The Battle over the Figure of Eve : the Advent of a Protofeminist Voice in Early Modern England

Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach (1526)

Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach (1526)

The figure of Eve has long been a major focus of attention for theologians, politicians, moralists, instructors, writers or even painters. The -infamous- protagonist of the garden of Eden in the myth of Genesis was a recurrent topic of debate and fuelled countless interpretations which deeply influenced the perception of women and their (god-given) role in the Western Christian societies, and are still deeply-rooted in the popular imagination. Of course these interpretations, along with the myth itself, have been put forward essentially by male authors as a so-called justification of women’s inferiority for men’s interests, in the name of God (Gabel). As Phyllis Trible has pointed out: « Throughout the ages people have used this text to legitimate partiarchy as the will of God. They maintained that it subordinates woman to man in creation, depicts her as his seducer, curses her, and authorizes man to rule over her ». However in the Early Modern period, especially in the 17th century, English women started to claim a public voice to participate in the gender discourse, monopolized by men so far . Despite the male injunction to be silent, they set out to appropriate their so-called « biblical alter-ego » and redress the detrimental literature she inspired. These « female advocates » use carefully reason and non-confrontational arguments that did not challenge directly the social order, while raising efficiently awareness and countering patriarchal denigration to improve their condition. I will first chart the historical background of women’s vilification sparking the « querelle des femmes ». Then I will turn to the rise of misogynistic views during the Renaissance based on Genesis and study women writers’ retorts and lines of arguments.

Woman, a Traditional Villain and Witch-Hunt. In the popular european culture of the early modern period, women held a prominent place among the « villains » (hated and despised figures), as is clear not only from the popular (masculine) images representing them for instance as the shrew (or with a « scold bridle »), but even from the images of the heroine (martyrdom). The villainous woman was portrayed « as intensively active, whether she is scolding, seducing, causing bad weather, stealing the milk from the neighbour’s cattle, or beating her husband » (Burke, 220). In addition, many anecdotes about the « malice » of women were collected in chap-books devoted to that subject. They insisted on the danger of trusting women, and Eve along with two other female characters from Genesis, Delilah and Potipahr’s wife stood for an emotionally powerful prototype of the « deceitful female » (Burke).

The scold bridle was a symbolic torture device (along with the dunking stool) used to silence women/wives who were too vocal and did not comply with the submissive female model required.

The scold bridle was a symbolic torture device (along with the dunking stool) used to silence women/wives who were too vocal and did not comply with the required submissive female model.

Directly correlated to this widely spread prejudice, the over-representation of women in witch-trials (70% to 80% of the convicted, usually widows or spinsters without male protectors, King) led by the Inquisitorial church exemplifies the strength of this common misogyny. Along with Jews and Turks, the witch was seen as « a traitor within the gates », offending Christianity , harming her neighbors, eating children and practicing sex orgies with demons. People projected their fears on to the witch serving as a scapegoat. The stereotype of the old woman using magic to harm people went likely back to the Middle Ages or before, however the witch as heretic or blasphemer, in league with the Devil, was a new belief. As a result, women were the first victims of this frenzy and terror which peaked in many parts of Europe in the 16th century, and suffered a tremendous violence including torture (Burke). According to witch hunter authors of the handbook Malleus Maleficarum (1486), women were more prone to witchcraft than men because they were « credulous, deceiful, frailed, unintelligent, passionate and carnal (insatiable) ». Various acts on Witchcraft were passed in England including one in 1604 during the reign of James I, strong believer in demonology, who even published a book on it.

   Renaissance Regression. While the Renaissance (originating in Italy and spanning from the 14th to the 17th centuries) is traditionally depicted as a period of intellectual advance, social progress and individual development (emphasis on knowledge and personal achievements), some scholars, such as Joan Kelly or Margaret L. King (in Women of the Renaissance), have demonstrated that the reality was very different for women. On the contrary, their social, political and legal status as well as their cultural influence and life options withered away. They were more and more confined to the domestic sphere and deprived of freedom and rights (e.g, contractual incapacity, loss of property rights under the doctrine of coverture, etc.), after a relative improvement brought about by the medieval ideal of « courtly love ». Although based on a male-dominated social order, courtly love gave women « lovers, peers, rather than masters », and medieval courtesey shaped the man primarily to please the lady (Kelly). Women acted then as an arbiter of the cultural function and performed important social functions including a civilizing role . However, the Renaissance lady was restricted to an « ornament », a « decorative role », no longer an equal or even superior position with men. Moreover, as humanists recovered ancient classical Greek and Latin works, they also revived their archaic patriarchal viewpoint and bias based on the supremacy of the « paterfamilias » detrimental to women (Kelly).

