Vita Latina 119 (Sept. 1990), pp.15-21  [Original language]

Being a woman according to Tertullian

    Some irritation or mood-swings against women never prevented anyone from valuing them. The best example is St. Jerome who deprived himself of neither sour remarks, nor of satirical portraits, yet trusted a whole team of women to help him in his exegetical work and endeavoured to carry with him in asceticism to the heights of the spiritual life those who surrounded him; all with an attention full with respect, a generous comprehension of a very pure kind, and a perfectly altruistic tenderness.

    Such is certainly not the case of Tertullian. The woman is in his eyes a public menace. The man has everything to fear from her, and the first Adam would have done well to be wary about her. The eye with which he looks at her is singularly critical, and not only in De cultu. No occasion is lost to show her vain, conceited, sensual, frivolous, avid and at the same time stupid and cunning. Thus De virginibus velandis (XVII, 1) where one sees the women satisfying the obligation to wear a veil by perching a small handkerchief on the top of the bun  so that everyone can judge during the mass the beauty of their hair. Thus De pallio (IV, 2) where the properly female activities of Achilles disguised as a woman consist in "deploying her dress, to construct the edifice of her hair, to prepare the skin, to consult her mirror, to embellish her neck, to effeminatize even her ear by boring it", nothing more!

    In Ux. II, 8, 3 the vanity (ambitio, muliebris gloria) stigmatized in Cult., I, 2, 1 reappears, together with the interested calculation and the greed which push the woman of De cultu to trample on every human feeling (she does not recoil before the sufferings of the miners who extract the precious metals. I, 5) and even Christians: by decorating herself with the gem which one finds in the face of the dragons, she does not hesitate to borrow her ornament from the Serpent of which she should be the hereditary enemy (I, 6, with a skilful juggling act by Tertullian which assimilates for the occasion the Serpent of Genesis to the more or less fabulous dragons of the Natural History of Pliny).

    Ambition and cupidity are besides, with sensuality - object of constant warnings -, the principal reasons which push a woman to be
married. What she wants in Ux., I, 4, 6-7, it is "to dominate over the house of others, to appropriate the wealth of others, to extort from others that which she lacks herself, to spend without counting a money of which one does not feel the loss".

   This woman, finally, is stupid enough to scorn the real good and to allow herself to run after shiny things (for example gold and money, much less useful in the practical life than iron and bronze: Cult., I, 5; or the pearl which is only a disease of the mollusc: I, 6, 2). Her limited intelligence does not enable her to consider sensibly the relative value of things (I, 7,1; 9, 1; II, 10, 2): she hoards stupidly objects which are ignored elsewhere because they are in abundance. But she is at the same time cunning enough to ruin the man whom the devil had not even dared to attack (I, 1, 2).  She knows how to adjust the divine law skilfully so that she can present herself to God while making herself fair or russet-red when it is written in the Gospel that no one cannot change a black hair into white or vice versa (II, 6, 3) and she finds an easy way not to contravene the words of the scripture: "Nobody can add to his size" by bunching the buns of false hair behind instead of above her head (II, 7, 2).

    Praise is extremely rare. I found for my part only one example of women judged without reserve good for something. It is for mothers, widowed and advanced in age who " formed by the experiment of all the feelings [can] easily give to the others the support of their advice and their consolations, having passed through all the states which can put a woman to the test " (Virg. vel., IX, 3). It is little.

    It is not impossible that Tertullian is actually afraid of women. In article in Science et Esprit (1987, p. 5-25: Tertullian the misogynist?), E Lamirande insists on this aspect. The greatest wrong of make-up and the toilette is to lead man into temptation (Cult., II, 2, 5). Even patriarchs like Abraham were victims (II, 2, 6). And if it is necessary to believe De res., LIX, 3 (ego me scio neque alia carne adulteria commisisse neque nunc alia carne ad continentiam eniti), Tertullian himself may have allowed himself to be snared in their traps. But what is the means of resisting a beauty which, even before the invention of the "toilette", had allured the angels (Cult., I, 2, 3)?

    What can one, what must one therefore do to deal with this dangerous and futile being which is the woman?  Obviously to keep her as much as possible in a subordinate role.

    The Epistles of St. Paul, on which Tertullian was very much brought up, discuss woman in several passages (e.g. 1. Cor., XI, 3-10) her duties of submission and discretion at home as at church: at home, she is submitted to her husband; at church, she is veiled and silent. It is a doctrine which Tertullian will exploit to the full.

