Engraving of Amazon warrior queen in On Famous Women, 1497


This book from 1497, known as De claris mulieribus (On Famous Women) is an update of Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous work De mulieribus claris (1375), the first collection of biographies of women in Western literature. This update was written in Latin by Jacobus Philippus Foresti (1434–1520), an Augustinian monk and author from Italy.

On the verso of the title page is a detailed woodcut depicting the author presenting the book to Queen Beatrice of Hungary, to whom it is dedicated. The following extract shows a description and illustrative woodcut of Panthesilea (also Penthesilea), an Amazon Queen. She wears armour and a helmet, and carries a spear and shield.

Elizabethan Amazons

In the Elizabethan period there was a fascination with and fear of Amazons. They were described both in Greek legends and in contemporary travel writing (about the New World, Africa and the Middle East), and adopted as a trope in English literature of the period. The idea of a colony of women who governed themselves without men, who fought in battle like men, who either spurned men (with implications of lesbianism) or used them sexually, and even killed them, had the power to both challenge and re-confirm early modern ideas about gender roles. Amazons were often described in Elizabethan literature as unwomanly: York, in Henry VI, Part 3, says of Margaret, ‘How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex / To triumph like an Amazonian trull’ (1.4.113–14). They were also presented as needing to be (and being) killed or tamed and brought under (male) control. Fears and fantasies about Amazon warriors resonated with fears and fantasies about female monarchs.

Shakespeare’s Amazons and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

In Greek legend, Hippolyta was an Amazon Queen who was taken as a prize by Theseus of Athens after he had conquered her in battle (although some Renaissance writers tell the story with Hippolyta and the Amazons as the victors). Shakespeare’s Theseus alludes to this conquest when he says: ‘Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries.’ (1.1.16–17) Shakespeare’s Hippolyta seems to have been tamed; her role is largely silent and accepting of Theseus’s authority. The trope of the Amazon tamed acts as a backdrop against which the other gendered power struggles (Hermia and Egeus; Titania and Oberon; the four lovers) play out.

Full title:
De plurimis claris sceletisq mulieribus
1497, Ferrara
Book / Folio / Woodcut / Illustration / Image
Jacobus Philippus Foresti
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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