The Gender of Folly

In Erasmus’ famous 1511 essay, The Praise of Folly, the embodiment of Folly herself delivers satirical oratory, praising herself and critiquing the norms and institutions of the day.

The piece itself is wonderfully well written, and there is a wealth of scholarship examining Erasmus’ satirical intents.

But there is one element of the essay which I have always found particularly striking. As Folly finalizes her argument, she closes her refined rhetoric by stating:

If anything I have said shall seem too saucy or too glib, stop and think: ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken. But of course you will also remember that Greek proverb, “Even a foolish man will often speak a word in season,” unless, perhaps you assume that this does not extend to women.

Patricia Bizzell notes that scholars have generally paid little attention to Folly’s gender – after all, female muses and even fools were common in Renaissance oration, with roots dating back further.

Yet ignoring Folly’s gender seem a misstep  – it is not incidental, but rather a core element of Erasmus’ satire. Folly’s gender allows her dismiss herself – after all, ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken – even as she delivers outspoken criticism of society.

Her gender also makes her an outsider, as Bizzell writes:

I can’t take the persona’s gender for granted, especially as she’s depicted in Holbein’s illustrations for an early edition of the Praise: a woman in a fool’s cap and bells and an academic gown, speaking from a rostrum to an audience of men similarly attired (see Moriae 1989).

And while female personas were perhaps common in Renaissance work, Folly’s place as an orator is particularly notable. As Bizzell points out, “in the Renaissance, a woman who practices rhetoric in public, whether by orating or publishing, is usually deemed to be unchaste.”

Even as humanists education expanded to include upper class women as well as men, women continued to be barred from the study of rhetoric. Oratory and rhetorical debate were fields where learned men battled. For a woman to enter such an arena – to share her voice in the public sphere was, in Bizzell’s words, like “the only female player in a touch football game…what chaste women would take such a risk?”

All this leaves unanswered the question of exactly what Erasmus’ argues for in Folly, but it raises the importance of gender in transmitting that message.

The role of the Fool has long been to speak truth to power, protected by their own foolishness and disdained place in society. Folly, the unchaste woman, has particular power in this regard – power bestowed by her entire lack of power.

Though ‘entire lack’ is a blatant overstatement here, as the woman rhetor, well trained in the humanists arts, is no doubt of a certain class and a certain race – maligned for her gender but more empowered than others nonetheless. As Bizzell concludes:

If we think of ourselves as symbolically risking making fools of ourselves, we might consider the implications of taking on not only the fool’s disregard for social convention, which allows social criticism and the enactment of solidarity, but also the fool’s embrace of marginal social positions as well.

Perhaps this is ultimately why the persona of Folly spoke so strongly to me when I first read Erasmus’s mock-encomium. In the persona of the foolish slut, I saw, on the one hand, ways to compensate for my lack of gender privilege, that is to wrest rhetorical freedom out of the liabilities I incur as a woman breaking the taboos that still to some extent obtain on a woman’s speaking in public. On the other hand, I saw ways to undermine my race and class privileges, which may prevent me from identifying with oppressed people as much as I want to do: this very adoption of the ass-eared cap lends a provisionality to my words which, I hope, invites all others into the rhetorical process with me.

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