medieval feminine power: divine to demonic in elite discourse

Christine de Pizan presented her lengthy defense of women, The Book of the City of Ladies {Le Livre de la Cité des Dames}, to Queen Isabel of France in 1414. Christine presenting her luxurious book to the Queen capped two centuries of women’s overwhelming dominance of medieval French society. That isn’t the claim of some radical meninist. That’s the wholly credible historical evaluation of Henry Adams. As a scion of the Boston-based Adams family that produced two U.S. Presidents, Henry Adams knew intimately elite power. A Harvard graduate who went on to become a Harvard professor, Adams wrote the enormously influential nine-volume work, The History of the United States of America 1801–1817. Adams’s evaluation of feminine power in medieval France deserves equally serious consideration as Christine de Pizan’s Le Livre de la Cité des Dames.

Christine de Pizan presented her work to the Queen of France

Henry Adams appreciated the difficulties that men face in discussing women. He also recognized the fundamental importance of gender for an enduring, humane, and prosperous society. He observed:

The proper study of mankind is woman and, by common agreement since the time of Adam, it is the most complex and arduous. … If it were worth while to argue a paradox, one might maintain that Nature regards the female as the essential, the male as the superfluity of her world. [1]

Recent scientific study more contingently claims women’s superiority. Little public concern for men’s gender protrusion in mortality and men’s lack of reproductive rights certainly suggest that men are socially regarded as less important than women today.

Henry Adams focused on medieval France and drew upon Louise Garreau’s learned study. Women and men, according to Garreau, behaved similarly in twelfth- and thirteenth-century France:

A trait very peculiar to this epoch is the close resemblance between the manners of men and those of women. There wasn’t at all established then that such sentiments or acts, permitted to one sex, were forbidden to the other. Men had the right to burst into tears, and women the right to speak without prudery. If circumstances demanded, it was natural for a man to beg, clasping his arms to the knees of the one he implores. It was natural also for a woman, in the administration of justice, to condemn another to be tortured to death. Warriors took care of their hair, artfully styled to float on their necks. Their robes, the most elaborate of which have persisted to our day in the dress of religious orders, used combinations and colors that were changed every day. Their luxury, their risky fashions, no less than women’s apparel, furnished matter for the concerned wisdom of preachers. The ladies were, like their husbands, adept at horseback-riding and hunting, and ladies wouldn’t be disturbed by the need to direct defenses in a place at war.

{ Un trait bien particulier à cette époque, c’est la presque similitude entre les allures de l’homme et celles de la femme. Il n’est guère établi, alors, que tel sentiment ou tel acte, permis à un sexe, est interdit à l’autre. Les hommes ont le droit de fondre en larmes, et les femmes celui de parler sans pruderie. Si les circonstances le demandent, il paraît naturel qu’un homme supplie en se tordant les bras, aux genoux de celui qu’il implore. Il parait naturel aussi qu’une femme, dans l’exercice du droit de justice, condamne au dernier supplice. Les guerriers soignent leur chevelure qui flotte artistiquement sur leur cou; leurs robes, dont les modèles les plus graves ont persisté jusqu’à nos jours dans les costumes des ordres religieux, se prêtent à des combinaisons de couleurs et de formes chaque jour renouvelées, en sorte que leur luxe, leurs modes hasardées, ne fournissent pas moins que les toilettes féminines ample matière aux épigrammes des prédicateurs. Les dames sont, comme leurs maris, habiles à l’équitation, à la chasse, et ne s’étonnent pas de diriger au besoin la défense d’une place de guerre. }[2]

As today’s sophisticated students of gender understand, women and men are equal, but women are superior to men. Garreau’s nineteenth-century analysis of women and men in twelfth- and thirteenth-century France had a similar conceptual structure:

If we consider their intellectual level, the women appear distinctly superior. They are more serious and more subtle. With them, it doesn’t seem that we are dealing with the less advanced civilization to which their husbands belong. … As a rule, the women seem to be accustomed to weighing their actions and not yielding to the moment’s impulse. While Christian understanding is usually more developed in them than in their husbands, women on the other hand show more perfidy and more art in crime.

