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The Story of Three Myths


Michael Nolan

Part 1

Defective Tales
The Story of Three Myths

"The Council of Macon held that Woman does not have a

"Aquinas said that a Female is a defective Male"

"Aristotle said a Female is a deformed Male"

Reprinted (with revisions) from New Blackfriars
with the kind permission of the Editor

The Mysterious Affair at Mâcon
 The Bishops and The Souls of Women

Michael Nolan
University College Dublin


 The story that the Council of Macon decreed that women do not  have  a  soul  is  untrue. This article traces the growth of the myth.

The decree of the Council of Macon (585 AD) that women do not have a soul, has the honoured place in liberal demonology given to historical events that never happened. It is a tale to treasure. As the eponymous wine is sipped at elegant tables, the misguided deeds of bishops can be recalled, and the only regret must be that no Synod of Brie or Council of Camembert offers occasion for further mirth. On these occasions facts become such skimble-skamble stuff as puts men from their dreams.

For the Council, of course, decreed no such thing, if only for the per­suasive reason that some of the bishops may themselves have been mar­ried. [1] The penalties applied to a bishop who decrees that his wife does not have a soul are not recorded in canon law, presumably as surpass­ing male imagination. The decrees do indeed contain stuff to fuel liber­al fires: the fifteenth requires laymen to doff their hat to a cleric, the six­teenth forbids the widow of a subdeacon to marry, on pain of being con­fined to a convent. But neither the word `woman' nor the word `soul' occurs even once in the decrees. [2]

One does not to hope ever to be free of the myth, but it may be inter­esting to trace its history, which is complex. The story begins in Germany in the late sixteenth century, where a young scholar from Brandenburg, Valens Acidalius (1567-1595), was teaching at Neisse, near Breslau. the capital of Silesia. His first book. a critique of the Roman historian Quintus Curtius, had failed to sell, and his publisher was complaining of money lost. Acidalius looked around him.

A certain Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) was then living in Cracow, which is not too far from Breslau. There he had become leader of a church that denied the Trinity and held that Christ was divine by office rather than by nature .[3] The Socinians were known for interpreting the Bible literally, something that lends to ready mockery. Circulating in Silesia was a pamphlet satirizing the Socinians by showing that a liter­al interpretation of the Bible leads to ridiculous 'proofs'—such as a 'proof that women are not human. The 'proof’ seems to have turned on taking the Latin word homo sometimes to mean `human being' and sometimes to mean 'adult male'. Acidalius was thought to have polished up the pamphlet to make it diverting—it was called a `disputatio perju­cunda'and to have republished it in the hope of turning a penny. If he was the author-and some say he was not [4] — the joke went sour. Theologians were less than amused at the suggestion that women are not human, and the work was vigorously attacked. Simon Geddicus (Gedik), a Lutheran scholar from the neighbouring city of Magdeburg, published a Defensio sexus muliebris: (A Defence of the Female Sex), in which he proposed to `destroy manfully each and everyone of the argu­ments put forward': (Singula anonymi argumenta distinctis thesibus proposita viriliter enervantur: one admires the choice of the word viriliter.) Readers will learn, with regret or satisfaction as the case may be, that soon afterwards Acidalius took a seizure and died.

The work, whether by Acidalius or not, was published in various European countries in the next half-century, often bound with the cri­tique of it by Simon Gedik. Very likely, it was this work, translated into Italian, that was published in Lyons in 1647 under the pseudonym Horatio Plato. A M. de Vigneul (a pseudonym of Bonaventure d'Argonne (1634-1704)), gives the title as Che le donne non habbino anima e the non siano della specie degli huomini, e vienne comprobato da molti luoghi della Scrittura santa: (Women do not have a soul and do not belong to the human race, as is shown by many passages of holy

Scripture). He notes that `the Ladies of Italy took this system very dif­fervently.  Some were vexed to have no souls. Others were pretty indifferent about the matter, and, looking on themselves as mere machines hoped to set their springs so well agoing as to make the men stark mad. [5]

The vexed soon counter-attacked, and Angelica (or, more splendidly, Arcangela) Tarabotti, under the pseudonym Galerana Barcitotti,-a feminine pseudonym, be it noted-published a work entitled Che le donne siano della spetie deggli huomini: Difesa delle donne: (Women do belong to the human race: a defence of Women).

One way or another, the offending book caught the attention of Pope Innocent X. Readers will learn, with renewed regret or satisfaction, that he placed it on the Index (Decree of 18 June 1651).

So the assertion that women do not have a soul was attacked by a leading Lutheran theologian when it appeared in Germany, and the book containing the allegation was put on the Index when it appeared in Italy. Rather weak evidence, one might think, for the confident asser­tion that the earlier Church denied a soul to women.

