Pixelia (2022) p/b 106pp £7.49 (ISBN 9781737033028)

This is the second publication in a series whose purpose, as clearly explained at the start, is to ‘create student editions of Latin texts written by women’. The translation is accompanied by a Latin text, running vocabulary and commentary. The first in the series was the Passion of Vibia Perpetua, the young Christian who was martyred with her slave Felicitas in Tunisia in (it’s believed) in AD 203; the series title, Experrecta, is taken from the words Perpetua uses (et experrecta sum) to describe how she awakened from her visions review here). Perpetua’s account is, as stated here, one of the first works in Latin by a woman to survive, which means that the ‘substantial amount’ which the editors claim they will dig into for the whole series will all be ‘later Latin’, i.e. post classical, from late antiquity to the Renaissance. The introduction includes a useful explanation of how Renaissance humanists, by insisting on the superiority of ‘classical’ Latin and dismissing everything in between as a Dark Age ‘caused their own erasure’; scholars are now taking seriously the development of Latin during the middles ages, and schools, they argue, need to catch up. So the Experrecta series is designed to rescue both women writers and post-classical Latin from oblivion. Both are surely very worthwhile objectives.

The origins of the present text are described in a very full introduction. Isotta Nogarola was born in Verona around 1418, upper-class and well-educated, but ‘took the unusual path of avoiding both marriage and the convent’ and instead pursued her studies and corresponded with leading humanists. One of these was Ludovico Foscarini, who met Nogarola when he was sent to govern Verona on behalf of the Venetian Republic in 1451. They became friends, and continued to correspond even when unable to meet in person; we know this mostly from the survival of some of Foscarini’s letters to her. The ‘Defense of Eve’ is a scholastic debate between the two of them in the form of a series of letters. These letters are affectionate but formal in style. The composition, in which the letters are combined together in a careful design, was clearly meant to be shared between friends, who would make copies and circulate them more widely, the only way a document could be spread around before printing. The first printed edition, with several key changes, was produced in 1563. The introduction argues that a new critical edition based on all the known manuscripts is needed, and two of the current editors are working on one.

The debate is about whether Eve’s sin was worse than Adam’s, or whether they had sinned equally. This question, based on forensic picking apart of the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, seems abstruse and indeed pointless to us today, but in the late middle ages the question was still considered important enough to engage the attention of serious theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. It helped to underpin the patriarchal organisation of society. From the second century AD on, writers such as Tertullian were arguing that Eve’s sin was the greater, because she was the one who had listened to the serpent and believed him, and that this justified the subordination of women to men. In developing their arguments for and against the proposition, Nogarola and Foscarini frequently quote from mediaeval scholastic sources: a key example is the phrase they take as their starting point, peccaverunt impari sexu sed pari fastu (‘their sin was unequal as to sex but equal in pride’), supposedly a direct quotation from Augustine but in fact a paraphrase from Peter of Poitiers, a 12th century scholastic.

The interest of the subject for us today is, of course, that ideas of the natural inferiority of women were and had always been widespread (and many would argue, still are) and that Nogarola is an example of a highly intelligent woman who, like several others, has been quietly ignored for too long. The blurb on the back cover argues that this text is ‘of fundamental importance for the history of gender in Europe’; this may be pushing it a bit, but it is certainly relevant. One of the features that make the text enjoyable to read is Nogarola’s use of irony: granting that women are inherently inferior in intellect and moral resolve, she argues that therefore they are less responsible for their actions; therefore, they cannot be both weaker (by divine design) and more culpable. This forces Foscarini to argue that women are not fundamentally inferior.

The text is designed to be easily read by students: there is no translation, but each page contains definitions of the key words and explanatory notes on more difficult phrases, so that a reader should never have to look up a separate dictionary. To help pronunciation, long syllables are indicated by macra. Late Latin is closer to us in style, so usually easier to read straight through than Cicero or Tacitus. The editors have taken care that it will be an easy reading experience for Latin students. But it is also a scholarly work with a lengthy introduction which includes a summary of the arguments developed in the text, an account of the text’s history and previous editions, and other historical commentary, with a full bibliography of works consulted. Further editions in this series should be awaited with interest.

Colin McDonald