{ Si nous considérons le niveau intellectuel, les femmes paraissent nettement supérieures. Elles ont plus de sérieux, plus de finesse. Avec elles, il ne semble pas qu’on ait affaire à l’âge de civilisation peu avancée auquel appartiennent leurs époux. … Toujours est-il que les femmes paraissent accoutumées à peser leurs actes, à ne point céder à l’impression du moment. Si le sens chrétien est d’ordinaire plus développé en elles qu’en leurs maris, dans le crime, d’autre part, elles montrent plus de perfidie et plus d’art. }

Adams himself had no doubt about the reality of feminine power in medieval France:

The superiority of the woman was not a fancy, but a fact. Man’s business was to fight or hunt or feast or make love. The man was also the travelling partner in commerce, commonly absent from home for months together, while the woman carried on the business. The woman ruled the household and the workshop; cared for the economy; supplied the intelligence, and dictated the taste. Her ascendancy was secured by her alliance with the Church, into which she sent her most intelligent children; and a priest or clerk, for the most part, counted socially as a woman. Both physically and mentally the woman was robust, as the men often complained, and she did not greatly resent being treated as a man. [3]

With his elite familial pedigree, Adams was particularly well-suited to perceive feminine power among the elite of medieval France:

The greatest men of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries were William the Norman; his great grandson Henry II Plantagenet; Saint Louis of France; and, if a fourth be needed, Richard Cœur-de-Lion. Notoriously all these men had as much difficulty as Louis XIV himself with the women of their family. … In Normandy, the people of Caen have kept a tradition, told elsewhere in other forms, that one day, Duke William, — the Conqueror, — exasperated by having his bastardy constantly thrown in his face by the Duchess Matilda, dragged her by the hair, tied to his horse’s tail, as far as the suburb of Vaucelles; and this legend accounts for the splendour of the Abbaye-aux-Dames, because William, the common people believed, afterwards regretted the impropriety, and atoned for it by giving her money to build the abbey. The story betrays the man’s weakness. The Abbaye-aux-Dames stands in the same relation to the Abbaye-aux-Hommes that Matilda took towards William. Inferiority there was none; on the contrary, the woman was socially the superior, and William was probably more afraid of her than she of him, if Mr. Freeman is right in insisting that he married her in spite of her having a husband living, and certainly two children. If William was the strongest man in the eleventh century, his great-grandson, Henry II of England, was the strongest man of the twelfth; but the history of the time resounds with the noise of his battles with Queen Eleanor whom he, at last, held in prison for fourteen years. Prisoner as she was, she broke him down in the end. … That Saint Louis, even when a grown man and king, stood in awe of his mother, Blanche of Castile, was not only notorious but seemed to be thought natural. Joinville recorded it not so much to mark the King’s weakness, as the woman’s strength … According to Joinville, King Louis always hid himself when, in his wife’s chamber, he heard his mother coming. … For a hundred and fifty years, the Virgin and Queens ruled French taste and thought so successfully that the French man has never yet quite decided whether to be more proud or ashamed of it.

The dominant approach to feminine power seems to be a combination of pride and shame. Society typically prides itself on whatever additional power women gain and expresses shame that women in the past didn’t have the new power that now they have gained. The power that women have always had tends to be obscured and denied.

portrait of Judy Chicago as a goddess

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic, now at the British Museum, shows the peculiar structure of feminine power. The global bank Citi supported this major exhibition:

Bringing together sculptures, sacred objects and artworks from the ancient world to today, and from six continents, the exhibition highlights the many faces of feminine power – ferocious, beautiful, creative or hell-bent – and its seismic influence throughout time. [4]

Many persons deny that women have had enormous power and seismic influence throughout time. This exhibition explicitly declares and demonstrates women’s power throughout history while also implicitly denying it to justify itself. The two exhibition curators, both women, have lined up five guest commentators, all women, for this exhibition focused on powerful women. Like a woman with a loudspeaker thundering at length about women being silenced, these powerful women with parochial gender consciousness discuss powerful women:

Join our five guest commentators – Leyla Hussein, Mary Beard, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique and Deborah Frances-White – in considering how spiritual belief in female power, and its many manifestations, can shape our views on femininity today.

Many men experience feminine power. That’s especially true when men are sent to the back of the line for boarding lifeboats on sinking ships, when men are subject to sex-discriminatory military conscription, and when men endure acute sex discrimination in family courts awarding child custody and counter-part payment obligations (“child support”). Do men’s lived experiences of feminine power not matter?

Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is a family-oriented exhibition. On a Saturday or Sunday trip to this exhibition, families might ponder Judy Chicago’s print The Creation. The curators who chose to include this artwork explained:

Creation narratives told by different cultures and faiths around the world are as varied as they are numerous. This vibrant print, The Creation, by the contemporary artist Judy Chicago reimagines the Christian creation story from a feminist perspective. It challenges, in the artist’s words, the ‘fake news’ of a male god creating the first man by showing a female deity lying in a birthing position. Primordial life flows from her vulva as she grasps the sun in her right hand and her left breast erupts as a volcano. [5]

Make sure that your children memorize “primordial life flows from her vulva” to pass the test at their elementary school. Associated with the exhibition is a two-day set of events billed as “family activities” and titled Feminine power: Ferociously feminine. These family activities are:

  • “Empowerment Badges with Anna Saunders: Create flamboyant paper badges celebrating all the qualities that make you fabulous.”
  • “Glorious Goddesses Storytelling with Xanthe Gresham: Listen to tales and folklore exploring goddesses from around the world.”
  • “Drag Queen Storytelling: Listen to Aida H Dee at the truly fabulous Drag Queen Storytelling.”
  • Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief Book Launch with Nosy Crow: Join historian Janina Ramirez to hear about her new children’s book Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief.”
  • “Feminine power tattoo parlor: Roll up to the empowerment tattoo parlor where you can pick up and apply temporary tattoos inspired by the book Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief published by Nosy Crow in collaboration with the British Museum.” [6]

Lucretius, the great classical Roman dispeller of delusions about other-worldly beings, satirized men’s tendency toward gyno-idolatry. Fathers who bring their families to these family activities probably are living under delusions of gyno-idolatry. Let’s hope that boys there are allowed to have fun farting, giggling, running around, and making faces at people. Please do not cruelly force boys to sit still and listen at these events!

Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière: stained glass window of Chartres Cathedral

The exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic scarcely mentions the most powerful figure in medieval Europe: Mary, the mother of Jesus. This young, provincial Jewish girl became to many the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God, the Queen Mother. From 1194 to 1220 as part of a massive church construction program in medieval France, Mary the mother of Jesus was lavishly honored in the magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres. Henry Adams declared:

The Queen Mother was as majestic as you like; she was absolute; she could be stern; she was not above being angry; but she was still a woman, who loved grace, beauty, ornament, — her toilette, robes, jewels; —who considered the arrangements of her palace with attention, and liked both light and colour; who kept a keen eye on her Court, and exacted prompt and willing obedience from king and archbishops as well as from beggars and drunken priests. She protected her friends and punished her enemies. She required space, beyond what was known in the Courts of kings, because she was liable at all times to have ten thousand people begging her for favours — mostly inconsistent with law — and deaf to refusal. She was extremely sensitive to neglect, to disagreeable impressions, to want of intelligence in her surroundings. She was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible, her sentence eternally final. This church was built for her in this spirit of simple-minded, practical, utilitarian faith, — in this singleness of thought, exactly as a little girl sets up a doll-house for her favourite blonde doll. [7]

Nearly every church built at great expense in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was dedicated to Mary. Mainly men, not little girls, did the arduous work of building these churches to “Our Lady.” Henry Adams noted:

Mary concentrated in herself the whole rebellion of man against fate; the whole protest against divine law; the whole contempt for human law as its outcome; the whole unutterable fury of human nature beating itself against the walls of its prison-house, and suddenly seized by a hope that in the Virgin man had found a door of escape. She was above law; she took feminine pleasure in turning hell into an ornament; she delighted in trampling on every social distinction in this world and the next. She knew that the universe was as unintelligible to her, on any theory of morals, as it was to her worshippers, and she felt, like them, no sure conviction that it was any more intelligible to the Creator of it. To her, every suppliant was a universe in itself, to be judged apart, on his own merits, by his love for her, — by no means on his orthodoxy, or his conventional standing in the Church, or according to his correctness in defining the nature of the Trinity.

The medieval church taught that Mary was not a goddess. In medieval Europe, Mary’s status was higher than any goddess and higher than any mortal ruler. Mary probably remains more important to the people of Europe than any of the goddesses on display in British Museum’s exhibition, Feminine power: the divine to the demonic.

Are any of the goddesses on display in the exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic doing anything to stop Russia’s horrific, irrational war on Ukraine? Do the family activities in the associated event, Feminine power: Ferociously feminine, provide any insight into how the Russian war on Ukraine is affecting families? Ukrainian men between the ages 18 and 60, with minor exceptions, are legally forbidden to leave Ukraine. In contrast, Ukrainian women between those ages are permitted to leave.[8] That’s brutal, anti-men gender discrimination within brutally desperate circumstances. Women in Ukraine and Russia probably are much less interested in the exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic than they are in praying that Mary, the mother of God, will save their particular beloved men from the massive, ferocious violence against men now ongoing in Ukraine.

