In the treatise called La nobiltà et l’eccellenza delle donne co’ diffetti et mancamenti de gli uomini (The nobility and Excellence of women, and the Defects and Vices of Men) (1601) Lucrezia Marinella claims that women are superior to men. She argues that men are excessively hot, and that heat in a high degree is detrimental to the intellectual and moral capacities of a person. The aim of this paper is to set out Marinella’s views on temperature differences in the bodies of men and women and the effects of bodily constitution on the capacities necessary for political deliberation and rule. I situate Marinella’s argument in the context of an ongoing debate about physiological differences between the sexes, begun in antiquity and extending into the Renaissance. That debate is important for several reasons: (i) as part of a broader discussion of the nature and worth of women, (ii) as determining influential interpretations of ancient authorities on matters of physiology, and (iii) as anticipating later discussions of the relation between the sexed body and political roles. This paper considers Marinella in dialogue with a number of interlocutors, elements of whose work can be found in her own: Aristotle, Mario Equicola, Galeazzo Flavio Capra, Ludovico Domenichi and Torquato Tasso.
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The earliest treatise I know of is Goggio's Delle lodi delle donne, (In Praise of Women), a manuscript dated 1487 (Ferrara). For a description of the manuscript, see Fahy (1956).
I have not included in this discussion two sources that were probably important to Marinella. One is Agrippa's Declamation on the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex (1529), the other is Castiglione's The Courtier (1528). Agrippa has little to say on the question of temperature or constitution more generally, although he does set out a number of physiological arguments for the superiority of women. Castiglione, on the other hand, is likely one source of Marinella's position on the temperate constitution of women (see note 14 below). His dialogue is well known relative to other sixteenth century pro-woman works; I have chosen here to emphasize the lesser-known works.
Marinella may have been influenced also by Renaissance medical treatises (her father was a doctor, and she probably had access to his library). MacLean (1980), citing Adelmann (1966) (II 754) says: "Although most doctors [in the sixteenth century] refer to ancient sects (the 'practici' who follow Averroes, the 'peripatetici', the 'Galenici', the 'methodici', the 'empirici'), the vast majority of them are, according to Adelmann, 'thoroughgoing Galenists at heart', but influenced to different degrees by Aristotle, Avicenna and Hippocrates," (28). See MacLean (1980), 28–46 for a comprehensive discussion of the influence of contemporary medicine, anatomy and physiology on the Renaissance conception of woman.
Purity is sometimes associated with cold and sometimes with hot blood. This may be a question of whether ‘cold’ means ‘resistant to being heated’ and ‘hot’ means ‘having already been heated’ in the sense of concocted fully and hence more resistant to being heated.
For a helpful overview of a number of early pro-woman treatises, see Agrippa (1529/1996: 3–33).
The Latin passage reads: luce clarius cum pateat iisdem concretam feminam quibus vir elementis: eodem enim semine corpus nascitur alitur crescit senescit moritur; eundem ipsa haurit spiritum; ad eundem tendit beatitudinis finem; opinionem mentem et orationem sortita ratiocinatur.
Capra says: "…everyone knows that nothing is more contrary to practical wisdom than sudden eruptions of anger. These occur in men a thousand times for every occurrence in a woman. This is not due to a moral failing [in men], but rather to a defect of nature: men, having a hotter constitution, are sometimes disturbed with less reason and have outbursts caused by a small degree of anger. And by contrast women, being of a colder constitution, are less subject to these violent perturbations and all their actions are performed more quietly and thoughtfully," (translation my own).
I set out below some of the evidence for Marinella's debt to Domenichi.
There is no modern edition of Domenichi's dialogue, and no published English translation. The translations here are my own.
"Spirits" here are the instruments of the soul; they are physical, and so can have physical properties. Lucio asserts that any difference in the perfection of the sexes proceeds not from the soul (l'animo) but from the spirits insofar as they are hotter or colder (gli spiriti più caldi & più secchi) (59V-60R). If, as is probable, Domenichi's notion of spirits can be traced back to Plutarch, there is likely also an association of these spirits with the spiritedness or thumos of ancient psychology. See Duff (1999: 72–75) and Opsomer (1994).
They also transcend human virtue as a whole, since their virtue is perfect. Heroic persons are then in important ways closer to divine beings than mortal beings.
Although heroic women, like heroic men, are fit for political rule they will often refuse a position of rule, wishing only to act with practical wisdom and courage, just like men.
I say "may have" because Marinella often suggests that excessive heat makes one intellectually feebler (see notes 15, 16, and 17 below), but since she had already asserted that the rational soul is the same in the sexes, she may have thought this was a superfluous point.
I do not say that she diverges from Domenichi on this point, because, although Lucio in the dialogue says that heat perfects the spirits (suggesting that it has some benefits), Francesco, whom I take to represent Domenichi's view, asserts that the natural heat of the masculine sex is superficial and variable, whereas women's coldness allows them to form firmer impressions. Earlier, Castiglione had said that women might have "more fixed impressions from her frigidity," (see Castiglione 1528/1959: III. 16–18, especially p. 218).
"[A hot and dry constitution] causes and produces an infinite number of ill effects (such as more passionate appetites and uncontrolled desires) that a moderate heat does not provoke," (Marinella 1601: 136).
"…Too little and inadequate [heat]…is the least capable of action. Too much and excessive [heat] makes people hasty and wild. Therefore not every [quantity] of heat is good and acts to serve the tasks of the soul…But it is good in a certain amount and in a suitable proportion, as that of woman. Therefore Aristotle's explanation that men are nobler than women because hotter is invalid," (Marinella 1601: 119; 1999:130). Translation my own.
"All the learned and scientific men believe that the male sex is nobler than the female, because they are by nature hotter. They deceive themselves significantly, because the soul certainly works by means of heat, which is among its instruments, but not with all strengths of heat, but rather with heat that is soft and benign, and does not exceed a certain temperate degree. Hence who will ever dare to say that the heat of the male is temperate, and suited for all the operations of the soul, speculative, practical and moral?" (Marinella 1601: 135). Castiglione had made a similar point: "…woman, taken in herself, is temperate, or at least more nearly temperate than man, because the moisture she has in her is proportionate to her natural warmth, which in man more readily evaportates and is consumed because of excessive dryness," (Castiglione 1959: 219).
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I am grateful to Marco Piana for his help, and to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for support.
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Deslauriers, M. Marinella and her interlocutors: hot blood, hot words, hot deeds. Philos Stud 174, 2525–2537 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0730-3
- Sexual difference