An exegesis concerning the novel
Section 1 - Thematic Concerns - A Feminist Position
In the beginning of my research two issues, relating to feminism, interested me. They were issues relating to the silencing of women and, directly from Irigaray, the notion of women being 'not one' (Irigaray, 1981).
Irigaray's notion of women being 'not one' had ramifications within the
structure of the text and will be dealt with in Section 2 where I discuss
my experiments with duality structure. Here in Section 1 I will concentrate
on the way in which my understanding about the silencing of women manifested
itself in the final text of the novel.
When addressing the private-personal domain I explored domestic and work-front bullying and abuse. Basically I was looking for answers as to why men wanted to silence women's voices. On the political-systemic domain I was interested in the way women's ideas, thoughts and knowledge had been written out of the canon, and in many cases lost or fragmented. I was searching for some event or process that I could label, even metaphorically, as the beginning of the gendercide.
I approached this task with a great sadness for I was not angry with men as such, but rather deeply saddened by the patriarchal desire to silence our voices.
In exploring these issues I adopted feminist research techniques which implored me to position myself as a player in the research, a part of the research and not as a removed observer (Ball, 1991; Fraser, 1989; Spelman, 1988). I did not want to remove myself from my research, nor I argue, could I have with any conviction. Notions of absolute truth and objectivity are foreign to me, and indeed, as I will mention later, they form part of the systemic process by which women's knowledge has been silenced and neglected. In all of the research - textually, interview or observationally based, I accepted that I was part of the subject. After all, I was a woman researching aspects of how my gender has been silenced. I listened to Cixous and from the very beginning placed myself firmly and comfortably within the text (Cixous, 1991).
The lens - sadness
Sadness is a delicious yet, in psychological parlance, an under-explored emotion. It is often, in such parlance, coupled with depression or linked to a list of other negative emotions, and is rarely treated as a positive and separate emotion.
Carol Stearns traces much of the psychological, biological, linguistic and anthropological literature on sadness. In trying to isolate the emotion she refers back to the original meaning of 'sad' which I found to be useful in teasing out the layers of the emotion (Stearns, 1993). Her article however only mentions aspects of the 1667 definition, notably, 'dignified and steadfast'. It is also useful to refer to the earlier 1450 use of the word as 'having had one's fill, sated, weary' (Onions, 1964). This etymological search is useful, for, I argue, these early meanings still infect the word. Sadness accompanies dignity as it does some kind of weary, sated state.
For us to divorce sadness from depression we need to charge the emotion with aspects of ennui and its companion, fulfilment. Ennui and fulfilment are bedfellows because for one to experience ennui one needs to be tired of the world, full of it, overburdened by it. It is not possible to experience this world-weariness if one is new to the world. It is not the plight of a novitiate to suffer ennui.
And if ennui and fulfilment are part of sadness so too is dignity, for, unlike depression, anger, hysteria, unhappiness or weepiness, we expect sadness to be accompanied by dignified and steadfast behaviour. For example, missing the train might make one unhappy or annoyed or angry or even frustrated. It might result in a person tearing up their ticket, abusing the platform attendant, biting their bottom lip, cursing themselves for being late or other such behaviours. But these are the behaviours of anger, annoyance, frustration, and the like. They are not the typical behaviour of sadness. Missing the train would not by itself make one sad.
In order to experience sadness from something like missing a train other factors need to be involved. There has to be some higher order of events and consequences for such an occurrence to cause sadness. The resultant behaviour of one suffering sadness in such a situation is more likely to be an effort to hold back tears, to sit exhausted on the platform and stare silently into the empty track wondering what life now holds. Sadness generates silence and reflection. It is a powerful and yet intensely private emotion, and unlike anger, with its too frequent public outburst, sadness generates private emotional states.
Sadness in this light is a positive emotion that balances and gives depth to our lives. It is the emotion that gives joy depth and dimension, and without it our lives would be superficial, sanitised or tranquillised.
A paragraph that has been cut from the final draft of the novel sums this up. Meridian is speaking:
This notion of sadness penetrates the novel.
Stearns concludes her article on defining the nature of sadness:
She might well have included a novelist in such a list.
