Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.07


Glenda McLeod, Virtue and Venom: Catalogs of Women from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Pp. 168. $29.95. ISBN 0-472-10206-0.


Reviewed by Eve Browning Cole, University of Minnesota, Duluth.

The "catalogue" is a bizarre form of literature in which variously lengthy lists of persons, real or imaginary, virtuous or vicious, are held up for some morally edifying purpose. This book studies selected catalogues of women chronologically, beginning with Hesiod's Eoiae and ending with the Cité des Dames of Christine de Pisan (written in 1405). The general thesis of the book is that prescriptions about virtue and vice for women are depressingly consistent across vast stretches of time: there is a continuing obsession with chastity, even asexuality, for women (needed antidote to the well-known sexual voracity of the female), and a monotonic recurrrence of their relegation to the private or domestic sphere. But in a genuinely exciting concluding chapter, Christine de Pisan is shown to enter the male domain of the catalogue and thoroughly disrupt and subvert its smug one-way moral directionality. To any reader interested in issues of individuality of authorship within rigid literary traditions, and feminist re-thinkings of such issues, McLeod's book is worth the price of admission for this chapter alone.

The author's chosen task is daunting in several different ways: modern readers find most catalogues tedious going, even just plain "boring", as McLeod notes (2). Hence she promises to show that the catalogues to be analyzed are "not as mediocre as often proposed" (2). (Somehow as a prefatory remark this fails to excite.) But in addition, the catalogues studied are composed in Greek, Latin, Italian, Chaucerian English, and French; this places a heavy linguistic burden on the synoptic scholar of the catalogue tradition. Finally, the catalogue tradition regarding female subjects is rife with stereotype and bias, a fact which could tempt a scholar into heated but unenlightening political value judgements.

McLeod meets these challenges with varying degrees of success. Some of the catalogues studied do in fact take on life and interest under her analysis, and this is especially true of the later ones. The author's language skills and general scholarship, while apparently adequate for the late medieval and early Renaissance material in question, are manifestly overburdened when dealing with the literature of Greece and Rome. But McLeod is quite successful in avoiding hasty politicization and distorting partisanship in her explanations and assessments of the chosen catalogues.

The book's initial chapters are so faltering and sketchy that many classicists will put the book down in disgust. This would be an unfortunate response, since the mid and later chapters do a very interesting job of charting the influence of classical sources on the medieval mind. To see just how long and dark a shadow is cast by Juvenal's "Satire Six" or Ovid's "Heroides", for example, is interesting and well worthwhile. It must be said, however, that author and editors alike are to be reproached for such blunders as the creation of a new Greek lyric poet named "Ibyais" (15, repeated in the index 164), the renaming of Hesiod's "Theogeny" (13 and consistently throughout), the attribution to Aristotle of a work entitled "Athenian Politics", spelling Plato's mother's name "Perictone" (twice on 32), renaming a Stoic philosopher "Cleantis", and bungled, incomplete, or simply missing references to classical sources.

In addition and curiously, the catalogue tradition in classical literature is incompletely explored. One might have thought the author would welcome the opportunity to discuss, even briefly, the chorus of Aeschylus' Choephoroi (585-652) in which infamous women from mythology are deplored in catalogue-like fashion, or the noxious typology of wives delivered in Euripides' Hippolytus (616 ff.), or, for comparison purposes, Theophrastus' Characters. Propertius' use of lists and exempla would also have been of interest, as would Tacitus' personality-centered historiography.

So in general, one must simply say that the classical instantiation of the catalogue does not receive adequate treatment here; though the author raises some interesting issues regarding it, none are fully explored and all are richly deserving of it.

The first two chapters are accompanied by a sense of hesitancy or discomfort on the author's part, which steadily dissipates as she moves into what is clearly her true domain of expertise with the later catalogues. Here we are allowed to observe the classical ingredients being preserved in Patristic and medieval concoctions with their own ideological purposes, including the restriction of women's activities within the Christian church (37 ff.), the disbarring of women from property-ownership (70-71) and political enfranchisement, and the endlessly renewed ratification of the evaluative proportion man : nobility :: woman : depravity.

McLeod's main scholarly interest centers on the dialectic between authority and individual creativity in literary production. A convention-riddled form such as the catalogue makes an ideal focus for such an interest. Predictably enough, the constraints on production exercised by powerful auctoritas are shown to ease and lessen as the Renaissance approaches, and Christine de Pisan stands as herself an exemplum of early Renaissance agility and initiative in exploiting authority while undermining its oppressive weight.

In summary, then, this book's main value to classicists lies not in its treatment of the classical works themselves, but in its detailing of their enormous influence on subsequent writing. Its useful studies of various medieval and early Renaissance catalogues demonstrate that the classical mold for gender stereotyping remained unbroken for centuries, even when authors struggled with great ingenuity to make an individual contribution within its outlines. Deeper, more comprehensive, and more careful studies of the creation of that classical outline remain to be done.