Friday, June 27, 2008

That women need a female redeemer: the heresy of Postellus

You don’t ever read very far in early modern theological writing before the author, confident in his orthodoxy, gets onto the subject of heresy. Then they can start to enumerate heresies, to collect them like stamps, as many as possible. Being deeply drawn towards your opposite is both a mark of confidence and anxiety. As (I think) the Joker says to Batman in The Killing Joke, you only needed one bad day in your life to have become like me.

Anyway, I was reading John Aylmer’s An harborovve for faithfull and trevve subiectes (1559), which is mainly a reassurance (a 'harbour', a refuge) to his fellow countrymen that they can accept another Queen as a very suitable ruler. The late Mary Tudor makes his case difficult, but he asserts that she was misled into tyranny by her churchmen, while Elizabeth is merciful. But he is dealing with questions of gender and fitness to rule. He has a difficult text in Deuteronomy, which he dutifully cites: ‘ “thou shalt chuse a Kynge among thy brethren, and not among thy systers.” And thereupon is inferred, that we may have no Quene. It is the like reason as if a man shuld say, Christ said Veni ad vocandum peccatores ad penitentiam, that is I am come to cal men sinners, and not women sinners. Therfor, either women be no sinners: or if they be, they shal not bee saved’

Alymer hastens to explain that Hebrew has to be understood as gender-neutral: ‘thoughout the whole scripture the masculine comprehendeth the feminin’. But Aylmer knows where his thoughts have led him, and he continues with the precise heretic involved in controversy about such texts:
‘Or els we must say with the phrenitik postellus: that women be not yet redeemed, but men and that they must have a woman to dye for them, as well as men hadde Christe.’

It seems to me very typical of early modern discourse that making a case that it is allowable for women to rule involves the author in an awkward confrontation with the Bible passage that contradicts him, and so into a view of an opinion (based on another Bible passage) that wildly opposes his own general line, the heresy that deduces from the Bible what would be a complete disqualification of women from rule – they are still awaiting their redeemer.

But I was intrigued by ‘Postellus’. He crops up quite often:

“Others broching it for truth that Christ died not for both Sexes, was not the Sauiour of Women, but Men only. An Assertion of Postellus the Iesuit, who in Paris put forth a booke entituled the Victory of Women, wherein he writes that one Iane was sent from God to be the Sauiour of Women. Contrary to the purpose of Christ, who Died for All, gaue himselfe for All: and directly opposite to the meaning of God, who at the cleansing of the Leaper commanded them to offer Lambes of both kinds, Male and Female: Ex vtroque genere proptereà sacrificium Offerri praecepit vt ostendat quia Christus pro nobis occisus simul Masculum Foeminamque saluabit: To shew (as Isychius excellently inferres) that Christ died for both Sexes, Women no lesse then Men.”

This is Henry King, A sermon of deliuerance Preached at the Spittle on Easter Monday, 1626.

These next five passages are in Thomas Rogers’ The faith, doctrine, and religion, professed, & protected in the realme of England, and dominions of the same expressed in 39 articles, concordablie agreed vpon by the reuerend bishops, and clergie of this kingdome, at two seuerall meetings, or conuocations of theirs, in the yeares of our Lord, 1562, and 1604 (1607):

‘That Christ on the Crosse hath suffered for the redemption of mankinde, and shall suffer againe for the saluation of the Deuills; such heretikes there haue bin; as Iesus, but shal againe suffer as Iesus Christ (which was one of Francis Ket his heresies, for which he was burned); for men, but one mother Iane is the Sauiour of women, a most execrable assertion of Postellus, the Iesuite.’
‘The Sauiour of Men, is Iesus Christ, a man, and no woman, who came into the world to saue no women but men, say some Papists, and redeemed the superior world onely, which is man, said Postellus the Iesuit; and yet not all men neither for S. Francis hath redeemed so many as are saued since his daies, say the Franciscan Friers.’
‘The Sauiour of women from her time till the end of the world, is S. Clare, affirm some, other papists, as Postellus saith it it one mother Iane.’
‘The Sauiour of men, and women, is S. Mary through her virginitie say some, is S. Christina, by her passion, say other Papists.’
‘There is no sufficient sacrifice yet offered for the sinnes of the world. One of F. Kets errors.’

Phew – rich material there, giving us a view of Francis Kett (thought possibly to have been Marlowe’s tutor in Cambridge), probably a Socinian, and apparently teaching that Jesus once exalted would die a second time to redeem the devils. But, heretic wrapped up with heretic, divided or two-part missions of redemption brings up Postellus and his interesting take on the theological position of women (Rogers is very keen to imply that these are the kind of things Catholics and Jesuits come up with).

