Moderata Fonte and ‘The Woman Question’

Is there anything more enlightening than listening in while women discuss their role in society? As the recent adaptation of Miriam Toews novel Women Talking shows, this is a pretty fascinating premise. In Toews’ story, which was inspired by real events, eight women from a Mennonite community gather to decide what to do in the aftermath of horrific sexual attacks committed by the men around them against the women and girls. They come to question the immutability of their social roles, and whether it was fair that they had so little agency, so much responsibility, and virtually no education.

In Moderata Fonte’s 1600 book The Worth of Women, seven fictitious women are in a beautiful garden in the outskirts of Venice, considering similar issues. They discuss the way men treat women and pose themselves the ultimate question: how is it that men, ‘essentially inferior’ to women, have come to dominate them? And, crucially, can that be changed?*

Moderata Fonte was born in Venice in 1555, as Modesta Pozzo, literally, ‘modesty well’, before choosing as her pen name the more confident ‘moderate fountain’, replacing the traditionally feminine virtue of modesty (and silence) with the masculine moderation, evoking reason. Orphaned as a child, Fonte had been raised in a convent and at her grandmother’s home and, according to her guardian and biographer Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, all those around her were impressed by her intelligence. Fonte was an autodidact, and her family’s wealth allowed her great access to books. In 1581, when she was 26, she published her first work, a chivalric romance called Floridoro, under her new pen name. She continued to write throughout her life but, as a wife and a mother, often had little time to do so.

Her most celebrated work, The Worth of Women, was written during a heated intellectual debate that swept European humanists, called the querelle des femmes (literally, ‘dispute of women’, better known as ‘the woman question’). It arguably started with Boccaccio in his 1360s De claris mulieribus (‘On Famous Women’) and Christine de Pizan’s 1405 Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies). This debate went beyond women’s role, dissecting their very nature, defining and describing female qualities and vices, in opposition to men. I use the word ‘dissecting’ here intentionally, as medical and scientific knowledge were key issues in this discussion, being weaponised against women as well as used in their defence. Fonte’s characters talk at length about medicine, alchemy, astrology, and natural philosophy, highlighting how women were involved in these spheres, not only as readers and writers, but as practitioners, much like Caterina Sforza or Isabella CorteseBy discussing these subjects, the characters showcase their rationality and intellectual powers, illustrating how they should be considered equals to men.

The women in Fonte’s work, reflecting different social states (widow, single, married), gathered in Leonora’s palatial garden, where she asked them how men had come to rule over women. Corinna, a stand-in for Fonte, replies that the explanation for gender inequality in sixteenth-century Venice was custom, not natural law, questioning the Aristotelian tradition of understanding men as inherently more rational, superior, and ‘perfect’ than women. This widely accepted idea justified male rule over women, who were ‘naturally’ inferior and weak, lacking reason. The Worth of Women is a unique and clever literary dialogue, not only questioning women’s role and painting a picture of women’s lived experiences but also imagining a world in which women could opt out of marriage, choosing singledom and enjoying female friendship. By denouncing the Aristotelian ‘natural order’ as a creation, Fonte’s women imply that it could change.

Other Renaissance writers questioned this assumption and argued for the equality of the sexes, besides Christine de Pizan and Boccaccio, who wrote two centuries before Fonte. The Worth of Women was published at the height of ‘the woman question’, when ‘pro-women’ works abounded, including Galeazzo Flavio Capra’s 1525 Dell’eccellenza e dignità delle donne (‘On the Excellence and Dignity of Women’) and Lucrezia Marinella’s 1600 La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomini (‘The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men’).  In Fonte’s work, the characters’ erudition, especially in medicine and alchemy, serve to argue for a new kind of society, in which women would control their own lives.

It is telling that, on the ‘pro-woman’ side, there were people like the alchemist Henricus Cornelius Agrippa. In his 1520s Declamatio de nobilitat ed et praeccellentia foeminei sexus (On the Nobility and Preeminence of the Female Sex), he argued that women excelled over men in many aspects, including scientific pursuits. Antifeminists, such as Giuseppe Passi, disagreed. In his 1599 I donneschi difetti (The Defects of Women), he denounced female vanity, sexual excess, and greed. But he also accused women meddling in science and medicine of overstepping their bounds: their practice was no more than witchcraft. Fonte, on the other hand, denounced male alchemists: while women could use this art for the good of the community, such as making medicines, men’s volatile nature could easily be lured by promises of wealth and be blinded by the pursuit of turning base metals into gold. Moreover, this transformation mirrored men’s unreliability and lack of constancy. Again, alchemy and medicine were used to make broader points in the debate over men and women.