It remains to be seen how the Council of Macon, held a thousand years earlier, was brought into the myth. For this we turn to Johannes Leyser (1631-1685), a Lutheran pastor from Hesse, who had exchanged the tedium of teaching for the excitement of life as a Feldprediger in the Danish army. The opportunities afforded by soldiering seem to have sharpened his zest for feminine variety, for in Frankfurt in 1676 he pub­lished his Polygamia Triumphatrix: (The Triumph of Polygamy), a title that suggests paramilitary rather than military exertions. It was repub­lished in Amsterdam in 1682, and was dedicated `humbly and respect­fully to all those opposed to polygamy throughout the world, whether in lands, islands or towns, trusting they would come to see the merits of a plurality of wives'.

Seeking support for his views, he decided to misrepresent the doings of the Council of Macon. He wrote: `Among the holy fathers there was one who insisted that women cannot, and should not, be called "human beings" ("homines"). The matter was thought so important that it was discussed publicly and in the fear of God. Finally, after many argu­ments on this question, they concluded that women are human after all'. [6]

This is quite untrue, as we can see by turning to history.

The main source for the history of Gaul in the latter half of the sixth century is The History of the Franks by Gregory, bishop of Tours. [7]  It is a work that contains not a single condescending word about women. Gregory's puckish humour is reserved for princes, clerical and lay, and for himself. It is curious that it should be an episode described by him that was used, a thousand years later, to support a calumny.

In his History Gregory describes a Council that may, or may not, have been the Council of Macon. (He never says it was held there.) Some 43 bishops attended. Gregory does not say whether any of them were married. [8]

The proceedings were in Latin, though the everyday language of the region was Frankish, and some spoke what Gregory calls Gallo-Roman. For some bishops at least, Latin was not their moth­er tongue. Gregory was interested in words, as writers are, and was curious when one of the bishops raised a question about the use of the word homo. Thorpe translates Gregory as follows:

There came forward at this council a certain bishop who maintained that woman could not be included under the term `man'. However, he accepted the reason­ing of the other bishops and did not press his case: for the holy book of the Old Testament tells us that in the beginning, when God created man, `Male and female he created them, and called their name Adam', which means earthly man; even so He called the woman Eve, yet of both he used the word `man'. Similarly, our Lord Jesus Christ is called the Son of Man, although he was the son of the Virgin, that is to say of a woman ... They supported their arguments with many other references, and he said no more.

Dalton in the Oxford edition translates: `there was a certain bishop Who defended the opinion that woman could not be included under the general description "man".' Latouche translates: 'un des évèques se leva pour dire qu'une femme ne pouvait être denommée homme'.

That is all. Dalton comments appositely: `The bishop asked whether the word homo could be properly applied to a woman, and the Council replied that Holy Writ sanctioned such application ... The Council never approved any such idea as that women have no souls'. Latouche agrees: `la difficulté n'etait pas d'ordre philosophique, mais linguistique'.[The difficulty was not one of philosophy, but of linguistics] [9]

If one doubts the translation and comments of these scholars, one may turn to the text itself. Gregory tells us the bishop questioned whether a woman might be vocitari by the word homo. Vocitare is an unusual word that means `to call by the name of .'o Its meaning is well illustrated in Cicero: `has Graeci stellas Hyadas vocitare suerunt-the Greeks were wont to call these stars the Hyades'. The bishop's ques­tion was manifestly one of language, not substance.

Gregory himself, one may note, followed the classical usage of homo. He would write of Queen Ingoberg as 'homo valde cordataa woman of great wisdom'. [12] He tells too of a woman who, after a stroke, could only groan: `non vocem tit homo poterat emittebat'. Obviously the woman's problem was that she could not make human sounds, not that she could not speak like a man.

It is simply a lie, therefore, to say that the Council decreed that a woman does not have a soul. The foundations of that lie are laid in Leyser's account of the Council, which contains a number of distortions. For vocitari (to be called by the name of ) he substitutes vocari (to be called). After Gregory's `cannot be called by the name of ’ he adds `nor should be so called'. He speaks of `many arguments on this vexed ques­tion', yet the one bishop who raised the problem received no support. Worst of all, he slips from saying the bishops debated whether women should be called by the name homo to saying they debated whether a woman is homo.

Pierre Bayle, a Dutch Calvinist with a marked distaste for the Catholicism to which he once adhered, used Leyser's account of the Council to justify an expression of horror at its doings. ‘What I think yet  more strange  is to find  that in a Council it has been gravely proposed as a  question whether women were human creatures, and that it was not determined affirmatively till after a long debate'  [13] This is not true, and the immensely-learned Bayle must have known it [14]  But the destruction of Catholicism vaut bien un mensonge. [zell justifies a lie].

