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“I have been praised too much; showing your contempt for women, you pretend that I alone am admirable because of the good fortune of my intellect. But I, compared to other women who have won splendid renown, am little but a mousling. You disguise your envy in dissimulation, but cloak yourself in apologetic words in vain ... Do you suppose, O most contemptible man on earth, that I think myself sprung [like Athena] from the head of Jove? I am a school girl, possessed of the sleeping embers of an ordinary mind. Indeed I am too hurt, and my mind, offended, too swayed by passions, sighs, tormenting itself, conscious of the obligation to defend my sex. For absolutely everything -- that which is within us and that which is without -- is made weak by association with my sex.”—Laura Cereta, addressing the overly-patronising praises heaped upon her writing by various men, who singled her out as a prodigy among women
Laura Cereta delivering the verbal smackdown
In 1488, aged 18, Laura Cereta was already a humanist scholar, a widow, and allegedly a teacher of moral philosophy at the University of Prada (although no public records exist to verify the latter).
At the time of her birth, women in the Venetian republic were seen to have no place in the public sphere; only decades earlier, in his treatise On Wifely Duties, Francesco Barbaro had opined that “women should believe they have achieved glory of eloquence if they will honour themselves with the outstanding ornament of silence”. Laura Cereta challenged that view, passionately believing that women had just has much capability and right to education as men.
Her writing earned her numerous detractors, both male and female, and she confronted their criticisms in a number of withering letters. This particular one, dated January 13 of 1488 and addressed to the fictitious Bibulus Sempronius (“bibulus” means “drunkard” in Latin), attacks those who would heap condescending levels of praise on her, implying that she was unique among women in her intelligence.
My ears are wearied by your carping. You brashly and publicly not merely wonder but indeed lament that I am said to possess as fine a mind as nature ever bestowed upon the most learned man. You seem to think that so learned a woman has scarcely before been seen in the world. You are wrong on both counts, Sempronius, and have clearly strayed from the path of truth and disseminate falsehood. I agree that you should be grieved, indeed, you should be ashamed, for you have ceased to be a living man, but have become an animated stone; having rejected the studies which make men wise, you rot in torpid leisure. Not nature but your own soul has betrayed you, deserting virtue for the easy path of sin.
You pretend to admire me as a female prodigy, but there lurks sugared deceit in your adulation. You wait perpetually in ambush to entrap my lovely sex, and overcome by your hatred seek to trample me underfoot and dash me to the earth. It is a crafty ploy, but only a low and vulgar mind would think to halt Medusa with honey …
I would have been silent, believe me, if that savage old enmity yours had attacked me alone. For the light of Phoebus cannot be befouled even in the mud. But I cannot tolerate your having attacked my entire sex. For this reason my thirsty soul seeks revenge, my sleeping pen is aroused to literary struggle, raging anger stirs mental passions long chained by silence. With just cause I am moved to demonstrate how great a reputation for learning and virtue women have won by their inborn excellence, manifested in every age as knowledge, the [purveyor] of honour. Certain, indeed, legitimate is our possession of this inheritance, come to us from a long eternity of ages past.
[To begin], we read how Sabba of Ethiopia, her heart imbued with divine power, solved the prophetic mysteries of the Egyptian Salomon. And the earliest writers said that Amalthea, gifted in foretelling the future, sang her prophecies around the banks of Lake Avernus, not far from Baiae. A sibyl worthy of the pagan gods, she sold books of oracles to Priscus Tarquinius. The Babylonian prophetess Eriphila, her divine mind penetrating the distant future, described the fall and burning of Troy, the fortunes of the Roman Empire, and the coming birth of Christ.
Nicostrata also, the mother of Evander, learned both in prophecy and letters, possessed such great genius that with sixteen symbols she first taught the Latins the art of writing. The fame of Inachian Isis will also remain eternal who, an Argive goddess, taught her alphabet to the Egyptians! Zenobia of Egypt was so nobly learned, not only in Egyptian, but also in Greek and Latin, that she wrote histories of strange and exotic places.
Manto of Thebes, daughter of Tiresias, although not learned, was skilled in the arts of divination from the remains of sacrificed animals or the behavior of fire and other such Chaldaean techniques. [Examining] the fire’s flames the bird’s flight, the entrails and innards of animals, she spoke with spirits and foretold future events! What was the source of the great wisdom of the Tritonian Athena by which she taught so many arts to the Athenians, if not the secret writings, admired by all, of the philosopher Apollo?
The Greek women Philiasia and Lasthenia, splendors of learning, excite me, who often tripped up, with tricky sophistries, Plato’s clever disciples Sappho of Lesbos sang to her stone-hearted lover doleful verses, echoes, I believe, of Orpheus’ lyre or Apollo’s lute. Later, Leontia’s Greek and poetic tongue dared sharply to attack, with a lively and admired style, the eloquence of Theophrastus I should not omit Proba, remarkable for her excellent command of both Greek and Latin and who, imitating Homer and Virgil, retold the stories from the Old Testament. The majesty of Rome exalted the Greek Semiamira, [invited] to lecture in the Senate on laws and kings.
