I wrote a post some time ago where I discussed great male Boethian authors. Today, I am looking at five spectacular women writers who were deeply informed by Boethius and merit consideration today, both for literary skill and intellectual acuity. This list is, of course, in no way intended to be exhaustive!
Queen Elizabeth I
Easily the most famous individual on this list, Queen Elizabeth translated The Consolation of Philosophy late in life as a personal devotional practice (though the personal was of course always charged with political in those times). Elizabeth was deeply embroiled in the politically charged controversies of the day – leading as she did the Elizabethan Religious Settlement that helped to establish “Anglican” identity out of the chaotic Church of England. A superb Latinist with a rich devotional life, Elizabeth’s shrewd intellectual powers are on full display in her translation of Boethius’s most famous work. One can readily see how translating the Consolation, a text devoted to finding God in the midst of political turmoil, spoke to the monarch.
Deemed a heretic at first only reluctantly, given how popular she was, Marguerite was eventually burned at the stake when she persisted in defying the council that put her through a lengthy trial. Marguerite’s most famous work, The Mirror of Simple Souls, draws on Boethian imagery in its meditation on the soul’s intimacy with God, integrating the so-called “heresy of the Free Spirit” and Christian mysticism with the philosophical meditations of the Consolation. Although many scholars interpret Marguerite as rejecting Boethian rationalism, arguably she sees a mystical thread in Boethian thought often missed by the scholastic tradition built around him. Much influence is also present from another influential Boethian text, The Romance of the Rose, meditating on the themes of love present in both texts. Writing in Old French, Marguerite witnesses a very different legacy of Boethianism than ordinarily considered – and, however theologically problematic, one which is quite stirringly and beautifully written.
Christine de Pizan
The Margaret Fuller of the 19th century, Christine de Pizan shares with Marguerite the medieval French legacy of Boethian thought. Her controversy is less theological than sociological however: the placement of women in society. Christine draws upon the powerful vindication of women latent in Boethius’s personification of a wise woman, producing personified mentors who help her to meditate on the nature of Christian identity for women in a society where the male perspective tended to dominate, critiquing the stereotypes that limit women’s potential. The Book of the City of Ladies shows a Lady Reason leading Christine to imagine a perfect Christian civilization where women are given their due place in society, while The Treasure of the City of Ladies provides more practical instruction for the pursuit of feminine virtue. Christine is in my opinion a far superior Boethian to her predecessor, Jean de Meun (author of the second and longer part of The Romance of the Rose), and her vivid writing still speaks to our concerns about gender today.
Drabble’s work as a novelist is replete with literary learning, so it is not surprising that Boethius found its way into her repertoire. Her most Boethian novel is The Ice Age, a reflection on the property crisis in the 60s and 70s of Britain, from the perspective of Anthony Keaton, a former BBC producer struggling with fame in a manner Boethius’s discourse on the subject applies, as explicit reference to Boethius throughout shows. (It is reminiscent, for this reason, to the film 24-Hour Party People, which likewise utilizes Boethius heavily while analyzing a major figure in the media from the time, Tony Wilson.) Drabble’s work is a truly fine example of the modern legacy of Boethius.
Jill Paton Walsh
Walsh is herself a creative literary scholar of Dorothy Sayers, a figure also deeply relevant to this list. Dorothy Sayers was a continual proponent of the classic liberal arts, a system which Boethius played no small part in fashioning for the Middle Ages. Walsh completes a series of novels by Sayers surrounding her Sherlock Holmes figure, Lord Peter Wimsey. The drama of her last Lord Wimsey novel, The Last Scholar (a compressed reference to Boethius as the “last of the Romans and first of the scholastics”), concerns the drama of a codex including The Consolation of Philosophy with possible marginalia from King Alfred himself. As Walsh is the suitable figure to carry on the legacy of Sayers, her work with Sayers fittingly concludes with a meditation on the self-reflexive relationship of Boethian thought to the life of the mind in its practical, realistic manifestations.
So there you go – you’ve got a lot of Boethian reading to do!