Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Isidore of Seville on the matter of men and women

Today's research snippet.

Ravensburger Madonna circa 1480
The medievals depended on various scholars of earlier times for much of their medical and general knowledge.  Isidore of Seville was one such scholar, who lived in Spain between 570 and 636. He became Archbishop of Seville and wrote an encyclopedia of knowledge 'Etymologiae'. It was extremely popular throughout Europe and was cited for centuries.
This is what he has to say about men and women...

Man (vir) is so named, because there is greater force (vis) in him than in women (feminis) hence also the word 'strength' (virtus) - or he is so named because he controls woman (feminam) forcefully (vi). Woman (mulier) gets her name from 'softness' (mollitie), or as it were 'softer', mollier, with a letter taken away or changed. For the two sexes are differentiated in he strength (fortitudine) and weakness (inmbcillitate) of their bodies. Thus there is the greatest strength (virtus) in man (vir) and less in woman(mulleris) so that she might be forbearing to man; otherwise, if women were to repel them, sexual desire might compel men to desire something else or rush off to another sex...

What is now called a 'female' (femina), antiquity called vira (i.e. the female of vir meaning man).  The word 'female' (femina) derivesd from the area of the thighs (femorum) where her gender is distinguished from a man's.  But some think she is called 'female' (femina) through the Greek etymology for 'burning force,' because of the intensity of her desire. For females are more lustful than males , among women as much as among animals.  Hence the word 'effeminate' was applied to an excess of love in antiquity.'
The above notion was very widespread in the Middle Ages, so sexual restraint was viewed as a healthy thing to practise.

Isidore on procreation
A father is the one from whom the beginning of the family line derives its origin. Hence he is termed the head of the family (paterfamilias) The father is so named because he procreates a son by carrying through an accomplishment (patratione); for this 'accomplishment' is the consummation of the business of Venus.  Those who 'engender' (genitores) are named from 'bringing forth' (gignendo) while 'parents' are those who 'bear' (parientes). The same is true of 'creators' (creatores) - the semen of the male whence the bodies of animals and humans are conceived is 'growth' (crementum)  hence parents are called 'creators'. A mother (mater) is so called because from her something is made: for 'mother' (mater) is as it were 'matter' (materia) while the father is the cause.

On menstruation
The menstrua are the superfluous blood of women. They are called menstrua after the cycle of the moon, in accordance with which this flow usually comes - the moon being named 'mene' in Greek. They are also called 'womanish things' since woman is the only menstruating animal.  From contact with this blood, fruits fail to germinate, grape-must goes sour, plants die, trees lose their fruit, metal is corroded with rust, and bronze objects go black. Any dogs which consume it, contract rabies. The glue of bitumen, which resists both metal and water, dissolves spontaneously when polluted with that blood.

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