Sadness seemed, then, an appropriate emotion to explore in the novel and to use as a filter to look, once again, at the relationship between men and women in the last part of the 20th century.
Different emotions require different craft techniques in their writing and I was interested in how this private and powerful emotion needed to be written with a great deal of gentleness and subtlety. It was as if I needed to lift my hand from the keyboard, applying just the gentlest of touch.
Major influences: Gilman and Greyer-Ryan
Two articles in my general reading on the subject of silence clung to me like awkward memory. One was Greyer-Ryan's, "The Castration of Cassandra" (Greyer-Ryan, 1991) and the other, Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" (Gilman, 1981) (note 2). I will concentrate on each.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a disturbing yet simple short story written at the end of the 19th century, which deals with the rest cure, a fashionable treatment for women whose emotional state placed them outside their husband's or family's perceived notion of normal. Gilman, like many women of her time and ours, was not privileged with permission to explore a range of psychological states, but rather was expected to maintain those behaviours that had been defined as acceptable. Like the tranquillised women who are fed Valium or Prozac, Gilman and her generation were expected to operate within a narrow band of emotional states where evenness and predictability were highly valued. In Gilman's case she was tranquillised not with drugs but with inactivity. The rest cure allowed her/her character only two hours of intellectual work a day (note 3). Starved in this way her character became fixated upon the wallpaper which dominated the room she spent her 'quiet time' in and, as we rapidly see in this excerpt from the story, it also dominated her unoccupied mind.
Although much has been written on this piece, both by Gilman and others, notably Hill, it is the story itself, which lasts as provocative, awakening and demanding action (Gilman, 1981; Hill, 1980). I was interested in how Gilman had achieved this.
The story is not didactic or prescriptive and yet the outrage and sadness it generates over the way women are limited, girdled, controlled and silenced is overwhelming. I have given this story to many female students who are struggling with issues relating to their own silencing and they have reported back, time and time again, that the story has infected their dreaming. It holds a contemporary potency. The way Gilman has constructed her story allows the reader to leap from the 'rest cure' to contemporary medical practices, which still demand women adhere to limited patterns of behaviour, handing out treatments and drugs to achieve this desired equilibrium.
This use of fiction excited me. I wanted to say something about this silencing but I didn't want to do it with a didactic mallet. Gilman's approach held clues for me.
Her approach also gave me a way of dealing with, and looking at, lunacy. I did not want to view lunacy as a negative or frightening state, but rather as just another manifestation of our psychological being. For me, then, lunacy was part of the whole, part of the person, and I would argue, part of the balance. After some searching, the lunacy I eventually worked with was menopausal lunacy - the changed behaviours of women who were no longer shackled by fertility - and its powerful postmenopausal manifestation, the Crone.
So frightening and 'lunatic' is the Crone that those who seek to control the more deviant behaviours of women denigrate the Crone to ugliness, uselessness, sorcery and witchcraft. The Crone is not only useless in society but she is to be feared and mocked for her strange powers and kept out of sight for her ugliness. Let loose the Crone not only disobeys the rules but flaunts her disobedience. (Martz, 1987) Such a powerful female version of lunacy attracted my attention.
The Crone, as she manifested herself in the novel, her shape and appearance owes much to Crista Wolf, who in Cassandra writes:
Like Shakespearean manifestations of lunacy, the Crone haunts, rather than walks through the text. This haunting is reflected in her colour, purple. There is something very interesting about purple, it is a colour with mysterious electro-magnetic properties. As light it does not exist, it is a trick of the eye, a transcendental colour which defies the physics of the colour spectrum. In physics the colour can only be described as blue/red-red/blue, and yet in the world we see it - here, there (note 4). So too with the Crone. She is and is not there. We see her and yet we don't, we know her and yet we don't.
In Chapter 5 Meridian encounters the Crone, but we are left uneasy as to the nature of this encounter. Was it real or a dream?
Within the novel the Crone remains a shadow, and yet I deliberately gave
this shadowy character the final great act of hope. Unlike the other expressions
of hope in the novel, which I discuss later, this final manifestation
is the least hesitant, the least tarnished. It is the hope held within
lunacy, within the shadows of our dreams, within the inkling of tomorrow.
