The artist’s arrogance (hidden)

In a previous post, I noted the arrogance some writers display in their works. But many writers in fact do the very opposite. They exhaust themselves in protestations of modesty.

My lack of skill and experience prevents me from setting forth an exquisite narrative in learned language. But the power of heartfelt love more strongly commands us not to be puffed up with vain glory and simply bring the truth to light.

These sentences introduce a medieval Saint’s biography – the ‘Life of Lady Balthild the Queen‘. This Saint’s Life, or hagiography as it is called, deals with the piety, miracles and suffering of a seventh-century slave-turned-queen. She ended her days on earth in a monastery near Paris. Probably, it was one of her fellow nuns who put down her story in writing. This anonymous nun realised perfectly well that her writing would constitute an act of arrogance. However, contrary to Multatuli and Karl May she made this arrogance magically disappear.

The Abbaye de Chelles in 1688

The Abbaye de Chelles in 1688, where Balthild and her hagiographer lived. Reproduction by Achille Peigné-Delacourt in the co-edited Monasticon gallicanum, found on leseglises.chelles.fr/lieu/batiment/histoire-des-eglises.

It was not just a medieval or Christian demand for modesty that made this nun talk of her ‘lack of skill’. For modesty does not ‘veil’ all early-medieval writing. One very famous Christian writer of about that time (admittedly, two centuries earlier) wrote:

To those who do not understand what is here set down, my answer is, that I am not to be blamed for their want of understanding. It is just as if they were anxious to see the new or the old moon, or some very obscure star, and I should point it out with my finger: if they had not sight enough to see even my finger, they would surely have no right to fly into a passion with me on that account. [… They] had better give up blaming me, and pray instead that God would grant them the sight of their eyes.

This is Augustine of Hippo, in a book that explains how one should read the Bible.

Modesty has always been considered a great good in Christian writing. Yet for Christian women, it was not just a good way to write – it was the only way. And so we find women in the nineteenth century, the century that I am most familiar with as an historian, still holding back from writing and publishing, and especially from writing and publishing about their own lives: an inhibition that the male Multatuli has clearly overcome. See, for example, the recent articles by Toos Streng on ‘Female Novel Writers in Netherland, 1790-1899’ and Marijke Huisman on ‘Religion, Gender and Autobiographical Autorship in the Nineteenth Century’ in the journal De negentiende eeuw. Also see Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay A Room of One’s Own. In chapter 3, she describes Judith Shakespeare, William’s imagined sister.

Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them.

I am not saying that all women in Christian history were modest and the men presumptious – that would not at all be in line with the facts. But women who wrote were much more vulnerable to accusations of immodesty, of arrogance, than their male counterparts. This must have kept many women from writing at all. It induced other women to garb their ideas in a profusion of apologies, excuses and legitimations – a greater profusion on average than it made men.

One such ‘excuse’ forms a well-worn topos in literary history. This is the emphasis on ‘truth’. The ‘heartfelt love’ (for Christ, presumably) brings the anonymous biographer of Saint Balthild to ‘bring the truth to light’. The urge to let ‘the truth’ be known makes her overcome her initial reluctance to write. Yet this excuse is in fact a clever trick. She secures her modest image while at the same time conveying that the truth and urgency of her story must be so strong that there is no escaping telling it. And there is no escaping listening to it.

All this brings us back again to Augustine of Hippo. For without playing the trick of combining truth and modesty, he nevertheless invokes the same authority of heavenly truth as our anonymous nun. Their ‘love’ of ‘truth’ even connects them directly to Karl May and Multatuli. In their writings, too, the truth finds its way out against all odds: ‘I will forever keep on showing you the truth!’

In a next episode I hope to further nuance and historicise what I set up in these posts.

The translations I use are by JoAnn McNamara, John E. Halborg and Gordon Whatley (Sainted Women of the Dark Ages (1992)) and Marcus Dods (A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (1987)).

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