Richard Rufus of Cornwall

On Eve

Introduction by Rega Wood

Rufus says: "'In whom there is less reason than in a man' etc., at the same place [Sent.].1 On the contrary: a woman differs from a man only in respect of what pertains to the body, not in respect of what pertains to the soul.  Hence Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither masculine nor feminine [in Christ’s kingdom.”  And the Gloss there [reads]: “On account of none of those things is anyone more worthy in the faith of Christ.” Therefore it seems that just as reason is not stronger in a free man than in a slave, so neither is it stronger in the male than in the female."

original latin

Pride as a Queen with Four Dukes
In this passage, Richard Rufus expresses some of the common scholastic prejudices against women. It is probably no accident that the allegory that Rufus quotes from the works of Gregory the Great compares pride to a queen and avarice and hypocrisy to her wicked dukes. 

Why Did Eve Fall for the Serpent's Trick?
However, as a theologian, Rufus' principal task is to explain apparent contradictions in Biblical texts.  In this case, he is teaching his students about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Our excerpt is about the serpent who tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit.  

Most straightforwardly Rufus has to explain why Eve did not know that the serpent who tempted her was up to no good. It seems she should have known, since earlier Genesis says that Adam knew and named all other living creatures.  But if she understood the serpent's nature, why did Eve take his advice?  Maybe, Rufus says, Eve did not know as much as Adam.

Are Men and Women Equal?
Rufus does not think that men and women are intellectual equals, but he takes very seriously the biblical texts which suggest that in spiritual matters they are equal:  there is no inequality and indeed no difference between male and female souls.  The first suggestion for explaining this apparent contradiction was to attribute the differences between men and women to their bodies. 

Maybe men are superior because their bodies are stronger.  Rufus rejects this explanation because it gets the order of explanation wrong. It explains what is more powerful, or rather more causally efficacious, as an effect of something that is less effective.  The first explanation cannot be right because souls explain why bodies act the way they do and not vice versa.

Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination
I began this introduction by saying that Rufus was expressing medieval prejudice against women, since it seems to me that scholastic beliefs about the inferiority of women were not rationally justified. But of course, there still are people today who believe that the average intelligence of men is higher than that of women.  And today's conviction that men and women are equal is based less on large scale surveys of mental capacity than on moral conviction.  This is the same conviction expressed by the Biblical passage Rufus quotes: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female" in the Kingdom of Christ (Galatians 3:28).  In other words, whether you are a male or female does not affect your religious status or your human dignity.   That is the basic assumption that has been generally accepted in the West since the Enlightenment.

What is most interesting about this passage from Rufus is not his acceptance of the stereotype according to which men are smarter than women.  Rather what is interesting is that Rufus does not make this false generalization a basis for discrimination against particular people.  Absolutely speaking, Rufus believes that male souls are better than female souls.  But sometimes it happens that the soul of a particular woman is worthier and more noble than the soul of a particular man.  So he concludes it would be mistaken to infer from the general superiority of men that any particular woman was inferior to her male counterpart.

The Integrity of the Universe
One of Rufus' chief achievements as a theologian was his statement of the doctrine of providence according to which the integrity of the universe requires that it be full of all kinds of creatures.  A universe without inferior creatures would be incomplete, so each niche in the chain of being must be filled, from the highest to the lowest. Rufus celebrated the great variety of beings as an expression of God's goodness.  As Rufus puts it: there had to be inequality, so that there would be all things. 

Few women  will appreciate a picture of the universe that suggests that they were created to fill up the lower ranks of humanity.  But, at least, Rufus did not think every woman was inferior to all men.  And his judgment was more favorable than some of his contemporaries. Richard Fishacre, for example, argued that though men and women belong to the same species, men are vastly superior to all women; men are as superior to women as archangels are greater than angels lower in the celestial hierarchy. 2

1. Petrus Lombardus, Sententiae in quattuor libris distinctae, ed. I. Brady, 2 vols., Grottaferrata 1971-1981.

2 Richard Fishacre, Sent. bk. 2, dist. 3b: "Respondeo. Magis differunt in specie hominis mas et femina quam duo mares; nec tamen specie vel genere. Et magis haec aqua ab alia aqua alterius fontis quam ab alia aqua eiusdem fontis; nec tamen specie. Et magis angelus ab archangelo quam duo archangeli. Nec tamen specie vel genere. Non enim differentiis essentialibus differunt, licet naturalibus et essentiae accidentibus."