It is the gift of the Crone.
Greyer-Ryan coupled the sound of women's voices with the negative ways in which they are described. She placed this against a backdrop of silencing.
Specifically, Greyer-Ryan focused on the way in which women's voices, traditionally occupying a higher pitch to their male counterparts, were described using words such as 'piercing', 'shrill', 'high' and 'grating'. She pointed out that this negative description focused attention on the way women talked rather than what they were saying. Such descriptions take our attention away from their argument and places it instead on the physical properties of their voice.
In the Australian culture, women's broadcasting voices have, increasingly, become low in pitch. While a certain degree of lowering of pitch may have more to do with advanced microphone technology than any perceived social change in an acceptable female pitch, it is interesting to hear broadcasts of women from other cultures maintaining a higher pitch. Perhaps efforts by women, consciously or unconsciously, to lower the pitch of their voice is akin to adjusting one's dress to hide the woman inside the executive. It could be seen as an effort to rid one's voice of the female - of the negative descriptions of 'shrill' or 'piercing' - and demanding that the content of the speech be engaged with and taken seriously.
So acute was the habit of dismissing the content of a woman's speech by concentrating on the sound of her voice, that Mary Ellman (1968) in her early work reviewing criticisms of women's writing, points out that not even the word 'hysterical' occurs as often as the word 'shrill' in those reviews (Ellman, 1968:90).
Greyer-Ryan develops her position illustrating how negative descriptions of women's voices flowered like a noxious weed into negative descriptions of the women themselves. Descriptions such as 'nagging' and 'argumentative' equally remove attention from the content or concerns expressed in the woman's speech. She cites the perceived argumentative relationship between Xanthippe and Socrates, where Xanthippe is often referred to as the opinionated and quarrelsome hysteric opposing Socrates the 'great sophist and maieutic philosopher.' (Greyer-Ryan, 1991:200) The description deprives Xanthippe of content, negating her contribution as 'quarrelsome', and thus dismissing, and, significantly, not engaging with, her speech. It denies her and other women subjected to this device, the right of rational argument.
I began to work with descriptions of women's voices and found it illuminating that, all too often, a pleasant description of a woman's voice is offered in bird-like terms: 'the sweetness of a nightingale'; cat terms: 'she purred sweetly'; or food terms: 'smooth and luscious as chocolate'. The alternative, and sometimes collaborative of this is the description which implies a readiness for sex: 'a deep husky voice' and in its collaborative form: 'a voice the colour of purple, deep, husky and smooth as chocolate'. While my examples are of course designed to be over-the-top they resonate through a disturbing amount of fiction. It is only in contemporary fiction that we would expect to find a description of a woman's voice along the lines of: 'It was a clear strong voice that penetrated the confusion'.
I translated this interest into the fears surrounding Crete's silencing which, we discover, is one of her deepest fears. This fear is played out in her public life as a medieval historian. Her alternative historical methods are derided and labelled 'witchcraft', 'unscientific', 'non-historical', 'undisciplined'. These forms of abuse marginalise her work and, as Greyer-Ryan pointed out, by describing Crete's work in these terms, those who wish to deride it do not have to engage with it. Such is the dismissive nature of ridicule. This crippling ridicule is at the core of Crete's fear.
I was also interested in the abundance of classical references in Greyer- Ryan's article and how others such as Cixous made use of these stories. Here the Greek myths were re-told in a way that helped to explain and support women, rather than negate them (Cixous, 1991). These feminists were attempting to reinterpret the classical stories and other myths, seeing numbers of them as stories for women. There were lessons for me here and I re-read classical mythology. Section 2 deals with this development.
I gathered stories, my own included, of women who had been silenced on the domestic and/or work front, by male aggressive, violent and/or bullying behaviour. I was not interested in the pathological male bully or the sadist. Rather, I was interested in the male who under other circumstances was seen to be a reasonable and socially sensitive human being, but for whatever reasons, threatened the women in his life into silence. In order to unpack this I interviewed a number of women (note 5).