Of course, we can and should question these ideas: it is clear that women are as capable of doing harm to those around them as men are (just look at the recent case of Elizabeth Holmes). Also, inspiring as proto-feminists might be, it’s important to keep in mind that both ‘pro-women’ writers like Fonte and antifeminists took for granted the fundamental and essential differences between the sexes, never questioning this rigid binary. This is a very cisgender, heterosexual debate. (Much like the influential 1992 best-seller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray.) In any case, this ‘war of the sexes’, as it was later called, was questioned by many, as illustrated by Virginia Woolf:

“All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides’, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side…”
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Still, for Fonte, there was a fundamental paradox in her society. Renaissance Venice was built on the myth of republican sovereignty and liberty, which was incompatible with women’s social status as subjugated to men. She saw women as victims of illegitimate rule by ‘tyrannic’ men, which clashed directly against Venetian values. The characters dare to imagine a different Venice, with Corinna, representing Fonte in the text, choosing to remain single. (It’s hard not to think of the intellectual Jo in Louise May Alcott’s Little Women, forced in the end to get married, which probably went against the author’s wishes and was required by the book’s editor.) Corinna’s choice is also conditional: it’s only possible because the garden in which this conversation takes place is set apart from Venice, with its liminal position allowing for this conjecture. Through Corinna, Fonte makes the case for female autonomy and freedom:

“Wouldn’t it be possible for us just to banish these men from our lives, and escape their carping and jeering once and for all? Couldn’t we live without them? Couldn’t we earn our living and manage our affairs without help from them? Come on, let’s wake up, and claim back our freedom, and the honour and dignity that they have usurped from us for so long. Do you think that if we really put our minds to it, we would be lacking the courage to defend ourselves, the strength to fend for ourselves, or the talents to earn our own living? Let’s take our courage into our hands and do it, and then we can leave it up to them to mend their ways as much as they can: we shan’t really care what the outcome is, just as long as we are no longer subjugated to them.”
The Worth of Women, Moderada Fonte

Gender equality depended directly on access to legal, political, and scientific knowledge, including alchemy and medicine. Women should be given the same chances as men, including material resources, a point famously developed in the early twentieth century by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own. Women’s potential had also been described by Fonte, in her romance Floridoro, through the alchemical image of ‘buried gold’, just waiting to be unearthed. Sadly, despite Fonte’s undisputed genius, we will never know how her literary and scientific life could have developed further. Fonte finished writing The Worth of Women the night before she died from childbirth, in 1592. She was just 37 years old.

*Because of the socio-cultural context of the querelle des femmes, I have embraced the binary men vs women in this text, as that was how these authors articulated their views. You can read my statement here about Language and Inclusivity.


Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (London: 1652).

Cristofano Bronzini, Della dignità e nobilità delle donne (Florence: 1624).

Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, Vita della Sig.ra Modesta Pozzo de’ Zorzi (Venice: 1593).

Galeazzo Flavio Capra Dell’eccellenza e dignità delle donne (Rome: 1525).

Moderata Fonte, Il Merito delle donne (Venice: 1600).

Moderata Fonte, Tredici Canti del Floridoro (Venice: 1581).

Ortensio Lando, Lettere di molte valorose donne (Venice: 1548).

Lucrezia Marinella La nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne co’ difetti et mancamenti degli uomini (Venice: 1601).

Further Reading:

Paola Malpezzi Price, Moderata Fonte: Women and Life in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Vancouver: The Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003).

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

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Green Sickness and Virginity

From the mid-16th century to the early 20th century, young girls described as suffering from bodily weakness, dietary disorders, heart palpitations, fainting spells, paleness, and an absence of menstruation (amenorrhoea), were often given the diagnosis of ‘green sickness’, the ‘disease of virgins’. But what was this medical condition? And what can it tell us about the way that female sexuality and puberty were understood in the past? I believe that social and cultural anxieties around young women’s developing sexuality were behind this disease’s construction, and its treatment ultimately aimed to control this sexuality.

