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.
In Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times, Albrecht Classen, a leading figure in medieval sexuality, examines several medieval stories where nakedness causes shame in the characters. Examining the literary cues, Classen shows that sexual purity has no attachment to the characters’ shame. For example Classen draws from the German poem The Stricker, a poetic story collection with moral lessons. In one story a servant’s master sends him to deliver a message to another lord. Someone tells the servant that the lord is sitting in his bathroom, which he has heated for the winter months. The servant incorrectly assumes that the lord is taking a bath when, in fact, the lord had modified the room so that he and his daughters could work on their chores while enjoying the warmth. The servant gets naked and enters the room only to discover that he is a naked man in a room full of a clothed people. The lord assumes that the servant’s goal was to “rob [the lord] of his honor by exhibiting himself to the entire family as a deliberate affront” and nearly kills him before the story gets resolved happily (everyone sees it was just one big misunderstanding).
The story teaches us that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge, but Classen takes another message from it. The lord wasn’t angry because the servant’s nudity implied sexual gestures, but because the servant had apparently displayed himself as an exhibitionist. Communal bathing, and bathing with a guest were both common features of medieval life. Had everyone been on board ahead of time, the blatant nudity of this stranger wouldn’t have been a problem. But the exhibitionism, likely coupled with the disparity of social rank, offended medieval notions of honor.
Other cultural indicators support the idea that medieval sexuality and nakedness differ markedly from today. In medieval England, wedding guests would accompany newlyweds to their bedchambers and watch them lie naked together. Sexual acts in general weren’t nearly as private as they are now, and in some instances, servants or children were present while a husband and wife copulated. Medieval artwork is filled with images that could hardly be described as anything but pornographic, including images where clothed and naked people appear in the same scene, such as in aristocratic parties. Classen also highlights several other stories where both nakedness and shame about the nakedness factor into the story but are not linked by a sense of shame about sexuality.
This is not to say that the medieval world was enlightened about gender, sex, nakedness and so forth, and it certainly shouldn’t be a model to return to. It does show that modesty, referring to sexualizing dress, had lost itself for over a millennium in the west. So what brought it back?
Modesty returned as the Middle Ages came to a close. Renaissance humanism, taking firm root across Europe in the 16th century, introduced a dramatic shift in western thought. Beginning with Elyot, the English humanists brought modesty into the cultural discourse. Like the Romans, the first humanists, such as Elyot and Roger Ascham, treated modesty as a character trait for men, not a standard of dress for women. The poet Phillip Marlowe made the first subtle connection between modesty and feminine dress in his 1589 The Hero and the Leander, writing about a bride and groom on the wedding day:
On his right arm did hang a scarlet veil,/And from his shoulders to the ground did trail/On either side, ribands of white and blue/With the red veil he hid the bashful hue/Of the chaste bride, to show the modest shame/In coupling with a man, should grace a dame.
In short, by veiling her face a woman displays her modesty.
The earliest exposition on feminine modesty came 13 years later from Barnabe Rich’s moral manual, which I cited earlier. Thus, within half a century, modesty transformed from a classical virtue related to moderation, to a feminine virtue relating chastity to appearance.
Returning to an earlier claim, did the humanists really invent modesty? Or had they just reintroduced it? It’s probably just a matter of perspective. The English humanists adapted ancient concepts (modestus and pudicitia), but in fusing them together under one word, modesty, they created something new. Notably, French maintains the difference between modestie (modestus) and pudeur (pudor – a connected word to pudicitia in terms of general meaning).
Modesty probably first gained popularity among the aristocracy, where affluence made female dress a significant topic. It is quite possible that modesty didn’t have much influence on peasants for decades, or perhaps centuries. Scholars have noted a similar trend on female virginity before marriage, which the aristocracy gave serious attention to in the Middle Ages, but no one else appeared to give it the same weight until much later. However long it took for modesty to become an essentially universal social virtue, by the industrial revolution, when the rising middle class could start spending money on fashion, modesty had become an ingrained virtue among all classes.
At least among Catholics and Mormons, modesty, in terms of avoiding sexualizing dress, didn’t become serious religious topics until the early 20th century. As I noted before, Joseph F. Smith first advocated feminine modesty in Mormonism. Pope Pius XI gave the first official statement in 1930 on the topic for Catholics, following the influence of Saint Padre Pio (1887-1968), who had a remarkable sway on modern Catholic views of modesty. Reading feminine modesty into the scriptures and God’s decrees ensued thereafter.
To try and bridge the last post to the next one, I will make two notes. First, feminine modesty has no origin in sacred literature, but in ancient Greek and Roman morality. That doesn’t mean that we should discard feminine modesty on that basis alone, but it should embolden us to be critical of whether we accept it. Second, because modesty’s justifications are ultimately unconnected to religion, we should feel comfortable with modifying it to suit the best usage we can find. In the next post I’ll introduce my own formulation of modesty, drawing from Elyot’s definition, before modesty acquired its baggage of sexual purity.
Classen, Albrecht, ed. Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: New Approaches to a Fundamental Cultural-Historical and Literary-Anthropological Theme. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG: 2008.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, 2nd Edition. Routledge: 2012.
Langlands, Rebecca. Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Rich, Barnabe. The excellency of good women. The honour and estimation that belongeth vnto them. The infallible markes whereby to know them. By Barnabe Rych souldier seruant to the Kings most excellent Maiestie. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A10700.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext (Accessed August 2, 2013).