Tag Archives: Medieval Women

Tertullian X: Women

Tertullian has often been called a misogynist, even by professional historians. I dislike labels of this sort. First, they’re prejudicial. This is an extremely value-laden term generally used when a strong emotional reaction is the desired outcome. This detracts from analysis. Labels are often used in place of argument. My disagreement with the use of labels is along the same lines as my discomfort with an overuse of models: it indicates a mindset of looking at something which has already been categorized. And sometimes – this is what really pisses me off – a writer will bring something up, label it, and never offer a reason why it fits under the label. That’s either lazy or sloppy, sometimes both, and the author’s treating me like a child. I don’t like it. Now I understand that part of the written word, really all language, is the necessity of identification and categorization. But I expect better from historians who should be sure to offer analysis. 1

For my money, being as my dictionary (Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2005) defines mysogyny as, “hatred of women, esp. by a man.”, I don’t think Tertullian meets that standard. He definitely has a view towards them which comes across that way sometimes however he is very positive towards widows and virgins and writes affectionately to his wife. An, er, radical view of women and their role (at least compared to previous authors)? Absolutely. Misogynistic statements? I’d say he has at least one of these which I’ll discuss below. Outright hatred? He doesn’t go that far, not in a systematic way.

Now that I have that out of the way, it’s hard(impossible?) to deny that Tertullian had a negative opinion of women, or at least many roles which appear to have sometimes been taken by them. He wrote multiple treatises which were directed primarily toward women. In most of these he’d throw a qualifier in that everything he was saying also applied to men but over 90% of the text would be talking about women. For example, in On the Apparel of Women (De cultu feminarum) he spends a lot of time talking about women doing their hair, using makeup, wearing jewelry, etc.and how all of this is the opposite of humility which God commands. In II.VIII he includes men in a fairly short chapter, saying they should not dye their hair, be overly concerned with their beard, shave their body hair and so on. But this is one chapter out of 22 in two books. Based on what I’ve read, while Tertullian believes that all Christians are in need of guidance and correction, women are more in need of these than men.

There are quite a few places where he places restrictions on what women can do, such as teaching or even speaking in Church, performing baptism, and of course their dress. An interesting aside to his prohibitions on women teaching and performing baptisms is that this seems to indicate that, in at least some churches, they were performing these roles; otherwise, why would he feel the need to prohibit them?

On the Apparel of Women is the treatise which paints Tertullian as really being negative toward women. In his opening, after a passage discussing how Eve is guilty of the First Sin of Mankind and therefore all Human perdition he adds:

“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.” On the Apparel of Women, I.I

He’s not done. Men are not responsible for their own lust. If a woman is the cause, then she shares in the guilt:

“For that other, as soon as he has felt concupiscence after your beauty, and has mentally already committed (the deed) which his concupiscence pointed to, perishes; and you have been made the sword which destroys him: so that, albeit you be free from the (actual) crime, you are not free from the odium (attaching to it)” On the Apparel of Women, II.II

Even if women are beautiful, though he tries to say that this isn’t their fault, he believes it is better for them not to be, even within their own home:

“As if I were speaking to Gentiles, addressing you with a Gentile precept, and (one which is) common to all, (I would say,) “You are bound to please your husbands only.” But you will please them in proportion as you take no care to please others. Be ye without carefulness, blessed (sisters): no wife is ‘ugly’ to her own husband. She ‘pleased’ him enough when she was selected (by him as his wife); whether commended by form or by character. Let none of you think that, if she abstain from the care of her person, she will incur the hatred and aversion of husbands. Every husband is the exactor of chastity; but beauty, a believing (husband) does not require, because we are not captivated by the same graces which the Gentiles think (to be) graces …” On the Apparel of Women, II.IV

These are the points where he goes above and beyond what most authors seem to believe. As I said above, he is quite restrictive on women’s roles in the Church and strongly believes women should be veiled and their heads covered whenever they are in public but he is not alone in making these types of comments. However his “guilt of Eve” statement goes beyond what others have written and I can’t argue with anyone who says that this is misogynistic. Theophilus of Antioch and Clement talk about Eve’s sin, however they do not make statements about how all women are contaminated by Eve. 2 Justin and Clement are specific in stating that women are as capable of virtue as men while Irenaeus introduces the concept that Mary redeemed Eve’s sin. 3

What was the impact of this? A common theme during the Medieval period was one where women were sexually insatiable and acted as Eve had, as seductresses. As Eve seduced Adam into sin with an apple, women seduce men into sin sexually. Tertullian’s the earliest author to write on this at length. As with other areas, I can’t say that Tertullian was the source of this attitude but it seems likely that he had some lasting effect. At the very least, the author of the Didascalia Apostolorum appears to echo many of his sentiments, though as that was probably written in Syria a couple of decades later it’s hard to say whether this was based on direct transmission or reflects a broader change in attitudes. 4

NOTE: This will be my last Tertullian post (I think) where I talk about a single subject. I have one more “cleanup” post where I’ll discuss some other issues he wrote on (hopefully none of those topics will become something I feel compelled to offer as a separate post) and then a final summary. I think 12 Tertullian posts is enough. I can’t help wondering what I’ll do with Augustine when I get there but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Also, in my first post I mentioned putting up one final, huge post which would contain everything, mainly for my own use. I’ve decided not to. It’s over 20,000 words and everything in it will have already been covered. I’ll just save it to a Word document for my reference.

