Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Five Evaluation

“I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul.” Erasmus, Paraclesis: or, an Exhortation (1516).

See previous:
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part One Introduction
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Two Examples of Invectives
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Three Sexual and Posthumous Invectives
Part Four: Responses to the Invectives

All of this, then, raises the question of how the role of invectives played more generally in the polemics of the Reformation. Luther’s invectives against those who disagreed with him are legendary, and were often even more harsh and shocking than the examples of invectives seen in this paper. Should the modern reader be shocked by the misogyny and visciousness of these invectives? Were these men truly misogynistic, or did their invectives spring from the frustration towards their opponents, who in this case just happened to be female? That these women were able to hold their own and respond in kind with their own invectives does not mean that invectives were only directed towards the opposite gender. Jeanne de Jussie, an opponent of Marie Dentière, was no more kind in her invectives against Marie simply because she was another woman. Jeanne characterized Marie as a “false abbess, wrinkled…with a diabolical tongue…who meddled in preaching and perverting people of devotion.

On the other hand, there seems to be evidence that the invectives against these women were not because of bad theology or heretical teaching, but solely a result of their gender. If these women had been men, would their ideas and their contributions have been so ridiculed? When Katharina Schutz Zell wrote her defense of clerical marriage, it was roundly criticized by the leadership of Strasbourg, but it was not the content that was objectionable. Indeed, the council of Strasbourg would later give three male pastors a chance to address Conrad Treger, who had originally condemned clergy marriage and the Zell’s marriage specifically. Their argument did not differ theologically from Katharina’s, but theirs was accepted and hers was not!

Kirsi Stjerna concludes her presentation on Marie Dentière by suggesting that “she was criticized for achievements and fortitude for which a man would have been praised.” While it is true that Dentière was perhaps more outspoken and used more colourful and crude language than the other women examined here, where she was condemned for these behaviours, men who displayed the same characteristics were not. Even some in the time of the Reformation recognized the double-standard. The engraving on the tombstone of humanist scholar Olimpia Morata in Heidelberg Germany reads: “Nature denied you nothing of all her gifts with one exception: that you were a woman.”

And yet, just because these invectives were addressed to these women, did these men respond the same way to all women? There is a shocking disconnect between John Knox’s invectives against the Queens of England and Scotland, and his correspondence with other women. Knox wrote regularly to his mother-in-law Elizabeth Bowes and admitted that the theological issues that she wrestled with were the same ones that he wrestled with, and he encourages her to continue to wrestle through them. His letters to other women have no misogynistic overtones, and instead of being filled with invectives, are filled with encouragement and thanksgiving for the faith of these women who co-labour with him in the faith. It is possible that Knox saw a difference in the realms that the women lived. The Queens (starting with Catholic Mary, but ultimately including Elizabeth) lived in the realm of the ungodly, while women like Elizabeth Bowes lived in the realm of the godly.

As well, just because Knox was misogynistic in his writings about women in leadership, does not mean that he represented the opinion of all the Reformers. While Calvin did believe that women should not rule over men, he nevertheless disapproved of Knox’s First Blast and tried to smooth the waters with Elizabeth by dedicating his commentary on Isaiah to her. And perhaps the difference lies in how the two men saw their roles. Knox saw himself as a prophet, while Calvin saw himself as an ambassador for the Gospel, and understood that people in positions of power, be they male or female, could greatly help the cause of the Reformation.


While the Reformation introduced a spiritual equality between men and women through the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, women who preached or wrote theological treatises were slandered and ridiculed, not because they preached heresy, but because they dared to assume a role that was not befitting their gender. Further research is in order to see how examples of the expurgation of the writings of these women of the Reformation and how attempts to silence them also played a role in how people responded to their contributions to the Reformation. As well, it would be interesting to compare the invectives directed to the women of the Reformation to reactions to women in later generations who assumed and continue to assume a prominent role in proclaiming the Gospel.

Constance Furey, “Invective and Discernment in Martin Luther, D. Erasmus, and Thomas More,” Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005): 469–488.

Jeanne de Jussie, The Short Chronicle: A Poor Clare’s Account of the Reformation in Geneva, ed. Carrie Klaus (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

John Lee Thompson, John Calvin and the Daughters of Sarah: Women in Regular and Exceptional Roles in the Exegesis of John Calvin, His Predecessors, and His Contemporaries (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1992).

Charmarie Blaisdell, “Calvin’s Letters to Women: The Courting of Ladies in High Places,” Sixteenth Century Journal XIII (1982).

Felch, Susan. “The Rhetoric of Biblical Authority: John Knox and the Question of Women.” Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (1995): 805–822.

Stjerna, Kirsi. Women and the Reformation. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2009.