Laura Cereta delivering the verbal smackdown

In 1488, aged 18, Laura Cereta was already a humanist scholar, a widow, and allegedly a teacher of moral philosophy at the University of Prada (although no public records exist to verify the latter).

At the time of her birth, women in the Venetian republic were seen to have no place in the public sphere; only decades earlier, in his treatise On Wifely Duties, Francesco Barbaro had opined that “women should believe they have achieved glory of eloquence if they will honour themselves with the outstanding ornament of silence”. Laura Cereta challenged that view, passionately believing that women had just has much capability and right to education as men.

Her writing earned her numerous detractors, both male and female, and she confronted their criticisms in a number of withering letters. This particular one, dated January 13 of 1488 and addressed to the fictitious Bibulus Sempronius (“bibulus” means “drunkard” in Latin), attacks those who would heap condescending levels of praise on her, implying that she was unique among women in her intelligence.

My ears are wearied by your carping. You brashly and publicly not merely wonder but indeed lament that I am said to possess as fine a mind as nature ever bestowed upon the most learned man. You seem to think that so learned a woman has scarcely before been seen in the world. You are wrong on both counts, Sempronius, and have clearly strayed from the path of truth and disseminate falsehood. I agree that you should be grieved, indeed, you should be ashamed, for you have ceased to be a living man, but have become an animated stone; having rejected the studies which make men wise, you rot in torpid leisure.  Not nature but your own soul has betrayed you, deserting virtue for the easy path of sin.

You pretend to admire me as a female prodigy, but there lurks sugared deceit in your adulation. You wait perpetually in ambush to entrap my lovely sex, and overcome by your hatred seek to trample me underfoot and dash me to the earth. It is a crafty ploy, but only a low and vulgar mind would think to halt Medusa with honey …

I would have been silent, believe me, if that savage old enmity yours had attacked me alone. For the light of Phoebus cannot be befouled even in the mud. But I cannot tolerate your having attacked my entire sex. For this reason my thirsty soul seeks revenge, my sleeping pen is aroused to literary struggle, raging anger stirs mental passions long chained by silence. With just cause I am moved to demonstrate how great a reputation for learning and virtue women have won by their inborn excellence, manifested in every age as knowledge, the [purveyor] of honour. Certain, indeed, legitimate is our possession of this inheritance, come to us from a long eternity of ages past.

[To begin], we read how Sabba of Ethiopia, her heart imbued with divine power, solved the prophetic mysteries of the Egyptian Salomon. And the earliest writers said that Amalthea, gifted in foretelling the future, sang her prophecies around the banks of Lake Avernus, not far from Baiae. A sibyl worthy of the pagan gods, she sold books of oracles to Priscus Tarquinius. The Babylonian prophetess Eriphila, her divine mind penetrating the distant future, described the fall and burning of Troy, the fortunes of the Roman Empire, and the coming birth of Christ.

Nicostrata also, the mother of Evander, learned both in prophecy and letters, possessed such great genius that with sixteen symbols she first taught the Latins the art of writing. The fame of Inachian Isis will also remain eternal who, an Argive goddess, taught her alphabet to the Egyptians! Zenobia of Egypt was so nobly learned, not only in Egyptian, but also in Greek and Latin, that she wrote histories of strange and exotic places.

Manto of Thebes, daughter of Tiresias, although not learned, was skilled in the arts of divination from the remains of sacrificed animals or the behavior of fire and other such Chaldaean techniques. [Examining] the fire’s flames the bird’s flight, the entrails and innards of animals, she spoke with spirits and foretold future events! What was the source of the great wisdom of the Tritonian Athena by which she taught so many arts to the Athenians, if not the secret writings, admired by all, of the philosopher Apollo?

The Greek women Philiasia and Lasthenia, splendors of learning, excite me, who often tripped up, with tricky sophistries, Plato’s clever disciples Sappho of Lesbos sang to her stone-hearted lover doleful verses, echoes, I believe, of Orpheus’ lyre or Apollo’s lute. Later, Leontia’s Greek and poetic tongue dared sharply to attack, with a lively and admired style, the eloquence of Theophrastus I should not omit Proba, remarkable for her excellent command of both Greek and Latin and who, imitating Homer and Virgil, retold the stories from the Old Testament. The majesty of Rome exalted the Greek Semiamira, [invited] to lecture in the Senate on laws and kings.

Pregnant with virtue, Rome also gave birth to Sempronia, who imposingly delivered before an assembly a fluent poem and swayed the minds of her hearers with her convincing oratory. Celebrated with equal and endless praise for her eloquence was Hortensia, daughter of Hortensius, an oratrix of such power that, weeping womanly and virtuous tears, she persuaded the Triumvirs not to retaliate against women.” Let me add Cornificia, sister of the poet Cornificius, to whose love of letters so many skills were added that she was said to have been nourished by waters from the Castalian spring; she wrote epigrams always sweet with Heliconian flowers.

I shall quickly pass by Tulliola, daughter of Cicero, Terentia, and Cornelia, all Roman women who attained the heights of knowledge. I shall also omit Nicolosa [Sanuto] of Bologna, Isotta Nogarola and Cassandra Fedele of our own day. All of history is full of these examples. Thus your nasty words are refuted by these arguments, which compel you to concede that nature imparts equally to all the same freedom to learn.

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    She was twelve when she wrote that??!
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