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Thomas Aquinas and the “Unchanging” Woman in Medieval Society, Essay Example

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Essay

Introduction

The duration alone of the Middle Ages provides an immense range of cultural subjects of study.  For long centuries, societies were engaged in the often violent process of gaining an identity, if not of an outright struggle for survival.  Dynasties rose and fell, warfare was common, and through all of this was the rise of the power of the Catholic Church, shifting whole ideologies over long and painful periods of history.  It is, then, easy to pass by a profoundly important element of this extensive period; namely, that the perception of women reinforced existing ideas  of a natural weakness in women.  As Thomas Aquinas led the ecclesiastical charge asserting women as being lesser than men in the eyes of God, so too did the patriarchal societies hold to such views.  What actually enabled this extreme bias, however, was a factor removed from Church thinking, and even from the turbulence of the era itself.  As the Middle Ages marked centuries where physical force and ability was a vital concern, women were more easily exploited and perceived as little more than necessary parties in procreation.  The combination of religious doctrine and harsh living in the Middle Ages may have permitted patriarchy to reach its apex, but the bias in place and expressed by Aquinas only reflected a long tradition  holding that women were greatly inferior.  Consequently, it may be argued that Aquinas’s view were essentially created to retain an ancient and enduring status quo.

Discussion

If Medieval societies were chaotic and unstable, they were also strongly influenced by the power of the Church.  This was an age when the common man had no recourse to elevated thinking beyond the doctrine presented to him; literacy was a privilege of the ruling classes and the Church, as it was unthinkable that an ordinary man should even seek to read the Bible.  At the same time, and true to the ways in which cultures exponentially shape themselves, there was no interest in literacy because there was little regard for learning, save in those spheres expected to possess it.  Boys from noble families were trained to rule and engage in combat, and peasants were raised to attain only the skills required to plant fields and drive oxen.  As clerics were usually the only literate population, even written records of land ownership were in the hands of the Church, and well into the 13th century (Sedlar  458).  It seems inevitable, then, that, when learning is held only in a marginal sphere of the population, it takes on all the more gravity as unquestioned truth.  In no uncertain terms, and for the vast majority of the Medieval populations, truth was a mystery known only to the highest authorities, and could not be doubted when passed down to them.

This then indicates just how powerful the influences of a man like Thomas Aquinas could be.  It is difficult in modern terms to comprehend such a degree of authority, but Aquinas was endowed with this.  More to the point, his reflections on the nature of women were considered absolute, and largely went to supporting the needs and views of these feudal cultures, ruled by men by virtue of physical supremacy.  It is doubtful that the average Medieval man truly comprehended all of what Aquinas had to say in regard to women; what mattered is that they were, as the Scriptures made clear, weak and associated with sin.  Moreover, Aquinas drew his ideologies from Aristotle, as well as the Bible, and this is where there is interesting development.  Aristotle held that women were inherently inferior to man, and consequently less capable of being virtuous in any way.  Aquinas echoed a great deal of this thinking, and he reinforced Aristotle’s conviction that, as men display virtue through public speaking and ruling, a women’s virtue is confined to obeying and silence (Allen  144).  At the same timer, Aquinas probes more deeply into the foundations for this thinking.  More exactly, Aristotle attaches a form of blame to women, one made all the more interesting by his pre-Christian Era presence.  There is no “fall” that points to women as sinful; rather, there is the sense that their weakness is a kind of natural culpability.  Aquinas moderates this stance.  In his eyes, the natural inferiority of the woman’s being translates to a similar weakness in their ability to reason.  They are imperfect, but it is not their fault, and it is also interesting that Aquinas does not accuse women of being the sinful cause of the “fall.”  It is more that her sin arises from the lesser potentials for virtue she possesses.  Nonetheless, Aquinas still holds that the woman’s sin here is greater than the man’s because she gave perfect consent to the serpent, while the man gave only imperfect, and that somewhat excused by the virtuous desire to please his loved one (Allen  146).  The theological discourse may be examined at length, but the relevant reality is that, in upholding Aristotle’s creeds, Aquinas presented to the Middle Ages a carefully constructed proof of women as lesser beings.

That such an ideology would have a profound effect on European cultures is inevitable.  It also requires an examination of how such views reflected thinking both predating it and maintained long afterward.  It is easy to claim today that Aquinas, while acknowledged as a great scholar, was nonetheless a product of his own education and time.  It is also easy to attribute to him the immense bias against women existing in these eras, simply because of his sphere of influence and the immense power of the Catholic Church.  To do so, however, is to ignore a critical factor in the genesis of this thinking itself.  More to the point, and critically, it must be remembered that Aquinas was not creating new doctrine based on Catholic principles.  He was not presenting a novel, if eagerly accepted, idea of women as essentially weaker than men.  He was taking the work of Aristotle, modifying it, and offering it to his own time.  Consequently, if there is to be criticism of the Medieval view of women, it is necessary to encompass views going much father back.  More to the point, it may then be seen that Aquinas was actually prompted by an interest in reflecting and reinforcing the tides of gender feeling well established in the Western world.