Pregnant with virtue, Rome also gave birth to Sempronia, who imposingly delivered before an assembly a fluent poem and swayed the minds of her hearers with her convincing oratory. Celebrated with equal and endless praise for her eloquence was Hortensia, daughter of Hortensius, an oratrix of such power that, weeping womanly and virtuous tears, she persuaded the Triumvirs not to retaliate against women.” Let me add Cornificia, sister of the poet Cornificius, to whose love of letters so many skills were added that she was said to have been nourished by waters from the Castalian spring; she wrote epigrams always sweet with Heliconian flowers.
I shall quickly pass by Tulliola, daughter of Cicero, Terentia, and Cornelia, all Roman women who attained the heights of knowledge. I shall also omit Nicolosa [Sanuto] of Bologna, Isotta Nogarola and Cassandra Fedele of our own day. All of history is full of these examples. Thus your nasty words are refuted by these arguments, which compel you to concede that nature imparts equally to all the same freedom to learn.
In Defense of the Education of Women by Laura Cereta (age 18)
…Only the question of a rarity of outstanding women remains to be addressed. The explanation is clear: women have been able by nature to be exceptional, but have chosen lesser goals. For some women are concerned with parting their hair correctly, adorning themselves with lovely dresses, or decorating their fingers with pearls and other gems. Others delight in mouthing carefully composed phrases, indulging in dancing, or managing spoiled puppies. Still others wish to gaze at lavish banquet tables, to rest in sleep, or, standing at mirrors, to smear their lovely faces. But those in whom a deeper integrity yearns for virtue, restrain from the start their youthful souls, reflect on higher things, harden the body with sobriety and trials, and curb their tongues, open their ears, compose their thoughts in wakeful hours, their minds in contemplation, to letters bonded to righteousness. For knowledge is not given as a gift, but [is gained] with diligence. The free mind, not shirking effort, always soars zealously toward the good, and the desire to know grows ever more wide and deep. It is because of no special holiness, therefore, that we [women] are rewarded by God the giver with the gift of exceptional talent. Nature has generously lavished its gifts upon all people, opening to all the doors of choice through which reason sends envoys to the will, from which they learn and convey its desires. The will must choose to excercise the gift of reason…
I have been praised too much; showing your contempt for women, you pretend that I alone am admirable because of the good fortune of my intellect…Do you suppose, O most contemptible man on earth, that I think myself sprung [like Athena] from the head of Jove? I am a school girl, possessed of the sleeping embers of an ordinary mind. Indeed I am too hurt, and my mind, offended, too swayed by passions, sighs, tormenting itself, conscious of the obligation to defend my sex. For absolutely everything-that which is within us and that which is without-is made weak by association with my sex.
Jan 13, 1488
-The Western Humanities Vol 2, 7th Edition
“I am a scholar and a pupil who has been lulled to sleep by the meagre fire of a mind too humble. I have been too much burned, and my injured mind has accumulated too much passion; for tormenting itself with the defending of our sex, my mind sighs, conscious of its obligation. For all things — those deeply rooted inside us as well as those outside us — are being laid at the door of our sex. In addition, I, who have always held virtue in high esteem and considered private things as secondary importance, shall wear down and exhaust my pen writing against those men who are garrulous and puffed up with false pride. I shall not fail to obstruct tenaciously their treacherous snares. And I shall strive a war of vengeance against the notorious abuse of those who fill everything with noise, since armed with such abuse, certain insane and infamous men bark and bare their teeth in vicious wrath at the republic of women, so worthy of veneration.”—Laura Cereta, 1469-1499
Laura Cereta has no time for your bullshit
In 1487, Venetian humanist Laura Cereta sent some samples of her writing in Latin to fellow scholar Giovanni Olivieri, asking for his critique. Olivieri, doubting Cereta’s ability to produce such a piece of writing and suspecting she’d had help, sent his wife Elena to catch Cereta out by requesting a piece of writing in Latin on the spot. Understandably incensed, Laura wrote back sarcastically to Olivieri,
Although I have neither consulted the divination of Tages nor the Sybilline books in order to know the future, nor have I been possessed by the god, or guided by auguries, still I had a suspicion that had already caused me to write on another occasion that I thought you’d be rightly amazed that I had the courage — mere woman though I was, untutored in literature, and utterly ignorant — to send you a little epistolary oration, however crude and in need of editing with a scythe it might be.
Anyway, look how conveniently it has worked out that a more prescient mind than mine has provided inspiration from higher places. Your wife has approached me in a friendly manner — and she is very charming and addresses everyone in the right way at the right time. It seemed she wouldn’t leave me alone until she asked me to write something on the spur of the moment to you even though I had nothing in the least worthwhile to say. I don’t know if she came over, in the role of a scout or deserter herself, to have a look at the modest education I’ve had. In any case I do see the nature of these attempts of hers: and they are — if you’ll permit me the liberty of saying so — underhanded missions under the guise of which you expect me to get tangled up in the net of my own inexperience, just as you tend to imagine me wandering around on unknown roads, blind without a father’s guidance.