Unyoked Is Best!

Anna Bijns (1493-1575) survived the tumult of the Reformation in Antwerp through her sharp wit and barbed pen. "Sour rather than sweet" was her motto, and this unmarried--indeed, misogamic--schoolmistress attacked Lutherans with gusto. She was the most widely read woman of her time in her language; some considered her to be among the most famous women of the sixteenth century. In her lifetime, Bijns published three collections of poems, mostly anti-Reformation and works of prayer and piety. She also wrote voluminous refrains in other modes, from the amorous to the wise. Throughout, Bijns expressed the need for self-reliance, freedom from domination, and independence.

It's not clear why Anna Bijns never married. The daughter of a master tailor with property, she was not impoverished or in ill health. But her sister's marriage was unhappy, and this may have influenced Anna's disposition toward the institution. While the following poem does not refer explicitly to child-rearing, it expresses clear antipathy to the circumstances in which children would be born. The complete poem can be found in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation; here are the first two stanzas:

Unyoked Is Best! Happy the Woman Without a Man

How good to be a woman, how much better to be a man!

Maidens and wenches, remember the lesson you're about to hear.

Don't hurtle yourself into marriage far too soon.

The saying goes: "Where's your spouse? Where's your honor?"

But one who earns her board and clothes

Shouldn't scurry to suffer a man's rod.

So much for my advice, because I suspect--

Nay, see it sadly proven day by day--

'T happens all the time!

However rich in goods a girl might be,

Her marriage ring will shackle her for life.

If however she stays single

With purity and spotlessness foremost,

Then she is lord as well as lady. Fantastic, not?

Though wedlock I do not decry:

Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.

Fine girls turning into loathly hags--

'Tis true! Poor sluts! Poor tramps! Cruel marriage!

Which makes me deaf to wedding bells.

Huh! First they marry the guy, luckless dears,

Thinking their love just too hot to cool.

Well, they're sorry and sad within a single year.

Wedlock's burden is far too heavy.

They know best whom it harnessed.

So often is a wife distressed, afraid.

When after troubles hither and thither he goes

In search of dice and liquor, night and day,

She'll curse herself for that initial "yes."

So beware ere you begin.

Just listen, don't get yourself into it.

Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man.

Kristiaan P. G. Aercke, "Anna Bijns: Germanic Sappho," in Katharina M. Wilson, ed. Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1987): 365-397.

#LowCountries #1500s #alternatives #marriage

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© 2016 by Rachel Chrastil