy with men will entail. While allowing males to have access to her person would provide the support (ushiromi) Ôigimi needs to make her way in society, accepting such support would place her completely at the mercy of a patriarchy that is more than a little misogynous. Consequently, the resistance she manifests can be viewed as a conscious attempt to retain her autonomy and sense of self. Ironically, in this case, self-preservation is possible only through self-annihilation, and the reader bears witness to Ôigimi's inexorable progress toward death.

While the isolated domestic space of Uji initially offers a stable place of refuge for the princesses, loss of the father-protector exposes them to Kaoru's and Niou's claims to right of access. Despite her initial protestations that she prefers to spend the rest of her life alone with her sister, Nakanokimi soon succumbs to what is considered a normal woman's fate and marries Niou. The elder sister, however, is unable to conceive of wedlock as a desirable or even imaginable option, and repeatedly rejects Kaoru's overtures. Unwilling or unable to accept this quite unparalleled resistance as genuine, the hero nonetheless continues to badger her. Given that external flight is not a viable option, Ôigimi's fear of the Phallus (and the threat it represents) necessitates ever further retreat within the inner sphere. Eventually, her desperate efforts to maintain spatial integrity lead her to reject any trespass of bodily boundaries, including via the act of eating. By starving herself to death, she gradually succeeds in eliminating her own physicality, which has served to attract the unwanted and insistent suitor. To Ôigimi's mind, intimacy with the male can be achieved only by sacrificing autonomy and identity, and is thus a destiny to be avoided at all costs.

Although born in Heian-kyô, Ôigimi and Nakanokimi have spent many years of their lives in the Uji villa, isolated from the capital and the glories of civilization it has to offer. Poetic allusions in The Tale of Genji and elsewhere play repeatedly on the association of the place name Uji with ushi, an adjective meaning gloomy, wearisome, distasteful, or miserable. Indeed, the Eighth Prince moved his family to this location only as a last resort, when their principal residence in the city burned down. He is aware of the hardship such a rusticated life may pose for his young daughters, but has no viable alternative. This environment is described in quite forbidding terms:

Mountain upon mountain separated his [the Prince's] dwelling from the larger world. Rough people of the lower classes, woodcutters and the like, sometimes came by to do chores for him. There were no other callers. The gloom continued day after day, as stubborn and clinging as 'the morning mist on the peaks'.


Not only is the villa remote from the city and human companionship, it is constantly en-shrouded in oppressive mist and surrounded by dense undergrowth:

As he [Kaoru] came into the mountains the mist was so heavy and the underbrush so thick that he could hardly make out the path; and as he pushed his way through thickets the rough wind would throw showers of dew upon him from a turmoil of falling leaves.


The modern reader cannot help but be reminded of Sleeping Beauty, where the hero must fight his way through an almost impenetrable forest to rescue a virginal and insensible heroine. Nevertheless, as we will see below, in this case the acutely sensible beauty considers the wilderness an asylum and, to the consternation of her would-be champion, declines to be delivered from her unwed status in the traditional manner.

As Rachel Brownstein points out, this cult of the chaste maiden is an important and recurring motif in Western literature: "A beautiful virgin walled off from an imperfect world is the central figure in romance" (35). During Japan's Heian period as well, high-born women were very much "walled off," in that they remained jealously guarded behind several layers of both moveable and immoveable barriers. Clearly defined separate spheres for the sexes were fundamental to the elaborate etiquette of the time: "Good manners maintained proper distance, which amounted to upholding the accepted social order. […] Domestic space, divided by screens, curtains, blinds, and so on […] upheld distance and inviolate dignity" (Tyler xix). It is important to note that women in this society normally lived apart from their husbands in property owned by themselves, and thus could, at least in theory, limit intrusions to a significant degree. Direct access by even closely related adult males was not socially acceptable, with the result that the interior is portrayed as an almost exclusively female-gendered space. As a recent Japanese critical study on the architectural setting of the Genji (Yasuhara Morihiko, Genji monogatari: Kûkan dokkai, 2000) points out, female ownership of real estate meant that the woman's ability to decide what went on in her home was widely recognized, including even where a male visitor was allowed to sit.4