These interviews, sometimes deeply moving, made me realise that I was not interested in the men who were acting aggressively but rather in the women, and how they had given the men permission to silence them. In other words, I stopped seeing the women as victims of male aggression and began to see them as co-conspirators in their own silencing.
I hasten to add here that I am not maintaining that women cause the abuse or that they are to blame for it. And further, it should be noted that I was dealing with what would be described as 'mild cases'. Not one of the women I talked to had reported any abuse to the authorities, although some had welcomed police protection when it was offered. None of the women had sought protection or resolution in the courts, or tribunals, or officially-sanctioned mediation systems, although some had sought domestic and relationship counselling. None of the women had needed hospitalisation although some had needed medical treatment.
I was interested in how, often inadvertently, the women, including myself (for I was part of this research) had allowed the silencing to occur. We justified our compliance as an effective way of maintaining peace, sanity, equilibrium, and in some cases, safety. We had all learnt the cost of such peace.
A personal example will suffice here. After coming out of a long and difficult relationship, my daughter, who was twenty years old at the time and in her second year at university, casually asked me what I lectured in. She wasn't asking what topic, or what subject, but rather she was asking what discipline I taught in. I was shocked by her lack of knowledge about my job, and then I realised that to keep the peace I had not spoken at home of my university work. It had been a silenced issue and I had silenced it. My academic work had not been allowed to penetrate the domestic image of me as wife, cook, brewer of the beer, keeper of the flower garden, mother and sometimes writer. I was shocked by how totally and successfully I had silenced myself. Such self-silencing became a focus of my research.
I knew that in a novel dealing with the silencing of women and their struggle to regain voice, I could not escape dealing with the issues of violence or bullying. But because I was interested in what we did to ourselves, I did not want to dwell on these issues which I feared would take the focus back to the aggressive men. Further, I saw these forms of abuse as too simple, too obvious, and I was, in the end, more interested in the insidious forms of silencing where the very nature of the argument, the essence of the logic, excluded the woman's voice.
I made several attempts at writing the violence trying to depict it from a variety of perspectives, but in the end decided to restrict it to one small passage. By restricting the violence to one small incident I hope to increase its potency in the text.
I allowed the violence to nestle into Crete as, at least in part, an explanation as to why she felt afraid and timid of forming a relationship with Gabbett. In Chapter 12 Meridian talks to Gabbett:
A version of this story was given to me by one of the women I interviewed. What impressed me the most was how this woman found the hardest thing to cope with was the police's intrusion into her private space. She was not against the police, they had in fact treated her well. It was the thought of strangers entering uninvited into her private space which was the most painful for her. Her home, her house was her inner space. It had been violated. I asked myself: was it because her body had so often been violated that she projected such concern onto a physical space? Sadly, her story was not unique.
I decided that there was something about this story which summed up the violence I wanted to speak of. And I decided to write the scene in the third person, as a remembered incident from someone else's life because I didn't want the reader to focus on the particulars of the violence. I did this because the story's truly shocking quality comes from the reader's realisation that, for this woman, the personal violation of space was worse than the physical beating and violation of her body. In other words, I didn't want the reader to immediately experience, via identification, the fear of the attack. Instead, I wanted the reader to reflect on the incident in situ, as just another part of this ordinary woman's life. I wanted the reader to reflect on their understanding of what constitutes a victim.
Further, I wanted to imply in the incident, by generalisation about the nature of becoming a victim, an explanation as to why I had silenced myself, why my twenty-year-old daughter did not know what discipline her mother lectured in. (In my reading and interviews perhaps I was trying to unfold the gradual history of my own self-silencing. Perhaps I am still trying to unfold that secret.)
The final paragraph in the quotation above refers to how Crete had told the story, how she had laughed in its retelling. In many of the women I interviewed this was a common enough trait. These were the ones who had coped with the situation. They had, by changing aspects of their lives, empowered themselves, and could now reflect back on the silencing. The woman who originally told me this story laughed at herself, at how she had been silly enough not to focus on the beating. I thought it important to give Crete this dimension; she was after all portrayed as a survivor.