    Admittedly, before the fall, Eve was the equal of Adam, "called to help the man and not to serve him" (Marc, II, 11, 1: in adiutorium masculo, non in seruitium fuerat destinata). But Tertullian hastens to note the curse of Genesis III, 16 to underline the inequality in fact introduced by sin into this equality of right: it is the purple passage which opens the De cultu. Moreover, woman allured the angels. Paul says well that she must wear the veil in the assemblies "because of the angels" (v.10). In fact, the exegetes seem to hesitate over the interpretation to give to this verse (see the comments of C Spicq in La Sainte Bible of L Pisot and A. Clamer, volume XI, 2, p. 247). In the notes which accompany his translation of Genesis, E Osty speaks about angels "guardians of good order in the assemblies" of which the  writings of Qumrân attest the presence among the members of the Community. Tertullian himself does not hesitate. They can be only the sinning angels which he evokes in Cult., I, 2, 1 and to which it matters that women hide their heads. It is right, indeed, that the face which  caused the fall of the angels "should be faded by its external humiliation and the veil spread on her beauty" (Marc, V, 8, 2, trad. De Genoude: de habitu humilitatis et obscuratione decoris). The question of the veil is so extremely important to him that, not content to have filled the De uirginibus velandis with it, he devotes to it long disgressions in De corona, De oratione, and the Against Marcion. The woman "drawn from the man and made for the man" (Marc, ibid.) must carry on her head the mark of his potestas, and Tertullian himself addressing his wife in Ux., I, 1, 4 easily takes the tone of a master: praecipio igitur tibi.

    Submitted to her husband, conscious of her ancient guilt, the woman will obviously keep silent at church. St Paul says it, and Tertullian echos it, not without some unexpected prolongations. We read in Virg. vel., IX, 1: non permittitur mulieri in ecclesia loqui, sed nec docere, nec tinguere, nec offerre, nec ullius uirilis muneris... sortem sibi uindicare. Only loqui comes from St Paul (1 Cor., XIV, 35 Turpe est enim mulieri loqui in ecclesia. All the rest is from Tertullian. He explains this extension in De baptismo, XVII, 5: in fact the forged Acta Pauli make it possible for women to teach and to baptize. How is it that the real Paul allows them to docere, when he does not even allow them to discere and that he tells the women to question their husbands only at home? (ibid.: Si quid autem uolunt discere, domi uiros suos interrogent). Conversely, Tertullian cultivates his sarcasms against the heretics, above all on what he prohibits to the Christian woman: "What a impudence among their women! They dare to teach, dispute, exorcise, to promise cures, perhaps to baptize" (Praescr., XLI, 5).

    But to stop here would be to condemn oneself to a superficial view of the attitude of Tertullian. When he says "my blessed ones", "very dear sisters", "partners in service " (Cult., Ux.), he is not less sincere than when he extends himself in invectives and talks of the "arch-venomous viper" (Bapt., I, 2) or the "infamous prostitute" (Praescr., XXX, 6).

    Even if the woman is sometimes as futile and depraved as he describes, he knows and believes that she is no less created by God than he, equipped with a heart like his and promised like him with eternal happiness. For if there is one thing which cannot be denied in Tertullian, it is the concern with the truth and the knowledge of the Scriptures. It is sometimes tempting to extort from the text things that they do not say. But as soon as the true doctrine is concerned and that it should be defended against the heretics, he leaves his personal preferences there and points out the dogma. We have previously demonstrated this while discussing marriage in the Mélanges P. Boyancé (Rome 1974, pp. 711-720).

    However the dogma here, it is that the woman is the equal of the man in the eyes of God; and Tertullian gets busy to prove it, for example in De anima, XXXVI. He stresses there that the soul does not have a pre-established sex. There are not female hearts which would be lower than male hearts. Heart and flesh "are sown" at the same time in the uterus at the time of the conception. Moreover, the flesh of Adam was animated by a soul, so the soul of Adam was used as well as his body in making the woman. 

    Equal from the point of view of creation, the man and the woman are both in the Church where they can profit from the same gifts, in particular of the gift of prophecy.  It is known that the Montanists placed great confidence in their "prophetesses" and Tertullian quotes with approval Prisca and Maximilla (Cast., X, 5; Res., Xi, 2; Prax., I, 5; Iei., I, 3). But well before his montanist period, he makes appeal without reluctance to the testimony of visionaries whose gift is official and is recognized. Thus, to prove that the soul has a certain corporeity, he explains us in An. 1X, 4 that a "sister" receives in extasy revelations during Sunday services: " She converses with the angels, sometimes even with the Lord. She sees and hears spiritual things. She reads some things in the souls and gives remedies for those that wish it" (trad. Steinmann). However she saw a soul tenera et lucida et aerii coloris et forma per omnia humana. Tertullian finds that completely normal, since the Bible explicitly grants visions to women (Joel, II 28-29), as he recalls it in An., XLVII, 2: "God promised to spread the grace of the Holy Spirit on any flesh et sicut prophetaturos, ita et somniaturos servos suos et ancillas suas".

