Back in the winter, I had the immense pleasure of teaching a survey course on medieval and early modern literature. Since through lines are essential in a survey that’s only ten weeks long, I opted to focus our attention on gender, power, and monstrosity. I was also determined to make sure that we attended to a good amount of “non-canonical texts” – especially those that were, by all accounts, immensely popular in their day. And so, midway through the quarter, my students and I embarked on a micro-unit on the early modern pamphlet wars.
We focused our attention on the debates about the nature of women, and we started with “Jane Anger: Her Protection for Women” (1589). Anger may have been a real person, but some have speculated that she was either a woman or a man using a pseudonym—either way, as a class we agreed that her name certainly had a rather glorious, comic-book-hero ring to it. Her Protection is considered part of a broader series of debates on the nature of women known as the querelles des femmes, and it's significant because it appears to be the earliest pamphlet (potentially) written by a woman. Moreover, it defends women emphatically, stressing the multifarious ways in which men “misread” women because they persistently underestimate their abilities and motivations. Take, for instance, this *utterly glorious* passage, which could, at least in part, also describe the experience of being a woman (on and off the internet) in 2017:
The desire that every man hath to shewe his true vaine in writing is unspeakable, and their mindes are so caried away with the manner, as no care at all is had of the matter: they run so into Rethorick, as often times they overrun the boundes of their own wits, and goe they knowe not whether. If they have stretched their invention so hard on a last, as it is at a stand, there remaines but one help, which is, to write of us women: If they may once encroch so far into our presence, as they may but see the lyning of our outermost garment, they straight think that Apollo honours them, in yeelding so good a supply to refresh their sore overburdened heads, through studying for matters to indite off. And therfore that the God may see how thankfully they receive his liberality, (their wits whetted, and their braines almost broken with botching his bountie) they fall straight to dispraising and slaundering our silly sex. But judge what the cause should be, of this their so great malice towards simple women. Doubtles the weaknesse of our wits, and our honest bashfulnesse, by reason wherof they suppose that there is not one amongst us who can, or dare reproove their slanders and false reproches: their slaunderous tongues are so short, and the time wherin they have lavished out their wordes freely, hath bene so long, that they know we cannot catch hold of them to pull them out, and they think we wil not write to reproove their lying lips: which conceites have already made them cockes and wolde (should they not be cravened) make themselves among themselves bee thought to be of the game. They have bene so daintely fed with our good natures, that like jades (their stomackes are grown so quesie) they surfeit of our kindnes. If we wil not suffer them to smell on our smockes, they will snatch at our peticotes: but if our honest natures cannot away with that uncivil kinde of jesting then we are coy: yet if we beare with their rudenes, and be somwhat modestly familiar with them, they will straight make matter of nothing, blazing abroad that they have surfeited with love, and then their wits must be showen in telling the maner how.
(from http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/anger/protection/protection.html)Plus ça change, indeed. As Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald have observed, the author not only "takes traditional stereotypes of women . . . [but] and applies them to men"; and she consistently adopts rhetorical devices typically coded as masculine, deploying them in order to demonstrate how "language socially constructs gender" (51). As a result, her Protection became a perfect pairing with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue. I was honestly quite struck by how enthusiastically the students engaged with Anger’s work in spite of its challenging prose and its density. While acknowledging the uncertainties about the text’s authorship, they were fascinated by the possibility that a woman writer penned this response and how, in doing so, she not only carved out a space for women's voices in the broader querelles de femme debates, but also—however inadvertently—mirrored some of the rhetorical maneuvers that Chaucer has the Wife of Bath deploy. This allowed them, then, a concrete example of how cultural conventions/norms persisted from the middle ages to the early modern era and, in the process, they were invited from the very start of our early modern unit to interrogate their own assumptions about rigid periodization.
|Speght's delightful acrostic poem.|
Our next class meeting focused on John Swetnam’s The Arraignment of Women (1615) and Rachel Speght’s A Muzzle for Melastomus (1617), where she takes Swetnam to task for his misogyny founded in, as she asserts in so many words, utterly garbage biblical exegesis. While there remains some uncertainty over the pamphlet that provoked Jane Anger’s response, we know that Speght sought to respond to and refute Swetnam’s Arraignment specifically. He had published it under a pseudonym, for instance, and Speght all-too-happily offers an acrostic poem at the outset of her refutation that reveals Swetnam’s actual name. Her refutation of his pamphlet also becomes abundantly clear once you compare the works to one another. She picks apart his exegesis with meticulousness, for instance, arguing that it borders on blasphemy due to its inaccuracies. She also regularly chastises him for the lax organizational structure of his pamphlet, and a single reading of The Arraignment reveals that assessment to be more than fair: Swetnam’s pamphlet being a series of loosely strung together provocations, compiled with the intent (as he puts it) to “bear-bait” women.
