A Commonplace Book (Analyzing Gender Roles through Literature)

Commonplace books were popular ways to compile knowledge from the renaissance to the 19th century. Things like poems, recipes, and important quotes to remember were written down in these books along with a description or notes on the topic. People would store quotations, definitions, and include personal observations along with them. Professor Helms gave me the bright idea to use this type of platform for my project. I created my own type of commonplace book using quotes from multiple texts and analyzing them in micro essays below each quote.

Amazon.com: Paradise Lost eBook: Milton, John, a: Kindle Store
Teaching the opening to Book I of The Faerie Queene - Pixels & Pedagogy
A scene from Spenser’s Faerie Queen

Literature is a very useful tool the analyzing history, and understanding how society was at the time. Things like gender roles, social hierarchies, political opinions, culture, and so much more can be explored this way. After reading the materials for this course I became interested in history of gender roles and sexuality , and how it is portrayed in literature such as Paradise lost, or Faerie Queen. Throughout this post I will analyze quotes from specific pieces in order to form an understanding of how women were perceived, and treated in 16th and 17th century Europe. Female characters in western literature serve as symbols for the “perfect woman” as well as one lost to the grasps of satan.

“My author, and disposer, what thou bidst Unargued I obey; so God ordains: God is thy law, thou mine; to know no more Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.” (IV, 635–638)

Milton, John, 1608-1674. ( 2000). Paradise lost. London ; New York :Penguin Books, https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/pl/book_1/text.shtml

Eve accepts her subservient role in this quote as well as her inferiority to Adam and the wisdom he holds. She acknowledges Adam’s direct connection with God, and knows the only way she can remain in connection with her faith is through Adams guidance. This realization of contentment pleases Adam and God. Milton is attempting to tell women as long as they are content with being inferior to men they will be accepted by God. The fact that women are less valuable than men is a common misconception from the Bible, and the author is depicting this in is his writing. Religion was a way to scare and control women and to keep them subservient to their husbands. If women stayed ignorant and obedient, they would be accepted by God; and this represents what the role of women was in the 16th and 17th centuries. Literature serves as a time machine in the way that it can give us a look into what certain societies were like, and I will explore gender roles through this lens.

“O thou for whom, And from whom, I was form’d; flesh of thy flesh; And without whom am to no end; my guide And head, what thou hast said is just and right. “(IV, 440–443)

Again, this documents Eve accepting Adam as her moral guide; and this represents the ideal marriage in this era. Men were t protect and support their wife in return for her complete obedience and willingness to please. The man was to guide the woman through life and in all the intellectual and religious aspects of it. Women were not expected to seek out knowledge and wisdom on their own, and this forbidden fruit is later offered to Eve by Satan himself.

“Queen of this universe, do not believe Those rigid threats of death; ye shall not die: How should ye? by the fruit? it gives you life To knowledge.” book 9 Paradise Lost

Satan approaches Eve and seduces her with the possibility of wisdom beyond Adam and God, and honestly I would have eaten the fruit too. He flatters her and makes her fall in love with herself, but what’s so wrong with that? A little self worth never hurt anyone…She eats the fruit and immediately her mind opens up and she realizes if she is chained to man and all of his expectations, she will never truly be free.

“But to Adam in what sort Shall I appear? Shall I to him make known As yet my change, and give him to partake Full happiness with me, or rather not, But keep the odds of knowledge in my power Without copartner? So to add what wants In female sex, the more to draw his love, And render me more equal, and perhaps, A thing not undesirable, sometime Superior; for inferior who is free?” (IX, 816–825)

Eve is content with inferiority until she eats the fruit and her mind expands beyond what Adam has told her. She realizes she desires freedom, and if she is forever subservient to Adam she will never get this. This rings true for women of this era living in western cultures, and the men at the time did not want women to realize this. Therefore this knowledge is portrayed as heretic, and women who seek this would be abandoned by God. I believe that things like this were written to control and scare women into submission. Milton never once directly addresses these beliefs, yet they are very clear in his writings.

“Was I to have never parted from thy side? As good have grown there still a lifeless rib.” (IX, 1153–1154)

After the fall, Eve explains she feels like a lifeless dead limb without the guidance of Adam, solidifying the fact that women need the guidance of man in order to survive. This is Milton putting his own opinions in Eve’s mouth, perpetuating the sexist beliefs that plagued society at the time. I always wondered as a child why the priest couldn’t be a woman, and why God was most certainly a man; and it seems I have found my answer. Most religions are built on beliefs that are perpetually sexist, and this is shown in their texts throughout history.

“Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out. The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual cowardice prevails which makes many men shrink from the task, or only do it by halves. Yet the imperfect conclusions thus drawn, are frequently very plausible, because they are built on partial experience, on just, though narrow, views.”

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Printed at Boston, by Peter Edes for Thomas and Andrews, Faust’s statue, no. 45, Newbury-street, MDCCXCII. [1792]; Bartleby.com, 1999. www.bartleby.com/144/.

In Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she explores the reasons why society has such paternalistic view on women. I liked this quote because she describes why some 16th and 17th century authors consistently wrote about the social prejudices placed upon women, as well as justified them. If women were inferior to men, as society had made clear, it must be justified in some way. So “brave” men like Milton took it upon themselves to explain this through literature. Although men placed these prejudices on women, the reasoning could not be realistically traced; therefore religion became the reason by default. Religion was used in this way frequently in this era of history because of the importance of God in society, and the respect for anything ecclesiastical in nature.

“His Lady sad to see his sore constraint,
Cride out, Now now Sir knight, shwe what ye bee,
Add faith vnto your force, and be not faint” 1.1.19

Spenser, Edmund, The Faerie Queene, published 1590, https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poets/spenser-edmund

the holy lady Una, is describing to the knight Redcrosse that he will not survive the battle on physical strength alone. In order to defeat evil he must have a strong faith and connection to God, she urges him to strengthen his faith and he will overcome all. This is interesting to me because usually men are supposed to guide women especially in religious matters, so it is nice Una’s opinion is taken seriously. I still wonder though; Why didn’t Una fight the dragon, and why is this answer so obvious?

“And that which is for Ladies most befitting,
To stint all strife, and foster friendly peace,
Was from those Dames so farre and so unfitting,
As that instead of praying them surcease,
They did much more their cruelty increase;” 4.2.19

Dues and Ate represent “unholy women” who persuade men towards violence represent the opposite of a well behaved woman. Instead of preaching the word of God as Una does throughout the story, they incite violence and chaos. This was meant to represent what would happen if women misbehaved, just as Eve did in Paradise Lost.

“Him so I sought, and so at last I found,
Where him that witch had thralled to her will,
In chaines of lust and lewd desires ybound,
And so transformed from his former skill,
That me he knew not, neither his own ill;”

Amavia explains to Guyon how she tracked down her beloved Mordant, a victim of Acrasia’s tempting Bower of Bliss. The witch Acrasia’s seduction can turn men into mindless beasts under her control. Amavia is able to bring him back to his senses, but the vile witch manages to poison him, killing the man if she cannot make him her slave. This represents what could happen if women committed adultery outside of marriage. Acrasia’s powers of seduction represent temptation and lust, as well as the opposite of a good faithful woman. Evil witches like this one are written about time and time again, and this seems to be a warning as to what would happen to wayward women who give into the temptation of lust, or simply disobey their husband.

So, what was the role of women in 16th and 17th century society? They were expected to accept their inferiority to men and behave like a perfect housewife. Women who detested this were seen as heretic and this can be seen in the depiction of the witches in Faerie Queene. Religion was used as a scapegoat for misogynistic beliefs and prejudices that oppressed women for centuries, and still is to a certain extent. For example, women’s rights are in danger right now due to the pro life movement based solely on religious beliefs; and technically the separation of church and state SHOULD protect us from this. Throughout history men have attacked things that they fear or do not understand, and apparently the feminine mystique proved too confusing for men.

By utilizing literature, we can put ourselves in the shoes of those from the past; and it is extremely important for humanity to do this. In order to prevent these prejudices from resurfacing, we must educate society about it. What makes literature so powerful and important is the fact that you can influence and change society with the words you write, and these words act as a narration of the human story. The writer has the power to influence society and the way people think, that is what makes literature so important. Also we can read these tales in the present day and analyze the past as well as make assumptions as to how the times were. Literature serves as a time travel tool in the way that it can show you how the people of this time period thought and what was important to them. Literature is the historians primary tool in analyzing the past an how it connects with the present, this is why so much has been written about throughout time. By reading Miltons writing we can conclude that women were seen as inferior to men by his society, creating a type of magic looking glass into the past. Tales like Faerie Queene can show us what the ideal marriage looked like during this time as well as what the ideal woman looked like.

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