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Closer to the devil than to holy water La fimmana ricca è uziosa
La piccula è vizziosa
La bbedda è vvanitosa
La bbrutta è ffastiddiosa
[Rich women are lazy / Small women are vicious / Beautiful women vain / And ugly ones annoying]
(Salento) by Alberto Sobrero
Bruno Maggio. China
A great deal of proverbs have women as their subject matter. It’s not a particularly Apulian thing, nor a Southern one: we find this in all folk cultures – I suspect all over the world – and with similar traits.
There’s no point in pretending: if it’s true, as it is, that proverbs faithfully mirror the dominant culture, and that to this day the dominant culture has always been strongly misogynous, we can’t expect, as its leading lady, any other than a witch, a viper, a creature who corrupts and is corrupted, closer to the devil (with whom, in many cultures, she is believed to make pacts that damage society) than to holy water. The other side of the coin, as is shown by the proverbs, is less diabolical but no better: women are inferior, less able than men, destined to dog or horse-like obedience, and like dogs or horses, in need of supervision and – if they are out of line – of exemplary punishments.
So as not to scare off my readers, I offer a fairly mild, almost kind, proverb regarding women. Of course it’s a list of defects: the rich women who never does anything (read: the duty of a woman is always to keep busy from morning till night), the small woman who is full of vices (read: she should always be a model of virtue), the beautiful woman is, of course, vain (read: she ought to avoid displaying her beauty to people other then her husband), and the ugly woman (maybe only because in Italian it rhymed), is annoying.
It’s not just an off-the-cuff complaint: it is backed up by solid misogynistic theory, by centuries-old, even millenary, lay and religious tradition. You just have to look at the defects attributed to women: they are linked to the seven deadly sins of Christian tradition. In common parlance we call them “the seven capital vices” and so in our proverb the expression vicious women underlines a concentrate of all the possible negative characteristics in human beings.
But women can also be lazy, and laziness is a synonym of sloth, one of the seven deadly sins.
She can be vain. In Christian doctrine vanity is cited as an example of pride, which is the most serious of sins, in that it is associated with the devil in the first person. On the difference between pride and vanity both religion and philosophy have had a lot to say: according to Schopenauer pride is the already existing conviction that we are superior, in one way or another, to the next man, whereas vanity is the desire to provoke that conviction in others. An intangible distinction: both are diabolical.
The only “naif” adjective referring to women in our proverb is annoying: it makes one think of rows between husband and wife around the modest dinner table, of wifely nagging proudly ignored, rather than of theological vices and virtues: the “annoying” woman has no deadly sins but she is irritating, nagging, bothersome and trouble. She is a fault-finder. All in all, not a nice character.
In this proverb there is the occasional bad mood of difficult relationships or the eternal incomprehension between the two genders, but there is, above all, the deep-rooted misogyny in the cultures, the philosophies and above all in the religions that have fuelled them over the centuries
You can intuit, in this and in so many other proverbs, the millenary diffidence, if not hostility, in Christianity and in the other monotheistic religions, towards women: they are the devil’s entry-gate, a temple built over a sewer, according to Tertullian; “man is the image and glory of God, woman is the glory of man” (St. Paul); “woman is not made in the image of God. It is in the way of nature that man dominates woman” (Saint Augustine). And so on.
With this kind of background, to say that a woman is vicious, lazy, vain and annoying is almost a compliment. And, as we shall see, compliments regarding women do not abound in proverbs. Just the opposite.