For many years Bayle was avidly quarried for material with which to mock Catholicism. In the early 19th century a M. Aime-Martin was moved to write a touching book on l'Education des méres de famille [Education for mothers of families] in which he reflected sorrowfully that `on va jusqu'a mettre en doute l'exis­tence de leur àme'. Politicians, as it their way, saw an opportunity and the Assemblée Nationale, no less, deplored the Church's insult to women.

How did the myth reach the wilder shores of darker Dublin? A liter­ary city it may claim to be, but one doubts whether pamphlets in six­teenth century Latin or seventeenth century Italian were ever avidly passed from hand to hand. Some may have heard of the antics in the French Assembly, but again one has doubts. A more likely-and fit­ting-source is the magazine John Bull, founded by the fraudster Horatio Bottomley, which carried the pseudo-story in one of its edi­tions.16 One way or another, the myth reached Dublin, where it flour­ishes. It will no doubt be retailed as confidently in the future as it has been in the past. If the first casualty of war is the unwelcome truth, the first weapon of the discontented is the welcome lie.

(Originally published in New Black friars, Vol 74, No 876, November 1993.)




1. Legislation of the period indicates that some bishops were married, though of course they were bound to live with their wife as with a sister.

2. There is a summary in Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des Conciles, t.III,pt.l,pp.208-214. The full text is in Mansi, Conc. ampl. coll.,t.ix,col.947. The latest edition is by Munier, Concilia Gallica, Corpus Christianorum, Series lati­na, 148.

3. New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, s.v.

4.  Neue Deutsche Bibliographie, s.v., holds that Acidalius was not the author: `er als angeblicher Verfasser einer antisozianischen, scherzhaften, aber als solcher verkannten Flugschrift...ausgesetz war'.

5. Melanges d'Histoire et de Literature, p.16. Cited by Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique, s.v. Geddicus.

6. Ibid.

7. Historiae Francorum, cited here as HF. See Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum, ed. W.Armdt and B.Krusch, Vol 1, Hanover, 1885; Migne, PL 71. There are recent translations by O.M.Dalton, Oxford, 1927; L.Thorpe, Penguin, 1972; L.Latouche, Paris, 1963.

8. HF 8,20. Married bishops existed in the region. Gregory mentions Domnola, the daughter of Victorius, the bishop of Rennes (HF 8,32) and Bodegisil, bishop of Le Mans, `a very savage shepherd of this flock ... His wife was even fiercer than he was.' (HF 8,39)

9. Thorpe, p.452; Dalton, 2,p.345; Latouche, 2,p.151.

10. Oxford Latin Dictionary, s.v.

11. de Natura Deorum, 2,43,111.

12.  Miracula S.Martini, 2,30.

13 Dictionnaire, s.v. Geddicus.

14. The editio princeps of Gregory's History had been published in Paris in 1512: Josse Bard, B.Gregorii Turonensis episcopi Historiae praecipue gaili­carum lib X.

15. Dictionnaire d'archeologie chretienne, s.v. Femme.

16. Ibid.



Michael Nolan
University College Dublin


It is curiously believed that Thomas Aquinas said that a woman is defective or is a defective male. Actually, he explicitly denies this five times. This article looks at the source of the contention in Aristotle's biology. It then examines texts in which Aquinas says explicitly that woman is not defective, whether she is seen as part of the Natural World or as part of God's creation. Prevailing misconceptions are largely due to selective misquotation: Aquinas is cited when he is stating the Aristotelean con­tention, and his refutation of the contention is omitted. Misunderstanding may also be due to a phrase in a wide­ly used English translation: 'In respect of the individual nature woman is defective'. This is sometimes taken as though `the individual nature' in question is that of `the woman'. 'Individual nature' however here denotes not the woman                        but the male semen, and the phrase simply states the Aristotelean contention that the male semen does not `intend' to produce a female child. Aquinas con­tends that, even if this were true, it would not mean that woman herself is defective.

In his Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas discusses the biblical account of Creation and deals at length with the production of the body and soul of the First Man and the First Woman. The soul of each, being immaterial, was created by God. [1] But whereas the human body is nor­mally produced by the parents from the substance of their own bodies, God himself produced both the body of Adam [2] and the body of Eve. [3] He produced the body of Adam from earth, the body of Eve from the body of Adam. [4] The matter used may have been different, but Adam and Eve were equally God's handiwork and Eve was not a child of (and hence not a dependent of) Adam. [5]

He asks himself why God followed this (asexual) method of produc­tion and replies that it was to show that reproduction is a relatively peripheral activity in the life of the human being. The specific goal of human existence, the specific goal of homo, is not to reproduce, but to understand. [6] The Latin word Homo includes male and female: repro­duction is not the central work of the human being, whether female or male.

