Title: The Sage Felicia and the Grave Melissea: Diana of George of Montemayor, An Inspiration for Wroth's Defense of Women in Urania ,  By: Yang, Sharon Rose, ANQ, 0895769X, Spring2003, Vol. 16, Issue 2
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The Sage Felicia and the Grave Melissea: Diana of George of Montemayor, An Inspiration for Wroth's Defense of Women in Urania

Elaine Beilin has written that when creating The Countess of Montgomery's Urania Lady Mary Wroth had little in the way of models from "Elizabethan romance" for "active feminine virtue," only "stock female characters, from Amazonian warrior [...] to the faithful, domestic Penelope, from the scheming lustful queen to the innocent lovelorn shepherdess, from the beloved court lady to the nymph of Diana" (213). Josephine A. Roberts, however, points out that one continental pastoral romance offered Wroth a different, more positive model. Roberts writes that for Melissea of Urania Wroth drew on the mage Felicia of Diana of George of Montemayor.(n1) Interestingly, Roberts saw that link as important in terms of the difference between Felicia's ensuring harmony to all and Melissea's inability to predict lasting happiness for her charges, especially Pamphilia (xxvi-xxvii). What Roberts does not note, however, is that the link between the two pastorals runs much deeper. Urania is a text that challenges the contemporary seventeenth-century definition of women as morally, intellectually, and sexually unstable and men as their opposites and superiors. Diana of George of Montemayor, especially in the character and actions of Felicia, diverges from predominant views of the sixteenth century and in this way provides a guiding paradigm to Urania.

Written ca. 1559 and translated by Bartholomew Yong in 1598, Diana resists contemporary differentiations of the essential natures of men and women. According to thought derived from classical influences such as Galen and Aristotle as much as from early church teachings, women without patriarchal guidance (fathers, husbands, clergy, God) are dangerously unstable creatures.(n2) As Aristotle put it in Historia animalium, even female gentleness seemed almost subsumed into general weakness by woman's innately overwhelming lack of control, proportion, or courage:

In all genera in which the distinction of male and female is found, Nature makes a similar differentiation in the mental characteristics of the sexes. This differentiation is the most obvious in the case of human kind [...] The female is less spirited [...] softer in disposition, more mischievous, less simple, more impulsive, and more attentive to the nurture of the young [....] Woman is more compassionate than man, more easily moved to tears, at the same time more jealous, more querelous than man, more easily moved to strike. She is, furthermore, more prone to despondency and less hopeful than man, more void of shame or self-respect, more false of speech, more deceptive, and of more retentive memory. She is also more wakeful, more shrinking, more difficult to rouse to action, and requires a smaller quantity of nutriment. (qtd. in Jardine 40)

Even when women were defended against such criticism, mainstream writers tended to do so by emphasizing women's necessary deference to men, their natural superiors (Benson 34-90; Beilin xix-xxii, 3-15). Another continental work as influential on later pastorals as Diana, Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia (1504),(n3) drew heavily on these mainstream perceptions of women. Comparison of Arcadia's "cunning people" with Diana's use of the wise woman underscores how Diana challenges contemporary views on gender roles and thus clarifies why Lady Mary Wroth would turn to the Yong/Montemayor text in particular as an influence on her pastoral.

Sannazaro's Arcadia gives his audience two "cunning people," a man and a woman. Scholars have noted that in medieval and Renaissance Europe, England, and the Continent, the cunning man or woman often helpfully served the community, sometimes even the educated members, in locating lost or stolen goods; warding off bad weather, pestilence, and ill luck; and either restoring love or freeing people from it. When guilt and resentment caused factional tensions among families, neighbors, religious groups, and servants and employers, such past services might lead the community to recast this member as a dangerous witch, especially if longstanding or festering animosities were involved.(n4) Because the "curses" attributed to witchcraft most frequently fell into areas (childrearing, housewifery) and character traits (speaking intemperately, uncontrolled sexuality, vindictiveness, craftiness) associated with women, the witch tended to be perceived as a woman. It is not a case of men never being accused of witchcraft, just that the majority of the accusations fell on women, and those accusations reflected contemporary views of patriarchal societies' worst views of women.(n5) Sannazaro's depiction of his cunning people as polar opposites is attuned to these definitions of gender.

