Aemilia Lanyer

Salve Deus Rex Judæorum was the title of a volume of poems written by Aemilia Bassano Lanyer (1569-1645). She affirmed that the title, a variant of what was inscribed on the cross of Christ, came to her in a dream. Aemilia Lanyer was one of the rare poetesses of the Renaissance whose work was published. She too wrote in defence of women and what was then called la querelle des femmes.

Aemilia Lanyer's husband and her Venetian born father, Baptista Bassano, were musicians employed by the courts of Elizabeth I and James I. Such social standing including the support of her patroness, Margaret, the countess of Cumberland, no doubt helped her to become a published writer.

The arguments in defence of women began in the Middle Ages and lasted several centuries. Many, sometimes satirical, but very often serious arguments, were published in various languages. Examples would include Chaucer's The Wife of Bath, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice, as opposed to John Knox's denunciation of Mary Queen of Scots, The Monstrous Regiment of Women.

The final poem of the volume The Description of Cooke-ham, extolls the estate of the countess of Cumberland, Aemilia's patroness, as a garden of Eden for women. Since then however, it has become another lost paradise.

With Eve's Apology in Defence of Women, from this volume of poems, naturally Aemilia Lanyer starts where it all began, with Eve herself. In this case one wonders what measure of satire there was, if any, in relation to what seems to be an earnest plea. Her defence of Eve, of course, is essentially the defence of all women.

Naturally today it's difficult to imagine how one can continue to use the argument of Eve against women. How can one seriously envisage the alternative existence of immortal paradise, which logically would be a lifeless, sterile and totally incoherent sort of Utopia, had Eve not invited Adam to eat the apple, the forbidden fruit of knowledge?
If, on the other hand, one accepts the story recorded in Genesis as being the first ever symbolic fable, then one could imagine that the scenario was totally preconceived by God, also with the devil's approval. Subsequently the play, 'naturally' with Adam and Eve playing the only leading roles, and including special effects for the snake, was to portray the human weakness that determines the necessary consequences permitting humanity to exist, multiply, continue to eat apples, and acquire knowledge.

In such a case the stage-sets would also have been symbolic to get round the obvious problems. One problem then being that a real apple tree would have had to have been planted. It would have to have blossomed to be fertilised by bees for the apple to grow and ripen to have become temptingly edible. Nature would therefore already have been at work, long before the serpent came along to tempt Eve by inviting her to pick the apple. But such are the incoherences of immortal, immutable paradise.

Human beings who still doggedly believe that they will be rewarded with immortality in paradise for their goodness (or even their evil), could bear in mind that the paradise one tends to imagine cannot possibly exist without the circle of life determining the beauty of such an Edenic garden. If indeed it cannot be without tropical flowers, fruit trees, lovingly tended lawns, golf courses, birds of paradise (naturally), lyre birds, peacocks and private beaches, etc., then paradise can only be based on life itself (which obviously must include life's unflagging and delightful desire to perpetuate its circle) and how one lives (whether fortunate enough or not) to make it such.

But to return to Eve. Men still tend to treat her, 'even' today, as the eternal scapegoat (or scapedoe, scapenanny, etc.), to shamefully reduce if not totally cancel out their own brief but essential incursion of responsibility. Certain religions seem to continue to condone the masculine role thus making it more or less tolerable. But sadly it's probable that most men, whether they are fervent religious believers or not, are more likely to point the unjust, accusing finger of condemnation at a woman who by mishap out of marriage, expects a child, than blame the man responsible. After all he is not burdened with the painful consequences.
Today's religious fanatics would even condemn raped women who become pregnant as a result of men's depraved violations. One therefore concludes that since Eve, progress regarding womens' rights has been shamefully slower than it should have been. In some regions of the world it has even regressed.

Here is Aemilia Lanyer's Eve's Apology in Defense of Women from Salve Deus Rex Judæorum ('Hail, God, King of the Jews')

Now Pontius Pilate is to judge the causeº             ºcase
Of fautless Jesus, who before him stands,
Who neither hath offended prince, nor laws,
Although he now be brought in woeful bands.
O noble governor, make thou yet a pause,
Do not in innocent blood inbrueº thy hands          ºstain
But hear the words of thy most worthy wife,º          ºMatthew 27.19
Who send to thee, to beg her Saviour's life.