But first things first. Medical historians are often asked about the contemporary equivalent of a given condition in the past. But it’s usually a bad idea to try comparing historical sources describing illnesses with how we understand medicine today. Green sickness has been associated with several modern conditions, from anorexia nervosa to pica, malnutrition, or anaemia. However, tempting as they may be, retrospective diagnoses can be misleading. For starters, we can’t assume that all the people described as suffering from the same condition indeed were. But the main issue is that there’s often not a direct contemporary equivalent to diseases of the past.

Our understanding of diseases and the body change more through time than we realise, and green sickness was a disease born out of the humoral understanding of the body, which prioritised fluids over organs as what determined medical conditions. In the case of green sickness, blood (and specifically menstruation) was central. Blockages in the natural economy of fluids, such as menstrual retention, were a serious medical concern. Therefore, it is not surprising that treatments included recipes to provoke menstruation, often using ‘hot and dry’ ingredients, such as onions, ‘red’ sage, betony, or rue. So, where does marriage come into that?

Let’s take a step back and start by thinking of the name ‘disease of virgins’ itself. How do we name diseases? Naming implies defining a condition and, often, gendering it (‘mother’s thumb’ is a great example). ‘Disease of virgins’ implied that it was mainly young women going through puberty who could develop the condition, although not exclusively. The pale colour of the skin was also central in how it was known and remained an important aspect of the description of the disease of virgins. In the early 16th century, it was called ‘white fever’ or ‘green jaundice’, which became green sickness – a disease in its own right rather than a kind of jaundice. The disease was famously associated with virginity in 1554 by the physician Johannes Lange, taking inspiration from Hippocratic writings as well as contemporary vernacular medicine. In the 17th century, with the rise of Greek names for medical conditions (such as catamenia for ‘menstruation’), green sickness became ‘chlorosis’, from the Greek chloros, a yellowish shade of green. Finally, in the 19th century, it was called hypochromic anaemia, and it disappeared from medical teachings and writings in the 1920s and 1930s.

This did not mean that patients suffering from green sickness had green skin, although it emphasised paleness. Letting go of the literal ‘green’, it could also symbolise youth and (sexual) inexperience. And that’s where marriage comes into play. Like fruits turned ripe and left on a tree would rot, girls ‘ripe’ for marriage who remained unmarried were at risk of developing this condition. The English midwife Jane Sharp wrote in 1671 how this disease ‘is more common in maids of ripe years when they are in love and desirous to keep company with a man’.

But ‘green’ could also mean other things. In Shakespearean fashion, it could also signify envy, as young girls could envy older women’s experience and their access to the world of sex (think Snow White, but in reverse!). Besides that, green was also associated with nature, and sex itself (prostitutes were often depicted wearing green in early modern imagery).

Menstruation itself was often referred to as the ‘flowers’, which, following the horticultural metaphor, preceded the fruit (a child). However, the absence of menstruation, one of the main symptoms of green sickness, was an ambiguous sign. What if the ‘innocent’ girl had become pregnant? Contrary to today, the absence of menstruation was not always associated with pregnancy, which would usually only be confirmed by ‘quickening’ (when the pregnant person felt foetal movement). Still, it could raise uncomfortable questions, especially in a patriarchal society where property rights followed a patrilineal logic. It’s not surprising, therefore, that if a young girl stopped menstruating, marriage was advised. This allowed socially and religiously accepted sexual activity, which was thought to have medical benefits to women while keeping them firmly in the role of wives and mothers.

So… was the ‘disease of virgins’ just a convenient excuse to police female sexuality? That would be too simplistic, yet it is striking how many conditions would fit this mould. Nymphomania, which became a prominent disorder from the 17th century, was also gendered, affecting women and young girls – coincidentally, particularly when they started menstruating. Masturbation was an important symptom and again, this condition was also best treated by marriage, which kept developing sexuality within a heterosexual and patriarchal institution.