Following medieval practice he states objections to his own position and seeks to refute them. Perhaps God should not have made woman at the beginning of the world? The suggestion by a theologian that God should not have done something he actually did, is obviously academic. Still, Aquinas was an academic, and academics of all centuries find that the discussion of highly theoretical issues assists them to clarify their understanding of the real world.

One objection derives from Aristotle, whose biological writings deal extensively with reproduction and embryology [7] (The correct interpreta­tion of Aristotle is discussed in another paper [8], where it is argued that what he has to say about the conception of the female is commonly mis­understood. For present purposes that argument is left aside, and the standard interpretation is accepted.)

Aristotle, then, believes that the entire substance of a child develops from highly complex material fashioned by the mother. The male semen  contributes nothing to the substance of the offspring, [9]' but starts the workings of this complicated female element which, stage by stage, becomes a child. [10]  Nevertheless the male semen acts, and acting things produce something like themselves, (for example, fire makes other things hot). Hence the semen ‘intends to’ or ‘is meant to’ produce a male child. Nevertheless, female children are born, children who are not `intended' by the male semen. (Aristotle never says that they are not intended by the male parent. That is a very different matter.)

This reminds him of other instances where the child is not a replica of its parents, instances of what in modern medicine are termed con­genital anomalies. [11] This in turn leads him to a phrase that has acquired an understandable fame: thelu husper arren esti peperomenon. The crucial word here is peperomenon, which derives from peroo, `to wound or maim'. The word has been variously rendered. The Latin version used by Aquinas, following Albert the Great, was done from the Arabic by Michael Scot at Toledo before 1217. It gives occa­sionatus, a word that in my opinion well expresses Aristotle's thought. The great medieval translator, William of Moerbeke, uses orbatus, [13] which primarily means `orphaned' and hence can mean `lacking'. Bekker gives laesus (`injured'), and Peck in the Loeb edition lists such English translations as `deformed', ‘imperfectly disabled’, ‘underdeveloped’, `malformed', `mutilated', and `congenitally disabled'. [14] In current terminology, as has been seen, one would say `congenitally anomalous'.

 The original Greek, it should be noted, includes hosper, a word that lim­its or modifies an assertion. [15] It reads, therefore, `Congenitally, the female is, in a sense, an anomalous male'. Aristotle explicitly distin­guishes between the birth of a girl and the birth of truly teratological off­spring, [16] and it is simply not correct to quote him as saying, sans phrase, that `the female is a defective male'. Yet it was a contention with which Aquinas felt he had to deal.

It should be noted that the problem is not one of Aquinas' making and that it in no way arises from his general philosophy. Rather, it arises from a specific point in Aristotelean biology. It arises from a particular statement made in Aristotle's biology about the process of reproduction, but theologians like Aquinas and Bonaventure felt it necessary to deny that this implied Woman is defective, both using the same line of argu­ment. Albertus Magnus, a fervent Aristotelean, mentions the phrase en passant but makes nothing of it. [17] Aquinas however took it seriously enough to argue five times [18] that woman is not defective. It is ironic that precisely because he deals with the contention so extensively, it is pos­sible by selective quotation to suggest that he accepts it. (This is best done by quoting him when he is stating the Aristotelean objection, and omitting his reply to that objection.)

As has been seen, the translation used by Aquinas reads Femina est mas occasionatus. [19] The verb occasionare is not found in classical Latin. It was used by medieval scholars to distinguish between what is direct­ly (or intentionally) caused and what is indirectly (or unintentionally) caused. [20] For example, a wood fire is meant to produce heat, but if the wood has stood in the rain, there will be much smoke. The rain is not the direct but the `occasional' cause of the smoke, and the smoke is 'occa­sioned'. The word survives in Catholic moral teaching. Alcohol is not a cause of sin but an occasion of sin, and the sight of a sick person is not the cause of an act of kindness but the occasion for it.

As the examples imply, what is occasioned is not necessarily bad. If one is burning the wood to warm a house, the smoke is a nuisance. If one is curing bacon, it is just what is needed. But since what is unin­tentionally or accidentally caused is more often bad than good, 'occa­sioned' does carry the suggestion of `deficient', just as `accident' suggests that something has gone wrong, though there can be happy accidents, and `occasion of sin' is a phrase more used than `occasion of virtue'.

So the phrase Femina est mas occasionatus suggests that the female is somehow deficient, and. as will be seen, it can be used as an objection to the theological assertions that God made woman at the foundation of the world, that women rise in their own bodies at the end of the world, and that female children would be born in a sinless world.