1 For an example of this sort of labeling, see, Davis, Stephen J., The Cult of St. Thecla: A Tradition of Women’s Piety in Late Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2008), p. 52. Benjamin H. Dunning in Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2011), tackles this issue head on, “Scholars have paid a great deal of attention to the question of whether the North African theologian Tertullian of Carthage was a misogynist.” p. 124 with discussion of this topic on pp. 124-150, or all of Chapter 5.

2 Theophilus, To Autolycus, XXVIII; Clement, Exhortation to the Heathen, I

3 Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, XXXIII; Clement spends a fair amount of time on this, Stromata, IV.VIII and XIX. For Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.XII.4, “… so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevetherless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.”

4 As a caution to those less familiar with the medieval period, while the anti-women rhetoric could sometimes be severe, it likely had less impact than its volume would imply. Women bore children, ran households; peasant women worked the fields, cared for livestock and did the housework. Just living was too hard for most people to worry about these sort of things. Even Tertullian was married and wrote affectionately to his wife.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.


Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress – a Few Comments

I just finished reading Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress by Hagith Sivan. I ran the gamut with this book – started reading just to read, decided partway through I was going to review it and changed my note-taking accordingly, then reversed myself and decided not to. As a compromise with myself I decided to comment briefly.

First, any book which mentions the Pseudo Society at Kalamazoo can’t be all bad. Sivan detailed the contents of GP’s secret diary at the 2002 International Congress on Medieval Studies. Unfortunately that was one I did not attend. 1

Sivan takes an interesting approach in this book, one which grew on me as I went along. While she provides some details of GP’s life, what she uses are events from her life to illustrate the life of aristocratic women. For example, she and Athaulf had a young son, Theodosius III who died in infancy. Other than the fact that the child’s body was placed in a small, silver reliquary, almost no details have survived about his initial burial in 415 (as opposed to the translation of his body to the family mausoleum in 450). Sivan uses other examples from Late Antiquity such as late 4th century letters from Ambrose, homilies from Gregory Naziansus and Gregory of Nyssa, poems from Paulinus of Nola and accounts of funerals to describe what likely happened. She provides similar examples for GP’s weddings, her son’s accession as Emperor and other key moments in her life. Where they exist she uses surviving evidence such as texts and inscriptions.

In essence, this is much more a book on aristocratic women in the later Empire than a biography of Galla Placidia. There are biographical elements but in many ways, this is the weakest part of the book. It is more valuable as a study of the status of women. My two main criticisms of the book are how it serves as a biography and with how Sivan approaches some of the more controversial modern interpretations of some of the evidence.

The book offers a fair amount of detail of GP’s life, or at least the progression of the later Western Empire, through 425 when she becomes regent for her son, Valentinian III. A fairly detailed account of the Goths, their movements through Gaul and settlement in Spain and various conflicts and power struggles are provided. The death of Constantius III, GP’s exile during the brief – 423-425 – reign of John, a Notary, and her and her son returning to Ravenna in 425 receive substantial attention. This drops off for the years 425- 437, the period of her regency, and even less is given for 438-450. Some details of the conflict between Aetius and Boniface are provided however little is spoken of the erosion of the Empire’s territory, the impact of the Vandal conquest of North Africa or how the Empire struggled to respond to these threats. This was disappointing to me, largely because those kinds of details are given through 425 and honestly, if the book’s about Galla Placidia, wouldn’t an account of when she was the ruler of the Empire, and her son’s rule (at least through 450 and if you’re going to do that you might as well get to 455) be included?

My other issue is when Sivan discusses events which have been interpreted in contrasting ways by modern historians. This may be more of a personal peeve. This book is what I would consider a fairly light read and does not engage in the dense, technical examinations of evidence that more academic books contain. However when Sivan mentions that she has chosen one source interpretation over another, I believe she should at least summarize the two arguments. One of these is for the dating of the Ashburnham Pentateuch to the fifth rather than sixth or seventh century. (129) Her selection of the earlier date may be perfectly valid – it likely is – however a brief foray into the arguments would be appropriate. Likewise, she provides an interpretation of Merobaudes’ Carmen I which portrays the child Valentinian III as a weeping exile in search of assistance before the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, while in the translation I have this is depicted as the joyful betrothal of Licinia Eudoxia and the then (in 423) exiled young emperor. (122-3) Sivan does footnote that her interpretation differs from others (I have the Clover translation) but she goes into no detail regarding how or why she reached this conclusion, or even what the Clover translation describes.

By necessity I have spent considerable time detailing a couple of criticisms. However I do not want this to give the impression that this book is not useful. It is geared more toward the beginner than the historian. In particular, I believe a specialist in this period and region will find little of value. I do think it will make a very nice introduction to the early fifth century of the Western Empire, though I will need to consider a more narrative type of book to suggest as a companion.

In the end, this is a good book, though with a few holes. The status of aristocratic women in the later Empire is explored through an interesting examination of source material and in using Galla Placidia as something of a case study. It is not a straightforward biographical account and some of the details of the fifth century, particularly from 438-450, are unfortunately absent. However if someone is interested in learning more about medieval women; their roles, challenges, and ability to influence events, this book would make a good starting point.

1 The Pseudo Society presentations at Kalamazoo are purely humorous depictions of the Middle Ages.

Clover, Frank, trans. Flavius Merobaudes: A translation and Historical Commentary, Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society (1971).

Sivan, Hagith, Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010).


Posted by on October 30, 2011 in Books


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