But green sickness patients were described in a very different way to nymphomaniacs. Like many other medical conditions (think of Victorian ‘hysterical’ women), this was a disease of ‘delicate femininity’, which could even make girls more attractive, by underlining their fragility and getting them closer to the feminine ideal. In the construction of the ‘disease of virgins’, the emphasis on paleness was central, and the racial aspect shouldn’t be underestimated. This was a disease connected to whiteness: patients had a pretty ‘rosy and white’ complexion. Physicians described the beauty of their patients, who were often blondes. Besides race, there was a class element at play as well: green sickness was rarely diagnosed in countrywomen, who were thought to be stronger and used to more physical work. Green sickness was a disease of ‘weak’, ‘fragile’ people. It could even affect ‘feeble boys’, although this was much rarer. For instance, Shakespeare mentioned male green sickness in Henry IV Part 2, describing these young men as ‘fools and cowards’. Misogyny meant that a man suffering from this disease was effeminate and fragile, and his masculinity was threatened.

Young girls suffering from the ‘disease of virgins’ were described as passive and submissive by physicians, often in an eroticised way. These inexperienced girls were in sharp contrast to the ‘difficult’ hysterics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries described by Freud and other psychoanalysts. The innocent patient suffering from green sickness was much more pliable than the more sexually experienced, ‘manipulative’ hysterics. However, both conditions were heavily gendered, relied on misogynistic ideas, and could be treated in similar ways (such as with electric shocks).

How a society constructs medical conditions can give us insight into how the body is understood. In the case of the female body, it is not unusual for medical discourse to find ‘natural’ ways of explaining women’s inferiority to men, or to justify our role in the domestic sphere, as wives and mothers. The ‘disease of virgins’ was not a stable category: the perception of symptoms, causes, and appropriate treatments varied depending on time and place. Because of the vagueness and variety of how symptoms presented, this diagnosis could mean many different things. At certain points in time, virtually any girl behaving like a moody adolescent could be diagnosed as suffering from green sickness. This was also true for hysteria. Medical categories shift with time, often reinforcing gender norms under the guise of biology.  As its name indicates, the ‘disease of virgins’ was thought to affect primarily pubescent girls, whose sexuality was starting to develop. The easiest ‘treatment’ was therefore marriage and socially sanctioned sexual activity, which ensured the status quo wouldn’t be too disrupted by these ‘desirous maids’.


Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (London: 1671).

John Tanner, The Hidden Treasures of the Art of Physick, (London: 1659).

Johannes Lange, ‘De morbo virgineo’, in Medicinalium epistolarum miscellanea (Basel: 1554).

Luis Mercado, De mulierum affectionibus, (Cordoba: 1579).

Further reading:

Helen King, The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty, (London: Routledge, 2004).

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Key Concepts

What is Gender History?

In the 1920s, Virginia Woolf famously described how the history of women was unknown: ‘It has been common knowledge for ages that women exist, bear children, have no beards, and seldom go bald, but save in these respects […] we know little of them and have little evidence upon which to base our conclusions.’ Woolf was writing shortly after women were granted the vote in the UK (1918), after an arduous campaign by the suffragettes. This first feminist wave, associated with the political women’s suffrage movement, did not prompt historians to investigate women’s history (with a few exceptions).

In the 1960s, however, a combination of feminism’s ‘second wave’ (characterised by the women’s liberation movement) and internal changes in the discipline (which I describe in more detail here) meant that women were gradually considered a worthy subject of historical study. Feminist scholars fought to establish women’s studies courses in universities in Europe and the USA in the 1970s. Feminist activists moved from the question of whether it was possible to write a history of women to the assertion that any history that did not include them was necessarily an incomplete one. Fuelled by both intellectual and political goals, these feminist researchers started to write history in new ways – which often contradicted the way history had traditionally been written.

This questioning of how we conceptualise history was inevitable, as feminist scholars did not want ‘women’s history’ to simply be an additional field of study. Instead, this field would profoundly change how we think of historical narratives in general. To integrate new voices and perspectives, historians’ analytical structures and tools themselves had to be rethought. History was already going through many internal changes as a discipline (as I explain in What is Cultural History?). Heavily influenced by anthropology, historians considered new objects of study, such as lower classes, often excluded from the historical narrative. Women were a great example of the ones left behind in the study of history.