Ironically, however, most Heian architecture is revealed to be insubstantial, in that physical, visual, and aural penetration is within the reach of any moderately resourceful voyeur. Indeed, the entire tragedy of Ôigimi begins to unfold with Kaoru catching a hint of music wafting from the sisters' quarters. In this initially accidental, although not unqualifiedly innocent5, aural violation of their privacy, the young man becomes tantalized by the faint strains of the lovely and melancholy duet that Ôigimi and Nakanokimi are playing on koto and biwa. Once he learns that the Prince, whom he has intended to visit, is away on a spiritual retreat (and that the two young women are thus alone and unprotected), the titillating possibility of a chance at kaimami (literally, "peering through a gap in the fence," but more generally this literature's omnipresent peeping tom motif) proves irresistible. With the connivance of a guardsman employed by the princesses, he hides behind a fence and, by the light of the moon shining out from behind a cloud, is able to peer at the two unsuspecting women under their raised blinds. The reader participates in this surreptitious violation of their privacy and Kaoru's resulting arousal, which fact is made clear in countless illustrations (such as the emaki, or picture scrolls) of this and similar scenes. As Joshua Mostow comments:

The female narrator and her illustrator have internalized the masculine gaze and have been colonized by it: the narrator and viewer both merge with Kaoru and become complicit in his voyeurism. Essential to the voyeur's pleasure is the obliviousness of his object: the one he views must be totally absorbed in her own actions and unaware of the presence of a viewer.


Ôigimi and her sister certainly have no reason to suspect the presence of a peeping tom, although they do subsequently blame themselves for being oblivious to Kaoru's distinctive aroma, which had been carried to them on the breeze. After all, they are described here as uchi naru hito (Abe 16: 131)—literally, "the people inside"—thus hardly sitting out in the open, or even on the verandah as two of their ladies-in-waiting do. It is only reasonable for the princesses to assume that they were sheltered from prying eyes there in their private quarters, behind gates and fences, surrounded by serving women and protected by guardsmen outside, as had been the case until this fateful day.

In these chapters, nature and geography appear to offer additional barriers to violation and protect Ôigimi and Nakanokimi from unwanted intrusions. The Uji palace is presented as both a religious and secular sanctuary, the tortuous route from the capital serving to discourage most gallants and thus keeping its occupants safe from harm. Seidensticker rightly comments on the significance of the "gothic mists and waters of Uji" (1983: 203), and one is tempted to see the Uji River as a moat-like additional defense against invaders. Of course, being on the far side of the Eighth Prince's property, it does not pose a physical barrier to access. Nevertheless, the river is repeatedly described in terms that make of it an omnipresent symbol of nature's power, serving as a warning to those from outside but somehow a source of comfort to the female inmates. I have already pointed out that prospective suitors must struggle through almost impassible thickets and underbrush, their passage made more difficult by the ever-present fog. Until Kaoru thoughtlessly discloses their existence to the licentious Niou, the sisters enjoy an almost uterine security in what is in effect a secure, woman-centred world. Let us not forget that this is a society where homes are principally inherited on a matrilineal basis, and thus female characters are intimately associated with their residences.

Given that Ôigimi lost her mother at a tender age, this locale can even, to a certain extent, be taken as a mother figure—an abstraction of the feminine principle. It is worth noting in this connection that, as a would-be priest who, despite pressure from members of his household, declines to remarry following his wife's death, the Eighth Prince is presented as a de-sexed or not-male character. Norma Field underscores the effeminate nature of the princesses' father by positing a homoerotic attraction between Kaoru and his spiritual tutor. Along these lines, Ôigimi's anorexia can be interpreted as a rejection of her own sexuality or femaleness in imitation of her sole parental role model: a final desire to regress to childhood, to undifferentiation, even if this regression means death. Such a reading would then significantly parallel the failed attempt by the Third Princess (another motherless child in the Genji) to cling to the prepubescent space that she views as her one refuge from the menacing Phallus.6 Kaoru's violation would accordingly take on even more ominous overtones as an attack on not only Ôigimi herself, but also Child or Woman in general.

