2 Neurones & 1 Camera

Olivier Thereaux

Hypatia and the Renaissance Women

On the occasion of the first “Ada Lovelace Day”, which aims to highlight remarkable women in technology as potential role models for present and future generations of women, I started looking for the epitome of the “Renaissance Woman”.

The “Renaissance Man” is an archetype personified by the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci: artists, craftsmen, engineers; polymaths, often polyglots. Men of the renaissance were exemplary to the people of our time, we who are often struggling with varied interests and skills in an education and professional context that often rewards extreme specialisation.

I already knew of extraordinary women of the renaissance. Catherine de’ Medici, for instance, was educated, intelligent, rich and powerful beyond the reach of any other man or woman of her time. Yet I would not call her a “Renaissance Woman”, for little of her known history points towards achievements in the arts and science. Undoubtedly Catherine was a patron to the arts and versed in the science of politics, but a worthy counterpart to Leonardo or Gallileo she was not. Neither was Anna Maria van Schurman, Isabel de Castilla or other great women of that age: none of them seem to ever get anywhere near science.

Hypatia in “The School of Athens” - detail - by Raffaello Sanzio

Hypatia as imagined by Raffaello Sanzio

I actually found one of the best examples of a Renaissance Woman in the age which the Renaissance was mimicking and rediscovering. Born around 350 AD, Hypatia of Alexandria was a scholar, philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. Said to have been instrumental in the development of the hydrometer and the astrolabe, she ran her own school of philosophy, acted as one of the last librarians of Alexandria, and exerted immense political power over the region.

Hypatia’s extraordinary character, knowledge and freedom have inspired many romanticized accounts of her life. According to legend “she moved about freely, driving her own chariot, contrary to the norm for women’s public behavior”, and the Suda, the collected history of Byzantine Greece, tells how she rebuffed a suitor by showing him an unglamorous pile of rags stained during her periods.

It is because of her death, however, that she is still so well known today. Caught in a political feud between the imperial power and rising christianity, she perished at the hands of an angry christian mob in one of the most gruesome deaths since Hector’s fate at the hands of Achilles: dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.* After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. (dixit the Ecclesiastical History).

Her death in the midst of political and religious conflict, unfortunately, makes it difficult to know truth from fiction. To Voltaire and the deists of the 18th century, she was the “most beautiful, most vertuous, most learned, and every way accomplish’d lady”, as John Toland wrote. To others, she was “A most Impudent School-Mistress of Alexandria.”

This detour through history provided me an unexpected clue in understanding why the Renaissance had produced so few “Renaissance Women” that we would still know of them today. A biography of Hypatia by John, Bishop of Nikiu, reads: there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles.

The terms used are strangely reminiscent of another age, that of witch hunts. Our collective psyche would generally place those shameful, dark times during the middle age, and I had to double check that my hunch was correct: coincidentally, witch hunts happened during the exact same period as the civilised renaissance, between the 15th and 18th century AD. If Renaissance men dabbling in engineering and alchemy were considered the pinnacle of civilisation while their female equivalents got burnt at the stake, is it surprising that we have no history of smart women of arts and science during that period?


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