By thinking of womanhood and the role women played in the past, historians questioned categories, influenced by earlier philosophy, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s work. If ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (or a man, for that matter), then we must study how we construct our sexual and gender categories. In other words, as feminist scholars started to deconstruct femininity and its history, it was unavoidable that the same would be done to masculinity.

Furthermore, with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and especially with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the fight for gay rights gained momentum and became part of the mainstream. Queer studies progressively gained space in universities, combining academic and political goals, as women’s studies had earlier. At the same time, feminist historians who had established these ‘women’s studies’ courses in academia gradually realised that their aims to change the way we conceptualise history had not been fully realised. ‘Women’s history’ was still a sub-field of history, apart from the more traditional, male-dominated ways of writing history.

However, the move from ‘women’s history’ to a broader ‘gender history’, though it might have seemed natural to some, did not happen without resistance. Some feminists feared that turning to how we conceptualise gender, in general, might mean the abandonment of the political project of ‘women’s history’ and the dismantlement of what they had built.

(There is an interesting parallel with how feminists are divided today where trans rights are concerned. Some feminists believe we should fully embrace trans liberation and include all LGBT+ minorities in the feminist project. In contrast, others fear the ‘erasure’ of women and the loss of rights feminists have fought so hard to gain. I believe that feminism and true equality should benefit all of us: that is why inclusive and intersectional feminism seems to me the only way forward.)

In any case, ‘gender history’ had been an inherent part of ‘women’s history’ from its beginnings: it provided context to women’s experiences in the past and situated feminism along with other contemporary fights for human rights (based on race and sexual orientation, for instance). The 1980s shift from ‘women’s’ to ‘gender’ history had many effects on how we think of history: by deconstructing the category of ‘woman’, scholars opened the debate to include many other aspects of the human experience and identity. They showed how most of the categories we tend to believe of as eternal and atemporal are historically constructed.

Finally, this shift towards inclusiveness gave the study of gender more impact in academia. By leaving the ‘intellectual ghetto’ of women’s studies, historians of gender were able to influence historical narratives more deeply. Historians of any subject would have to consider the gendered construction of their objects of study – whether they were military, political, or artistic. As cultural history gained popularity, historians also started to confront the tensions between social reality and representation in the past. The idea of socially constructed categories exemplified by sex/gender became a prime example of how to balance this tension. So, as cultural history gained prominence, it did so arguably using many of the theoretical and methodological frameworks created and developed by feminist scholars. The same could be said about poststructuralism.

In a way, then, we could argue that feminist historians’ political and intellectual goals were reached as the field itself became broader to other perspectives. Outside of academia, there are also many feminisms today. But maybe we can learn something from the internal changes history underwent in the last decades. An inclusive kind of feminism might be able to impact our society deeper than a narrower one. Plus, it is a more empathetic way of understanding the human experience.

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‘Neither, and yet both’: ‘Hermaphroditism’ and Binaries

It is estimated that between 1 and 2% of people have some kind of intersex variation and fall under the umbrella term of ‘sex variant’. (That’s around the same number of people who have red hair!) Yet, it is only in recent decades that intersex people have gained space in mainstream debates about equality and human rights. However, they have figured prominently in medical, religious, and legal arguments for centuries, serving as examples of competing ways of understanding gender and sex.

Although the term ‘hermaphrodite’ is generally considered derogatory today, it usefully conjured up ideas of blurred boundaries in earlier times. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us of the nymph Salmacis, who fell in love with Hermaphroditus, the beautiful son of Hermes and Aphrodite, and asked the gods to be forever joined with him. Their union turned Hermaphroditus into a bisexed deity, part male and part female.

They are not two, yet the form is twofold;
We cannot say, that it is the body of a boy or a girl;
They are neither, though they appear to be both.

(Ovid, Metamorphoses)

Hermaphroditism became associated with the fusion of masculinity and femininity and was used for centuries to describe most people who identify today as ‘intersex’. However, not all hermaphrodites were the same. In the 16th century, the French surgeon Ambroise Paré classified hermaphrodites into four groups based on classical precedents: male-dominant, female-dominant, imperfect, and perfect.

The male-dominant hermaphrodite would have fully developed male genitalia and be able to engender children while still having a shallow vulva-shaped hole in the perineum, from which no fluids would be expelled. Conversely, the predominantly female hermaphrodite had a perfectly formed vulva from which menstruation would be expelled, but also a small penis, which would not be capable of erection, nor expelling urine. There would be no signs of testicles.