Bearing all these connotations associated with Uji in mind helps make more readily comprehensible Ôigimi's inward-looking obsession and consistent reluctance to leave. The security of her home is not something an intelligent woman throws away lightly, and the princesses have no hope of effective support elsewhere. As Brown-stein points out, heroines of romance, symbolized by a rooted flower fated passively to await the male, must stand guard over their spatial and corporeal boundaries:

Everything that can happen to the Rose while the lover struggles to reach her happens inside. She cannot but be self-preoccupied (which is not to say self-aware); unlike the Lover, she has no Rose outside of herself to draw her out or up. Her life must be passed in staring at the bare insides of garden walls. Eternal vigilance is her lot; if she lets herself be distracted it may be dangerous.


The interior is clearly identified as her predestined space, and allowing any male to have access is a step fraught with danger. This lesson seems to have been instinctively learned by women in the Heian period: "So the last veil had been stripped away, thought Ôigimi. One thing was clear: theirs was a world in which not a single unguarded moment was possible" (835). The fatal conclusion of her story proves just how dangerous distraction can be.

Space is unambiguously presented as a locus of power relationships. While Ôigimi has long been marginal to society at large and the class into which she was born, she conversely enjoys a pivotal position in the domestic haven at Uji. Her role as mistress of the house, companion to her father, and mother-substitute to Nakanokimi has been relatively autonomous. She thus resists Kaoru's intention to displace her from her house to his, where she would clearly become more subject to another's whims. This situation is strikingly analogous to that of the Akashi Lady from earlier in The Tale of Genji, who has benefited from a childhood and youth where the world revolved around herself, and who sees no personal advantage—indeed considerable disadvantage—in being transported to Genji's household. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman once wrote:

The life of the female savage is freedom itself … compared with the increasing constriction of custom closing in upon the woman, as civilization advances, like the iron torture chamber of romance.


To these intellectually astute women who have come of age in the hinterlands of Uji or Akashi, which offer (relatively speaking) a certain amount of personal freedom, Heian-kyô and the patriarchal society there enshrined do symbolize such an iron chamber waiting to close in on them. In their view, far from the pinnacle of joy and security that it represents to the waiting women and others in their entourage, the capital is a site of dependence and potential humiliation. Ôigimi's preference for the independence she has known, in spite of its obscure and peripheral nature, is thus understandable and leads her to resist being brought to a central position (i.e., to an estate within the city limits) that will inevitably be a weaker one. What makes the situation of this Uji princess even more untenable than most is the fact that, in his concern for the well-being of his daughters, the Eighth Prince has to a certain degree dispossessed her by making both sisters de facto wards of another man. (This other man is, of course, Kaoru, the stubbornly persistent suitor.) Although she does inherit the property that has been her home for many years and thus gains increased nominal autonomy, Ôigimi finds herself even more reliant on Kaoru's good will than ever before as, in his role as protector sanctioned by her late father, he presses her with unwelcome attentions that she now finds extremely awkward and risky to rebuff.

Ôigimi's dilemma is a metaphor for woman's ambiguous position within and without the dominant male culture of Heian Japan and elsewhere, where the appropriation of space signifies appropriation of the body. A paralyzing fear of, or at least pronounced distaste for, intimacy with men offers little mystery in a society where women can achieve sexual union only at the cost of totally sacrificing independence and self. It has been said that, "conceiving of herself as the creature of her relationships with others, and bound by her woman's fate to a life of relationships, the conscious heroine longs for solitude and separateness" (Brownstein 288-9).…