Concern to maintain publicly cultic goddess-worship, as well as fear of undermining current casting fashion in big-budget action movies, might be partly motivating the gender-obscuring of what’s happening now in Ukraine. Reporting on a transwoman fearing difficulties in fleeing Ukraine, CBS News, like other major corporate news operations, obscured a fundamental gender reality:

If she makes it to the border of a neighboring country offering refuge, she’s not even sure if they’ll let her in, as her passport identification does not match her gender. The LGBTQ community has become more visible and accepted over the years, but for transgender people, it’s more complicated. [9]

Anti-men sex discrimination in the U.S conscription system continues to this very day in much less desperate circumstances. It’s not complicated. The relevant gender reality is simple enough for most children to understand. Women are much more socially powerful than men are. Societies are much more concerned about women’s welfare than about men’s welfare. Elites construct and perpetuate gender delusions in service to their own obsessions, fears, and interests.

the global bank citi, supporter of exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Adams (1904) p. 198. Adams’s book attracted a wide range of readers. The eminent scholar Ernest Robert Curtius described it, along with Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams, as “admirable works.” Curtius declared:

The American conquest of the Middle Ages has something of that romantic glamor and of that deep sentimental urge which we might expect in a man who should set out to find his lost mother.

Curtius, in lecture delivered on July 3, 1949, at the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation in Aspen, Colorado; printed in Curtius (1953) p. 587. Most scholars now deny the existence of that mother.

[2] French text of Garreau (1899) pp. 155-6, my English translation. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id. pp. 156-7. Adams quoted in English translations most of these two passages. Adams (1904) p. 199.

[3] Adams (1904) pp. 199-200. The subsequent quote above is from id. pp. 201-2, 205.

[4] From British Museum’s main web page for the exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic. The subsequent quote above is from Crerar & Dahlsen (2022). The main web page states:

Enhanced by engagement with contemporary worshippers, faith communities and insights from high-profile collaborators Bonnie Greer, Mary Beard, Elizabeth Day, Rabia Siddique and Deborah Frances-White, the exhibition considers the influence of female spiritual power and what femininity means today.

Other than feminists, what specific “contemporary worshippers” and “faith communities” were engaged isn’t clear. A knowledgeable art reviewer described British Museum trustee Mary Beard as a “noisy presence” at this exhibition at the British Museum. Many other women’s voices also insistently sound:

The first thing we encounter is a set of large video screens on which a full house of female thinkers instructs us on different ways to view the event ahead.

“This exhibition is about transition,” the writer Bonnie Greer announces, “so you better leave all your baggage behind . . . because you’re going to be changed.” “Question who society is heroising and who society is othering,” the journalist and novelist Elizabeth Day demands. “Don’t expect any simple answer here,” the historian Mary Beard warns, “but get ready to explore a problem that every culture in the history of the world has faced.”

Too much of the determined revisionism being unleashed here feels more like projection than scholarship. The often tortuous attempts to thrust feminist readings on to unruly ancient art makes this show feel shrill and preachy.

Januszczak (2022). Adams observed:

The scientific mind is atrophied, and suffers under inherited cerebral weakness, when it comes in contact with the eternal woman — Astarte, Isis, Demeter, Aphrodite, and the last and greatest deity of all, the Virgin.

Adams (1904) p. 198. Perhaps this effect explains the exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic.

[5] From Crerar & Dahlsen (2022).

[6] The British Museum’s web page for Ferociously feminine states:

Come explore and celebrate goddesses, demons, witches and other spiritual beings at the British Museum this May half-term with these free events. Join us for crafts and storytelling celebrating female power and divinity.

The medieval church didn’t promote the cult of the Virgin Mary so crudely.

[7] Adams (1904) p. 90. The subsequent quote above is from id. p. 276. Mary was also honored at Marian shrines such as Our Lady of Walsingham in England. Adam of Saint Victor’s hymn “Hail, O mother of our Savior {Salve, mater Salvatoris}” exemplifies medieval European devotion to Mary. Adams observed:

The measure of this devotion {to Mary}, which proves to any religious American mind, beyond possible cavil, its serious and practical reality, is the money it cost. According to statistics, in the single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class, which would have cost, according to an estimate made in 1840, more than five thousand millions to replace. Five thousand million francs is a thousand million dollars, and this covered only the great churches of a single century. The same scale of expenditure had been going on since the year 1000, and almost every parish in France had rebuilt its church in stone; to this day France is strewn with the ruins of this architecture, and yet the still preserved churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, among the churches that belong to the Romanesque and Transition period, are numbered by hundreds until they reach well into the thousands. … Nearly every great church of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries belonged to Mary, until in France one asks for the church of Notre Dame as though it meant cathedral; but, not satisfied with this, she contracted the habit of requiring in all churches a chapel of her own, called in English the “Lady Chapel,” which was apt to be as large as the church but was always meant to be handsomer; and there, behind the high altar, in her own private apartment, Mary sat, receiving her innumerable suppliants, and ready at any moment to step up upon the high altar itself to support the tottering authority of the local saint.