Imperfect hermaphrodites would have both sets of genitalia, one above the other or side by side, both malformed. They would be capable of urinating but not reproducing with either male or female genitalia.  Perfect hermaphrodites, on the other hand, possessed both sets of genitalia, and both were fully functional. They would be fertile and capable of reproducing with either male or female sets of genitals, posing serious legal problems.

As Ambroise Paré clarifies, it was not so much the form of the genitalia that would determine the nature of a hermaphrodite but rather bodily functions. The bodily fluids and secretions, such as semen, urine, menstruation, would make the secrets of the hermaphrodite body clear. In a time where humoral theory was the main framework for medical thinking, and before dissections became a widespread practice, physicians and surgeons often relied on visible outside signs to understand what was happening inside the body, such as through evacuations.

Behind this medical debate were fears of imposture and deception in marriage, which could have legal consequences. It might be that a hermaphrodite who married a woman could not consummate the marriage, or that a hermaphrodite who married a man might be accused of sodomy, for instance. Furthermore, depending on whether the person was known as a man or woman, questions dealing with inheritance and property could become problematic. Hermaphrodites were considered a threat to the patriarchal order since they transgressed the prescribed gender and sexual roles. These fears of disruption in the social order are evident in legal texts: hermaphroditism (and impotence) were famously considered impediments to marriage.

From antiquity, two medical frameworks for understanding hermaphroditism had coexisted. The Hippocratic tradition tended to view sex as a continuum, with ‘masculine males’ on one extreme and ‘feminine females’ on the other. In between, there existed not only different kinds of hermaphrodites but also masculine women (virago) and effeminate men. On the other hand, the Aristotelic tradition conceptualised females and males as opposites, with no space for intermediary categories. The coexistence of these two contradictory traditions explains why early modern debates about hermaphroditism could be so entangled.

However, as the understanding of sex and gender along a spectrum rather than as binaries posed legal, religious, and social problems, the discourse about hermaphroditism gradually shifted. By the 18th century, the erasure of the concept of hermaphrodism was well underway, with the Hippocratic understanding of sex becoming progressively less prevalent in medical texts. By embracing the Aristotelian model of sex and gender, hermaphrodites could be considered exceptional cases rather than normal occurrences in human nature. This consolidation of the sex binary removed intermediary categories, which had vital social consequences – especially for those we would today call intersex.

Sexual difference – in the past and present – can help us make sense of other differences, such as race or religion. Who is the ‘other’? What bodies matter? Our current debates surrounding gender are far from unique. However, it is essential to consider how our binary classifications were created. The ways we conceptualise sex and gender are not inevitable, fixed, or ‘natural’ at all, but instead culturally constructed categories. By learning about how earlier people conceptualised sexual differences, I hope that we can engage more deeply with our own humanity.


William Cheselden, The Anatomy of the Humane Body (London, 1750).

Ambroise Paré, Des monstres et prodiges (Paris, 1585).

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(Un)sexing, Violence, and Women


Discussion of issues related to violence/murder, mental health/suicide

As she finds out the witches’ prophecy about Macbeth being crowned king and the current king’s imminent visit to their home, Lady Macbeth invokes evil spirits to help her be rid of her feminine qualities so that, together with Macbeth, she can murder the king:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief!
(Macbeth Act 1, scene 5)

In one of the most famous soliloquies in the play, Lady Macbeth plans to become a murderess while referencing her female body. However, modern viewers or readers of Shakespeare often overlook these bodily references (blood, breasts, milk), with more attention being given to her psychological changes. Contemporary viewers of the play, on the other hand, would think of physiological and psychological processes as profoundly intertwined. For Lady Macbeth to change her personality and become a murderess, she must also change her biology.

In Tudor times, strict gender roles and expectations associated women with nurture and care; by moving away from her expected femininity, both in mind and body – being ‘unsexed’ – Lady Macbeth exhorts the spirits to make her capable of murder. By asking for the ‘compunctious visitings of Nature’ (menstruation) to cease, she wants to eliminate one of the primary markers of womanhood in the early modern period. Her bodily changes both foreshadow and cause her mental change away from femininity: by blocking compassion as well as the flow of her blood, she can let the king’s blood flow.

