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Paternal Tyranny

Paternal Tyranny


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Sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-52) yearned to be formally educated and enjoy an independent life in Venetian literary circles. But instead, at sixteen, her father forced her into a Benedictine convent. To protest her confinement, Tarabotti composed polemical works exposing the many injustices perpetrated against women of her day.

Paternal Tyranny, the first of these works, is a fiery but carefully argued manifesto against the oppression of women by the Venetian patriarchy. Denouncing key misogynist texts of the era, Tarabotti shows how despicable it was for Venice, a republic that prided itself on its political liberties, to deprive its women of rights accorded even to foreigners. She accuses parents of treating convents as dumping grounds for disabled, illegitimate, or otherwise unwanted daughters. Finally, through compelling feminist readings of the Bible and other religious works, Tarabotti demonstrates that women are clearly men's equals in God's eyes.

An avenging angel who dared to speak out for the rights of women nearly four centuries ago, Arcangela Tarabotti can now finally be heard.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226789651
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/01/2004
Series: The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe
Edition description: 1
Pages: 211
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Letizia Panizza is a research fellow in the Department of Italian at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the editor of Women in Italian Renaissance Culture and Society and coeditor of A History of Women's Writing in Italy. She also wrote the introduction to Lucrezia Marinella's The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


By Arcangela Tarabotti
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-78966-8

Chapter One


As far as the remotest corners of the known world, the wings of Fame bear aloft the news of how you, Most Serene Queen, grant unconditional liberty to people dwelling in your beautiful city, whatever their nationality; even those who crucified the Son of your Most Holy Protector, the Virgin Mary, are its beneficiaries.

From the first foundations of your city on these lagoons, Fame penetrated its depths and drew forth Paternal Tyranny. Hidden under the majesty of your senators' garments, Fame has at last set its seat in the Ducal Palace and dominates the entire city. It has its vassals following as a rule in the train of the city's princes, just as a shadow follows the body casting it. Your most noble lords have found this infernal monster of Paternal Tyranny so welcome that they have gladly embraced it and given it their ears. I can only fear that my own Paternal Tyranny, by one of the most unlettered writers who ever put pen to paper, may not prove pleasing in your sight.

This Paternal Tyranny is a gift that well suits a Republic that practices the abuse of forcing more young girls to take the veil than anywhere else in the world. My book does not deserve to be dedicated to other rulers, as it might cause them too much outrage. It is fair, however, to dedicate my book to your great senate and its senators, who, by imprisoning their young maidens so they chant the Psalter, pray, and do penance in their stead, hope to make you eternal, most beautiful virgin Republic, Queen of the Adriatic.

If it pleases you to hear it said that in your fortunate origins, the liberty that was believed to have died with Cato of Utica is instead reborn, do add to your merits by allowing me the benefits of your favors that you scatter to all and sundry with such liberality.

To you, then, I dedicate and consecrate this first offspring of mine, a fancy of a woman's mind. I shall not beseech you to deflect the tongues of detractors, because without fail I shall encounter spiteful censure from no others than your own nobles, who are part of you, and your own subjects, who are subordinate to you. I declare explicitly that there is no intention in my writings to criticize religion itself or to enter into debates-except against those fathers and relatives who act violently in making their daughters don the religious habit.

What else is it but deep ingratitude when that country under the special protection of the Virgin Mary, that country which once triumphed against the uprising of Baiamonte Tiepolo by means of a woman, finds itself engaged in degrading, deceiving, and denying liberty to its own young girls and women more than any other kingdom in the world?

I shall not wheedle you into finding excuses for me, nor inveigle you into believing my sincerity. In any case, once you have lost liberty, there remains nothing else to lose.


O most merciful Lord of Lords, You are well aware that my Innocence Betrayed, dictated by a simple heart, will not be well received in this treacherous world. That is why I dedicate it to You, whose gaze is not arrested by outer appearances, but pierces right through to the marrow of my good intentions. These lines owe their existence to You, who are Truth itself, not to others, as their final aim is to display the truth. To You, then, I offer them, together with my soul's most fervent sentiments; and prostrate on the ground I beseech you to forgive my foolhardy flight and blame instead my pen's zeal. You know well, dear and most beloved Lord, that if I were to dedicate this labor of mine to earthly princes, it would be rejected-perhaps prohibited-because of their "reasons of state"; and, deemed prejudicial to men's self-seeking political interests, it would be shunned by everybody else in general. Some individuals would think ill of it and show their disdain. Since we are in such a perfidious world that innocent young girls, deceived by their very own family, have no other refuge than forced enclosure in a convent against their wills, this true offspring of mine, just like some abandoned virgin, could not find, nor wish, other support than Your mercy. To this I recommend my work and my very self in the hope that both may remain unharmed by the deep watery pits the mouths of my detractors are already preparing for me.

I know too well that only Your omnipotence is a shield strong enough to defend truth and innocence from the poisoned shafts of angered tongues. With the aid of the most Holy Spirit's rays, pour into men's hearts a belief in the sincerity of my words; they are not pronounced lightly, are not spoken out of self-interest, and do not lie. Rather, they spring from zeal for Your most holy religion and the spiritual enrichment of Your truly devout nuns.

While declaring to the entire world with You as my witness that I have not exaggerated against the deceivers out of contempt, but under the compulsion of conscience (for I have heard about their harshness from others' accounts), and adoring You in spirit and in truth, it remains for me to implore You to grant me, however unworthy, Your grace and salvation.


Here is my Innocence Betrayed, which at last sees the light of day to reveal to the world the most savage deceit that malicious cunning has known how to perpetrate in the guise of kindness. I would like to persuade you that my words are founded on the unshakeable truth; from others, I imagine you will probably hear a thousand lies, stories, rumors, and calumnies regarding me. Not that I pay any attention; for just as the first law of the madhouse is believing that one can be all things to all men-which no writer, however famous, has ever succeeded in doing-so there have never lacked types like carping Aristarchus and never will till the end of time. Anyone who does not wish to know the truth must of necessity conceal it with lies; and so you will hear discordant opinions united in the sole aim of arousing hatred for my book just because it is so resolutely opposed to wrongdoing.

Two of the main impertinent remarks you will hear expressed are, first, that I nurture within myself a particular contempt for men; and, second, that I loathe the religious life and consequently seek that original liberty experienced in the Golden Age, agreeing with the author who wrote

Whatever brings pleasure, that you may do.

Dear Reader, please answer on my behalf. My mind detests the wickedness of such thoughts; and my writings are not the first that may appear to run contrary to their authors' way of life-many saints, after all, discussed abuses that they themselves never perpetrated. You may also add that my heart has never had any personal reason for growing angry against the male sex, although it cannot bear to recall without irritation those devious words proffered by the first man when he blamed the woman given to him by God as a partner (Gn 3:12). I condemn men's vices, not man himself; and I condemn enforced religious life, not those women called by the Holy Spirit who voluntarily seclude themselves in convents to serve God.

Stricken by a guilty conscience, some men will say that I speak with excessive temerity about all men in general. They are greatly mistaken. If they behave justly, they will be protected from my attacks and those of others. I separate the just from the wicked (who are the subject of my discourse), since not all men are bad and not all women are good.

You must decide, dear Reader, if the complaints of the present author ring true or deserve blame. If you do not count yourself among the number I berate, consider my writings as worthy of your attention and not mere pinpricks against the male sex. On the contrary, written without guile, they are intended to abound to God's honor, even though entirely opposed to man's self-interested politicking.

But let everyone think and say what they wish! Little do I care. My one and only purpose is to show that at no time in the world's history, in no legislation whatsoever promulgated by His Divine Majesty, ancient or modern, does one find a precept that commands, or a document that teaches or exhorts, the sacrifice of virgins to the Lord by enclosing them against their wills. He is indeed well pleased by the voluntary vow of virginity more than all other sacrifices offered up to Him, but at the same time He abhors what is done by force and what is holy only in name-the condition of nuns involuntarily shut up (although altogether innocent) as if they were criminals sentenced to life imprisonment.

You must know that I blush a little at my own audacity in putting pen to paper, lacking as I do all book learning. On the other hand, as a Catholic I am full of good will and long to make plain for the sake of Christianity and the welfare of souls the immense cruelty and treachery of men. I refer to those who out of pure greed and social ambition dedicate innocent babes in the womb to a living Hell-for that is what the cloister means to nuns forced to live there. I wish I possessed the eloquence of a Cicero or a Demosthenes, not because I seek applause, but so my words strengthened by rhetorical gifts might penetrate men's hearts more sharply and draw forth the fruits I long for with all my being. In this corrupt age, alas, few men are not tainted by the great fault I speak of, at least in giving their tacit approval. And so my words will bear little or no fruit and will remain unheeded, condemned as the offspring of a deranged mind stripped of religion and accused of imprudence, since in this false world, as the proverb goes, "Speaking the truth incurs hatred."

But I do not value the opinion of men concerned only with their own interests. My one satisfaction lies in an upright conscience; enough for me the divine gaze, never deceived, piercing into the heart's innermost recesses. So please put aside, kind Reader, any suspicion about me; and if you do not want to be counted among the betrayers, make sure that your daughters or any other female relatives of yours who have no wish to become nuns enjoy a true Christian education at home accompanied by modest retirement from the world. Do not enclose their bodies in a repulsive prison in order for their wretched souls to be cast subsequently into the infernal tomb.