But in saying this I am not attempting to make light of such silencing. There were, of course, women who were still trapped within the cycle and who could not laugh. They were nervous, reluctant to talk, and blamed themselves. Their bruises were fresh. Their brains were clouded with tears. They were still focussed on the intrusion and had not learnt to focus on the beating.
But these pained women were not my focus. My lens was sadness not numbness, pain or anger. Perhaps one of the great attributes of sadness is that it does not exclude hope. I wanted to use this, I wanted the novel to speak of survival and hope. But hope is just as difficult to write about as sadness.
I had a particular kind of hope in mind. I was not interested in that trivial hope full of bright sunshine and found at the end of rainbows and feel-good movies. I wasn't interested in anything so romantic. I also wasn't interested in the religious use of hope which is offered as an excuse for dreadful behaviour or as a soporific for terrible suffering. I wanted to evoke a gentler form of hope: a kind of tarnished hope, all dull and half-rubbed-out; a hope that's found in bus stop graffiti, casual conversations or distant laughter. It's the kind of hope which doesn't offer excuses or explanations but, more out of curiosity than conviction, it keeps one going, keeps one taking that extra step.
Like sadness, this tarnished hope invades the narrative.
To focus on Crete we can see an example of this form of hope. The passage above illustrates that Crete's empowerment is tarnished. She stumbles at surviving. But there is a sense in which we know that somehow she will survive. It may not be often, but there are times when she can talk about her past situation, when she can laugh at the mistakes she's made.
Removal of women's knowledge
A much more insidious form of silencing occurs systemically and has resulted in women's ideas and knowledge being defined out of the acceptable. Somewhere in time the canon of acceptable knowledge, our very notion of logos, was constructed in a way that relegated much of women's knowledge into the realm of superstition, as esoteric or as a hobby.
In searching for a metaphor for the beginning of this form of silencing I rejected Crista Wolf's fall of Troy and other references to the Greek and Roman classical period, and instead centred my attention on the period between the Medieval and the Enlightenment eras. How I came to focus on this period of time is perhaps less important that what I made of it.
The Enlightenment interested me greatly. It was a time when thought itself was being ordered and categorised and much of the categorisation we use today in ordering knowledge stems from this period. I am thinking in particular of Diderot's Encyclopaedia of 1751, which worked from, and developed, Bacon's categories of knowledge. The thinking behind the construction of these categories is set out in d'Alembert's preface to the Encyclopaedia, a lengthy and informative discourse. In order then to address Diderot's categories, I will refer to d'Alembert's preface.
We need to address here the notion that to generate and construct categories is not simply to organise a collection, whether it be thought or seashells, but also to limit and exclude. Imagine a sea shell collection organised in colour or shape or even chemical composition. Each time a new object is brought to the collector, that person must determine if it is a seashell, and then if it fits into the collection. They make these decisions by referring to the categories by which they organise their collection. Is it pink enough? is it of the right size? and so forth. The categories then function as gatekeepers whose task is to limit entry in order to keep the collection pure. Thus once categories have been set up, and often they are set up as a device to help organise and sort the collection, they in turn become strong limiting devices. The categories set up in the Enlightenment were no exception and functioned as limiting devices.
The Enlightenment, in defining the categories and thus the limits of knowledge, had two great premises at its core. Firstly, it was anthropocentric, that is, it was human, not God centred; and secondly it placed its faith in the laws of physics rather than the laws of God. Schawb in his translation of d'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse, commented:
Reason, not faith, became the foundation of human endeavour. The mysteries of the universe were no longer the mysteries of God but rather puzzles to be solved by physics or other pursuits of reasons.
To illustrate this shift it is useful to refer to the concept of P. The ancients determined it to be a transcendental number and worked out a functional rather than precise way of using the number in their calculations and constructions relating to a circle. They might trouble over the notion of the transcendental but did not spend lifetimes trying to resolve the number. The medievalist took it on faith as one of the mysteries of God. The Enlightenment mathematicians dismissed its transcendental status and determined to resolve the number. Several spent a lifetime working on it and at the last count it has been calculated to over fifty-one billion decimal places (Blatner, 1997).
The changes in the approach to knowledge, as well as the way in which it was organised, guaranteed that the Enlightenment was seen as a radical movement. It is not surprising to discover that the Encyclopaedia, whose preface is often referred to as a manifesto of the Enlightenment, was banned in several European Catholic countries and that Diderot and d'Alembert were hunted men.
What fascinated me was the way in which man (the male), in an effort to rid himself of the collar of the Church, invested faith in physics in particular, and science in general. Science became the new religion worshipping at the altar of logos. Faith, and all its component zealous behaviour, was simply transferred to the new worship of reason. The world could now potentially be explained and understood. It could be measured and mapped and evaluated. It could be categorised and labelled and assessed. And all of this could happen without the intervention of the Church. Further, it followed that if the physical world could be spoken of in this way then so too could the worlds of politics; of education; of social organisation; of economics; of art; of morality and of philosophy. The Enlightenment removed the necessity for miracles, indulgences, relics, the Divine Right of Kings, creationism, divination, prophets, and the overwhelming authority of the Church in matters scientific, secular and political.
Of course those accepting the tenets of science could, and did, believe in God. But it was a different form of belief in that it was a different understanding of the power of God, and consequentially a different expectation for the role of the Church, from that of their medieval brothers. The authority of the Church no longer needed to manifest itself in the public lives of people or in the matters of State. When to sow or harvest was not a Church matter, how to govern or administer laws was not necessarily a Church matter and God was no longer needed to explain the workings of the material world. Cosmology rather than teleology became an important component of belief.
Accordingly it is interesting to note here that just as the Church was losing power and being relegated to a small section of knowledge, so too were women's skills and lore becoming isolated. It is ironic that the same system reduced the power and influence of both the Church and women, since the Church, to this day in its conservative forms, maintains women as the marginalised other.
Women's knowledge was marginalised in several ways. Firstly, women's skills of weaving, dying, brewing, cultivation of herbs, sewing, healing, nurturing, caring and the like, were not listed under any of the categories of knowledge.
In contrast, one of the truly democratic aspects of the categories and the Enlightenment movement was the elevation of the role of the artisan. For example, under the category section Uses of Nature, several artisan skills were listed. These included skills employed in the use of gold and silver; use of precious stones; use of iron; use of glass; use of skin; use of stone, plaster and slate; use of silk and use of wood. No doubt this list of artisan skills reflected the influence of the powerful trade guilds and master system. Nevertheless, so committed to the elevation of the role of the artisan was d'Alembert that he states poignantly in his preface:
Secondly, women's lore, and by this I am referring to intuitive knowledge, healing and divinatory knowledge, nurturing and the preservation of oral history, was marginalised. In a set of categories, Science of God (quite a small sub group in the overall scheme) superstition, divination and black magic were grouped together under the title of Evil Spirits, and placed in opposition to Natural and Revealed Theology. Naming the category with the emotive word 'evil' and placing it in opposition to theology provided justification within the bounds of reason to eradicate this form of women's knowledge. In short, it provided a justification for the burning of women who had been classified as witches and the burning of manuscripts of those whose writing challenged the Church.
So firmly did these categories exclude women's knowledge that I decided to take them as the metaphorical beginning of the gendercide. Such a beginning suited me, as it was not event based, as in Crista Wolf's the fall of Troy in Cassandra (1984), but rather relied on a more gradually changing situation. The intellectual shifts celebrated in d'Alembert's discourse, did not happen overnight. Such intellectual shifts slowly built up and gradually applied pressure to the existing political powers and structures.
The Church, quite naturally, felt particularly threatened. Much of its power base was being eroded and, as in any social organisation, the erosion of power was accompanied with a certain fear. There are many expressions of this growing fear of change. The two I became interested in were the Conciliarism movement, and the eradication of heresy and witchcraft resulting in the burning of the women.
McBrien gives an account of Conciliarism which was a movement by bishops and cardinals of the Church to democratise its governance. It was a kind of Magna Carta where at the Council of Basel (1431-1449) several members of the church attempted to vote for, and implement, a restriction of powers of the Pope. They wished to set up instead a governing council (McBrien, 1981).
