Who Wears the Pants?

By Jordan W.

During the Renaissance, many societal anxieties surrounded women, who were viewed as inherently evil creatures with great powers to seduce and connive. Men feared them and their mysterious ways. Many artists and authors warned men of the power of women through their work. Julia Nurse uses Hans Sachs’ poetry as an example of this:

Go ahead and act like a man!

Otherwise she’ll end up riding you

And before long she’ll

Deprive you of your pants, your purse

And your sword,

Which will make us all ashamed of you

Do not give her too much rein,

But rather take an oak cudgel

And beat her soundly between the ears! (43)

Such fear is acknowledged visually in a depiction of the legend of Aristotle and Phyllis, by Matthaus Zaisinger. In the legend, Phyllis becomes angry at Aristotle when he convinces her true love to leave her. She then seduces Aristotle into loving her, and asks to ride around on his back as proof of his love for her. This was both a comical myth, as it portrayed a great philosopher making a fool of himself, and a myth that exposed a true fear of men: losing power and thereby losing human rank (Nurse 44). Women, especially those with power, could not be trusted. For example, when queens gave birth to their children, there was an audience. This was to insure that the heir was true and not switched out at birth. This shows distrust in women to care for even their own children (Delores).

Another image that conveys the fear of women is “The Angry Wife” by Israel van Meckenham. In this picture, the woman is standing over the man, about to strike him with a distaff. His focus is solely on his pants that lie on the floor beside him , just out of reach. He is wholly consumed by getting his pants back and does not even take notice of the fact that he is soon going to be bludgeoned by his very angry wife. They are fighting for pants, fighting for power. A demon floats beside the wife, encouraging her. It was believed that women possessed evilness or even were demons themselves, placing them somewhere in the inhuman category. Women were even targeted during witch trials around the world because they were “regarded by witch-hunters as especially susceptible to the Devil’s blandishments” (Mastin). Over 50,000 supposed witches executed during the trials in Europe were women. I have to wonder why. Were these the evil women who wanted too much power? Had the anxieties of men driven them to try and squelch out any woman who threatened them?


Image: Israel van Meckenham, “The Angry Wife,” c. 1503.  Art Institute of Chicago.

Delors, Catherine. “Marie-Antoinette’s first laying-in”.  Wonders and Marvels.  wondersandmarvels.com. Ed Holly Tucker. Vanderbilt University, 2008. Web. 12 Feb. 2012.

Mastin, Luke. http://witchcraftandwitches.com/trials.html. 13 December 2010. Web. 13 December 2010

Nurse, Julia. “She-Devils, Harlots And Harridans In Northern Renaissance..” History Today 48.7 (1998): 41. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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