It seems, in fact, that the farther the history is traced, the more Aquinas appears to be merely carrying on ancient and dominant lines of thought.  When Solon came to power in Athens in the 6th century B.C.E., the laws established were invariably constraining to women, and to an extent that indicates something like fear.  As the democracy arose to empower male citizens, women were legally accorded a perpetual status as children, requiring the guardianship always of a father or husband.  They lived in separate quarters and were essentially not permitted to be seen publicly, unless under the protection of a male.  This was protection, not for the woman, but for the offenses she would be likely to commit. There is evidence that some women learned to read in their seclusion, but the greater reality is that complete subjugation was in play, and one based on the assumption that women were completely unsuited for anything beyond mourning, attending to a man’s needs, and having children (Salisbury  140-141).  Furthermore, Thomas Aquinas’s furthering of Aristotle’s ideas regarding the biological formation of women reflect just how widespread were Aristotle’s views.  In Aquinas, the male seed produces women because it is flawed, and he uses this to conclude that women are inherently imperfect.  In Aristotle and in the work of the physician Herophilus, that women do not produce semen – or that it is discharged through the bladder as waste – proved the physical inferiority of them.  By the 2nd century C.E., there was a shift from the Greek to the Roman in terms of assessing a woman’s value, if not necessarily a more empowering one.  Soranus echoed the Roman preoccupation with child-bearing, and consequently accepted that sexual pleasure was possible for women because it facilitated the process of conception.  Later in the same century, and ironically, Galen would enhance the prestige of women through the incorrect assertion that they created semen, which met with the man’s in the womb.  At the same time, and centuries later, his views reveal the lasting impact of Aristotle and his peers.  Galen held that women, biologically inferior, were also intellectually and morally inferior (Salisbury  144-145).  All this in place, it becomes evident that Aquinas was hardly presenting a new and dramatic idea of womanhood; rather, he was simply using Scripture to validate concepts in place long before Christ.

Equally important to note, in assessing the actual impact of Aquinas’s views of women, is how this same thinking prevailed well after the Renaissance.  This has been noted as most striking because of a single, astounding circumstance: the crowning of Mary Tudor as Queen of England in 1553.  In France and Spain, Salic Law prohibited a woman taking the throne, but England was by no means more accepting of it, even if the laws allowed it.  Mary set the stage for an especially potent testing of gender roles, and even the Catholics of the nation supporting her were generally disbelieving of her ability to rule.  Tracts were published widely, denouncing, not Mary as a person or legitimate heir, but as the wrong sex because women could not exercise power properly.  This would eventually take shape in the famous work of the Protestant revolutionary John Knox, in his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, published in 1558.  While it is certainly true Knox reviled Mary as a Catholic, he drew universal support because virtually everyone, and women as well, firmly believed that women were prone to vice and foolishness, and required the control of a husband or father (Faure  25).  Importantly, Knox referred to Aristotle to support his claim that a woman ruling was “monstrous,” or unnatural.  His argument, moreover, was not restricted to the monarchy; it was just as obscene for an ordinary woman to “rule” in the home, because this defied both the will of God and the reality that women were less intelligent and less virtuous.

It is then interesting how, when the politically astute Elizabeth succeeded Mary, Knox and other powerful ministers recanted somewhat, and altered their arguments to claim that, when men fail, God occasionally endows a woman with exceptional qualities (Faure 26).  Nonetheless, these were highly unusual exceptions, and created by God to show man how low he had descended.  It must be reiterated that, in the 16th century, Knox and his peers were then essentially confirming established beliefs dating back to the ancient Greeks.  Clearly, then, Aquinas was not setting forth an isolated ideology of gender that could exist only in the primitive, violent years of the Middle Ages.  Rather, he was a prominent figure in a long trajectory of dominant opinion, from the Ancient Greeks and well into the Tudor dynasties, that perpetually sought to identify women as lesser beings.  If the Middle Ages provided virtually no opportunities for such thinking to be challenged, it may well be that no age in this lengthy period of human history could, so firmly based was the thinking.

Conclusion

Given the violence and upheaval of the Middle Ages, and the primitive ways of life associated with this time, it may seem that Thomas Aquinas’s views on women were developed as an inevitable by-product of both the limitations of feudal life and the growing power of the Catholic Church.  It is easy to link less evolved thinking with these centuries, so the views appear to “fit.”  The more important reality, however, is that Aquinas was merely taking ideas powerfully established in Western cultures and translating them for his own era.  That Aquinas is only a part, if a noted one, of a long process of extreme gender bias is all the more supported by how that bias would remain intact through the 16th century.  It may then be argued that Aquinas’s views on women were essentially created to maintain an ancient and enduring status quo.

Works Cited

Allen, P. The Concept of Woman: The Early Humanist Reformation, 1250-1500, Part I.  Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.  Print.

Faure, C.  Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women.  New York: Taylor & Francis, 2003. Print.

Sedlar, J. W.  East Central Europe in the Middle Ages: 1000-1500.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.  Print.

Salisbury, J.  E.  Women in the Western World.  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001.  Print.

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