International Woman’s Day, 2019
“And therefor I say . . . that this monstrous empire of women, which amongst all enormities that this day do abound upon the face of the whole earth, is most detestable and damnable.”
John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women (1558)
John Knox wrote this stirring line to protest the first queen regnant of England, Mary Tudor, whom the Reformer especially hated for her energetic persecution of his fellow Protestants. But the ink was hardly dry when Knox was embarrassed by the death of “Bloody Mary,” and the ascension to England’s throne of Elizabeth, who was a Protestant, but a woman all the same.
Knox reconciled himself to the anomaly of this second queen regnant, and then again to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotts, but his reasoning was not altogether free of casuistry and guile, and there can be no doubt that he died in the belief that it was indeed monstrous that men should be ruled by women.
Knox did not use words simply for effect, so we should not take the word monstrous as an versatile epithet of general distaste. It had in those days a definite meaning, and this is what Knox most definitely meant. A monstrosity is, as he goes on to specify, an enormity, which means a being or act that stands outside the order of nature. It is a freak, a perversion, an anomaly.
It is contra naturam or what was even then known as a “crime against nature.”
A monster was also a warning, as we can see in the cognate word admonish. It was an omen or a portent by which men were placed on notice that they had stepped outside the natural order, were thus especially obnoxious to God, and that worse would follow if they did not get their affairs back in line. The word monster was most readily applied to a strange or disfigured man or beast, but equally ominous were thunder on a clear day, a comet in the heavens, or a woman on England’s throne.
When he said that a regnant queen is a crime against nature, Knox did not mean that it was unnatural for a woman to seek power. The will to power is natural in every human; but it becomes monstrous and criminal when it operates independently of the natural order of an integrated soul, and the natural order of an integrated society. If a wheel of my car detaches and rolls away down the road (as once actually happened to me), it acts according to the nature of a wheel; but it is nevertheless a monstrous and criminal wheel because it acts contrary to the nature of the car of which it ought to have been a part. If a woman yields to her passion for power and settles herself on a vacant throne, she acts according to the nature of her libido dominandi; but her act is nevertheless monstrous and criminal because it is contrary to the nature of an integrated woman, and contrary to the nature of a well-ordered society.
That men, women and the social order are prone to disintegrate in this manner is what traditional Christian theology called the vulnus naturae, or “wound of nature.” I just mentioned that I once owned a car that would lose a wheel if braked hard. The nature of that car was wounded, although each wheel worked just fine. I also have a wounded foot in which two bones regularly come apart and move in a disjointed and independent fashion. The wound is not in these two bones, but in the foot to which the bones’ independent operation is now contrary.
It so happens that my foot was wounded when I fell from a cliff known as Carderock, which rises on the north bank of the Potomac River, just west of Washington, D.C.. My wound is in many ways analogous to the one humanity received when Adam fell in Eden. Just as those two bones now “pop” and begin to move independently, and contrary to the nature of a healthy and integrated foot, so the elements of a human soul (the reason, will, and appetites) now “pop” and begin to move independently, and contrary to the nature of a healthy and integrated human soul. Likewise, the elements of human society (of which the two sexes are the most elemental) now “pop” and begin to move independently, and contrary to the nature of a healthy and integrated human society.
The next time someone defends an unnatural act or state of affairs with the line that it is perfectly “natural,” I suggest you recall my rattletrap car (a 1970 MGB GT) and wounded foot (a size 11), for I believe they illustrate the way that traditional thought understands nature in the context of a larger natural order. I believe they also clarify what Knox meant by the “monstrous empire of women.” To Knox, a woman in power was an ominous opening of an old wound of nature, and if men were not prompt to clean and bandage this vulnus, a more general social disintegration would surely follow.
It is worth noting that Knox answers two objections that would at once occur to a modern feminist. She (or he) would point to those women who have ruled capably, and he (or she) would argue that times change.
“To whom, I answer, that nether may the tyranny of princes, nether the foolishness of people, nether wicked laws made against God, nether yet the felicity that in this earth may hereof ensue, make that thing lawful, which he by his word hath manifestly condemned” (John Knox, First Blast (1558))
Let me paraphrase this profoundly important line. Humans can certainly legislate contra naturam, but human legislation cannot change the natural order. Humans can likewise grow accustomed to, and may indeed grow very pleased with, a social order that is badly “out of joint,” but custom and pleasure do not make that order natural.
I have grown accustomed to my broken foot, and am pleased with it, but my foot was not made whole by long usage and contentment. It remains vulnus naturae, wounded in its nature as a foot. Men might likewise grow accustomed to the monstrous empire of women, and perfectly pleased with it, but custom and contentment do not remove the monstrosity of this empire. That social order remains wounded as a social order.
If you know the work of Thomas Carlyle, you will see distinct parallels in the thought of the two Scotsmen.
“Needless to vote a false image true; vote it, revote it by overwhelming majorities, by jubilant unanimities and universalities; read it thrice or three hundred times, pass acts of Parliament upon it till the Statute-book can hold no more—it helps not a whit: the thing is not so, the thing is otherwise than so; and Adam’s whole Posterity, voting daily on it till the world finish, will not alter it a jot” (Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850)).
Carlyle was writing three hundred years after Knox, and so spoke of an “Eternal Law of things” rather than God, but the two men shared a hearty contempt for what the bien pensant in our day call “the social construction of reality.” If the empire of women is indeed monstrous, then no amount of legislation, no amount of education, no amount of theorization, and no amount of acclimation, can make it “otherwise than so.”
“For if the approbation of princes and people, laws made by men, or the consent of realms, may establish anything against God and his word, then should idolatry be preferred to the true religion . . . . No more ought any man to maintain this odious empire of women, although that it were approved of all men by their laws” (John Knox, First Blast (1558)).
As it happened, the politic men of Elizabethan England were prompt to “maintain the odious empire of women” because it improved their prospects for advancement in the court of Elizabeth or the Church of England. We may suppose that many would have been equally swift to “justify and defend idolatry,” if that were required for a benefice, a title or royal favor. They would, as Carlyle would later say, “pass acts of Parliament upon it till the Statute-book can hold no more.”
Christopher Goodman was a friend of John Knox, and a fellow exile in Geneva during the uncomfortable reign of Mary Tutor. He also published a book in 1558, the same year as Knox’s First Blast, in which he likewise abominated “the empire and government of a woman.” Interestingly, Goodman equated the monstrosity of a regnant queen with the monstrosity of alien rule, drawing on the Biblical injunction that the Jews should find a king in their own brethren.
“The next rule to be observed is, that he should be one of their brethren . . . partly to exclude the oppression and idolatry which commeth in by strangers . . . but chiefly to avoid that monster in nature, and disorder amongest men which is the Empire and government of a woman . . .” (Christopher Goodman, How Superior Powers Ought to be Obeyed of their Subjects, and Wherin They May Lawfully by God’s Will be Disobeyed and Resisted (1558)).
If we follow the example of Knox and Goodman, and eschew the example of those politic courtiers and benefice-seekers, we must conclude that to be ruled by alien women would be the most monstrous empire of all, since nothing could be more contrary to nature.
And yet nothing appears more likely in our perverse and wounded world.