Stoa Consortium

Stoa Consortium

1.5.1. Introduction to Virgo μισόγαμος

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This dialogue between Eubulus and Catharina, first published in 1523, 46 tackles the issue of whether a young girl of seventeen should be permitted to join a convent. As we have discussed elsewhere, this topic was touched upon in the exchange between Leonardus and his friend Aegidius (Domestica confabulatio), whose eighteen year-old daughter, much to his dismay, abhorret a nuptiis. In the present dialogue we hear one such young girl present her own case for wanting—against her parents' wishes—to enter a holy order of nuns. Eubulus, her interlocutor (and presumably her suitor), thinks this is a horrible idea and does his level best to try and cure her of istum fatalem affectum.

What strikes the reader of this dialogue initially are the harsh accusations of debauchery Eubulus hurls against men and women of the cloth. Not only does he portray monks as gluttonous drunkards (semper cibo distentos), describing even the prior of the particular order Catharina wishes to join as et aetate, et vino, et natura delirus, but he also insists that her virginity will be better protected by living at home with her parents rather than inside a convent. Eubulus does not mince his words when he informs Catharina that priests are not called "Fathers" for nothing, and that even nuns engage in sexual activity amongst themselves (quae mores aemulentur Sapphus).

After reading such unequivocal statements about moral corruption among people of the cloth, it is not surprising that Erasmus got himself into more than a bit of trouble with his Colloquies, especially since they were meant to be used in schools to teach young boys good Latin prose. But the book that was once a fairly innocuous collection of phrases for greeting and taking leave of people had become, with the addition of longer dialogues on a wide range of topics, more a vehicle by which Erasmus expressed social criticism.47 The issues Erasmus chose to spotlight in the Colloquies were so controversial, however, that the faculty of theology at Paris in the mid-1530s ended up condemning the book as containing "Lutheran" ideas, and in 1564 a decision was made at the Council of Trent to place the book on the Index of Prohibited Books.48

It is easy to see why talk of drunken priests and lesbian nuns would not go over very well with Church officials. Perhaps even more controversial, however, are the other reasons Eubulus gives for why Catharina should not join a convent. When Catharina pours her heart out to Eubulus, telling him what a wonderful impression the shining faces of the nuns had made on her when she was a child (placebant virgines vultibus nitentibus, videbantur angelae), he counters that she has been deceived by falsa imaginatione, and that the sense of piety felt by people within an order is deceptive, based mainly on caeremoniis sane quam speciosis. He also warns Catharina that she will have to give up most of the freedom she presently enjoys and succumb to a life of rigid rules, where nothing is done unless ex praescripto. Because he admires her character so much, Eubulus is convinced that she would live a more spiritually fulfilling life by finding a husband (him) who shares her moral convictions, and creating her own spiritual community at home as a wife and mother: tuaeque domi novum instituas collegium, cuius maritus agat patrem, tu matrem.49

Erasmus was not the first to characterize monks, nuns and priests as gluttons, drunkards and worse. Moreover, charges of this nature can be interpreted as being levied against the weakness of the individual. The other criticisms Eubulus puts forth call into question foundations of Church doctrine and place Eubulus—and by extension Erasmus, according to his critics—squarely in the Lutheran camp: that religious life had become bogged down with rituals and superstitious practices that, in and of themselves, are meaningless, and, as Eubulus himself says, per se nihil faciunt ad pietatem; and that the celibate life is not inherently morally superior to marriage.

Eubulus is equally convinced that, in taking vows, Catharina would be giving up her freedom to experience spirituality in her own way. Non omnia conducunt omnibus, he tells her, and reminds her that at home she has her own room where she is free to read, pray and sing hymns whenever she wants, but she is also at liberty to go out and attend church services, or seek out conversation with learned ladies and men for her own moral betterment. He maintains that these things—ex quibus praecipuus est profectus ad veram pietatem—will be lost to her once she takes her vows. In sum, the arguments outlined above demonstrate Eubulus' concern that Catharina not be drawn in by a deceptive appearance of piety, and that she not be so quick to give up her liberty to commune with God as she chooses.

The controversial nature of his arguments notwithstanding, the reader must bear in mind that Eubulus is a suitor, whose primary goal is to persuade the object of his desire to choose marriage over the cloistered life. Because of this, it is reasonable to suppose that the statements he makes are not to be taken at face value, but are calculated to shock her, and thus to win her over to his way of thinking. But Eubulus is not the only speaker in this dialogue, and we would be remiss if we did not examine this debate also from Catharina's point of view. Paradoxically, however, even though she is the interlocutor advocating the pro-monastic position, it seems unlikely that her words would placate the reader already put off by the over-arching anti-clerical theme of this dialogue.

Indeed, what seems to be absent from Catharina's pleas for understanding of—and sympathy towards—her strong desire to join a convent is a genuine feeling of religious conviction. When pressed about why she wants to become a nun, she does not express a desire to give herself wholly over to Christ because of her deep belief in Christian values and teachings. Instead, her reasons boil down to this: that she was enchanted as a child by the bright and shining faces of the nuns, by the smells of insence, and by the sight of the blooming gardens of the cloister; and that she is afraid that her virginity will be compromised if she stays at home. When asked by Eubulus why she doesn't feel safe living with her parents, she confesses that she is disturbed by the numerous dinner parties her parents hold there, during which she is often subjected to hearing conversations not suitable to maiden ears, and presumably approached by men not unaware of her beauty: ...aliquoties fit, ut osculum negare non possim.

What might make young Catharina's uninspired defense of her wish to become a nun even more glaring to Erasmus' contemporaries is the stark contrast between the depth of her her religious conviction and that of her saint namesake, St. Catherine of Alexandria. The similarities between our Catharina and St. Catherine would likely not have been lost on readers familiar with the Legenda aurea of Jacobus de Voragine, or other popular saints' lives circulating at that time: both young women are around the same age (seventeen or eighteen), both are from well-to-do families, both are said to have been educated in the liberales disciplinas, and both have suitors who are trying to dissuade them from their chosen life-path.

To be sure, the motivations of the respective suitors—the Christian Eubulus and persecutor of Christians, Emperor Maximinus—cannot be compared; nevertheless, it is telling to contrast the sincerity and efficacy of the two Catherines as they attempt to persuade their critics not only of their own commitment to their chosen life, but of the ultimate righteousness of that choice. On the one hand we have St. Catherine, legendary for her sharp intellect and ability to communicate her faith in such a way that she not only remains unharmed by her enemies, but also converts most of them to Christianity (...haec autem puella, in qua spiritus Dei loquitur, sic nos in admirationem convertit, ut contra Christum aliquid dicere aut omnino nesciamus aut penitus formidemus. On the other we have our Catharina, who hardly gets a word in edgewise in the presence of the loquacious Eubulus, and whose rather superficial reasoning in defense of her position causes her to pale in comparison with the eponymous saint both in terms of rhetorical deftness and piety.

Although it quite possibly irked Erasmus' contemporaries that a character named intentionally after a famously talented orator-saint was unable to win her interlocutor over to her side, it would not be fair to dismiss our Catharina out of hand. Despite the fact that she is no match for Eubulus' powers of persuasion, Erasmus nevertheless presents the contemporary reader with the portrait of a young, pretty, educated, charming, enthusiastic woman (whether she is misguided remains to be seen), who seems to enjoy a great deal of freedom to explore her spirituality and is not shy about advocating for herself and what she wants.

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Date: last revised 2003-12-18 Author: Jennifer K. Nelson.
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