Aquinas is now in the position of a modern theologian who faces the argument that Darwinian evolution shows that there is no need for God. The theologian can answer this directly, arguing that Darwin is simply wrong. But that is not sufficient in a world that accepts Darwin. He must also suppose. for the sake of argument, that he is right and then contend that there is still a need for God. And if a theologian makes this supposition, he can scarcely be accused of agreeing with Darwin and propagating his doctrine. Similarly. Aquinas answers the Aristotelean objections in two ways, one direct, the other indirect. On the one hand, he adduces arguments to show that the Aristotelean position is untrue. On the other, he supposes that it is true, and seeks to show that, even then, it does not follow that, woman is defective. It is quite unfair for controversialists to talk as if, in taking the Aristotelean claim seriously, Aquinas is accepting it.

The claim that the female is defective derives from the assertion that she is occasioned and this, we have seen, means that she is indirectly or unintentionally produced. Accordingly Aquinas seeks to refute the claim by showing that woman is intentionally produced. To make this point he advances a number of explanations of the birth of a female child, that, whatever we may think of them now, were plausible enough in his day and served his purpose of refuting the contention derived from Aristotle.

For one, he suggests that the sex of a child may be determined by psy­chological factors in the parents. [21] Now on this view the production of a daughter (or a son for that matter) has a direct cause. But if she is directly caused she is not `occasioned', and if she is not `occasioned' there are no grounds for saying that she is defective.

For another, he argues, the sex of the child may be caused by envi­ronmental factors. [22] For example, the weather associated with the north wind might cause a male to be conceived, while the weather associated with the south wind might cause a female to be conceived. This sugges­tion, derived from Aristotle, [23] causes much hilarity among those whose biology is out of date, especially when, by selective quotation, Aquinas is made to speak as though he applied the explanation only to female births.

In fact over the last 30 years firm evidence has emerged that in some species environmental factors such as temperature do affect sex­ determination. (Few people, one may think, are so closely limited to their own time and place as those who see themselves as progressive. One is reminded of the difficulty Max Beerbohm found in keeping up with the leaders of modern thought as they disappear into oblivion.)

It does not of course matter whether this explanation of sex-determi­nation is true or false. The point is that it shows how Aquinas deter­minedly seeks to prove that the conception of a female is not an accident, and so to show that there are no grounds for saying a female is defective.

He has a third explanation. This is that the sex of children may be due to  the influence of the heavens. This was a common view among medievals. They did not of course see this as an astrological (in the mod­ern sense) explanation. They thought that the stars affect our world, just as we accept that the sun, which is simply one star among many, affects our world. So he argues that the heavenly bodies may determine the sex of a child, and he states explicitly that he is doing this so as dis­tinguish between the birth of a female, which is intended by a cause, and defective births, which are wholly unintended. He writes:

If the birth of a female child was not attributable to any cause, the birth would be like that of defective chil­dren. So [to avoid this conclusion] it is said . . . that the birth of a female child is intended by the heavens.[25]

Thus for a third time the birth of a female is seen as caused rather than accidental, and for a third time the grounds for saying the female is deficient have been removed.

Aquinas now turns to his second line of argument, where he suppos­es that Aristotle is correct, and then argues that it does not follow that the female is defective. He formulates the objection as follows:

According to Aristotle, Woman is an occasioned male. But there should have been nothing occasioned and defi­cient in the first Creation. And so Woman should not have been part of that Creation. [26]

One can understand his reply if one thinks again of a modern theolo­gian dealing with the contention that the theory of Natural Selection explains the world and that is no need for God.

The theologian would distinguish. That Natural Selection explains some of the features of the world he would, for the sake of argument, concede; that it explains all the features of the world, he would deny. He would then go on to argue that God is still necessary.

Aquinas does precisely this: he distinguishes. He concedes the Aristotelean objection in a narrow and unimportant sense, and denies it in the wide and important sense.

He lays the foundation for his reply by distinguishing between natu. ra universalis and natura particularis. Natura universalis is the natur­al world in all its workings, more especially perhaps the world of living things. It is what we mean by the word Nature. A natura particularis is the working of an individual animal, or plant, or body system or cell. Male semen is such a natura particularis.

He now argues as follows. The male semen (natura particularis) may not intend to produce a female child, but Nature (natura universalis) intends that female children should be produced. So the female may be accidentally caused vis-a-vis the male semen, but she is no accident so far as Nature is concerned. On the contrary, she is intended by Nature, and because she is intended rather than occasionatum there are no grounds for saying she is deficient. Moreover, since God is the author of Nature, she is intended by God. That is why, he concludes triumphant­ly, God made woman at the foundation of the world. The text reads:

Vis-a-vis the natura particularis [the male semen] Woman is deficient and occasioned. For the active force in the male semen seeks to produce something perfect of the male sex. If a woman is produced, this is because of a weakness in that active force, or some indisposition in the [female] material on which it acts, or to some exter­nal factor, such as winds from the South, which are humid: so Aristotle says in his book The Generation of Animals.

