Barnabe Rich was a pioneer moralist. In 1613 he wrote a book explaining the roles that men and women should play in the home. Of make-up wearing, provocatively dressed women Rich said that their appearance provoked:
The first, offence to God, the second, It giveth hope to the vicious, and thirdly, It bringeth destruction to the husbande.
Today, Rich’s list looks unremarkably consistent with current modesty discourse. Yet Rich had been born around the time that modesty had been invented. While up until this point I have criticized current modesty rhetoric, in the last four posts I’ll advance ideas that may strengthen modesty and chastity. But to begin with, I will first discuss modesty’s origins.
A few decades before Barnabe Rich wrote moral advice for married couples, Thomas Elyot, a friend of Thomas More and early English humanist, wrote a widely circulated moral manual for youth, The Boke Named the Governour. Among other things, Elyot’s fame comes from introducing several English words taken from Latin writers. In The Governour Elyot introduced modesty. Elyot rendered modesty from the Latin modestus, citing Cicero, which meant something like restraint or moderation (I’ll return to this in greater detail next time). Elyot’s modesty had no connection to sexual purity, which makes sense given the fact that modestus doesn’t connect to purity either. When the Romans discussed sexual purity they used pudicitia, an ambiguous word relating to sexual virtue including modest dress for women.
While the Romans held pudicitia in utmost regard, this virtue disappeared sometime before the Middle Ages, as did any idea linking modest dress to sexual purity. Medieval writers and artists show that the Middle Ages frowned on public nudity, but for reasons unrelated to chastity.