Part III: Keeping Up (Virginal) Appearances: Secrets, Morality and Women’s Sexual Health

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“Super-Virgin Mary?” Artwork advertising the festival of “l’Eredità delle donne” (Women’s Heritage) in Florence, Italy.  Photo taken on October 2019 in the Piazza della Repubblica. 

Claire Litt //

The Countess of Forlì, Caterina Sforza (1463-1509) is a woman whom history remembers primarily because of an apocryphal story recounted by none other than Machiavelli. In his Discourses, Machiavelli described a coup d’etat during which Caterina tricked her enemies into allowing her to regain entrance to her castle by leaving her children as hostages. After recapturing her castle, Caterina turned to her opponents and, in reference to her abandoned children, lifted her skirts and proclaimed that she could make more (Machiavelli, 430). Regardless of the veracity of this story, a similarly spirited subversiveness that upset expectations of female sexual morality comes through in Caterina’s Experimenti, a book in which she recorded her medical and cosmetic ‘secrets.’ In particular, two recipes, “To make a woman who has been corrupted appear as a virgin,” speak to the pervasiveness of the dichotomous moral narratives of women’s sexuality (BNCF, Maglia. XV.14 cc.8v). The assumption was that sexual activity, or the lack thereof, was not only the ultimate determinate of a woman’s character, but also was apparent upon visual inspection. Physicians’ hopes of finding physical evidence of a woman’s ‘moral state’ is further reflective of the scholarly medical discourse in early modern Italy, which framed women and their bodies as abounding with secrets and deceptions.

         The cultural shift toward viewing women’s bodies as inherently suspicious entities arose in part because male physicians began to specialize in women’s medicine. Previously, women’s sexual and reproductive health were treated by other women, whose lived experience made them authorities on such matters. Beginning in the second half of the 13th century in Italy, university-trained physicians, whose limited anatomical knowledge was centred on the male body, began to include ‘women’s issues’ in their practices (Green, 70). Shifting the blame for their own ignorance onto women, the literature physicians produced described the female body as an inherently mysterious and secretive place capable of hiding things—including pregnancies (Park, 92). Of course, on occasion women did exploit men’s inferior knowledge of their bodies. In 1569, the young noble-woman named Constanza Colonna almost succeeded in deceiving physicians sent to investigate her by the Inquisition. She attempted to pass off her abortion as a mere ‘purge’ of excess humoural fluids that had caused her belly to swell up in previous months (Christopoulos, 2012).

    Caterina’s recipe to make women appear as virgins was a reaction to physicians’ even greater concern: that it was not only women’s bodies that hid things, but their minds too. The market for male physicians specializing in women’s medicine was limited to the wives of noblemen, whose social status made them especially concerned with the laws of primogeniture. Noblemen’s heightened anxieties surrounding the virginity of their brides and the paternity of their sons caused them to doubt women’s accounts of their sexual history and seek assurances from the physicians they hired. Physicians, in turn, sought to find conclusive physical evidence of women’s sexual pasts.

     Medical recipe books from the 14-16th centuries refer to the various ‘signs’ of women’s virginity. In a widely-published treatise, The Popular Errors (1578), a French physician Laurent Joubert recounted a common method for determining whether a girl was a virgin that involved making her drink pulverized aloe. If she were a virgin, then it was supposed to give her incontinence (Joubert, 184). Another ‘sign’ was that if a young woman did not become distressed by the smoke of burning dock plant (a type of edible greenery), then she was not a virgin (Ibid). Young women were subjected to seemingly arbitrary experiments in which either outcome resulted poorly for them, in either a humiliating health episode or the loss of their credibility, marriageability, and future economic welfare.

      Aside from whether Caterina’s recipe to make women appear as virgins was effective, its very existence is revealing of the medical culture of its time and place of production. Both Caterina’s proposition to deceive male physicians and Constanza Colonna’s attempt to cover up her abortion were primarily women’s efforts to protect themselves from condemning verdicts of their moral character; they should not be understood as a justification for physicians’ anxiety that women conspired together to trick unsuspecting men into believing in their virtue. Given the scarcity of cases and recipes such as these in comparison to the perversive sexism found in the mainstream medical discourse, women’s ‘secrets’ were actually reactive. The subversion of prescribed expectations that their appearances matched their sexual pasts, achieved through exploiting male medical authorities’ ignorance of female bodies, was incidental to women’s primary object of self-preservation.

Works Cited:

Primary Sources:
Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze, Magliabechiano, cl.XV, cod.14, cc.22

Joubert, Laurent. 1592. La prima parte de gli errori popolari […]. Italian Translation. Filippo Giunti, Libreria impressa dei duchi di Urbino.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. 1940. The Prince and The Discourses. Trans. N., Lerner, M., Detmold, C. Edward., Vincent, E. Reginald Pearce., Ricci, L. New York: The Modern library.

Secondary Sources:

Christopoulos, John. “Abortion and the Confessional in Counter-Reformation Italy.” Renaissance Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2012): 443-84. doi:10.1086/667257.

Green, Monica. 2008. Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology. Oxford University Press.

Park, Katharine. 2010. Secrets of Women: gender, generation, and the origins of human dissection. New York: Zone Books. 

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