But vis-a-vis natura universalis [Nature] the female is not accidentally caused but is intended by Nature for the work of generation. Now the intentions of Nature come from God, who is its author. This is why, when he created Nature, he made not only the male but also the female. [27]

In the first paragraph, Aquinas, for the sake of argument, concedes the objection in a narrow and unimportant sense; in the second, he denies it in the wide and important sense. It has become traditional for controversialists to cite the first paragraph and to omit the second: with what honesty, the reader can judge.

That the natura particularis is the working of the male semen is explicitly stated in a passage in the Summa Contra Gentiles:

A whole and a part may have different goals. The part seeks its own good and works towards it as best it can, but the whole works towards the good of the whole. Thus a particular outcome may be defective so far as the part is concerned, but is not a defect so far as the whole is concerned. It is clear, for instance, that the generation of a female is not intended so far as the part concerned, that is by the power of this semen. But it is intended by the whole, that is by the overall power that brings about reproduction. [28]

Some examples from modern biology may illustrate the point Aquinas is making. So far as we know it is a matter of chance whether on any particular occasion the female ovum accepts a spermatozoon that will trigger the development of a male child, or one that will trigger the development of a female child. An individual act of intercourse, there­fore, produces a male or female by accident. Yet this does lead us to say that Nature produces children accidentally, or that children are acci­dents. An accidental or random element at the micro level does not mean there is no order at the macro level. Modern science turns on that.

A further illustration comes from the world of insects. Bees are divid­ed into three castes: drones, workers and egg-layers (anthropomorphi­cally called queens). Workers and egg-layers begin their existence with the same genetic endowment. Whether a particular egg develops to be a worker or egg-layer depends on how it is fed. The ovaries of the work­er develop only partially, the ovaries of the egg-layer develop fully. Bee society so arranges things that most eggs do not develop into egg-layers. Nothing could be more disastrous for the community than that they should do so. Now looking at an individual worker, one might say that it is an incompletely developed egg-layer. Yet this does not justify the assertion that it is defective. For, looking at the hive as a social organ­isation, one sees that it needs workers quite as much as it needs egg-layers. In the socio-biology of bees, workers are not defective egg-layers. In the socio-biology of humans, women are not defective males.

A word must be said about the most widely used English version of the Summa Theologiae [29] which translates per respectum ad naturam particularem femina est aliquid deficiens et occasionatum thus: As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten'.

Those unaware of the meaning of natura particularis might take this to mean that the individual nature of woman defective. As we have seen, the individual nature is the power of the male semen and while a female may not be what this semen intended to produce she is what Nature intends should be produced and as such is not defective.

`Misbegotten' is an unhappy translation of occasionatum. In a more recent translation, it is given as manque. But since Aquinas had to hand William of Moerbeke's translation orbatum, which does mean manque and chose instead to use occasionatum, one wishes `unintentionally pro­duced' had been used, for that is precisely what occasionatum means.

Something must be said too about the phrase `woman is directed to the work of generation'. This does not mean that she is directed solely or indeed principally to the work of generation. The context here is that of Nature, of the world of plants and animals (including human ani­mals), and in this context it is natural to say that the female is directed to the work of generation, in which she plays the principal part. We have already seen that in another context Aquinas argues that the prin­cipal work of every human being, male and female, is to understand rather than to reproduce. Moreover, following Aristotle, [30] he explicitly states that it is not with husband and wife as it is with animals, where sexual congress is purely to have offspring. A wife, he says, does not exist merely to have children but is meant to share life with her hus­band. [31]

As we have seen, the Aristotelean problem comes up when Aquinas is discussing the creation of the world. It recurs when he discusses what would have happened if Adam had not sinned. Such discussion is not as  idle as it may seem: it allows Aquinas to describe his Utopia. In such a world, he thinks, children would be conceived through sexual inter­course, and as many girls would have been born as boys, so that in adult life everyone would have a partner.

As usual, he states objections to his own position. One objection runs:

No females should be born in a perfect world, for, as Aristotle said, the female is an accidentally produced effect, something unintended by Nature. But in a per­fect world, nothing unintended by Nature would be found. Hence no females would be born . [32]

He replies:

A female is said to be accidentally produced because her production lies outside the intentions of a particular natural entity, but she does not lie outside the intentions of Nature as a whole. [33]

The contention that in a perfect world only males would be born is thus refuted.

