Medieval Christian misogyny shapes how we judge women today, says scholar

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Several individuals labeled women who wore makeup and dyed their hair as fake and untruthful. Furthermore, others claimed that women who adorned themselves with expensive jewelry and clothing weren't trustworthy, even in regards to their spouses. Nevertheless, they all concurred that if a man approached one of these women who were deemed unchristian and decided to sexually assault her, it was her responsibility and not his.

A recent discussion at the University of Cambridge revealed that during the third century, prominent male writers used the concept of inner beauty in Christianity to manipulate women's clothing choices. This concept suggested that genuine beauty comes from within a person.

According to Alexandra Zhirnova, a scholar from Cambridge University who will be speaking at the Cambridge Festival on March 23rd, a lot of our current ideas about how women should look can be traced back to the medieval period. The Cambridge Festival is an event that highlights the ongoing research at the university.

Zhirnova's doctoral thesis brings attention to the sexist beliefs held by Christian men in the medieval era regarding women's attire, cosmetics, and accessories.

A key belief in Christianity is the importance of prioritizing spiritual values over material possessions. However, during the time period of late antiquity and the early middle ages, when Christianity was melding with a patriarchal society, this belief was often utilized as a tool to oppress and regulate women.

During the time of the Romans, it was considered quite ordinary for wealthy women to adorn themselves with cosmetics, jewelry, and intricate hairstyles. However, Zhirnova noted that this type of behavior was seen as contradictory to the principles of Christianity.

In her opinion, a lot of male writers in early Christianity appeared to be scared that women's use of makeup and cunningness could provoke sexual desire in men. She believes that these writers believed that women who possess this power have the ability to manipulate men and challenge the traditional male structure in society.

Numerous writers who held great sway in the initial phases of the church, including Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Jerome, composed letters and speeches condemning females who adorned themselves with appealing clothing and makeup deemed as "streetwalkers," while lavishing praises on virtuous women who did not. However, if the Bible's depiction is accurate, asserting that a person's inner self holds true beauty, then it should be inconsequential what apparel a Christian woman chooses to wear.

According to Zhirnova, some writers adopt the view that a woman's physical enhancements should not be allowed, citing the belief that "beauty comes from within." Zhirnova suggests that this perspective is problematic as it perpetuates the idea that women are visually threatening to men.

Tertullian, a Roman writer born in AD160, was among the initial Christian authors to voice his objection. His view that women who applied makeup were unnatural and perhaps even devilish was embraced by other patristics, who were considered the "fathers" of the early church. According to Zhirnova, Tertullian's argument was based on the concept of creation. To him, anything not created by God, such as eyeliner, should not be used. He also put forth an amusing point by stating that if God intended for humans to have purple wool, they would have purple sheep.

Saint Ambrose, a bishop from Milan and theologian, agrees with Tertullian in a text from the fourth century about the concept of modesty. According to him, anything that is not authentic is not desirable. He argues that a woman's beauty should be completely natural and without any pretense or added elements meant to increase its splendor.

The society tends to depict women in a remorseful manner if they don't adhere to these rules. As an instance, Saint Paula, who was the initial nun in Christianity's history, imbibes teachings from Saint Jerome and begins to "cleanse her face with tears which she had earlier tainted with cosmetics".

As per the writings of the Venerable Bede, a learned English monk, it is believed that Saint Æthelthryth considered the growth on her neck that led to her demise as a retribution from the Almighty for donning an extravagant necklace in her youth.

The patristics also propose the concept that females who try to make themselves more attractive just to catch the attention of males are cunning and untrustworthy.

According to Zhirnova, Saint Ambrose had a message for married women who were contemplating wearing makeup for their husbands. He strongly advised against it, on the grounds that using cosmetics could be considered deceitful. He believed that the only reason a woman would want to enhance her appearance was to draw attention from men, indicating a potential lack of sexual restraint.

According to the patristics, if a woman is willing to "blemish her countenance," she is also willing to compromise her modesty, as stated by her.

Iron Curling Hair Is Deceitful

These discussions soon extend to women who style their hair with a curling iron. Specifically in England, using a curling iron is viewed as a deceitful and terrible practice that women use to attract men.

During her presentation, Zhirnova aims to explain that our current perspective on beauty, clothing and modesty is closely linked to early Christian concepts. She suggests that the culture of sexual assault has its origins in medieval times. Zhirnova points out that several Christian narratives depict pious women who reject body adornment. This has implications on how we perceive women who do not conform to traditional beauty standards.

In a tale dating back to the 10th century, we hear about the tale of Saint Wulfhilda, a stunning maiden who finds herself confined in a chamber by King Edgar of England. Despite Wulfhilda repeatedly insisting she has no interest in marrying him, the King continues to ignore her wishes. However, Wulfhilda refuses to back down and uses her cleverness to flee the room via the sewer. In this brave escape, Wulfhilda sheds her precious jewels and luxury attire, proving that her modesty is more important than external appearances.

Zhirnova shared that these stories suggest that women who wear jewelry and makeup are somehow responsible for being raped. Even though the stories don't directly say that, it's a conclusion that people can easily make.

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