- Women, Imagination and the Search for Truth in Early Modern France
Rebecca Wilkin’s book Women, Imagination and the Search for Truth in Early Modern France offers a tightly argued case for the centrality of representations of women in the epistemological and intellectual crises of the late Renaissance (1550–1650) which culminated in the ‘New Science’. She follows currents in sceptical and neo-stoic thought, which were a response to the failing scholastic enterprise and trust in ancient authorities, to trace the ways in which ideas about women and gender difference were used to ‘define truth and to legitimate particular means of attaining truth’ (p. 7).
Wilkin’s five chapters focus on the debates surrounding witch trials found in Johan Weyer’s De preastigiis daemonum (1563) and Jean Bodin’s De la démonomanie des sorciers (1580); the neo-stoic self-fashioning of the politiques seen in the works of Guillaume Du Vair, Philosophie morale des stoïques, Manuel d’ Epictète (both 1585) and La Constance et consolation ès calamitez publiques (1595), and André Du Laurens, Discours des maladies mélancholiques (1594); the scepticism and suspension of gender difference in Montaigne’s Essays (1580–1595), and assertion of gender equality in Marie le Jars de Gournay’s De l’égalité des hommes et des femmes (1622); and finally the ‘egalitarian implications of Descartes’ rationalist epistemology’ (p. [End Page 203] 188) in his works from the Discours de la méthode (1637) to the Passions de l’âme (1649), with a particular emphasis on his correspondence with Elizabeth of Bohemia.
The book is a pleasure to read as Wilkin unfolds the intellectual and political context of the arguments and texts through the relationships between the works, and their key textual interlocutors. Chapter 1 discusses Weyer’s De preastigiis daemonum in which he proposed a diagnosis of melancholia and women’s ‘natural’ susceptibility to the Devil’s persuasion to explain the reported experiences of women accused of witchcraft, and to diminish women’s responsibility as part of a legal defence against these accusations. He privileged ‘common sense’ as the essential interpretative faculty possessed by physicians (such as himself) that qualified them to make this diagnosis. Weyer condemned the use of torture to extract confessions from women accused of witchcraft arguing instead, following Lutheran models of Biblical interpretation, that a literal reading sufficed. However Weyer’s emphasis on the ‘vulnerability of the senses to devilish manipulation and melancholy’ (p. 53) intensified the sceptical crisis, which Bodin addressed in his text, the subject of Chapter 2.
For Bodin the bodies of women accused of witchcraft held secrets which could only be verified through torture – the ‘touchstone of truth’ (pp. 88–9). Only the magistrate (Bodin) had the hermeneutical expertise to interpret the confessions of women accused of witchcraft, which served to verify the existence of demons, in turn confirming key Catholic doctrines. Of greater importance for Bodin, however, was that establishing the guilt of the witch accused of entering into a pact with the Devil confirmed in the negative the central tenet of his political philosophy – the subordination of women to men (of nature to God/of the subjects to the absolute sovereign).
Chapter 3 considers the ways in which the politiques, who ‘put loyalty to the crown before religious considerations in response to religious conflict’ (p. 97), used stoic moral philosophy to undermine the Catholic League by characterizing as effeminate the melancholic piety of the League’s spirituality, and contrasting this with the ‘masle vertu of the stoic Sage’ (p. 106). In Chapter 4, Wilkin shows how Montaigne’s skepsis in his Essays ridiculed Weyer’s empiricism, Bodin’s dogmatism, and the hyper-masculinity of the neo-stoics. Wilkin demonstrates how several of Montaigne’s essays destabilized gender identities and revealed the arbitrary nature of gender conventions.
With the exception of Marie le Jars de Gournay, who deployed sceptical [End Page 204] arguments to question and condemn sexist institutions...