Visions inspired daughter to reject life of female privilege

About 1700 years ago, Christian monks recorded a story memorializing female privilege and urging young women to turn from it. The setting is straight-forward:

A good man, who was very simple and God-fearing, every day labored in the fields and with the work of his hands earned a mediocre living. His wife, in contrast, stayed all day long in the home, eating and drinking with dissolute companions. Whatever her husband was able to acquire, she consumed in self-indulgent living.

{ homine bono, qui simplex erat valde et timens Deum, et cotidie laborans in agro de labore manuum mediocriter vivebat. Uxor autem in domo remanens tota die cum leccatoribus manducabat et bibebat, et, quecumque maritus ejus poterat acquirere, luxuriose vivens consumebat. }

Many wives throughout history have been reluctant to share the burden of working outside the home. Today, many wives work outside the home. However, many of them consider work outside the home to concern their personal fulfillment rather than fulfilling an obligation to reduce the burden on their husbands. These wives often withdraw temporarily or permanently from the workforce while denying their husbands similar opportunities to quit their jobs. Those wives thus betray ideals of gender equality and set a bad example for their daughters.

In this case, the couple had one daughter. After her parents died, the daughter had to determine the course of her life. Should she live a life of female privilege as a wife idly exploiting the labor of her husband? Or should she be a strong, independent woman who courageously supports a stay-at-home husband and provides him with a wide range of opportunities for eating, drinking, enjoying the company of dissolute friends, and freely seeking personal fulfillment?

She began to think about whether she should imitate the life of her father, or the life of her mother. The devil placed before her eyes the life of her father. His life had always been excessively hard and rough. He had always lived in sadness and misery. Her mother, in contrast, had lived in great pleasure and joy, and in great happiness. At this point, her soul was nearly induced to have contempt for her father’s way of life and to imitate her mother.

{ Que cepit cogitare utrum vitam patris aut matris sue deberet imitari. Dyabolus autem ante oculos ejus ponebat quod vita patris ejus dura nimis et aspera fuisset, et quod in dolore et miseria semper vixisset; mater vero ipsius in magnis deliciis et gaudio et in magna felicitate vixerat. Et jam pene adhuc animus ejus inducebatur ut, contempta patris conversatione, matrem imitaretur. }

Many women today falsely believe that their mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and all the women in their lineage going back to the beginning of humanity lived much more oppressed and constrained lives than those of all the men in their lineage. That’s delusional, as the lives of this ancient couple makes clear. The devil presented to the daughter the truth that her mother had a much easier and more pleasurable worldly life than her father did. Most women and men would prefer to live the worldly life of her mother.

In Christian understanding, the Lord hears the cries of the poor and vindicates the oppressed. While female privilege and oppressing men is today regarded as virtuous or at least deserved payback, Christianity more truthfully supported gender equality. The daughter thus experienced visions:

The next night an angel of the Lord appeared to her in a dream. It seemed to her that he led her to some horrible and fetid place of torment, where she saw among other condemned her mother burned black by a fire of intolerable flame. Serpents were gnawing and tearing at all her limbs with bitter bites. Then she began to cry as if howling: “Come, my daughter, see that because of vile and transitory pleasures I endure torments without end and never obtain pardon. Take heed therefore, my daughter, do not imitate my miserable and most shameful life, because you would not be able to escape eternal torments.” Then it seemed to her that she was led to a most beautiful and glorious place, where in the company of holy and honored spirits she saw her father shining brighter than the sun and crowned with glory and honor. To her the angel said: “Which life do you wish to imitate, your father’s or your mother’s?” She responded: “Lord, I swear to you, I promise that I will never imitate the life of my mother, but the example of my father I want to follow completely in penance and labor.” The next morning to do so, she gave whatever she had to the poor, and withdrew to live in a cave and follow a most laborious life.

{ Proxima vero nocte angelus Domini apparuit ei in sompnis, et videbatur ei quod duceret eam ad quedam fetida et horribilia loca tormentorum, ubi inter alios dampnatos videbat matrem suam nigerrimam igne intollerabili igne succensam, et serpentes omnia ejus membra morsu amarissimo corrodebant et laniabant. Tunc ilia cepit quasi ululando clamare: “Veni, filia, quia propter viles et transitorias delicias sine fine cruciabor, et nunquam veniam obtinebo. Cave igitur, filia mea, ne miserabilem et turpissimam vitam imiteris, quia nullo modo posses evadero cruciatus eternos.” Postmodum videbatur illi quod duceretur ad locum amenissimum et gloriosum, ubi in consortio sanctorum et honorum spirituum videbat patrem suum sole splendidiorem, gloria et honore coronatum. Cui angelus ait: “Cujus vitam vis imitari patris tui aut matris?” Cui ilia: “Domine, juro vobis, promitto quod nunquam matris mee vitam imitabor, sed exemplo patris mei in penitentia et labore vitam meam volo consumare.” Mane autem facto, quicquid habebat pauperibus erogavit, et artissimam vitam ducens in spelunca se reclusit. }

Many men have lived lives of hard work spent mostly in seclusion in their man-caves. Many women have no appreciation for the difficulties of men’s lives. Through these visions, the daughter gained sympathetic appreciation for her father’s life and recognized her father’s righteousness.

Parents, teach your daughters to reject lives of female privilege! Many education resources today for teaching about gender equality merely perpetuate modern ignorance, anti-men bigotry, and superstition. Through the largely unheralded work of medieval Latin philologists, vitally important medieval Latin literature has been transmitted to the present. Medieval Latin literature offers one of the best available resources today for teaching truly about gender equality.

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The story above is exemplum 289 in the preaching handbook Sermones Vulgares of the early thirteenth-century European church leader Jacques de Vitry.  The Latin text is from Crane (1890) pp. 121-2. The English translation is mine, drawing upon the English paraphrase of id. pp. 260-1. This exemplum comes from a more detailed story in the Vitae Patrum {Lives of the Fathers}, a collection of stories mainly from the third and fourth centuries. The stories are drawn from the lives of Christian monks living in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. The story above was disseminated in the variety of medieval collections, including Libro de los Exemplos and Magnum Speculum Exemplorum.

Feature image by CIAT


Crane, Thomas Frederick. 1890. The exampla or illustrative stories from the Sermones vulgares of Jacques de Vitry. London: David Nutt.

Article published under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

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