Power of Women

Aquamanile in the Form of Aristotle and Phyllis, bronze,  late 14th or early 15th century, South Netherlandish

The above object is an aquamanile (a receptacle used for washing the hands before a meal) dating from the late 14th or early 15th century. It depicts a popular moralizing tale of the day in which Phyllis, a lover of the youthful Alexander the Great, dupes Alexander's tutor Aristotle, the celebrated philospher, into allowing her to humiliate him in return for promised sexual favours, thus exposing Aristotle's hypocrisy in censuring Alexander for his trysts with Phyllis. There were a number of such stories celebrating the wiles of women that were illustrated in the decorative arts at that time, and the theme is today referred to as the Power of Womentopos  by art historians.

* (''Weibermacht'' in German) 

Susan L. Smith at the University of California, San Diego, is credited as being the first to explore the topos  in her famous 1978 thesis . Her 1995 book explores the development of the topos  from the early mysogonist 4th century writings of the church fathers to its celebration in late medieval decorative arts, through to its revival in the popular weibermacht  prints of the Northern Renaissance and its final assimilation in later Renaissance painting.

Both the German and French wikipedias offer excellent articles (linked above) on the  topos. The English article is a relatively recent contribution (started March 2015) supplied by Aaij and Johnbod. It is not a good article in our view and attempts to improve it by our tireless and elegantly enabled new researcher Amy were reverted by Johnbod following her block by Aaij.

On this page we examine the merits of the article and point out that in fact it marginalizes Susan Smith's contributions. We show how the article was designed to remain within Aaij's cartel and how it was used by Johnbod essentially as a vehicle to gain another DYK badge for his User page.

We have already examined some features, at least, of Johnbod's editing, and we can usefully start by doing the same for Aaij, who has set himself up as the champion of Wikipedia content creators.

Aaij's editing was discussed at the Wikipediocracy forum a little while ago. Eric Barbour,  a noted analyst and critic of Wikipedia, started the thread, essentially querying the value of Aaij's editing. Response was not especially focussed and somewhat polarized (one of us contributed at the end of thread defending how Aaij chooses to spend his time, which it has to be said is very considerably devoted to editing on Wikipedia, especially at the infamous drama boards). To be fair to Aaij, his supporters would seem to outweigh his detractors as he was comfortably elected to the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee (the mother of all drama boards), in the 2015 elections. No one stepped up to defend his editing, however. His start on Daniel's tufted-tailed rat was cited as an example of Aaij editing outside his specialism, where his intent seems rather to parrot and parade expertise than inform. We think his Power of Women start is of the same ilk. 

Another noted critic at the forum remarked: "My impression of Drmies [Aaij's moniker] at this point is that he is a professor who goes out of his way, cussing and swearing, to demonstrate that he is not an ivory tower, stuffy academic, that's he isn't pretentious. But he still seems to expect editors to respect his authority and things usually go badly when he is challenged by an editor he doesn't already have a friendly relationship with or who isn't a fellow admin." The interesting thing here is that this critic, Liz,  went on to apply for adminship at Wikipedia, and she was opposed vehemently by Aaij, who complained of her lack of content creation. The debate spilled onto Wikipediocracy and Reddit, and Liz's application only succeeded by the narrowest of margins as a result. One of Aaij's camp followers, Sagaciousphil, was recently blocked for a quite fantastically unpleasant attack on Liz in which, amongst other things, she called Liz not worth the dirt on her shoes, this again for her perceived lack of content creation if you please.

Coat had to do with Aaij. She thought him quite simply repulsive. C1cada's interaction was more curious. It happens that the Wikipedia article Boy is illustrated by Aaij's latest little sprog, as we record for the attention of a too credulous world here. Of course on-wiki one wishes to be gallant, but off-wiki we can perhaps allow ourselves to observe more candidly that this is in the first place not a very good photo and in the second place Aaij's sprog (how to put this?) is no more photogenic than (shall we say) his pater is. C1cada thought to replace the image with another more attractive and less eurocentric. Red Gerda immediately stepped in and amongst other consequences Aaij jolly well took C1cada's lovingly crafted sandbox article on the Dutch art collector Petronella Oortman and jolly well put it in article space himself. Nevertheless he introduced several significant errors in so doing, notably that Jessie Burton's enterprising first novel The Miniaturist  is based on Petronella's life story. It is nothing of the sort (virtually nothing is known about Petronella), but rather centers around the doll-house she curated. C1cada's opening salvo in the boy drama suggested it would be more relevant if Aaij uploaded an image in which the penis was visible, possession of said represented by the article as the most significant defining feature of boydom. That seems to have led to (shall we say) an unfortunate impression on Aaij's part (but not as unfortunate shall we say as this from the distinguished  Emeritus Professor of Wikipedia at Auburn Mongomery). Mutual suspicions of sexual perversity aside, we came away with the conviction that Aaij basically sucks as a content creator. 

Aaij began the Power of Women article with this start. It is so curiously poor we think it worth reproducing:

What to say about this? It is after all just the sort of thing instructors impress upon their students to avoid. More than half the article is copy-paste and there is no attempt to build a coherent narrative. Wikipedia has a number of guidance pages on editing. This one is on close paraphrasing and a glance at it shows that guidance has not been followed here.