The "wise woman" of Arcadia is anything but wise. Opico, victim of unrequited love, seeks her out to cure his malady, but Sannazaro's description of this cunning woman would leave the reader considering the malady much more pleasant than any cure she could offer. She uses her powers to disrupt nature, plague the peace of the dead, and give predominance to the gods of chaos and destruction:

More learned than any other was she in drawing down from the skies the dark stars, all dripping with fresh blood; and in imposing laws with her words upon the courses of the enchanted moon; and in calling up at midday into the world Night and the nocturnal Gods from the chaos of the Nether world; and at calling back the souls of ancient ancestors from their deserted sepulchres. (91)

Further, Sannazaro associates her with Diana, Circe, and Medea (91), witches or supernatural figures that for European Renaissance and medieval audiences would have linked her with chaos, seduction, paganism, even damnation.(n6) This "wise woman" even turns herself into a creature of the night associated with madness and darkness, "the nocturnal screech owl" (91).

On the other hand, in his male cunning person, Sannazaro creates a "holy shepherd" (93). Where Sannazaro described his cunning woman as turning herself into a "screech owl" and likening her to figures terrifyingly beyond the pale such as Ephesian Diana, Circe, and Medea, he characterizes the cunning man in terms that denote reason, morality, benignity, and maturity: "a man truly worthy of great reverence with his wrinkled brow, his hair and beard long, and whiter than the wool of the flocks of Tarentina" (95). His powers all establish order, whether calming storms and seas, protecting one from weapons, or interpreting the language of animals and birds (94-95,106). This hermit not only promises to free Opico from unrequited love, but even suggests that he can make the recalcitrant nymph love the shepherd, thus returning man to natural mastery over woman (107-08). The holy shepherd Enareto's power is over both gods of air and the underworld, unlike the woman who only allies herself with the darkness (106-07). Rather than creating a horrifying chaos of blood-dripping stars, gibbering corpses, and dark gods, this cunning man will use charms to enable the shepherds to perceive the supernatural without the fear that would blind them from understanding their experience (107). Enareto even presides over the written text that teaches the movement of the stars and husbandry to shepherds (102-03). Thus, order, health, and rationality clearly are connected with the male while chaos, madness, and destruction are associated with the female in Arcadia.(n7)

Diana reverses these gender associations. There is a "wizard" in this pastoral, but he, Alfeo, only appears briefly, and he is the vindictive, intemperate, emotional cunning person (176,186). Although his machinations are as destructive and disruptive to love as those of Sannazaro's cunning woman to the natural order, his depredations are completely undone by the clairvoyance, potions, and wisdom of "the sage Felicia," as she is repeatedly called in the text. In Diana, the mage who represents order, chastity, reason, fidelity, and justice is a woman. With Felicia's first appearance, translator Yong remains true to Montemayor by establishing that she embodies these qualities: "a Lady, which seemed (by the gravitie and majestie of her person) to be a woman of some great state and authoritie, attired in black velvet" (132). Felicia's subsequent behavior throughout Diana proves her appearance reveals her true character.

Felicia wields her powers in magic and understanding human nature under the guidance of compassion and reason. The initial reference to this wise woman in the pastoral introduces her as one who accepts Nature's consecration of her to helping others. One of her nymphs describes Felicia to the "disdained" lovers as one "to whom nature hath given [the] divine knowledge" to "remedie [...] your paines [...] which fortune hath cast upon you" (107). The text, then, from the start shows Felicia as supremely compassionate because she accepts Nature's command to make her life's work the care of others. This compassion is also blended with reason. For Felicia seeks to save others from the irrationality of emotions such as "greefe" and "paines" with "knowledge" rather than with pity alone (107). Felicia's own words bear out her nymph's assessment, for as she assures the group of love-torn shepherds and shepherdesses who come to her for help: "Wherefore be of good cheere, for if I live, thou shalt see and enjoy thy desire, in pursuite whereof though thou hast passed much paine and travell, there is nothing (as thou knowest) obtained nor gotten without it" (132). Significantly, "the sage Felicia" not only promises comforting release, but she inculcates into her charges the necessity of discipline to gain that comfort. No happiness comes easily; it must be earned through the hard work or "travell" (travail).