    La « Querelle des Femmes » and Genesis. This situation sparked in France « la querelle des femmes » (beginning with Christine de Pisan‘s objection to the Roman de la Rose‘s slanderous views on women) that converted in England into « the woman’s question ». Feminine virtues (and vices) and conduct along with the issue of their education were much discussed. Although low regard for women had long been a staple of Western culture, misogynistic attacks took on renewed vigor in the late 16th and early 17th century. Yet, the querelle allowed for the first time women to participate in the conversation. They began to retort to insults, stand up for themselves and articulate profeminist ideals of worth and identity (Fitzmaurice, 373) while redefining on their own terms patriarchal submission.

   Vilification and Defense in the name of Genesis The apex of la Querelle occured in the 16th century and coincides with a flourishing of conduct and courtesy manuals, treatises and pamphlets about the exact nature and value of women considered « sexually voracious, deceitful, immoral and unreliable » (Kelly) in order to deny their equality with men. These debates raised many questions such as should women be educated, or cloistered? Or how containing women’s sexuality and preventing from threatening men’s salvation? The Bible was central to all intellectual endeavours (Almond) and more especially the story of Adam and Eve. Authors relied consistently and entirely on this latter to construct accounts on genders and relations between the sexes and engaged in a sharp semantic battle. Their arguments, carefully crafted, albeit sometimes laboured or far-feteched, more or less rational, revolved on many details of the Creation narrative. Studying this literature of casuistry provides fascinating insights into the mindset of the time. I will compare them side to side, rather than separately as they systematically respond to each other.

adam and eve in the protestant reformationAdam’s rib and Marriage. One of the first attacks relates to the rib taken from Adam to make Eve. Its precise location and shape entailed many deductions. On the derogatory side, Alexander Ross, a Scottish writer and preacher (in An Exposition on the Fourteen First Chapters of Genesis, 1626), or the infamous Joseph Swetnam (« The Arraignment… ») for instance, argued that it must be taken from the left side considered « the weaker side » (« weaker vessel ») or even an « imperfect, bent, crooked one » which explains the crooked and evil nature of women. This was reversed into a sign of intimacy and affection in many sermons (« bone of the bones, flesh of my flesh ») and associated with the idea of companionate marriage instrumental to Protestant reformers. In keeping with this, Rachel Speght, the first identified Englishwoman to write a clear and logical defense of her sex in response to Swetnam’s diatribe (« A Muzzle for Melastomus », 1617), agrees that marriage was « a merri-age », providing « there is mutuall love » she adds. This stance was very modern at an age where marriages were mainly arranged for property interests. Her interpretation differs somewhat from the Calvin’s theory of the « one flesh » which emphasizes sexual union for procreation purpose supported by the « Increase and multiply » in Genesis, rather than the spiritual terms of love, affection and companionship (« helpmate »). This led to an imposition upon women of marriage considered a « paradisal institution » (Almond) and God’s intent according to Protestant preachers. Divorce was also forbidden (except for impotence). Celibacy (in opposition to Catholics) was seen as an offense, quite a sin, or « unnatural » as a woman was not allowed to be independent. Marriage was of course the tenet of patriarchy allowing the control of woman’s body for procreation in order to secure inheritance and patrilineal lines (as Engels demonstrated it in the Origin of the Family, Private property, and the State). Lutherans believed the household was a « microcosm of civil government » and the basis of social order (Crowther). The violence behind this « holy state » was nevertheless a common reality as husbands were allowed to abuse their wives (includind beating them). Lanyer calls it a « tyranny » (…) « we never gave consent » in « Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, Eve’s Apology  » (1611) and pleaded « Then let us have our Libertie again/ And challenged to yourselves no Sov’raigntie ». The adverb « again » reflects this belief shared by women writers of this era that men and women should be restored to the state of equality they enjoyed before the Fall (Apetrei). She also imagines in the first country house poem to be written « The Description of Cookham » (final poem in her collection of religious poetry, 1611), « a land as a redeemed Eden » where Lanyer, her patron and daughter lived happily in communion with God (Beilin 202 and Grossman 194). Her singularity lies in her description of a place run and « graced » by women without any men (which overturns the legal system of patrilinear descent). This community of virtuous women reminds that of the medieval writer Christine de Pisan in her Book of the City of Ladies (1405) (Fitzmaurice, 25).

Illustration from The Book of the City of Ladies by the French Christine de Pizan who wrote the first known female utopia in Western Europe (allegorical fortified city for women) and inspired Aemilia Lanyer and Margareth Cavendish.

Illustration from The Book of the City of Ladies by the French Christine de Pizan who wrote the first known female utopia in Western Europe (allegorical fortified city for women) and inspired Aemilia Lanyer and Margareth Cavendish.

According to Clare Kinney, the estate stands for « an earthly paradise containing three Eves and no Adam, from which all the women are ultimately expelled through no fault of their own ». This emphasis on the feminine is heightened by two female classical references, Philomela (a myth of female solidarity between sisters) and Echo. Contrary to Jonson in «To Penshurst», she does not extol the traditional virtues of female procreative fertility but instead celebrates the bond among three women, feminine heroism, and spiritual gifts. This ideal vision breaks away from the protestant ideal of the submissive wife, Eve is supposed to represent… In the same vein, Margareth Cavendish created  The Convent of Pleasures, a 1668 Restoration comedy in the form of a single female-only utopia free from males suitors’ entreaties and the hold of men in general. This ambiguous critique of patriarchal order features a number of cutting comments on marriage as a prison to women such as we are not born for our selves but for others” (Madame Mediator‘s lament in Act V ) or  (…) Marriage to those that are virtuous is a greater restraint than a Monastery” (Act I, Scene II). Marys Astell’s Serious proposal to the Ladies (1694) also offers an alternative to the « paradisal institution » of marriage in the form of another female world or « retirement » (to be distinguished from « confinement »), a new garden of Eden protected from « deceitful serpents »  (i.e the temptations of the pleasures of the city and fashion) thanks to a proper education women lacked.  In her preface of Some Reflections upon Marriage (1706), this Platonist theologian, polemicist and exegete, drawing on the idioms of the Revolution, also rose against the « Tyrant Custom » of marriage which kept women in subjection and famously asked (referring to Locke, see below), « If all men are born free, how is that all Women are born Slaves ? », or pleaded for « the Lawfulness of Resisting Private Tyranny ». Thus the inequality of sexes in marriage became the symbol of man’s brutal tyranny in late 17th century (Apetrei).

ADAM AND EVE IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY THOUGHTEve’s subjection vs. Equality. The location of the rib in the centre of the body was also discussed as a pointer to women’s equal fellow of men. However it was the Pauline reading of the headship of men which prevails (« the husband is head of the wife as Christ is the head of Church », Ephesians 5.22-4). In addition, the original non-subordination of Eve was almost universally denied, under the influence of Aristotle which believed that Eve was naturally inferior. Rachel Speight dares to question this tradition by stating not only that « Eve was not produced from Adam’s foot, to be his too low inferior » but also «(…) near his heart to be his equal». She also insists very much on the mutual help implied by Eve’s assignment as « helper but a helper » and draws on nature as well (through numerous examples of animals) to show that mutuality, and not submission, was natural. She, then, boldly complements her radical claim of equality between the sexes, by accepting man as « the bigger ox » but not as a reason for female subordination. Quite the opposite, as she cleverly turns this feature into a man’s duty owed to woman by requiring him to « bear a greater burden » than his wife regarding « domestical affairs and maintenance ». At a time of strict separation of private and public spheres, this assertion of « division of household chores » is even more striking ! It also did not align with the matrimonial official doctrine laid out by the Book of Common Prayers, which defines wife’s duties  as « obey and serve her husband » (the fusion in « one flesh » being understood as a subjection of one to the other, according Paul’s interpretation, « let wives be subject to her husband » in the Ephesians). Mary More also rebelled against it in Woman’s Right (c.1670) on the grounds that Scripture did not command her « to obey [her] husband, but rather than men and women were enjoined to mutual submission » (Apetrei, 72). This protestant idea of mutuality in the couple is also reflected in the ambiguous closing speech by Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare, 1590-92) when she cites « one that cares for thee/And for thy maintenance commits his body/To painful labor both by sea and land,/To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,/ Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe ». According to Emma Smith, these lines suggest some kind of « transaction » where the husband’s dangerous work deserves from the wife care and attention. And even when Speight recognizes man as the  « stronger vessel » it is only to to support his strongest responsability in the divine punishment, because she argues, he should have « resisted temptation » as « to whom much is given, of them much is required ». She thus redresses the unjust blame only put on Eve.