Id. pp. 94-5. None of the online materials associated with the exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic makes any mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus. That exhibition thus reflects poorly on global bank Citi’s understanding of the financial dimension of feminine power in European history.

[8] Ukraine’s gender-discriminatory border policy has narrow exceptions that recognize marginally men’s role in caring for children:

Under Ukrainian law there are exceptions to the ban on men leaving the country. Male Ukrainian nationals can cross the border if they are financially supporting three or more children under the age of 18, are single fathers of children under 18, or have children or are guardians of children with disabilities.

Tondo (2022). Men on a marginalized and demonized forum have complained bitterly about this policy. A forty-year old Ukrainian woman might well be more valuable to the Ukrainian war effort than an eighteen-year-old Ukrainian man. One might hope that all members of the Ukrainian gender-activist group Femen have headed to the front lines to fight equally with Ukrainian men for Ukraine.

[9] Cohen (2022). Within the headline to this article, the phrase “a war within a war” verbally associates Russia’s war on Ukraine with another, different “war” on transgender women within Ukraine. That’s the now prevalent discursive strategy of emptying words of any commonly understood correspondence to reality.

[images] (1) Christine de Pizan presenting of book of her collected work (the Book of the Queen) to Isabel (Isabeau) of Bavaria, Queen Consort of Charles VI of France. Excerpt from folio 3r of the Book of the Queen, London, British Library, Harley MS 4431. This lavish manuscript of Christine de Pizan’s works was created from 1410 to 1414. (2) Portrait of the American “feminist artist, art educator, and writer” Judy Chicago. Contributed by Megan Schultz (assistant to Judy Chicago). Via Wikimedia Commons. This portrait of Judy Chicago has similar iconography to the cover of Rosalía’s highly acclaimed album El mal querer {The Bad Loving}. (3) Women in a castle watch knights fighting. Illumination in an instance of Christine de Pizan, The Book of the Duke of True Lovers {Le Livre du Duc des vrais amants}. Excerpt from folio 150r of the Book of the Queen, London, British Library, Harley MS 4431. For English translations of this book, Binyon & Maclagan (1908) and Fenster (1991). Christine argued that courtly love glorified men and ruined women. Modern scholars have taken Christine’s claim seriously. (4) Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière {Our Lady of the Beautiful Glass} stained-glass window in the south ambulatory of Chartres Cathedral in France. Image thanks to Vassil and Wikimedia Commons. The central image of the Virgin Mary was made in the twelfth century. Here’s a guide to praying in front of this magnificent religious artwork. (5) Citi exhibition supporter notice on the main British Museum web page for the exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic.


Adams, Henry. 1904. Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated from the Germany by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books.

Laurence Binyon, Laurence, and Eric R. D. Maclagan, trans. 1908. Christine de Pizan. The Book of the Duke of True Lovers. London: Chatto & Windus.

Cohen, Li. 2022. ‘“A war within a war”: Transgender woman says transphobia and discriminatory laws keeping her hostage in Kyiv during Russian invasion.’ CBS News. Posted online Mar. 1, 2022.

Crerar, Belinda Crerar (Lead Curator: Feminine power) and Lucy Dahlsen (Project Curator: Feminine power). 2022. “An introduction to Feminine power.” British Museum Blog. Posted April 11, 2022.

Fenster, Thelma S., trans. 1991. Christine de Pizan. The Book of the Duke of True Lovers. New York: Persea Books.

Garreau, Louise. 1899. L’État Social de la France au Temps des Croisades. Paris: E. Plon, Nourrit.

Januszczak, Waldemar. 2022. “Feminine Power at the British Museum: Mary Beard roars on to the battlefield.” The Times (London). Posted May 22, 2022.

Tondo, Lorenzo. 2022. “Ukraine urged to take ‘humane’ approach as men try to flee war.” The Guardian. Posted online Mar. 9, 2022.

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