Felicia's actions bear out her words and appearance. She helps her charges learn the value of integrity, selflessness, reason, altruism, and hard work as she helps them attain their goals. In discussions, Felicia teaches the shepherds and shepherdesses that nobility in love is not limited to one class but is possible and requisite for all who desire to love truly (137). She next teaches her charges, through a modified Socratic dialogue, to balance love with reason and selflessness, while cautioning them about the difficulty of doing so (156-58). Most important, this "sage" and "good Lady" (132) uses her understanding of human nature to determine how she can best use her magical powers to help others. She points out that she will only give a potion that erases love to Sylvano, Sireno, and Selvagia because they have irredeemably lost their loves, and making them wait for time to cure their wounds would be more cruel than helpful (160,185-89). She reveals that she will not give this potion to Filesmena or Belissa because their lovers may be regained with time and hard work (160,185,189-90). In fact, Felicia wisely reasons Felismena is the individual best suited to a journey back into the world to find the lost lovers because she has shown the most strength, wisdom, and pluck (132-34,138,160,189-90). Felicia picks a woman who has used her martial prowess with spear and quiver to save Felicia's nymphs and their shepherd friends from vicious, lust-crazed wild men (77-78). In Felismena, the wise woman picks an envoy who also has shown her fidelity in secretly following her beloved into the world of court and her clever intrepidness in disguising herself as a boy to grasp the freedom denied women in the male-controlled court (87-91). Later, Felismena even is self-disciplined enough to bear her beloved's infatuation with another woman and has wit enough to outmaneuver that woman's infatuation with Felismena's masculine disguise (93-102).

Felismena proves Felicia's reasoning correct by not only finding her and Belissa's respective lovers (190-97,211; 228, 237-42), but also wisely adjudicating the tangled loves of two other pairs of shepherds and shepherdesses (211-17,233-37). Felicia's reason, maturity, and compassion reverse the stereotypes of women, especially perpetuated in Arcadia's "wise woman." Ironically, Felicia is actually more temperate and rational than the "reverend shepherd" of Arcadia. Enareto merely casts spells without asking any questions about the circumstances connected with his supplicant. In contrast, Felicia first prepares her charges mentally and spiritually, then decides how to use her magic by reasoning which spells will best serve the individual needs of those consulting her.

Lady Mary Wroth's Urania is as strongly suffused as Diana in the concern with redeeming women from degrading perceptions and asserting their right to independence and acknowledgment of their voice. Josephine Roberts writes:

Personal experiences, her own and those of her friends, had made Wroth very much aware of how little voice women had in determining their own destinies or even choosing their life partners. Urania's vast panorama of women characters differs greatly in their willingness to conform to society's norms to challenge patriarchal authority, or to construct new relationships along unorthodox lines. (xvi)

Elaine Beilin looks at Pamphilia and Urania as the two most important in that "panorama of women characters" who overturn stereotypes about women's constancy, chastity, rationality, and ability to lead (211-32). Melissea is another important character through which Wroth asserts woman's dignity and expresses her frustrations. Wroth does not merely copy Felicia, but with Melissea recreates the wise woman in ways that express the author's views on woman's social entrapment in seventeenth-century society. Although Josephine Roberts observes that Melissea is less successful than Felicia, she does not discuss the import of this variation in sufficient depth. Roberts also does not note that in some ways Melissea even outdoes the sage Felicia's entrance into the male sphere of rationality and learning, pointing up even more distinctly masculine failings in areas typified as the flaws of women. Wroth's critique comes to the fore with special clarity when the reader compares Melissea with Felicia.

In dignity and sobriety, Melissea's first appearance strongly resembles that of Felicia: "out came a grave Ladie, apparreled in a black habit, and many more young women attending her" (Urania 1: 139). Further, we learn that she, like Felicia (Diana 133), dwells in a temple dedicated to the goddess of chastity, Diana. However, the interesting catch is that the temple in which Melissea dwells is on the "Illand of Delos, famous for the birth of those great lights, Apollo [emphasis added] and Diana" (140). Melissea presides over the temple of a god as well as a goddess. More important, that god is Apollo, associated by Western culture with reason, intellect, and law.(n8) As the wise woman of Delos, then, Melissea not only presides over the patriarchal god but interprets his messages to humanity. Thus, Wroth has cleverly shifted the proper voice of reason and law from the male to the female voice. Yet she has not fallen into the trap charged in sermons, pamphlets, and royal decrees of her day that women who take on men's roles are wanton, irresponsible, and dangerous.(n9) For Melissea is still the keeper of Diana's temple, a goddess associated with discipline and purity--a goddess who punishes curious and intemperate men.