Our discussion just so happened to take place as Milo Yiannopolous found himself in a career freefall, and the parallels between his and Swetnam’s rhetorical strategies and motivations were just too apt to avoid. We talked a good deal about how both men are self-professed “bear-baiters” (Swetnam’s term), and how they rely far more on streams of barely linked provocative statements rather than cogent argument in their writings (or in Milo’s case, “talks”).
One intrepid student pointed out, too, that we needed to consider Swetnam’s potential motivations: the same publisher responsible for disseminating Swetnam’s work also published Speght’s response. And this has led some to think that publishing her work may well have been more of a publicity stunt than anything else; that, in other words, the publisher may have sought Speght out in hopes that her response would refuel enthusiasm for Swetnam’s pamphlet (the Arraignment was, admittedly, wildly popular, with 13 reprints in the 1600’s). As the theory goes, Swetnam may well not have believed in what he wrote, but rather sought through The Arraignment to provoke responses and, in the process, garner more attention for himself. And if that was his goal, he certainly met it given the number of women (Speght included) who wrote directly against his incendiary pamphlet.
So, I returned us to Milo as a potentially useful modern parallel. We considered the possibility that he too (according to some sources) believes very little of what he says. And as we did so, the same student who brought up the backstory on Swetnam raised their hand and said: “but that doesn’t matter, right?” They elaborated, explaining to their peers that regardless of whether he means what he says, his words can and do influence others to believe/say/do horrible things. And so we turned back to Swetnam, considering the ways in which he—insincere though he might have been—did wonders (given the popularity of his work) to reinforce the already entrenched idea that women are inherently inferior to men.
As an exercise, I asked students to consider the two pamphlets and, in small groups, assess them closely in order to make an argument about which was more persuasive. Many chose Speght, and for good reason: her pamphlet is immaculately organized, she provides ample evidence to back up her assertions, her biblical exegesis (however much it may have seem alien to us) is clearly more grounded in careful close reading, and time and again she points out the hypocrisies and holes in Swetnam’s work. A few students though offered that Swetnam was the more persuasive of the two. They argued as much by pointing out the power that provocative statements can and do tend to have, especially if they’re being read and disseminated to a group of likely receptive readers. They considered, for instance, the power that someone like Milo can wield over a fairly significant group of people. How he, and likely Swetnam, could harness and entrench oppressive ideologies by relying on emotional appeals rather than facts and careful observations about the world. While they disagreed vehemently with what Swetnam offered in his pamphlet, they saw very clearly the power that this kind of rhetorical approach can have—they saw its cunning, even in the midst of its rhetorical sloppiness. They also pointed out that Swetnam has the rhetorical advantage as the bear-baiter. As David Perry observed so well, provocateurs like Swetnam and Milo set rather clever traps: to ignore them is to risk allowing their ideas to foment (and, in the process, do real and palpable harm), but to engage them gives them the attention they so very clearly require in order to remain compelling and persuasive to their bases. This puts a tremendous burden on someone like Speght as she orchestrates her response—a burden never shouldered by the bear-baiter.
In closing, I invited students to turn to Speght’s pamphlet and consider it as a proto-feminist text. The term proto-feminism had come up several times throughout the course, and Speght offered the perfect set of opportunities to interrogate and press on its boundaries. Through a series of closing questions, I stressed the fact that while Speght seems at first to talk about women generally, she stresses fairly early on that she’s focused on “virtuous” women. This, I offered, implicitly leaves out any/all women she might code as not virtuous. I then directed their attention to the fact that she may have been referring to Protestant women specifically, and that her telling use of the word “heathen” (which she uses to call out Swetnam’s terrible writing) signals—again implicitly—that women of other cultures and religions may well not be included in her category of virtuous women worth defending. I also offered that for as much as Speght diverges from Swetnam, she too insists on a heternormative gender binary with clearly defined roles and attributes. As Dinshaw and others have argued about the Wife of Bath, in other words, this is not a work seeking to dismantle a patriarchy but rather one that seeks to find greater degrees of agency within it. I invited them, as a result, to consider the diverse peoples (persons of color, persons of different religions, anyone who might today identify as LGBTQIA, women who aren't "virtuous") who are actively excluded because of Speght’s maintenance of these hierarchies in her writing. In the end, I offered that what we have here isn’t a kind of proto-feminism in any sort of intersectional sense, but rather a kind of proto-white-feminism that, for as radical as it may well have been in its day, simultaneously works to affirm certain oppressive cultural norms even as it seeks to upend others.
Winter quarter was a brutal one on a variety of fronts, and it was one in which my campus palpably felt (and honestly continues to feel) the effects of the shooting that took place when Milo came to campus. It was a quarter where I regularly lost sleep over the way in which people like him use the past to justify their metastasized hatreds and racisms. I still lose sleep over that, and so much else these days. But I have to say—in these two class meetings, it felt more than a little good to roll up my sleeves with my students and work, in ways however small, towards the goal that the inimitable @ChaucerDothTweet said so beautifully: