“Declamation on the nobility and preeminence of the female sex”: Agrippa von Nettesheim and the early modern gender debate (Vortrag 2009)

Im Rahmen des SCSC (Sixteenth Century Society and Conference) Annual Meeting hielt ich diesen Vortrag am 29. Mai 2009 in Genf.

Programmheft als PDF online:


Slides – see PDF online:


In the history of occidental medicine women are generally supposed to be inferior to men. In the view of the ancient Greek medicine the constitution of women seemed to be weaker und more prone to diseases than that of men according to the doctrine of humoral pathology. The female organism was supposed to be cold and wet in contrast to the male one which was qualified as hot and dry an and therefore stronger. So, the scheme of analogies was coined: women corresponded to the earth, the moon, and the night, men to the heavens, the sun, and the daylight. Consequently, the gnostic doctrine women represented darkness, evil and diabolic features whereas men represented light, good and divine ones. This dualistic gender ideology did not only differentiate strictly both sexes, but also constructed a fundamental polarity implicating a basic judgement: Women were physically weaker and morally worse than men. Insofar, their social roles were distributed once for ever: Even in the 20th century a woman had to take over the serving position of a housewife (German: Hausfrau), a man to act as a conqueror outdoors. This cliché was dominant until the last decades of the 20th century in spite of the feminist and other movements of a social reform as you can notice looking at some illustrations of the Lebensreform movement about 1900, subversively representing also positive features of the female sex: the housewife handling with modern electricity like a female Prometheus (slide 1); the housewife as an executor of hygiene and a producer of wellness, and a cook looking like the personified Nature (slide 2).[1]

The modern feminism claims an equal ranking (German: Gleichstellung) of both sexes in regard to profession, income and position in the social hierarchy. Today, we have equal ranking officers (Gleichstellungsbeauftragte) by law. The general assumption is that women are suppressed by the male predominance. But most of the gender studies nowadays are not aware of the remarkable philogynist trend in the renaissance. Some authors did not only call for an equal ranking of both sexes, but moreover maintained the superiority of women. The probably the most prominent phylogenist author was the famous natural philosopher and physician Agrippa von Nettesheim.

* Agrippa’s “Declamation on the nobility and pre-eminence of the female sex”

Agrippa’s treatise „De nobilitate et praecellentia foemina sexus“ was published in 1529.[2] The programmatic title stresses his concern. The nobility and pre-eminence of the female sex had to be proven. He used a cascade of arguments deduced mainly from philosophy and theology. The treatise was often reprinted and translated in other languages e. g. into German in 1720, 200 years after the first edition.[3]

At first, Agrippa points out that in regard to reason and mind there was no difference between both sexes being gifted with equal freedom. But in regard to other things, the female sex would precede obviously. He enumerates a series of qualities:

  • The etymological argument stresses that “Eve” would mean “life”, whereas “Adam” could be deduced from “earth”. Moreover, the name of Eve would show a closer relationship to the Tetragrammaton JHWH (Jehovah) than the name of Adam.
  • The order of the creation recorded by the Genesis would plea for the woman: She was created by God as the last and therefore the most complete creature.[4]
  • But also in regard to the matter, from which was Eve created, she would differ from Adam. It was not just “dead paste or faeces” as it was with Adam, “but a purified, lively Matter gifted with a reasonable soul participating in the spirit of God.” [5] Here Agrippa reversed the traditional gender difference whereby man represented the spiritual principle und the divine light. But Agrippa still goes further: In his opinion man was prepared from an earthen lump by heavenly influences, so he is a creation of nature. “But the woman is created only by God without the support from the stars.” Therefore women would be more skilful than men to understand the divine secrets. [6] As I will show later on, this idea of a wise woman, a female sophia fits very well in the contemporary natural philosophy of alchemy and occultism.
  • The following argumentation results from the cosmological location of Natura as a sort medium in between God and the human beings. Women take over the role of Nature in the human realm. Their position and function are analogies of the cosmic Nature. Their beauty seems to be a reflection of the divine splendour originating from the light of God and emanating over all the creatures. Because of the fact, that the female body is more beautiful than the male one, God would elect it for residence. [7]
  • That Nature preferred women could be shown very easily. They could bear children and spend milk as a life sustaining stuff, not only for the children[8], but also for weak old persons to nourish them. [9] In general a woman would have more healing power, so she could give off heat as a life force by pressing her breast on the chest of old exhausted men. [10]
  • The Biblical female figures Eve and Mary play an important role in Agrippa’s argumentation. The fall of mankind was not committed by Eve, but by Adam, because God had forbidden him to eat from the fruit.[11] So, the original sin was caused by Adam not by Eve. But the most striking argument was for the female superiority was the fact, that the “noblest of all pure creatures” was a woman, namely Mary, the Virgin Mother.[12] Moreover, the female superiority is obvious because of the fact, that many arts and sciences keep the female names of those, who invented them. Also in geography, female names were given to prominent parts of the world: Asia (nymph), Europa (daughter of Agenois) und Africa (daughter of Epaphi).[13]
  • Women were prone to divination and would have been the first acting as prophets and sybils.[14] So, an ordinary woman is according to Agrippa wiser than an erudite man, and an old countrywoman would often have more experience that a physician (medicus) who was perceived as an adept man[15] – a statement reminding us of the romantic natural philosophy about 1800.
  • In the end Agrippa pleas emphatically for the women’s emancipation deploring the traditional mysogenic disrespect. Women had to give way to men “as if they would have been conquered in a war.” [16] Their suppression did not result from the divine order but from custom, education, and arbitrary opportunity.” [17]

* The genre of gynophilic literature in the Renaissance

And Agrippas well-known tract by “feminist” contemporaries like Margarete of Navarra was not the first one of this genre.[18] The querelle des femmes was initiated in the Renaissance und early modern times mainly by Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote his tract „De mulieribus claris“ in the early 1360ies.[19] It was the most comprehensive text about famous women in the history of culture used by many authors as a repertory. Boccaccio sketched an ambiguous image, subversive and conservative at the same time representing the male ambivalence. His social analysis was directed against the ecclesiastical doctrine. [20] Especially the legend of Griseldis, the daughter of a poor farmer, had an enormous impact on other authors. The girl was married by a nobleman named Valterius who tested cruelly her fidelity. Uncomplainingly she tolerated the tortures and remained loyal to her husband. The story ends with a happy end. This last novelette of the „Decamerone“ impressed Petrarca translating the work of his friend from Italian into Latin. He wrote an own version in form of a letter (Griseldis letter). [21] It was one of first works of Petrarca which were translated into German illustrated with wood cuts.[22]

Probably Agrippa knew Boccaccio’s treatise. Probably he was stimulated by him taking over some of his major arguments. So, he also assumed that the woman was created by God out of a purified reasonable matter whereas the man was only created by nature out of the feces or soil.[23] Therefore women were much more able for divine enlightenment than men.[24] There was one physiological argument which cannot be found in Agrippa’s treatise: The menstruation showed the female cleanliness, because the intemperate humours could be expelled properly (not only by nose bleeding).[25]

But even before the era of humanism and Renaissance philosophy there were allusions to the superiority of women. Heinrich von Meißen so-called “Frauenlob” (he died in 1318 in Mainz) wrote an encyclopaedia of learned women.[26] In his opinion, women would have often more talent than men and with an adequate education they would became easily as erudite as men. Minerva was adored by the pagans as a Goddess because of her skills and knowledge in the arts which were supposed to be invented by her.[27] The ingenuity would often outreach that of men, the author concluded.[28] From the 15th up to the 18th centuries, during a period of 400 years, there very more writings on the superiority of women that explicitly misogynic ones. As Marc Angenot pointed out only within the French literature 80 writings on the superiority of women can be traced.[29]

* Natural philosophy: The motivation for the superiority doctrine

Which motivation had Agrippa and the other authors mentioned above adoring the female gender? In my opinion the reason therefore is quite obvious: In the period of humanism and renaissance the newly-discovered nature (natura) was experienced as a primary Holy Scripture. Within this context nature was not longer associated with the deficient female qualities of the earth (dark, wet, and cold), but with the divine qualities the heaven (light, ethereous, and warming). These qualities were personified by certain female figures symbolising mediating function of the divine power. Nature became the medium connecting the human beings and all natural things with God as the original creating power. So, certain images were produced: queen of heavens, virgin, wet-nurse, wise woman, guide for naturalists. Consequently, Nature was imagined as the real teacher of philosophers and alchemists which had to follow in her footsteps like the emblem of Michael Maier (1618) displays (slide 3) or the picture of Jean Perréal[30] (1516) (slide 4), a painter from Lyon, showing a dialog between Nature and an alchemist. It is remarkable that Agrippa corresponded in this time with Perréal on occult matters.

Those imaginations showed a personified female Nature in the macrocosm as a divine magician beaming the splendour of God down to microcosm of all of the women sharing with them corresponding characteristic traits especially the ability of producing and achieving the life of creatures. There was a clear hierarchy: Nature was inferior to God, but superior to human beings – analogous to Agrippa’s theory according to which the woman was superior to man but also inferior to God respectively Christ or the Holy Spirit. The crucial point is that in the renaissance and in the early modern times the superiority of the female gender was stimulated by two impacts overlapping each other very intriguingly: (1) The natural philosophy and its personifications, and (2) the image of Mary, the Virgin Mother, as a religious mediator of Godfather’ splendour. When you look at the illustrations of Foresti’s “De plurimis claris selectisque mulieribus” (first published in Ferrara in 1497) you can notice the blend of the two impacts. In the woodcut of Eve she is shown driven out of the paradise (slide 5)[31] But she doesn’t look like a sinner at all. Doesn’t this depiction remind us of the imagery of Nature on the one hand and that of Mary on the other hand? Albrecht Dürer’s contemporary depiction “Mary on the crescent” (ca. 1511) displays this specific blend of Mary and Nature (slide 6). The same ambivalence is implicated in the depiction of the legendary female Pope Joan (slide 7).[32] She looks like a wise queen of heavens, like a personification of sophia, the divine wisdom – and not like a nasty heretic. She reminds us of Albrecht Dürers “Philosophia” (1502) personalising Nature (slide 8). Another example from Foresti’s book (slide 9)[33]: In the depiction of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, you can also perceive the blend of two motives: Nature and Mary symbolised as an erudite, saintly figure reading the Scripture.

* Conclusion

In the mainstream of the cultural history from the antiquity until the first half of the 20th century the superiority of the male gender was an ideological commonplace. In consequence of the enlightenment, the French revolution, the socialist labour movement and the women’s emancipation movement the idea of the gender equivalence became predominant in modern times. So, the doctrine of the female superiority was quite a unique event in the history of ideas, and it was by no ways compatible with modern ideology. Therefore, the approach of Agrippa and other contributors to the querelles des femmes was revolutionary indeed and challenges today’s debates on gender issues. This situation can only be understood as a side effect of the renaissance natural philosophy and its aftermath viewing the female sex as a feature or symbol for Nature (natura), as a sort of divinity mediating the divine light of God. So, women were thought to be closer to God participating in his wisdom much more than it was possible for men. Certainly, this provocative idea could be very attractive for further gender studies, not only historical ones.

[1] Slide1: Housekeeping: Gesundes und ungesundes Wohnen, Lebensreform, Bd. 2, S. 551; slide 2: Housekeeping: Die elektrische Küche, Lebensreform Bd. 2, S. 539; slide 3: Ambivalent female figure (Sophia vs. housewife): Blatzer’s vegetarisches Kochbuch, 1908; Lebensreform, Bd. 2, S. 538) [2] Agrippa, 1997. [3] Agrippa, 1720. [4] A. a. O., S. 18. [5] A. a. O., S. 23. [6] A. a. O., S. 23 f. [7] A. a. O., S. 24. [8] A. a. O., S. 35. [9] A. a. O., S. 37. [10] A. a. O., S. 39. [11] A. a. O., S. 47. [12] A. a. O., S. 63. [13] A. a. O., S. 73. [14] A. a. O., S. 74. [15] A. a. O., S. 87. [16] Agrippa, 1650, S. 204. [17] A. a. O., S. 110. [18] Ebd., S. 29. [19] Boccaccio, 1895 und 1995; Kolksy, 2005, S. 2. [20] A. a. O., S. 177. [21] Petrarca, 1992, S. 655-668. [22] Petrarca, 1973/74. [23] Boccaccio, Giovanni [Boccatius, Johannes]: Historien Von Allen den fürnembsten Weibern […]. Frankfurt am Main: Feierabend; Hüter; Lechler, 1666. [De claris mulieribus; dt.] [2. Bd.:] Des ander Theil/ Vom herkommen des Adelichen Fürtrefflichen Weiblichen geschlechtes […]. Frankfurt am Main 1566, S. 7. [24] A. a. O., S. 8. [25] A. a. O., S. 14. [26] Frawenlob, Johann: Die Lobwürdige Gesellschaft der Gelehrten Weiber […]. [S. l.]: [s. n.], 1531. [27] A. a. O., S. 25. [28] A. a. O., S. 33. [29] Angenot, 1977. [30] http://www.bbkl.de/p/perreal_j.shtml (7.04.2009) [31] Kolsky, 2005, S. 138. [32] A. a. O., S. 139. [33] A. a. O., S. 141.

Bibliograpy see PDF online: