Oure First Moder: Eve as representative and representation in Medieval Thought
By Lee Jones
Lumina, Vol.2 (1996)
I am Eve, the wife of noble Adam; it was I who
violated Jesus in the past; it was I who robbed
my children of heaven; it is I by right who
should have been crucified.
I had heaven at my command; evil the bad
choice that shamed me; evil the punishment
for my crime that has aged me; alas, my hand
is not pure.
It was I who plucked the apple; it went past
the narrow of my gullet; as long as they live
in daylight women will not cease from folly
on account of that.
There would be no ice in any place; there
would be no bright windy winter; there would
be no hell, there would be no grief, there
would be no terror but for me.
~ Anonymous, Old Irish
When the noted fourteenth-century writer Giovanni Boccaccio set out to write his book Concerning Famous Women, he began with Eve, ‘our first mother’. Boccaccio had set himself ‘to write about the glories for which women have become famous’, but the deeds he recounted were often far from glorious. The outstanding nature of the women he discussed was, as historian Constance Jordan notes, based more on infamy than positive virtue:
few of his portraits depict women leading lives that exhibit virtus: rather, they describe women who appear to be more or less reprehensible, more or less ineffectual, or simply pathetic.
In choosing these women as representatives of the ‘glories’ of their sex, Boccaccio advanced a view of women and their achievements that was largely negative. Boccaccio’s treatment of his topic was almost ironic and displayed an ambivalence towards the possibility of feminine virtue. Jordan identifies a ‘doubleness’ in the text. Boccaccio, possibly deliberately, fails in his stated aim of glorifying women, ‘confounding’, as Jordan writes, his ‘categories of praise and blame’.