The matter comes up a third time when he is discussing the resur­rection of the dead. He holds that everyone, male and female, will rise in their own body, and gives his reasons:

Just as individual people differ in stature, so they dif­fer in sex, and this diversity makes for the completeness of the species. So as they will rise in diverse stature, they will also rise in diverse sex . [34]

As always, he states objections to his own position. One objection


Anything that is occasioned and is produced beyond the intentions of Nature will not rise again, for in the resurrection all error will be removed. But the female sex is produced against the intentions of Nature, because the weakness of the formative power in the male semen is not able to fashion a male embryo, for, as Aristotle says, the female is an occasioned male. Consequently the female sex will not rise again. [35]

and he replies:

Although the production of a female is beyond the intention of the natura particularis [i.e., the male semen], it is intended by Nature [natura universalis], which requires both sexes for the completeness of the species. [36]

There is therefore nothing imperfect in the female and hence no rea­son why women should not rise in their own bodies.

It should now be clear that Aquinas does not say that woman is defec­tive But it must be added that the entire thrust of Aristoteleanism makes it implausible that he ever would have said such a thing, or for that matter that Aristotle said it in the crude sense in which it is often attributed to him. Aristotle's biology is markedly teleological and he thinks that in Nature what is intended to happen, normally does hap­pen, and that what normally happens, is intended to happen. From time to time the unintended does indeed happen. Yet Nature is adroit at using such unintended events to serve her purpose, to achieve her end. [37] The dropping of dung by cattle feeds the dung-beetle and nourishes the earth.. What is a mere happening when seen from the narrower view has a function when seen from the wider view. It is this distinction com­ing from Aristotle that Aquinas continually employs.

One can only be surprised that a single phrase has so readily been taken to express the kernel of Aristotle's and Aquinas's thinking. For, of all the great philosophers, they believed most strongly that Nature acts for the best. `There too—in the humblest living creatures—are gods', wrote Aristotle. [38] And Aquinas was a member of an order found­ed to combat the Catharist teaching that the natural world in general and reproduction in particular are evils, creations of a malevolent God. That, he thought, was the worst possible heresy. [39]

Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas was ever in the least likely to believe that half the human species is defective.

There is perhaps a further point to be made. Aquinas in his biology is manifestly dependent on Albertus Magnus, and those who have not read Albert's biological writings in detail are inclined to mock. Not so those who have read him. Travelling on foot from priory to priory, he observed the natural world carefully. Fui et vidi experiri (I was there, and saw for myself) is a favourite phrase.[40] Albert in fact brought about a powerful scientific movement.

Joseph Needham was a distinguished historian of science, and indeed a distinguished biochemist, being a Fellow of the Royal Society. His History of Embryology, [41] published by Cambridge, is a work of incomparable learning. There his account of Albert appears under the heading: Albertus Magnus; the Re-awaken­ing of Scientific Embryology. He does not rank him with Aristotle—who could indeed rank with it maestro di color the sanno?but remarks: `The importance of Albert in the history of embryology is clear. With him the new spirit of investigation leapt into being, and, though years were yet to pass before Harvey, the modern as opposed to the ancient period of biology had begun'. He contrasts Albert with St Hildegard of Bingen in whose writings `embryology touched, perhaps, its low-water mark'. Happily, `a great man was at hand, destined to carry on the Aristotelean tradition and to add to it much of originality. the Dominican Albertus of Cologne'. St Hildegard, no doubt, had her moments, though one pauses at a vision in which God tells her that `often in forgetfulness of God and by the mocking devil a mistio is made of the man and the woman and the thing born there from is deformed, for parents who have sinned against me return to me crucified in their chil­dren' [42], an observation that suggests a less than perfect recollection of the ninth chapter of the Gospel of St John. On the whole, one may feel, Aristotle's theory of teratology was more merciful.


1. Summa Theologiae 1,90, 2

2. Summa Theologiae 1,91,2.

3. Summa Theologiae 1,92,4.

4. Summa Theologiae 1,92,2&3. In view of the `spare rib' jibe it is interesting to note the significance Aquinas sees in the fact that God made the body of Eve from the body of Adam: the man should have a primacy of honour, and he should love his wife the more and cling to her more closely because she was of his own flesh. Eve was made from Adam's side rather than his head or i his feet because woman should neither dominate man nor be his servant; rather both should live side by side in alliance (socialis coniunctio).

5. Summa Theologiae 1,92,2,ra3.

6. Summa Theologiae 1,92,1.

7. For an account of Aristotle's embryology see J.Needham, A History of Embryology,2nd ed., Cambridge, University Press, 1959.

8. New Blackfriars, Vol 75, No 884, September 1994.

9. It is plain then that there is no necessity for any substance to pass from the male'. De Generatione Animalium 1,21,729b19. It may be noted that this feature of Aristotle's biology was availed of by Aquinas in his account of the conception of Christ. Cf. In Sententias, 3,3,5,1.

10. Aristotle does indeed talk of the male element as active and the female as pas­sive, but only in the sense in which an enzyme is active and the process it facilitates is passive. `The action of the male in setting the female's secretion in the uterus is similar to that of rennet upon milk.' De Generatione Animalium, 2,4,739b22. Cf. Job 10,10: 'Hast thou not poured me out as milk

and curdled me like cheese?'

11. Cf. M. V. Barrow, A Brief History of Teratology to the Early 20th Century, Teratology, 4,119-130. Pp.119-122 have interesting comments on Aristotle.

12. De Generatione Animalium, 2,3,737a27.

13. Cf. Aristoteles Latinus, XVII 2, De Generatione Animalium edited by H. J. Drossaart. Desclee de Brouwer :Bruges-Paris, 1966. William translated this from the Greek in or before 1260 and it would have been available to Aquinas when he wrote his Summa Theologiae. Cf. De Generatione Animalium, translated by A. L. Peck, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990, p.xxi.

14. Cf. A.L.Peck, o.c., p.174, note a.

15. Cf. Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon s.v.

16. Cf. Metaphysica, 7,9,1034b5: `Natural generation is like artificial production:

The seed operates as do things that work by art; it contains the form poten­tially, and its source is something which has the same name, in a sense, as

the offspring. But only in a sense, because we cannot expect all instances to have exactly the same name, as in the production of human being, for a

woman is produced from a man. Unless of course the offspring is a freak which is why the sire of a mule is not a mule.' Translated by J. Warrington. London: Dent. 1956.

17. Animalium 3,8.

18. In Sententias 2,20,2,1,ra1; In Sententias 4,44,1,ar3c,ra3; Summa Theologiae 1,92,1,ral; Summa Theologiae 1,99,2,ral; De Veritate 5,9,ra9.

19. Following the translation of Michael Scot from the Arabic. Cf. Aristoteles, De Animalibus XVI. Ed. A.Van Oppenraay.

20 Cf. De Malo 3,5: 'Causa alicuius potest aliquid dici dupliciter: uno modo directe, alio modo indirecte. Indirecte quidem, sicut cum aliquod agens causat aliquam dispositionem ad aliquem effectum, dicitur esse occasion­aliter et indirecte causa illius effectu; sicut si dicatur quod ille qui seccat

ligna est causa combustionis ipsorum.'

21 Summa Theologiae 1,99,2,ra2.

22 Ibid.

23. Cf. De Generatione Animalium 4,2,767a10.

24. Cf. M. W. J. Ferguson and T. Joanen. Temperature-dependent sex determi­nation in Alligator mississippiensis, Journal of Zoology (London), 1983, 200, pp. 143-177.

25 De Veritate 5,9,ra 9.

26. Summa Theologiae 1,92,1,agl.

27. Summa Theologiae 1,92,1,ral. The Latin reads: `Dicendum quod per respec­tum ad naturam particularem femina est aliquid deficiens, et occasionatum: quia virtus activa quae est in semine marls intendit producere sibi simile perfectum secundum masculinum sexum: sed quod femina generaretur, hoc est propter virtutis activae debilitatem, vel propter aliquam materiae indis­positionem, vel etiam propter aliquam transmutationem ab extrinseco, puta a ventis australibus qui sunt humidi...sed per comparationem ad naturam universalem femina non est aliquid occasionatum, sed est de intentione nat­urae ad opus generationis ordinata: intentio autem naturae universalis dependet a Deo, qui est universalis auctor naturae, et ideo, instituendo nat­uram non solum marem sed etiam feminam produxit.'

28. A Summa Contra Gentiles 3,94,n10. The Latin reads: `Ad aliud igitur tendit intentio particularis agentis, et universalis: nam particulare agens tendit ad bonum partis absolute, et facit eam quanto meliorem potest; universale autem agens tendit ad bonum totius. Sicut patet quod generatio feminae est praeter intentionem naturae particularis, idest, huius virtutis quae est in hoc semine, quae ad hoc tendit quod perficiat conceptum quanto magis potest: est autem de intentione naturae universalis, idest, virtutis univer­salis agentis ad generationem inferiorum, quod femina generetur.'

29. Translated by the Dominican Fathers, London, Burns Oates, 1920.

30. Ethica Nicomachea 8,12,1162a20.

31Summa Theologiae 1,92,2.

32. Summa Theologiae 1,99,2,agl. °

33. Summa Theologiae 1,99,2,ral.

34. In Sententias 4,44,1,3c.

35. Ibid, ag3.

36. Ibid, ra3.

37. A.L.Peck, o.c., p.xliii, cites nine instances where Aristotle does this: 642a31, 663b13, 663b20, 738a33, 739b28, 743a36, 755a22, 776a15, 776b33.

38. De Partibus Animalium 1,5,645a23.

39. In Sententias 4,26,1,3.

40. Cf. K.Simonyi, Kulturgeschichte der Physik, Harri Deutsch, Frankfurt a.M., 1990, p.158.

41. See note 7 above.

42. Needham, o.c., pp.85-91.


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