Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Sappho teaching her students
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This image appears in a manuscript of Boccaccio’s De cleres et nobles femmes. The artist modeled his illuminations after those done in le Maitre des Cleres femmes for Jean, duke of Berry. However through examination, it is clear that the illuminations were the result of a collaborative effort among artists.

    De cleres et nobles femmes was a text that enjoyed great popularity throughout the fifteenth-century in France. A humanist treatise on classical texts, it praised 106 notable women from antiquity and helped make readers aware of the achievements of the female gender that were normally condemned or forgotten.

    However, Rinaldina Russell and Bruce Merry argue that Boccaccio’s outlook was ultimately misogynistic because he largely singled out for praise those women who possessed the traditional virtues of chastity, silence, and obedience. Women who were active in the public sphere, particularly rulers and warriors, were shown as suffering terrible punishments for entering into the masculine sphere, which was characterized by control of political and social power. Therefore, they suggest that although women were his subjects, his standards remained masculine. For this reason, this image of Sappho in a position of educational authority is interesting.

    Here, Sappho, the great poet of ancient Lesbos, is seated in a wooden structure while she teaches lessons to an audience of two young boys and an older man. This image questions conventional gender roles in a decisive manner. Medieval women did not typically teach boys. However, it is clear that Sappho is acting the role of teacher due to the fact that the chapter heading qualifies her as cleregesse, thus authorizing her depiction as if she were a teaching cleric. She is the only woman honored with this title.

    Furthermore, her wooden seat is notable. Attributes such as wooden benches, lecterns, and books were tied to the professions of the law and literature in medieval France. In art, they would have served to remind the viewer of the proximity of the legal and intellectual professions. In this illumination, they associate Sappho with power that was traditionally reserved for men, thus making a case for her as a great and authoritative woman. This argument is supported by the opening illumination of the manuscript, which features an “authorial” portrait of Boccaccio seated in a wooden chair attached to a pulpit and lecturing to three students.

    Brigitte Buettner proposes that the composition of the image of Sappho was influenced by the iconographic advisor’s awareness of Boccaccio’s view of Sappho as the epitome of literary endeavors. In the text, Boccaccio praises her more intensively than any other figure, stating “neither the crown of kings, the papal tiara, nor the conqueror’s laurel is more splendid than her glory.” He is very specific about her talents, writing that “she not only knew how to assemble the letters and compose the syllables, spell the words, show the intention and meaning, but also added new things.” This is important because being able to “show the intention and meaning” of words was the job of a professor in the context of the trivium. In medieval society, women were not university professors. Therefore, Sappho’s placement in this masculine role emphasizes her exceptional talent despite her gender.

  • Source: Bibliothèque nationale
  • Rights: Open access
  • Subject (See Also): Boccaccio, Giovanni, Author- De Mulieribus Claris Classical Influences Education Sappho, Ancient Poet Teaching
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1402- 1403
  • Related Work: De Claris mulieribus, translation in French as Livre des femmes nobles et renommees: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84521932/f1.image.r=%20Ma%C3%AEtre%20des%20Cleres%20Femmes%20de%20Jean%20de%20Berry.langEN
  • Current Location: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, FRANÇAIS 598 f.71v
  • Original Location:
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): /25.5/36.5
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Buettner, Brigitte. Boccaccio's Des cleres et nobles femmes: Systems of Signification in an Illuminated Manuscript. University of Washington Press, 1996. Pages 26-53;
    D'Aragona, Tullia, Rinaldina Russell, and Bruce Merry. "The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: Introduction to the Series." In Dialogue on the Infinity of Love, ed. Rinaldina Russell and Bruce Merry. University of Chicago Press, 1997. Pages 1-19.