The power of women was a popular theme for writers and artists from the Middle Ages until the mid-seventeenth century. Such subjects as Samson and Delilah and Aristotle and Phyllis embodied the theme by showing strong or wise men who were fooled by women’s love. In a thorough study, Yvonne Bleyerveld considers series of images, individual subjects, verses accompanying images, plays, and poems manifesting the power of women.
Proceeding roughly chronologically, the first two chapters provide the general western European background by discussing literary and pictorial traditions from 1200 to 1575. Thereafter, the chapters focus on the Netherlands. An examination of the Dutch literary tradition surrounding the power of women theme from the Middle Ages through the sixteenth century and of individual stories manifesting the theme precede the discussion of the visual arts. A presentation of sixteenth-century prints in chapter five reveals the combinations of subjects used for different series. The following chapter discusses two painted series and one carved in wood. Chapter seven deals with the seeming paradox that some of the female characters prominent in power of women series could be viewed as positive exemplars. The next chapter establishes the fate of the theme after 1600.
Taking a chronological approach to the evidence reveals that subjects varied in each period. Whereas biblical and historical subjects were common in art until 1600, genre scenes lampooning men who succumbed to the power of women prevailed thereafter. Texts and images on the theme were not restricted to comments on the evils of women. While recognizing the theme as partaking in a deeply rooted misogyny, Bleyerveld also finds evidence that the subjects emphasized the shameful behavior of besotted males. Images therefore served as warnings not only against women but also against allowing oneself to be a fool for love. Bleyerveld’s suggests that urban audiences associated moralizing meanings with the subject whereas courtly audiences enjoyed its satirical aspects.
Occasional allusions to audience earlier in the text prepare the reader for Bleyerveld’s conclusion. There she suggests the cultural phenomena responsible for the popularity of the power of women theme. Recognizing European culture from 1350 to 1650 as a shame culture, she situates the power of women theme as a reinforcement of social prohibitions against illicit sexual activity and unmanly enslavement to love. Supporting the argument that mistrust of women stemmed from a desire to enforce a restrictive role for them in an urban society, she notes that trickery and inversion of order were present in many subjects found in power of women series. Bleyerveld’s book thus carefully examines the various manifestations of the power of women theme, documents its range of meanings, and suggests the reasons for its broad social appeal.
Melinda Vander Ploeg Fallon
George Mason University, Fairfax