The visions come to this sister during the readings, the chanting of the Psalms, the sermon, the requests (petitiones), but she shares them  only after the office. Thus the Pauline discipline is preserved. But Tertullian underlines (Marc, V, 8, 11) that this obligation of silence does not inhibit in any way the prophetic function of a woman in the Church: "St. Paul... forbids to them to speak, just to inform themselves; but he proves in enjoining them to veil themselves to prophesy, that they have the right to prophesy".

    In addition, how could the sex which is that of Mary - always and everywhere glorified by Tertullian - be a second-rate sex? If the sex of Eve caused mankind to fall by trusting the snake, it is the sex of Mary who retrieves it by trusting Gabriel (Carn., XVII, 5) and Marc, II, 4, 5 repeated the "utility" (profuturum) of the sex of Mary, in the center of the mystery of the redemption. Doesn't the union of the man and the woman (magnum sacramentum) symbolize the union of God and the Church? (Cast., V, 3, inter alia). Also Tertullian normally draws the conclusion of this equality of the sexes in the Church by generally making the man the co-culprit of the original sin (cf our ed. of De Cultu p. 37, n. 3). If one compares with the beginning of De cultu the account of the fall in De patientia, V, 9 and ff., one notes that the fault there belongs just as much, if not more, to Adam than to Eve. The charge of Cult. is an exception.

    The woman, finally, will be resurrected like the man at the last day, with the same substance and the same prerogatives. Tertullian solemnly affirms this in Cult. I, 2, 5 (see our ed. in "Sources chrétiennes" and the commentary), but in words which could be a problem.

    Idem sexus qui et uiris does not indeed signify, as some gnostics believed on the basis of the last logion of the Gospel of Thomas: "for every woman who will be made male will enter the kingdom of heaven" (see ed. Jean Doresse Paris 1959, p. 110, with the comment pp. 204-205), that a woman can reach eternal life only if she is transformed beforehand into a man. L. Lénaz, commenting on the ut uterque sexus caelum posset ascendere of Martianus Capella, II, 145, believes this and places alongside this assertion various patristic texts and the fact that the martyr Perpetua (Passion, X, 3) dreams that she is metamorphosed as a man before facing the Egyptian in the arena and gaining the victory (Latomus, 39, 1980, p. 729 f.). 

    It seems unthinkable that Tertullian should not know about this theory which is clearly exposed in Clement of Alexandria in connection with the Valentinians (Extraits de Théodote, Section A, XXI, 3). Perhaps it can even be seen in Aduersus Valentinianos, XXXII, 5, with its ironic allusion to possible (or impossible?) changing of sex which, in any event, can do nothing to make him anything but a man (see the edition of J.-C. Fredouille, S.C., pp. 146-147, with the commentary, p. 347 ff., which takes another approach to the text). 

    But if he uses it, it is to make fun of it, and it is precisely at the end of Val., XXXII, 5 where he employs the famous formula non angelus, non angela where he makes being angelic (angelus) the equivalent in heaven to what it is on earth to be a human being (homo and not uir or masculus). There is not a page of De resurrectione which makes the smallest allusion to a difference between the man and the woman after death. On the contrary, there it is always a question of the flesh (caro) which is reaffirmed in XLV, 4-5 what had been said in De anima on its insoluble bond with the soul, without any reference to sex. This flesh will be angelificata (XXVI, 7),  habitum angelicum susceptura (XLII, 4). The ch. XXXI, 7 cites the Veniet adorare omnis caro of Isaiah, 66, 23, and in the exegesis of the woman with seven husbands (XXXVI, 5), it is both the man and the woman who will pass to the angelic state similes enim erunt angelis ...  transituri in statum angelicum. Tertullian concludes with firmness (LXIII, 1): resurget igitur caro, et quidem omnis.  

    If thus, from birth to resurrection, the woman is the equal of the man in the divine plan, she is obviously promised like him to holiness, and it is from this that we find the precepts of De cultu.  

    Holiness is what Tertullian wants for women: "You must be perfect as your Father who is in heaven" (Cult., II, 1, 4). Admittedly, he can have fun with caricatures, puns, and ridicule. But that must not make us forget that from the start Tertullian places the problem of feminine love of ornament in a very high perspective, that of the faith, of eschatological promises, of original sin and its consequences. If the woman should never lose sight of her responsibility in the fault which inserted the evil in the world, it is because only an absolute obedience to the divine will can expiate the disorder brought to the divine plan by her disobedience. 