In Shakespeare’s time, menstruation was considered a sign of overall female health and a prerequisite to conception. Menstrual blood was thought to feed the growing foetus in the uterus and, after birth, nourish the baby in its concocted form (breastmilk):

…the childe, while it is in the matrice [womb] is nourished with this bloud; and it is as true, that being out of the womb, it is still nourished with the same; for the milke is nothing but the menstruous bloud made white in the breasts; and I am sure womans milke is not thought to bee venomous, but of a nutritive quality.
(Sadler, p. 9-10)

By asking for the milk in her breasts to be replaced with gall (bile), Lady Macbeth hints at the corruption of her body as well as her spirit. In a world where womanhood was often synonymous with motherhood, murdering her femininity is essential for murdering the king: she will have no children but be impregnated with cruelty.

This move away from womanhood and into violence was preceded in the theatre by Seneca’s Medea, translated and published in London in 1581, which is likely Shakespeare would be familiar with. Medea also invokes evil spirits as she prepares to murder her and Jason’s children, referencing her womb, breast, gall, and bloody hands, just like Lady Macbeth. She lets go of her femininity and motherhood to punish Jason through violence. While Medea murders her actual children, Lady Macbeth destroys the possibility of children by making herself barren. The smell of blood and the bloodstains in Lady Macbeth’s hands evoke, therefore, not only the king’s blood and her guilt but also the loss of her future children through her ‘unsexing’. Moreover, they symbolise the end of Macbeth’s line in a patriarchal society, as she will have no heir to the throne. This murder of her potential children by stopping the flow of blood corrupts her body, just like the stopping of the flow of blood in king Duncan’s body corrupts the nation: both go against nature.

Lady Macbeth’s unnatural amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) could also be understood as the physiological cause for her changes throughout the play, as her mental state deteriorates. The absence of menstruation in women of a fertile age was a serious medical concern, not only because it prevented them from fulfilling their primary social role as mothers but also because it was thought detrimental to their general health. Fainting spells, melancholy, and fearfulness were believed to be connected to amenorrhea, as well as sleep troubles and ‘sorrow, and anxiety, obfuscation of spirits, agony, desperation’.

(Burton, p. 478)

Lady Macbeth suffers from all these symptoms after the king’s murder: she faints as the body is found and is plagued by melancholy passions, fears, and somnambulism for the rest of the play. These are, of course, connected to her guilt, and I do not mean to simplify her psychology but rather to add a medical layer to it, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries probably would. In his Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton hinted at the suicidal tendencies the women suffering from this condition might develop – and Lady Macbeth’s suicide is implied at the end of the play.

The replacing of femininity with violence through a process of ‘unsexing’ was not unique to Lady Macbeth. Joan of Arc, who appeared in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 as Joan la Pucelle (literally Joan the Virgin), also did not menstruate. In a world where women rarely engaged in battle, the female body was thought to be unsuited to war – in no small measure because of its natural functions such as menstruation, seen as a ‘debilitating and weakening’ condition. Joan of Arc’s military prowess is linked to her lack of femininity and even witchcraft as a female warrior. This brings to mind Lady Macbeth’s conjuring demons to ‘unsex’ her and replace one kind of blood, the menstrual one, with another one, the blood of violence.

Condemned for heresy and burnt at the stake in 1431, Joan’s trial was nullified in 1455-56, with witnesses testifying to her piety. Her valet attested that ‘she never suffered from the secret disease of women’, reinforcing her purity as a maid, but also linking her amenorrhea to cross-dressing (as Joan of Arc dressed in male military clothes) and her role in battle. Just like Lady Macbeth, for Joan to embrace violence, she would need to let go of her femininity and be ‘unsexed’.

Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy has long been read as a general invocation to eliminate qualities seen as feminine, such as compassion, and commit murder. But the literal understanding of her ‘unsexing’ in physiological terms would have been clear to most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries: the ‘unsexing’ of amenorrhea was a metaphor but also the medical cause of Lady Macbeth’s psychological change.


John Sadler, The Sicke Womans Private Looking-Glasse, London: 1636

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Oxford: 1621.

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