900 Years Later, It’s Time to Include Women in the Narrative

“With her account of the literary works of female artists in oppressive institutions, Maraini provided a small glimpse into a world of literature left out of history.”

By Brooke Nagler

A prolific Italian novelist, playwright, poet, and orator, Dacia Maraini has understood the value of storytelling since her youth. As a child during World War II, her family was forced into a concentration camp in Japan, where they were starving. Her parents became “person-books” from whom she learned her favorite stories in a time when books were impossible to acquire.  

In a lecture last Wednesday in Harper, Maraini spoke about the power of words and stories for women from the 12th to 18th centuries under oppressive patriarchy. She focused on female Italian writers in the Church and in brothels who wrote prolifically despite regulations that forbade them from intellectual thought—let alone writing.

“I grew up with fathers, literary fathers, wonderful fathers which I love,” Maraini said, noting the dearth of female writers. “But at a certain moment I ask myself: where are the mothers?”

She decided to look for female writers, and, to her surprise, found them in abundance in convents. This apparent anomaly makes sense: Unlike most women of the time, nuns could read, think, and speak together, enjoying a certain intellectual freedom.

Maraini began by discussing nuns who wanted to deal directly with God, circumventing the Catholic hierarchy put in place to control how mortals interacted with the divine. They so transfixed the public with their oratory that people viewed them as prophets or mystics.

But Maraini did not simply give a history of these women—she retold their unpublished stories. One mystic, Santa Chiara, wrote about a dream in which St. Francis asks her to drink from his breast—this was censored because its imagery depicts the emasculation of a saint.

Although some of the female mystics wrote stories, many were illiterate because authorities deemed women writers vulgar; they often contracted scribes to record their stories instead. If no scribes were available, the women found other ways to document their ideas. In one touching example, Maraini described how a group of women each memorized a portion of a mystic’s story to ensure that it would not be forgotten, demonstrating the community that women created to support and preserve each other’s work.

Maraini also spoke about the works of prostitutes such as Veronica Franco, a 16th-century poet and courtesan. An outspoken intellectual, she publicly defended her passion for writing when it was dangerous to do so. Through her openness, she transcended her predetermined condition as a sex object: When she was invited to spend a night with a French king, their exchange was one of literature and poetry, not of sex.

On the problem of history’s treatment of women, Maraini concluded: “I found that the mothers are there, but they are not remembered—they are lost, they are censured, they are forgotten.”

The lack of female representation in the literature is perpetuated not only by historical narratives, but also by school curricula. Even though Maraini attended an all-woman boarding school, she noticed that “learning was based on a patriarchal world” and that works by women writers made up only five percent of anthologies taught.

With her account of the literary works of female artists in oppressive institutions, Maraini provided a small glimpse into a world of literature left out of history. But her message runs deeper than a lack of representation. It indicates a cultural bias that discredits the importance of existing female-authored works and, at times, even erases their very existence. “There are lots of important women writers whose works are published,” Maraini continued. “But when you arrive at a place…where literary institutions establish the models for the next generation, then it becomes difficult to find women.”