    However the will of God appears via two avenues: in the nature which He created and in the Scripture which He inspired. This is why the woman will initially take care to avoid, as a serious fault, modifying nature while painting herself, by dyeing the hair, while getting dressed with glossy fabrics. All these artifices are only a way for Satan to attack God through her (Cult., II, 5, 3). For the work of the divine potter, the plastica Dei, deserves respect (Cult., II, 5, 2-4), and not only from women. The heavy athlete that has been trained to give him a "unnatural" body (Spect., XVIII, 2), the pugilist with the crushed nose, with the swollen ears, very deformed by scars from the blows of boxing-gloves (Spect., XXIII, 7) are not less guilty in this respect than the painted woman. 

   The woman will not upset the order desired by God in dressing with the entrails of earth, precious stones or noble metals, which He had taken care to hide from her (Cult., I, 2, 1). She will respect the Scripture and will conform her conduct to it, without seeking to bend its precepts, whether it is a question of obeying her husband or of hairdressing. The meticulousness of the detail can appear ridiculous; but finally, doesn't a policy appear through all these details? For Tertullian, no detail - even of clothing - is morally indifferent. Everything has a position for or against God: there is nothing in common between Christ and Belial (I, 2, 5).

    To have allured the angels is another ignominy which weighs on the woman (Cult., I, 2, 1; Or., Xxii, 5-6). That also, she must ransom  while endeavouring never to be for something else an object of temptation, even if it means to draw up around her a fortress (spiritual!) like the soldier on campaign. It is necessary to quote in Latin: Indue armaturam pudoris, circumduc uallum uerecundiae, murum sexui tuo strue qui nec tuos emittat oculos, nec admittat alienos (Virg. vel., XVI, 4). Tertullian forgets sometimes to be faithful to this concept of "nature", for if the woman is ugly, it is so much the better. But if she is pretty, then she should to dissimulate the beauty which belongs to her nature to avoid being an occasion of sin (Cult., II, 2, 5; 3, 3). But the ideal remains beautiful!

    The woman, finally, will herself respect by a perfect chastity the temple of the Holy Spirit and the purity of the bride of Christ (Cult., II, 1, 1).  She will therefore wear a very full veil to hide her from men and reserve for the heavenly husband(Or., XXII, 9).  Especially, she will get rid of all the worldly "baggage" which laughs to encumber her when she will go ahead of it at the day of judgement (Cult., II, 9, 6 ff.). For it is too little for Tertullian that the woman is indeed pure. It is necessary that her external aspect says so (Cult., II, 13, 3).  It is necessary that everyone can see she is not of this world.  She that is preferable lives in God, for God, indifferent to her beauty, night and day busy in prayer, like the "sisters" that he gives as example to his wife in Ux., I, 4, 3-4.  The marriage of such a woman to a Christian man who resembles him reduces then to the agreement of two souls, completely disincarnate, in the praise and the service of God: "They pray together, are prostrated together, fast together, teaching each other, encouraging each other, supporting each other.  They are both in  company at church, in company to the divine banquet, in company in the trials, persecutions, the consolations... They sing psalms and anthems and compete as to who can celebrate best their Lord " (Ux., II, 8, 7 ff.). Conversely, the "carnal" marriage and maternity is to him a horror, and he does everything to turn people from it (see our article already cited in Mélanges Boyancé).

    This intransigence explains itself. Like all Christians of the time, Tertullian awaits the end of the world and thinks that he is living in the last times. "Time is short" (tempus in collecto est) is for him a true leitmotiv. And these recent times are hard. In 202, in Carthage, persecution threatens. It is necessary to prepare, the more so as Tertullian does not accept a discreet faith any more than a chastity which hides itself. The Christian woman lives in the middle of the pagans who are not without qualities, but are unaware of perfection. It is she who must make them aware while being radically different (Cult., II, 1).

    Perhaps this testimony of each day will lead her to martyrdom. She must know this and prepare to cope with suffering and privation. Already in Ad Martyras, IV, 3, Tertullian pressed the women to accept the torment with serenity, and to even seek it to give honor to their sex: ut uos quoque, benedictae, sexui uestro respondeatis. A husband, children, domestic routine, the desire to be beautiful and admired are so many retinacula which prevent her from flying to where duty calls. They thus should be cut off, in a perpetual effort of renouncement and a progressive examination of the carnal man (Cult., II, 13, 5).

    One cannot say that Tertullian mistakes the woman. He merely estimates her too highly. But what he likes, or does not want to like, in her, is only her soul. He thinks only of its safety, and to obtain from her always more, he urges her on unceasingly, in turn begging and ironic, rough and persuasive, so that stripped little by little of all that is merely female, she becomes the pure spirit which, even here-below, has to be numbered among the angels:  iam in terris ... de familia angelica deputantur (Ux.,  I, 4, 4).

   It only remains to say that he has given us in the De cultu, at the same time as a lesson of asceticism, a pretty tableau of manners which enables us to imagine a little the life of the women of Carthage at the opening of the IIIrd century.


Reproduced by permission of the author - thank you.

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