A 12th-century queen consort, patron and politician, Eleanor d’Aquitaine, is credited with having invented the built-in fireplace after she found Northern France too cold for her liking.
And Veronica Franco, a Venetian courtesan tried for witchcraft, was considered one of the leading lights of literature of the 16th century.
Not quite the image of the meek and malleable woman of early times, but reality is that not much is known about feminist figures from the medieval to the Baroque era.
Anthropologist, writer and historian Christine Muscat hopes to change this with a specialised course that will shed light on the lives of women of the Baroque age while challenging misconceptions about the supposedly sheltered lives of female historical figures.
“A lot of historical research starts out from a patriarchal perspective. The story of women needs to be told from a more holistic angle, including the feminist viewpoint, as it were,” says Dr Muscat.
The writer is known for approaching aspects of Maltese history from a refreshing – some might say controversial – angle. Her book Magdalene Nuns and Penitent Prostitutes, published in 2013, described the lives of the nuns in the Monastery in Valletta, some of whom were prostitutes. It sold out within a short span of time.
I ask what led to this fascination about an era of our history that, before the book was published, was hardly known for its salaciousness.
“Truth is that, back then, prostitution was viewed as a means to make money, and these women’s lifestyles were not exactly as depicted in older research,” she says.
Most historians, on both a European and local front, viewed cloistered nuns as being completely cut off from society and the daily goings-on of the community, especially after the Council of Trent came in force in the 16th century. The truth, as Dr Muscat’s research revealed, was very different.
It was this anomaly that first attracted the researcher to focus on prostitution for her research. With most historians taking the point of view that the prostitutes of the day were necessarily victims, Dr Muscat wanted to approach it from a diametrically opposed direction.
“Mainstream history would have us believe that you were either in the cloister or a wife,” she says.
Mainstream history would have us believe that you were either in the cloister or a wife
“This was far from being the case. Take the Magdalene nuns; although the Council imposed enclosure, the nuns were anything but segregated. They were business women, they rebelled against society’s impositions, they traded from the monastery and were very active. They are a true testament to the resilience and ingenuity of women, the beginnings of Maltese feminism. The more restrictions were placed on them, the more ways they found to circumvent the rules.”
It was this realisation of bias in the historical world that has now inspired Dr Muscat to focus on other women in the Baroque age, with a nine-lecture course organised by the International Institute for Baroque Studies at the University of Malta that is the first of its kind in Malta.
“There is a lot of research about the Baroque period but little about women. Take paintings from the era – major critiques of masterpieces will focus their comments on the military, religious, architectural features.
“The female subjects are to date pretty much overlooked. Using Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John as an example, do we ever read anything about the sociocultural significance of the two female figures in it?
“Not really. Most of us aren’t even aware that there is a woman buried in St John’s Co-Cathedral and that the female figures on the vault were painted by a nun. It’s like the female figure in history is invisible.”
The course, Dr Muscat says, hopes to address this anomaly by paying tribute to notable female figures, Maltese and not. All the women whose lives will be discussed broke boundaries, in one way or another: from nun and political theorist Arcangela Tarabotti to Marie de l’Incarnation, a young mother-turned-nun who founded the first girls’ school in Canada; Maria Sibylla Merian, one of the first naturalists to study insects directly to Gliki bas Judah Leib, author of the only known, pre-modern, Yiddish memoirs written by a woman. Maltese women, equally rebellious but perhaps not as known as their international counterparts, will have their own dedicated lecture.
“You cannot talk about feminism in isolation, without referring to these historical figures who paved the way,” she says.
“The same applies to female philanthropy, monasticism, witchcraft and prostitution; you can’t just talk about these subjects from a religious aspect; there’s the sociocultural and socioeconomic aspect that needs to be addressed. The idea is to make history engaging, through anecdotes and a two-way discussion, with the last lecture in the series taking place in Valletta, visiting various locations where some noteworthy women lived and worked in the Baroque age.”
The course is being organised by the International Institute for Baroque Studies in collaboration with Malta University Consulting Ltd. More information is available by calling 2124 0746/9982 9244 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.