In Moderata Fonte’s protofeminist dialogue Il merito delle donne (The Worth of Women, 1600), seven women gather in a beautiful garden to discuss women’s position in early modern society and the reasons for their mistreatment at the hands of men. While the first half, or “day,” of the dialogue has been widely studied as a lively, lucid contribution to the Renaissance querelle des femmes, the second half of the dialogue is equally intriguing. Weaving together balneology, pharmacology, meteorology, and alchemy, Fonte’s female interlocutors harness scientific culture in the service of social commentary. A key element of Fonte’s feminist project scientific knowledge—here encompassing both medicine and natural philosophy—falls under the umbrella of Fonte’s more general call for women’s equal access to education in all arenas.
“Isn’t senna good for melancholics?” asked Lucretia.
“It’s good against melancholy, yes,” replied Corinna, “and against disfunctions of the liver. It’s also effective against quartan fever, when mixed with colocynth. And colocynth is also good against hardening of the spleen…It’s not to be used alone though, as it’s poisonous.”
“In that case, it must resemble man,” said Leonora, “who is noxious when alone, and needs women’s company as his antidote.”
(The Worth of Women, ed. and trans. Virginia Cox [Chicago, 1997], 170).