In this introduction to Melissea, Wroth continues to build on Felicia to undercut even more aggressively stereotypes about men and women. Where Diana gives no indication of how or where Felicia trained, Wroth pointedly let her readers know that Melissea has "skill in the Art of Astrologie" (139).(n10) As Keith Thomas (223-24,268-69) and Edward Mebane (1-21,25-35,36-72,80-92) have observed, although some cunning men purported to understand astrology, sixteenth-and seventeenth-century audiences generally associated mastery of astrology with the highly educated such as Ficino, della Mirandola, Dee, Raleigh, and Roger Bacon. However, Diane Purkiss points out that whether in real life trials, such as the Henry Lambe/Anne Bodenham case (147-52), or in stage portrayals of people with magical powers (205-13,268-69), the public tended to perceive women as uncivilized witches and men as educated mages. Astrology, with its connection to education, wisdom, and power, would be considered the realm of men. Thus again Wroth pushes even further the boundaries initially stretched by Felicia, giving her Melissea the intellectual powers that her society saw as off limits to women. In doing so, Wroth anticipates any claims of the unnaturalness or dangerousness of giving women such power by making clear that Melissea, like her predecessor Felicia, only wants to use these powers to help others: "my name is Melissea, and having skill in the Art of Astrologie, I have found much concerning you, and as much desire to doe you service" (Urania 1: 139).

Melissea's exchange with Amphilanthus, the young man who comes to her for satisfaction in possessing Pamphilia, also rewrites the gender roles of men and women by taking Felicia's portrayal a step further. In Diana, Felicia dealt with men as well as women suffering from the unfairness of lovers. Intriguingly, Melissea at first only deals with one man, and he is clearly the one at fault, and his faults tend to be those associated with women: intemperance, fickleness, and inability to think through one's actions. Melissea's "astrologie" tells her that "the cause" of Amphilanthus's unhappiness is not Pamphilia's changeableness or harshness but his "owne rashness." She further warns him that he will "repent when 'tis too late, and when time is past, know, the meanes might have prevented it" (140). Similarly, where Felicia directed the philosophical interchanges with lively minded shepherds, Melissea hits a blank wall with Amphilanthus. Wroth may say that he "had the best understanding," but her depiction of the young man's pitiful response to Melissea's attempts to pique him to self-knowledge suggest his personal best was not terribly admirable: "Sometimes the Lady discoursed to him, and he for civilitie did answere her; yet oft-times she was content to attend his owne leisure for his replie, so much power had his passions over him" (140). Again, woman is wise and intellectually stimulating while it is the man whose "passions" overrule his rationality. Yet Wroth carefully anticipates any critique that Melissea has lost womanly virtues by usurping the man's role through insisting that her "discours[ing] to him" of unpleasant truths about himself did not include scolding for his inattention. Significantly, when Melissea deals with Pamphilia and Urania, she talks to them with respect for their intellects and urges their courage in the face of adversity to come. In fact, where she earlier warned Amphilanthus that he lacked the fortitude and wisdom to prevent his own and others' heartaches, she addresses these two women with faith that though their futures hold pain they will be able to face and overcome it with wisdom and strength (191-90).

Like Felicia, Melissea also knows how to adapt treatment to "illness." Melissea knows whose circumstances (Urania) dictate she should be thrown into the waters beneath the cliff of Saint Maura to forget her love and who (Parselius) should forget his own in the waters when rescuing her (190,230-31). She also knows who should be sent on quests to prove their loves or rediscover a love they thought lost (141-42). Melissea further knows who will not find happiness with her or his intended lover--and her knowledge comes from human nature. As already stated, she warns Amphilantus that his flaws will prevent the happiness he says he seeks with Pamphilia (139-41). Later, she warns Pamphilia that these flaws and Pamphilia's own "daintienesse and feare will hinder" her from marrying (190). Pamphilia's fear also stems from her concern that as a queen she cannot be married to both the man she loves and the kingdom she rules (190,262). By making Melissea less successful than Felicia, Wroth accentuates the plight of women in a seventeenth-century patriarchal society. Melissea knows that neither her wisdom and magic nor Pamphilia's wisdom, constancy, and courage can overcome the flaws of man. Fickleness, instability, and irrationality are Amphilanthus's faults; and, adding insult to injury, Wroth's society unjustly attributes just these flaws to women. Further, in a world where women must struggle against oppression, never mind assert control, love must be left behind if one wishes to have the energy and focus to lead as Pamphilia must do in her kingdom. As Beilin has observed, Pamphilia reenacts the political and personal negotiations of Elizabeth I, marrying herself to her kingdom rather than to a man, to retain power as a woman in a patriarchal society (219,226-29).

So, Josephine Roberts is correct in writing that Wroth's Melissea brings to the fore the limits of Felicia's healing and advising in harmonizing a world filled with human misunderstanding of self and others. Still, comparing Felicia's success with Melissea's failure due to human misapprehension and trepidation notably underscores the falsity of gender stereotypes of the time. Perhaps Wroth was so much less hopeful about the efficacy of her female mage in developing social harmony, because, unlike the male Montemayor or Yong, she knew firsthand the difficulty of society recognizing Felicia and Melissea in real women or, even sadder, the difficulty of real women seeing the possible Felicia or Melissea in themselves.


(n1.) Jorge Montemayor published Diana in Spanish in 1559 (Meuller 4, Kennedy xvii). Bartholomew Yong translated the text into English, along with two of the many sequels created by other writers, and under the title Diana of George of Montemayor published "all three [...] in a handsome folio of 1598" (Kennedy xviii). Lady Mary Wroth's uncle Philip Sidney was familiar with the original Spanish version (Kennedy xxxiii), and several French versions of Diana were available as well (Kennedy xxxiii, Meuller 227). However, because Yong's seems to be the most popular English version available to Wroth (Kennedy xxxi-xxxv), and its applicable depictions of Felicia sufficiently parallel Wroth's Melissea, I will draw on his 1598 translation for my discussion. Josephine Roberts, in noting Urania's debt to Diana, does not clarify whether Wroth drew on the Spanish, French, or English versions of Montemayor's pastoral.

(n2.) See Jardine (40-41), Benson (196), Briggs (284-85), Purkiss (121), and Gilbert and Gubar (4-7).

(n3.) For the influences of Diana and of Sannazaro's Arcadia, see Alpers (67,348-60), Kennedy (xxxi-lv), Kermode (35), Cooper (100-05,144-45), and Levin (44-45).

(n4.) For the relationship of guilt and resentment in general to charges of witchcraft, see Thomas (5,552-69) and Briggs (140). For relevance of factional tensions concerning religious, family, or political struggles, see Rosen (35-42), Thomas (37-38,55-74,620-21,479-80,and 484-87), G. Roberts (201-02), Gaskill (268-69), and Elmer (145-79).

(n5.) See Briggs (79-80,242-43), Purkiss (91-112,121-22), Roper (209-13), Hester (294-95,300-03).

(n6.) See Purkiss (258-62,264-65,267,269-70), G. Roberts (183-206), and Hart (313-31). Hart raises the particularly interesting point that readers educated in Britain and on the Continent would be aware of two versions of Diana from existing commentaries on mythology and primary texts. The Ovidian Diana is the goddess of chastity; the Ephesian Diana is associated with a many-breasted goddess of fertility and the wilds, linked to ancient worship of Cybele (317-25).

(n7.) There are three other female figures associated with the supernatural in Arcadia that are not actively destructive. Yet their positive nature lies in their passivity, in refusing to assert independence from masculine control. The goddess Pales seems to be worshipped by the shepherds, but she never appears nor do any characters tell stories of her as they do of Pan. The mother Massilla is honored by her son and the other shepherds. However, she is honored for her modesty and gentleness, encouraging, not working with, competing with, or directing men (109,131-32). In fact, she displays the ultimate in passivity. Dead, she never appears or speaks, not even as a ghost.

(n8.) See Grant (121-22), Leeming (108-09,112,245-46), and Campbell (20,24).

(n9.) See J. Roberts (xv-xvi), Beilin (3-15), and Jardine (40-41).

(n10.) Enamoured Diana, Yong's translation of Gil Polo's Diana Enamorata that was included with his version of the Montemayor text, does mention that Syrenus's "cellestiall constellation" contributed to the efficacy of Felicia's magic; however, the phrasing indicates that rather than wielding her knowledge of astrology to help the shepherd, astrological influences merely provide a fortuitous push to her endeavors (171).


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By Sharon Rose Yang, Worcester State College [MA]