Postellus apparently lived a very long time (maybe it is surprising he long survived the publication of his own opinions), and as such gets mentioned in George Hakewill’s survey of contemporary cases of longevity: “Gulielmus Postellus, a french man in our age held out to almost an hundred & twenty; the tops of his beard in his higher lip being then somewhat blackish & not altogether white” in An apologie of the povver and prouidence of God in the gouernment of the world (1627). Meric Casaubon seems to take the emollient and not evidently true line that it was only in his dotage that Postellus went so wildly off-message: ‘and was not this the case of learned Postellus, who fallen into some grievous wild fancies in his latter dayes, though sound enough still in other things, could never be reclaimed though means were used from time to time the best and gentlest (in respect to his worth and person) that could be thought of? But what talk we of particular men?A true & faithful relation of what passed for many yeers between Dr. John Dee ... and some spirits (1657)

Joseph Hall comes up with another beauty from Postellus’s repertoire of unorthodox opinions, which seems to have been that Man had been made by God, but just as far as the waist, while all below was the work (I infer) of the devil:

‘There is not one limme, or parcell in this glorious fabrick, wherein there is not both use, and beauty, and wonder. The superior members give influence, and motion to the lower, the lower, supportation to the superiour, the middle contribute nourishment to both: Was it heresie; or frenzy, or blasphemy, or all these, in the Paternians of old; revived of late times, by Postellus at Paris, that mans lower parts were of a worse author? Away with that mad misanthropy: there is no inch of this living pile, which doth not bewray steps of an allwise and holy omnipotence.’

The character of man laid forth in a sermon preach't at the court, March, 10. 1634. By the L. Bishop of Exceter (1635)

A reference in Alexander Ross, Pansebeia, or, A view of all religions in the world with the severall church-governments from the creation, to these times : also, a discovery of all known heresies in all ages and places, and choice observations and reflections throughout the whole (1655) seems to imply that if Postellus thought Christ’s mission to redeem specifically male humankind had left women still to be saved, it had at least been universal salvation for men: “One Postellus taught that men of all Sects and Professions should be saved by Christ.” My learned colleague Justin Champion has retrieved the surprisingly disinterested inquiry made by Richard Smith around 1671 into the authorship of the ‘Blasphemous treatise’ of ‘the Three Grand Imposters’, where Smith dismisses the idea that Postellus had written the treatise: “Guil Postellus, Aretinus, or any other writer of this last age on whom this Blasphemous Treatise is of late tymes by some fathered could not be the Authors thereof
(posted at -

Postellus also crops up in the very doubtfully orthodox Anima mundi, or, An historical narration of the opinions of the ancients concerning man's soul after this life according to unenlight[e]ned nature by Charles Blount.

I am rather surprised that Donne doesn’t seem to have picked up on any of this, having as he did a penchant for unorthodox doctrines that leave women short of getting to heaven.

The one more recent scholarly source about Postellus that I have found is a history of heresies on Google books, The History of Heresies and Their Refutation by St Alphonsus M Liguori:
“William Postellus, or Postell, was born in Barenton, in Lower Normandy; he was a learned philosopher, and Oriental traveler, and was remarkable as a linguist, but fell into errors of faith. Some even go so far as to say, that in his work, called Virgo Veneta, he endeavours to prove that an old maid of Venice, called Mother Johanna of Venice, was the Saviour of the feminine sex. Florimund, however, defends him from this charge, and says he wrote this curious work merely to praise this lady, who was a great friend of his, and frequently afforded him pecuniary assistance.”

How much John Donne would have enjoyed insinuating that, say, the Countess of Bedford was the long-awaited saviour for womenkind! How could he have missed it?!

My catholic author continues: “(Postellus) lived some time also in Rome, and joined the Jesuits, but they soon dismissed him, on account of the extraordinary opinions he professed. He was charged with heresy, and condemned to perpetual imprisonment, by the Inquisition; but he escaped to France, and his fame as a linguist procured him a favourable reception from King Charles IX, and the learned of that country. He then wrote several works, filled with the most extravagant errors, as De Trinitate, De Matrice Mundi, De Omnibus Sectis salvandis, De future Nativitate Mediatoris and several others of the same stamp. He was reprimanded by the Faculty of Theology, and the magistracy of Paris, for these writings, but as he refused to retract them, he was confined in the monastery of St martin des Champs, and there got the grace of repentance, for he retracted everything he had written, and subjected all to the judgment of the Church. He then led a most religious life in the monastery, and died on the 7th of September, 1581, being nearly one hundred years old.”

All sects saved, a female saviour for women, man as half made by God, half by the devil, a role in the transmission of the Protevangelion of James: Postellus is surely due a revival of interest.

My image is Filippino Lippi’s ‘Triumph of St Aquinas over the heretics’: the one book of wisdom, and the writers of heresy all looking deeply ashamed of what they have done, as it lies on the ground before them.

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