The anti-feminist writings of the twelfth century are often quite long poems, with many verses, and they catch the attention of historians. Sometimes they are merely a series of proverbs strung together. Generally they depend on the satirical genre, and, as easily happens in this area, tend to become caricatures. Their authors quite unrealistically seem not to have observed how real women in their surroundings actually lived. These men tirelessly and rather monotonously simply recopied one another or else cribbed from the same anthologies.

Most wrote with a moralizing, even a reforming purpose, except for those salsa dicta intended as distractions for students. Sometimes they warn all men about the danger of all women – virgins, wives, widows, nuns -, and sometimes they are aimed at clerics and monks who have voluntarily taken it upon themselves to live in celibacy. In the first case, belittling marriage goes hand in hand with belittling women in general. They fling all sorts of insults at her: she is compared to animals like the lioness, the tigress; she smells foul; she is poison, or the symbol of everything evil in the world. She has every vice and every failing, and one in particular: her tongue is evil, garrulous, deceitful, flattering, lying. Women cheat in every possible way: they are duplicitous and fickle, in marriage and out of marriage; they are never to be trusted. The best thing to do is to avoid marrying.

While all of this was being written, any man who could marry did marry, while many women chose monastic celibacy and remained faithful to it. Real life was quite different from the picture given by these obviously artificial texts. They give us neither a true image of life as it really was, nor a correct doctrine – or, as we say today, a feminine anthropology. These writings were no more than slick literature which saved the authors the trouble of having to be creative, because the commonplaces they used were within easy reach of anyone, either in anthologies or in school day memories. One of the dearest themes of anti-feminist satire always has been, and still is, perfumes, cosmetics, make-up, outlandish fashions.

Jean Leclercq, Women and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1989)


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