In her epic poem « Salve… » Lanyer offered the same line of reasoning (« Adam cannot be excus’d (…), he was most to blame » ; « the greater was his shame »). She even goes as far as to deflect totally the responsibility from Eve to Adam (« bringing us all in danger and disgrace »). And when she mentions women’s weakness it is only to turn the tables on men « What weakness (…), Strength ». We can also note that she deftly uses the past when saying « he was Lord and King… », implying that after the fall, he also lost this entitlement. This is a clever premise though her recognition (similar to Speight) of female weakness could be detrimental to the seriousness of women’s voice and their claim for equality (as Lanyer concludes her apology with « Our being your equals » not consistent with the alleged greater weakness of women, unless she considers that this decrepancy was only prelapsarian and disappeared after the fall). This semi-paradox seems to foreshadow the contradictions and divisions of the later feminist waves which struggled to define and reach an agreement on women’s status and independence.

Finally Lanyer ascribes Eve‘s fall to « too much love » exemplified by her generosity ( as she « wanted to offer him knowledge, men « will boast of »), whereas he fell for sensual and not spiritual reasons (« the fruit being fair »). Her interpretation clashes with that of Milton (Paradise Lost, 1667) who retells the myth by recasting Adam, « his favorite creature », in a good light, by having him fall over solidarity and « fondness » for Eve. Thus his self-sacrificing love carries noble intentions and rules out the idea that Adam had been deceived, whereas Eve falls for similar reasons to Satan  : envy, the capital sin (the wish to be « as Gods ») because she shares with him the same dissatisfaction with her place and aspirations for « equality ». She embodies the secondness, the otherness, which led to her « demonic anger, her sin, her fall, and her exclusion from that garden of the gods » (Gilbert and Gubar). Although portrayed as passive, submissive and domestic, Milton’s Eve seems indeed to hold many connections with Satan and its sinfluness. Stanley Fish called for instance Eve’s temptation speech to Adam in book 9 « a tissue of Satanic echoes» with its central argument « Look on me/Do not believe » echoing the anti-religious empiricism of Satan’s temptation speech (Gilbert and Gubar). What’s more after her fall, Eve thinks of keeping the fruit to herself « so to add what wants/In Female sex, the more to draw [Adam’s] Love, /And render me more equal » (PL9. 821-23). Her obsession with equality is associated with her evilness and her gradual transformation from « an angelic being to a monstrous and serpentine creature » who must be humbled and enslaved just as Satan (Gilbert and Gubar).

Mary Astell and Locke. Milton‘s Paradise Lost is considered the « hight point in the 17th century of the literary development of the story of Adam and Eve » as it was not followed by any more major or significant work based on the Edenic myth according to Almond citing Jame Turner (210) and as its importance was beginning to wane hereafter. Yet the philosopher Locke published in 1680 his first Treatise of Government (not as famous as his second though) which also offered a reflection on « Adam’s title to sovereignty by the subjection of Ev» (chapter 5). Responding to Firmer’s Patriarchia (a defense of the divine right of kings), he aimed to deny absolutism by providing « an incoherent argument for authority » according to Carol Stewart (16) based on an original contract, and a separation of the family and the state. As a result, he argued that the power of a magistrate over a subject should not be equated with that of a husband over his wife. In other words patriarchy might remain in place in the family but not in the state. He justified male superiority in terms of « natural gender difference » (« the rule (…) naturally falls to the man’s share as the abler and stronger » he says in the Second Treaty). However he conceded that men had no divine right to dominate the marriage relationship (« God, in this Text, gives not, that I see, any Authority to Adam over Eve, or to Men over their Wives (…) », T.T., I, 47). He also stated that subjection was « an act of providence » with no obligatory status to match his political agenda, and that conjugal partners were free to negotiate marriage terms (husbandly power may be variable and limited by contract and women’s position improved). Overall, Locke’s account aligns with patriarchy, although he did admit that it was historical but not necessary, immutable and right (Velásquez). His weak and shaky stance prompted an indirect indignation from Mary Astell who applied rational analysis to it (preface, Reflections…) : « If Absolute Sovereignty be not necessary in a State, how comes it to be so in a Family? or if in a Family why not in a State; since no Reason can be alledg’d for the one that will not hold more strongly for the other? ». She of course firmly rejected the curse upon « Eve after the Fall that her Husband shou’d rule over her » and reduced it to a « Prediction only ». She sought to demonstrate that inequality was not intended in the created order, but a masculine construction and custom  (not God’s will but the will of man) : « the Custom of the World has put women, generally speaking, into a State of Subjection… but the Right can no more be prov’d from the Fact, than the Predominancy of Vice can justifie it ». A strong believer in reason, she understood the Fall as an imbalance between the latter and the Passions entailing a brutal power and irrational instincts she associated with men. As her fellow writers, she reversed here the traditional interpretations of the Fall, by putting the blame on the « fallen masculine nature » instead of woman’s frailty, in an effort to read Scripture as a feminist narrative (Apetrei).

Eve’s superiority. In this intellectual dispute, aspects of the creation of Eve could be interpreted as triggering her subjection… or conversely her perfection and superiority ! The order of creation was thus a moot point: Adam created first could underlie his importance as stated by Pierre Charron (« the last in good », 1608) or the puritan William Whately, or on the contrary Eve was presented as the « crowning creation of God » according to Constantia Munda in response to Swetnam, or« the perfect conclusion » according to William Austin in Haec Homo (Almond). Henry Cornelius Agrippa* (De Nobilitate…  published in 1542 in England) provided a number of arguments often taken up in the 17th century in the cause of women ; he is considered an « overwhelming influence for the better part of two centuries in the continental querelle des femmes » (Apetrei, 54). In addition of the aforementioned rhetoric, he also introduced the superiority of material used to make Eve (purer than Adam made out of dust). Even Shakespeare hints at it in Much ado about Nothing when Beatrice regrets that a woman should be « overmaster’d with a piece of valiant dust ». Speght also highlighted « the refined mold » woman is made of (i.e part of man, a living soul) in the wake of Lanyer who hinged on the fact that Eve was «Being made of him » to insist on Adam’s primary fault (« he was the ground of all »). On the other hand, Lancelot Andrewes and Henry Smith add Adam’s right to name Eve as a proof of his superiority. Finally, the « doctrine of Second Eve » proves also very popular in the late 17th century not only to lift the curse on women but also to demonstrate their « their preeminency above men » (as described in Woman’s worth, an anonymous treatise dated c.1660, Apetrei, 56). Mary, descendant of Eve, was seen as clearing her sin with « her seed » (and thus redeemed her and all women). Astell emphasized notably the fact that it is a woman who « received the greatest Honor » to bear the Christ who « derives his humanity from her only » (preface, Reflections…). This new Eve who replaced the Augustan vision of women as the « enemy » and « Satan’s principal ally », and whom Jesus addresses in Paradise Lost as the mother of his mother, Mary (XI, 183; cf. V, 385 and Genesis 3:20), becomes superior to Adam when motherhood was redefined. This dramatic revision of the biblical creation story was notably allowed by the rise of ideology of separate spheres reshaping the myth (Ellis, 34).

Conclusion. Although women were traditionnaly associated with emotions and irrationality, we note that all the female writers covered in this paper, rely cleverly on logical appeals to make their point. Mary Astell even insists that Reason is a feminine quality. They all articulate carefully their thinking and arguments to gain respect and dignity. The originality of their lines of reasoning seems nevertheless difficult to assess as a number of them somewhat rehash Aggripa*‘s arguments even though they also expanded on them (Astell being maybe the most innovative). Still, they deserve credit first for their boldness to speak out, and second for their subtlety and wit to turn the tables on men despite the obvious misogynistic and patriarchal intent of the original biblical text. Astell wanted desesperately to believe that « the bible [was] for, and not against us » and « cannot without great Violence done to it, be urged to our Prejudice » (preface, Reflections…). However, they were not able at this point to depart from it yet (and it was even probably more judicious to stick to this acknowledged source of knowledge to lend force and credibility to their discourse). As a result they remain in a patriarchal frame (of mind) and face inevitably contradictions or inconsistencies (i.e, the claim of equality mixed with « the lesser vessel », the restoration of male authority in the end of The Convent of Pleasures, or the difficult separation between philosophy and theology which led Astell for instance to some arbitrary choice between « historical » or « spiritual » status of certain passages of the Scriptures). They focused more on « regenerating the image of women » in the usual references of their culture and not necessarily on changing their « ordained feminine nature » (Beilin, 17). Another limit relates to their «defensive position» (mainly answers to anti-female satire) which restricts them to an « underwriting rather than a rewriting of patriarchal categories » as Vivien Jones (196) pointed out. Still, their claims constitute a first important step toward the improvement of women’s condition. They paved the way for the reformation of (male) manners and the rise of women’s civilizing role that were to develop more fully in the second half of the 18th century through an emphasis first on intellectual (and sensibility later on, women being identified with heightened moral feeling and piety) grounds for authority rather than physical violence. [Alexandra Galakof]

*written in latin, his dissemination in the vernacular allowed women to be furnished with learned arguments and to appropriate them for their own use, as they did not have his resources of erudition in wording a defense of women (due to their limited education). Agrippa’s subversive reversal of traditional hierarchies won wide acceptance by the partisans of the querelle des femmes. Thus, De nobilitate set the standard for learned discourse about women in the period (Wood, 201).

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