Let barb'rous cruelty far depart from thee,
And in true justice take affliction's part;
Open thine eyes, that thou the truth may'st see.
Do not the thing that goes against thy heart,
Condemn not him that must thy Saviour be;
But view his holy life, his good desert.
Let not us women glory in men's fall.º          ºthe fall of Adam, Jesus and Pilate
Who had power given to overrule us all.

Till now your indiscretion sets us free.
And makes our former fault much less appear;
Our mother Eve, who tasted of the tree,
Giving to Adam what she held most dear,
Was simply good, and had no power to see;º      ºGenesis blames Eve of
The after-coming harm did not appear:           intemperance, pride and ambition
The subtle serpent that our sex betrayed
Before our fall so sure a plot had laid.

That undiscerning ignorance perceived
No guile or craft that was by him intended;
For had she known of what we were bereaved,º        ºDeprived of immortality
To his request she had not condescended.
But she, poor soul, by cunning was deceived;
No hurt therein her harmless heart intended:
For she allegedº God's word, which heº denies,        ºrepeated. ºThe serpent
That they should die, but even as gods be wise.

But sure Adam cannot be excused;
Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What weakness offered, strength might have refused,
Being lord of all, the greater was his shame.
Although the serpent's craft had her abused,
God's holy word ought all his actions frame,º               ºdetermine, guide
For he was lord and king of all the earth,
Before poor Eve had neither life or breath,

Who being framedº by God's eternal hand                         ºmade
The perfectest man that ever breathed on earth;
And from God's mouth received that straitº command,   ºstrict
The breach whereof he knew was present death;
Yea, having power to rule both sea and land,
Yet with one apple won to lose that breathº                     ºbreath of eternal life
Which God had breathed in his beauteous face,
Bringing us all in danger and disgrace.

And then to lay the fault on Patience' back,
That we (poor women) must endure it all.
If Eve did err, it was for knowledge sake;
The fruit being fair persuaded him to fall:
No subtle serpent's falsehood did betray him;
If he would eat it, who had the power to stayº him?          ºstop

Not Eve, whose fault was only too much love,
Which made her give this present to her dear,
That what she tasted he likewise might prove,º                   ºexperience
Whereby his knowledge might become more clear;
He never sought her weakness to reprove
With those sharp words which he of God did hear;
Yet men will boast of knowledge, which he took
From Eve's fair hand, as from a learned book.

If any evil did in her remain,
Being made of him,º he was the ground of all.            ºGenesis 2.21-22
If one of many worldsº could lay a stain                ºman being 'a little world'
Upon our sex, and work so great a fall
To wretched man by Satan's subtle train,º                    ºallusion to the serpent
What will so foul a fault amongst you all?º              ºallusion to Pilate's crime
Her weakness did the serpent's words obey,
But you in malice God's dear Son betray,

Whom, if unjustly you condemn to die,
Her sin was small to what you do commit;
All mortal sinsº that do for vengeance cry                ºpunishable by damnation
Are not to be compared unto it.
If many worlds would altogether try
By all their sins the wrath of God to get,
This sin of yours surmounts them all as far
As doth the sun another little star.º                    ºthe sun then was thought larger

Then let us have our liberty again,
And challengeº to yourselves no sovereignty.           ºclaim
You came not in the world without our pain,
Make that a bar against your cruelty;
Your fault being greater, why should you disdain
Our being your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weak woman simply did offend,
This sin of yours hath no excuse nor end,

To which, poor souls, we never gave consent.
Witness, they wife, O Pilate, speaks for all,
Who did but dream, and yet a message sent
That thou shouldest have nothing to do at all
With that just man;º which, if thy heart relent,            ºChrist
Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saulº                        ºdo as he did
To seek the death of him that is so good,
For thy soul's health to shed his dearest blood?

Intro text and images © Mirino. Sources include The Norton Anthology English Literature Volume 1. Extract from Salve Deus Rex Judæorum of Aemilia Lanyer. With grateful thanks. May, 2012

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