  1. "Akiko wa jûni-sai de kôkyû ni hairaretan dakedo, nenne de, ren'ai mo sekusu mo wakaranai. O-ningyô mitaina hito deshô. Tsumari, 'Genji' wa isshu no seikyôiku hon datta no yo." ("Akiko was twelve years old when she entered the Court, and knew nothing of either love or sex. She was like a little doll. In short, 'Genji' was a sort of sex education manual.") Tawara Machi. "Ima mo mukashi mo ai koso jinsei no gendôryoku." Interview with Setouchi Jakuchô. (Tokyo: Shûkan Asahi, August 21-8, 1998) 45.
  2. Readers wishing to delve into the question of translation accuracy with regard to women's writing in Heian Japan may find my article entitled "Translating Woman: Reading the Female through the Male" to be of interest.
  3. Haruo Shirane, The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of 'The Tale of Genji' (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987). See especially pp. 140-41. As a frequently cited footnote in Abe et al. (15:23 n. 25) makes clear, the vast majority (85%) of princesses of the blood remained single during the first two centuries of the Heian period, primarily owing to the scarcity of appropriately ranked marriage partners.
  4. Further, the exact location within the home to which she accords him access is of great import, implying minute differentiations of degrees of intimacy. As Yasuhara (201) puts it, Kono onna no kûkan ni oite wa onna ga otoko no suwaru ichi o kimeta. Misu de au ka, hisashi de au ka no sa wa ôkii. ("In this woman's space, it was the woman who decided the place where a man would sit. There was a vast difference in whether she met him at the bamboo blind or closer to the eaves.")
  5. In having Kaoru travel to Uji through darkness and rain, dressed inconspicuously and accompanied by a reduced number of retainers, the narrator accords him all the trappings of a lover on his way to a secret tryst. Indeed, our hero, unfamiliar with such intrigues, seems to derive a certain level of sexual exhilaration from the escapade, even before the women appear on the scene: "This was not the sort of journey he was accustomed to. It was sobering and at the same time exciting" (783).
  6. For an in-depth discussion of this heroine's use of temporal suspension, see my forthcoming article entitled "Seeking Refuge in Prepubescent Space: The Strategy of Resistance Employed by The Tale of Genji's Third Princess."

Works Cited

Abe Akio, Akiyama Ken, and Imai Gen'e, eds. Genji monogatari. Nihon Koten Bungaku Zenshû vols. 12-17, 1970-1976.

Bernheimer, Charles, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Brownstein, Rachel. Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Field, Norma. The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics. Ed. Carl N. Degler. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.

Henitiuk, Valerie. "Seeking Refuge in Prepubescent Space: The Strategy of Resistance Employed by The Tale of Genji's Third Princess." Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée. Forthcoming.

——. "Translating Woman: Reading the Female through the Male," Meta 44.3 (September 1999): 469-84.

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene, et al., ed. Feminist Approaches to Theory and Methodology: An Interdisciplinary Reader. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Imai Hisayo. "Migushi no koborekakaritaru o kakiyaritsutsu mitamaeba: Otoko to onna no hazama ni wa. Ôigimi to Kaoru no koimonogatari." Genji monogatari tekusuto tsua-, v. Kokubungaku 45:9 (July 2000) 172-77.

Keene, Donald, trans. Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkô. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Komashaku Kimi. Murasaki Shikibu no messêji. Tokyo: Asahi, 1991.

Miller, Nancy K. The Heroine's Text: Readings in the French and English Novel, 1722-1782. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London and New York: Routledge, 1985.

Mostow, Joshua S. "'Just Like a Picture': Metaphors of Beauty, Romance, and the Feminine Regard." ICLA '91: Tokyo: The Force of Vision I: Dramas of Desire, Visions of Beauty. 1995. 463-69.

Nakamoto Takako. "The Female Bell-Cricket." Trans. Yukiko Tanaka. To Live and To Write. Yukiko Tanaka, ed. Seattle: The Seal Press, 1987. 135-44.

Ôba, Minako. "Special Address: Without Beginning, Without End". Trans. Paul Gordon Schalow. The Woman's Hand. Ed. Paul Gordon Schalow and Janet A. Walker. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. 19-40.

Orbaugh, Sharalyn. "The Body in Contemporary Japanese Women's Fiction." The Woman's Hand. Ed. Paul Gordon Schalow and Janet A. Walker. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. 119-164.

Rossetti, Christina. "Goblin Market." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979. 1523-35.

Seidensticker, Edward. Genji Days. New York: Kodansha International, 1983.

——. trans. The Tale of Genji. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

Shirane, Haruo. The Bridge of Dreams: A Poetics of 'The Tale of Genji'. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Tawara Machi. "Ima mo mukashi mo ai koso jinsei no gendôryoku." Interview with Setouchi Jakuchô. Shûkan Asahi August 21-8, 1998. 41-45.

Tyler, Royall. "Introduction." The Tale of Genji. By Murasaki Shikibu. Trans. Royall Tyler. New York: Viking, 2001. xi-xxix.

Yasuhara Morihiko. Genji monogatari: Kûkan dokkai. Tokyo: Kashima Shuppankai, 2000.

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Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Classical and Medieval Women Writers

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Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Classical and Medieval Women Writers