Nicolas of Cusa came to the Council of Basel as an advocate of Conciliarism and had, in 1433, written a tract, De Concordantia Catholica setting out a council governance system which might be employed. Even at this early stage of his career he was a powerful and influential figure. However, by 1437 he publicly reversed his position and supported Pope Eugenius. This switching sides caused an enormous upheaval, those wishing for reform no longer had the numbers and the Council was disbanded. Conciliarism was outlawed in the Church under the pain of excommunication, which at the time meant at least the loss of one's income, if not death or torture.
Many doubted Cusa's motives, especially when he went on to be appointed the cardinal of Brixen in Italy and later promoted to the papal enclave as the papal legate to Germany.
It is at this point that the narrative enters. My central character Meridian is engaged in a quest to discover the provenance of a 15th century map thought to have been drawn by a scribe at the Council of Basel. The narrative makes much of the rapid closing of the Council and the disbanding of those who supported Conciliarism, reworking much of the story. It also weaves into the narrative Nicolas of Cusa's interest in cartography and libraries.
Another way in which the Church reacted to its growing loss of power was to attempt to eradicate heresy and witchcraft. In order to maintain itself it tried, on one hand, to rid itself of powerful threats and, on the other, to adopt a form of internal purification in an attempt to reduce excesses of superstition and mysticism.
Disturbing numbers of women, called witches, were put to the flames. And if that was not enough, women's work and writings were also burnt. It was during this time that the 'deviant' poet Sappho's works were burnt and we now have only fragments of her poetry, like charred scraps of manuscript that blew away from the flames.
But unlike the struggle over Conciliarism, or even the eradication of the Knight's Templar, the eradication of women, their books, their skills, their crafts, their knowledge and their lore, was seldom documented. What records exist today make very sad reading, and attempting to estimate the number of women killed is difficult. Estimates of the number of women burnt or drowned as witches puts the figure as high as a third of the female population of Europe (Bethancourt, 1997). Contemporary interest in this time has opened up some information and the Internet is being used to collect and record this, however, it is unlikely that we will ever have any accurate figures on the burnings.
Fortunately Christine de Pizan's books were simply too popular and numerous for any fire at the steps of a church to silence her. She needed to be forgotten, allowed to quietly slip away from the canon, not in any spectacular bonfire but rather much more insidiously, she needed to disappear without notice. Her works needed to fall away from conversation. But this was difficult to achieve.
The works of Christine de Pizan (1365-1432) were popular and in spite of the high cost of copying a book (estimated to be on average the equivalent cost of two townhouses in an English town) many copies were made of her work. She was the first European woman to make a living as a writer and one of her texts, a history, was the second book Caxton printed on his press, immediately after he finished printing the Bible. Her tracts, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405/1982) and The Treasury of the City of Ladies (1497/1989) are models for modern feminism. She not only points out, but also goes on to illustrate, how a woman can live without a husband, how she can run her estate, how she can achieve an education and how she can avoid suitors. The Treasury completes the picture and offers a large number of role models from history of women who have achieved success in various human endeavours. These were very dangerous ideas. Christine de Pizan must have posed an enormous threat to male supremacy.
It is perhaps an indication of the determination of conservative men, who perceived her works to be dangerous, that successively throughout history she has been forgotten, excluded from collections of medieval manuscripts, relegated to the dark stacks of libraries, fallen out of print, been eradicated from encyclopaedias and not mentioned in general, literary or intellectual histories. It is conversely, an indication of the determination of women that she has been rediscovered and reprinted as many times as she has. I could not let such efforts go unnoticed.
In the narrative, when Crete is faced with the fears that her work will be silenced I turn to Christine de Pizan's work and its constant rediscovery to evoke a notion of women's historical memory. In Chapter 13 Meridian says:
Fragments of a Map engages with these issues and addresses the silencing of women. But the novel contains hope at its core. As I mentioned earlier, it is scruffy, tarnished kind of hope, but it is hope. It is not surprising then that I allow my characters the opportunity of voice. I'd like to think that perhaps, in unmeasured ways, women are beginning to remove their gags. Someone is singing in a clear high voice. Is it Hildegard of Bingen?
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