I kindly beg you to have pity on my failings; and if you become bored by my prattle, be patient. Do not think that I lay claim to any ability, only to the truth, whose tongue I make my own. If I accomplish nothing else of good, at least may I awaken remorse in the consciences of wicked men. I wish you prosperity.

* * *

La divotion forzata, Al signore non è grata. [Piety by the sword / pleaseth not the Lord.]



Men's depravity could not have devised a more heinous crime than the wanton defiance of God's inviolable decrees. Yet day in and day out, men never cease defying them by deeds dictated by self-interest.

Among their blameworthy excesses, pride of place must go to enclosing innocent women within convent walls under apparently holy (but really wicked) pretexts. Men dare to endanger free will, bestowed on men and women alike by the Divine Majesty; they force women to dwell in life-long prisons, although guilty of no fault other than being born the weaker sex-and consequently more deserving of compassion, assistance, and support, rather than being locked up forever in dungeons. The pagan philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus, flourishing at the time of the sixty-ninth Olympiad, lived continually in deep gloom. People observed him most of the time with his eyes brimming with tears and his head bowed down with sad thoughts; he was a bundle of suffering and melancholy bemoaning the degree and extent of human wretchedness. Following Heraclitus's example, every Christian's eyes should gush with streams or turn into founts of perpetual tears as they meditate on the doubtful salvation of so many women put behind convent walls under the pseudonym of "nuns."

But these men do not weep; on the contrary, the most Catholic and spiritual of them-or rather the most hypocritical-consider it their right to offer up young creatures to God in unlawful sacrifice for the sake of preserving their own advantages. (Unlike the Blessed Virgin Mary, these young girls have been conceived in original sin; and unlike John the Baptist, they have not been sanctified in their mothers' wombs. They come into the world tainted by sinful dispositions.) What a gross abuse, what an unforgivable error, what a wicked decision, and what sheer audacity is this deed when Divine Providence, after all, has granted free will to His creatures, whether male or female, and bestowed on both sexes intellect, memory, and will! By means of these three faculties they are able to shun avoidable evil and pursue the good of their choice by their own voluntary inclination, not servile fear.

In the Garden of Eden, Divine Providence created both Adam and Eve in a state of innocence with choice and free will-and the woman did not lack such a matchless gift. Both sexes were endowed with this precious treasure of free will without distinction. Dante himself esteemed it so highly that he says in Paradiso:

The greatest gift the magnanimity of God, as He created, gave, the gift most suited to His goodness, gift that He [M]ost prizes, was the freedom of the will.

We read that the first man and woman enjoyed the Garden's delights for only seven hours before they contended with one another in disobeying the divine command. The Divine Maker could have created them free from guilt and established them from the start in the state of grace, but He did not do so. Rather, He wished to show how much a voluntary act pleased Him; thus His beloved prophet declares, "I will freely sacrifice to thee" (Ps 53:8). But lest it seem that I wish to enter into debates unsuitable to my state in life, I put aside the subject of free will, which has been disputed by the most serious and respected authorities, to say only this: When that ineffable Goodness and incalculable Splendor fell in love with the sacred Idea of God-made-man in His own divine mind, He wished, before actually shaping this person, to prepare a stage, or theater, where all the worldly delights enjoyed daily could be displayed. So God began with consummate divine skill to design the world: "In the beginning God created heaven and earth" (Gn 1:1). In six days, He adorned it with all perfection: He separated the waters, created fish, birds, and plants; and He did this for the sole purpose of His creature admiring and enjoying the work of His divine hands and finding it both useful and pleasant.

Woman, the compendium of all perfections, was the last to be created. I speak of material creation; otherwise, she existed from all eternity, the firstborn of all creatures generated by the breath of God Himself. This is conveyed by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of Solomon, where the author introduces the Most Holy Virgin to sing of herself, "I came out of the mouth of the Most High, the firstborn before all creatures" (Sir 24:5). Mary, a woman like all others, was not obliged to beg for her existence from a man's rib! She was born before time itself as well as before other men who, blinded by ambition to rule the world on their own, pass over this infallible truth in silence: that in the divine mind, woman was created ab eterno. "I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived" (Prv 8:23-24).


Excerpted from PATERNAL TYRANNY by Arcangela Tarabotti Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Series Editors' Introduction
Volume Editor's Introduction
Volume Editor's Bibliography
Paternal Tyranny
Book One
Book Two
Book Three
Appendix One: Arcangelo Tarabotti
Appendix Two: Ferrante Pallavicino
Series Editors' Bibliography

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