How Philosophy Matters

Death, Sex, Clothes, and Boethius
  • Andrea Denny-Brown
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The meaning of Boethius’s highly influential allegorical figure of Philosophy in his Consolation of Philosophy has been much discussed. The central linguistic fact is that she represents some form of wisdom or learning: philosophia, from philein, to love; and sophia, wisdom, means ‘the love of wisdom.’ That this wisdom is recorded in her garment also remains unchallenged: Following a distinction made by Boethius himself, the Greek letters Π and Θ on Philosophy’s famous robe are generally understood as symbols of practical and speculative philosophy, the letters for which begin with pi and theta, respectively.1 Yet the greater connotations of Philosophy’s garment as a material marker have been neglected, in part due to the historical discourse of philosophical purity and perfection that has constructed our understanding of her figure. Such a discourse reflects a general assumption that as an allegorical abstraction Philosophy is somehow ‘above’ her material appearance, and thus that specific aspects of her garment have meaning primarily or exclusively in their relation to the mind of the poet-philosopher Boethius. I would suggest, rather, that her sartorial symbolism manifests her profound and wrenching loss: not only loss of philosophical wisdom and reputation, but also loss of the very purity for which she is so famous. This rereading of Philosophy tailors itself toward an understanding of her influence on representations of the feminine and the feminine subject of later medieval literature.


Female Body Mnemonic Device Philosophy Matter Speculative Philosophy Medieval Literature 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 4.
    Pierre Courcelle, La Consolation de philosophie dans la tradition littéraire: Antécédents et postérité de Boèce (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1967), p. 22.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    James J. Paxson, The Poetics of Personification (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 6.
    Boethius, Consolation, Unless otherwise noted, English translations of Boethius are from The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V E. Watts (New York: Penguin, 1969). All Latin quotations of Boethius are from Consolatio Philosophiae, ed. James O’Donnell (Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr Latin Commentaries, 1990).Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    Seth Lerer, “The Search for Voice,” in Boethius and Dialogue (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 102.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    On the Lacanian feminine as the signifier of the Symbolic, see Judith Butler, “Subjects of Sex/ Gender /Desire,” in Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990),Google Scholar
  6. p. 27. On woman as the “metaphor of alterity” see Susan Crane, “Adventure,” in Gender and Romance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 171–72.Google Scholar
  7. See also R. Howard Bloch, “Early Christianity and the Estheticization of Gender,” in Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 37–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 9.
    See Anne Carson, “Dirt and Desire: The Phenomenology of Female Pollution in Antiquity,” in Constructions of the Classical Body, ed. James I. Porter (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), pp. 77–100. Sarah Kay asks a similar question—”How is this denigration of the body as feminine compatible with the deployment of a female agent of revelation?”—in “Women’s Body of Knowledge: Epistemology and Misogyny in the Romance of the Rose,” in Framing Medieval Bodies, ed. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 226.Google Scholar
  9. See Burns, Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 12–13, 24–26.Google Scholar
  10. See also Nikolaus M. Häring, “Commentary and Hermeneutics,” in Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century, ed. Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, with Carol D. Lanham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), p. 188.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    MS London, B.L. Egerton 628, fol. 166r. Qtd. in Winthrop Wetherbee, Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century: The Literary Influence of the School of Chartres (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 93.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    See Richard A. Dwyer’s discussion of this addition in “The Tempting Integument,” in Boethian Fictions (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1976), pp. 54–55.Google Scholar
  13. 19.
    Mary J. Carruthers, “Elementary Memory Design,” and “The Arts of Memory,” in The Book of Memory (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 109, 142;Google Scholar
  14. 24.
    I take the concept of the lady and magician from Amy Richlin, who uses the metaphor to discuss feminist studies regarding Ovid and rape. Richlin, “Reading Ovid’s Rapes,” in Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome, ed. Amy Richlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 158–79.Google Scholar
  15. 26.
    See for example Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. P. G. Walsh (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 116 n3.Google Scholar
  16. See also Courcelle, La Consolation, pp.17–28, and Henry Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), pp. 225–26.Google Scholar
  17. See Chadwick, “Theta on Philosophy’s Dress in Boethius,” Medium Aevum 49.2 (1980): 175–79;Google Scholar
  18. 29.
    Harriet I. Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), esp. pp. 32–59.Google Scholar
  19. 33.
    Flower, Ancestor Masks, p. 119. On the lasting legislation associating women, funerals, and conspicuous consumption, see Alan Hunt, Governance of the Consuming Passions (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), esp. pp. 18–19, 393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 34.
    See Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual of Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974), esp. p. 21.Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    ‘Raptus,’ in Jan Frederik Niermeyer, Mediae Latinitatis lexicon minus (New York: E. J. Brill, 1993),Google Scholar
  22. and R.E. Latham, Revised Medieval Latin Wordlist from British and Irish Sources (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).Google Scholar
  23. 40.
    Judith Butler, “Introduction,” in Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 15.Google Scholar
  24. 47.
    See Elizabeth Spelman, “Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views,” Feminist Studies 8.1 (1982):109–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 48.
    On the unchangeable chord, see Plato’s Timaeus in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), esp. paragraph 50c.Google Scholar
  26. 50.
    Luce Irigaray “La Mystérique,” Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 192.Google Scholar
  27. 51.
    Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, trans. William Harris Stahl (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 86–87.Google Scholar
  28. 55.
    Karma Lochrie, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Murderous Plots and Medieval Secrets,” in Premodern Sexualities, ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 143.Google Scholar
  29. See also Lochrie, “Men’s Ways of Knowing: The Secret of Secrets and the Secrets of Women,” in Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 93–134.Google Scholar
  30. See also Leah Lydia Otis, Prostitution in Medieval Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 21, 67. In addition, in the late Middle Ages, the terms ‘public women’ and lost girls’ further underscored the association of prostitutes with openness and loss.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 57.
    Thomas A. McGinn. Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 156–71, 208–11.Google Scholar
  32. See also Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Roman Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 129, 251–52. The cross-dressed prostitute reappears in medieval sumptuary laws.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 59.
    See Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, trans. Matthew Adamson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 23–24.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© E. Jane Burns 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Andrea Denny-Brown

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations