August 29, 2012

Connected Women




One woman leads to another and all women flow in a circle. I am drafting a historical novel about Elena Piscopia, the first woman to receive an academic degree and she was on my mind when I was reading Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt. When he referenced Hypatia I saw an immediate connection to Elena (see previous posting). Curious, I explored Hypatia’s story further and uncovered a reference to Catherine of Alexandria. Because I had selected Catherine of Alexandria as the patron saint for another of my protagonists, all my novel women became connected.

Intrigued, I questioned the relationship between Catherine of Alexandria and Hypatia and found they have similar biographies. Both were beautiful, virginal, well-educated women murdered for their beliefs. Their lives diverge somewhat because Catholics murdered Hypatia and pagans murdered Catherine.

Now I read that historian Harold Thayler Davis and others believe that the Catholic Church invented Catherine to counteract the popularity of Hypatia. In 1969 the Church removed Catherine’s feast day from the church calendar, so perhaps they had compunctions. She was restored in 2002, but only as an “optional” celebration.

Upon further investigation of Catherine of Alexandria, I learned that she was one of the three saints, along with Saint Michael and Saint Margaret, to appear to Joan of Arc. And so the circle of women continues. 

August 6, 2012

Connecting Elena Piscopia and Hypatia



After reading about her in Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, I have been pondering the story of Hypatia. Sensing some parallels between Hypatia’s life and Elena Piscopia’s, I researched further to clarify my suspicions.

Many of the facts of Hypatia’s life in the 4th century are disputed, lost in historical records, reported from both pagan and Christian viewpoints. What is certain is that she was murdered. A learned woman, she wore scholar’s robes rather than women’s clothing and may have driven her own chariot. A pagan, as Christianity spread through Alexandria, she publicly sided with the civil authorities against Cyril, the presiding bishop.

Angered, Cyril preached against her and subsequently, whether at his prodding or not is uncertain, a mob of Christians attacked her and dragged her to the church. Her skin was flayed (either with “tiles” or oyster shells), then she was dismembered; her body was scattered throughout the city and burned.

The Church later made Cyril a saint, just as they sanctified Cardinal Barbarigo who denied Elena a theology degree. [See “An Irony of Sainthood,” March 31, 2011 on this blog.] My question is: Did the Church reward anti-feminist behavior or simply ignore these behaviors as irrelevant?

Words attributed to Hypatia:
Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.