There is the question of sources. The first is from a journal on  church (rather than art) history reviewing Susan Smith's 1995 book, where the quote by Susan Smith is copied from the first page, available on the internet in lieu of an abstract. The second is from another review of the book, this one a single paragraph notice, and used to cite "classical literature", but the review talks of "classical rhetoric". The third is a significant source available free on JStor to registered users, but nothing of it is used other than to note some of Smith's less quoted literary sources for the topos. The fourth is a tertiary source, i.e. to say an encyclopaedic source, of the sort Wikipedia discourages, and is from an entry on the later so-called Woman on Top  development of the topos, while finally the fifth, a Google books cite, is a single paragraph allusion to the same later development. One can mention in passing that the faux  academia jargon "argues" and "finds" especially grate on the ears of a sophisticated native speaker of English.

But it is the writing out of Susan L. Smith that is so completely astonishing. She is quoted from a secondary source, but neither her 1978 thesis nor her 1995 book expansion is cited. Her program is not properly discussed (rather it is misrepresented), nor is her groundbreaking contribution to the study of the topos acknowledged. The suspicion must be that Aaij simply wasn't aware of the central importance of her work, or if he was that he did not care to acknowledge it.

Is the article the work of an enthusiast anxious to share their subject?  We think not. 

And yet Aaij was content enough with his start not to attach an article stub template to it. The purpose of such templates is to attract other editors  to the article. Without such a stub, editors interested in expanding such article starts are unlikely to find it. Nor did he provide any links to his new article start from other articles.  Articles without such links into to it are called orphan articles and are discouraged by Wikipedia as it means editors are unlikely to find it short of making a direct seach for it. Finally Aaij thought not to provide a link to a Wikiproject (such as the Visual Arts project). Again these serve to attract new editors. It's hard not to conclude that Aaij simply didn't want other editors to alight uninvited at the article.

What Aaij did do was to post this at the Talk page of a Wikipedia editor Ealdgyth who edits on medieval topics:

while this is what Ainsworth actually says:

There is something faintly implausible , if not comical (and for that matter outrightly suspect), in a professor of Medieval Literature confessing to not knowing anything about one of the most actively researched topics in his speciality in the past forty years, one indeed leading to something of a revolution in art history (the link is the second result on our servers on a Google search on Smith's work as we write January 2016). Susan Smith's book is cited more than 70 times in a Google scholar search. This is a famous and celebrated book (also very expensive now that it's out of print). At any rate, linking the article in the Talk page post title as Aaij did meant that the article escaped being tagged as "orphan", thus being brought to the attention of a wider group of editors, including those starting to edit at Wikipedia, as an article in need of attention. As for the editor Ealdgyth, she expressed disinterest.

An editor who did express interest a few days later was Johnbod, who evidently watches Ealdgyth's Talk page. Johnbod is also a member of Aaij's editing cartel. When Hafspajen, the very problematic  and hopelessly incompetent editor Aaij is so curiously protective of, complained to Aaij that Johnbod had reverted Hafspajen's infantile edits at the article on Michelangelo, Aaij was quick to defend Johnbod  (nevertheless not missing the chance to allude to Johnbod' s ingestive talent, the flowering of which can be admired here among some 80 other tributes uploaded to Commons ) and there have been many interactions between the two on their Talk pages.

Johnbod edited extensively at the article over the next few days and on 4 April put another note on Ealdgyth's Talk page to the effect that he was done and had gone a "bit nuts". We can assess his editing there  on the basis of the article at that date.

It's certainly a fair effort and we have no real quarrel with it on the understanding that others might also edit there to correct and expand. That understanding  we shall see is in practice a question. There are features worth remarking, nevertheless.

In his first note on Ealdgyth's Talk page, Johnbod offered H. Diane Russell's 1990 Eva/Ave; Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints  as a source. This is a book that Johnbod might well have for sale at his website. It contains a section devoted to the topos whose introduction is often quoted, for example in Kendra Jo Grimmett's recent doctoral thesis (at page 52) and by Maryan Wynn Ainsworth, author of the first source cited by Johnbod, one  devoted to later German paintings and not to the topos itself.  It's curious that Johnbod was reluctant to cite Russell directly, actively resisting it in the case of our own editor. In her discussion, Russell stresses that the topos originated in medieval decorative arts and then became newly popular towards the end of the fifteenth century with the weibermacht  prints. It was only after this that it entered later Northern Renaissance painting. None of this is properly delineated in Johnbod's edit and in the second paragraph there is an error of dating in suggesting that paintings of subjects such as Judith beheading Holofernes appeared as early as the 15th century. We mention this as an example of what Aaaij claims is Wikipedia's version of peer review failing, indeed likely to happen if an editor brooks no correction or if expert editors cannot find their way to an article.

Especially unfortunate is Johnbod's selection of Lucas Cranach the Elder's  painting Judith with the Head of Holofornes  as the lead image in the article. Early in his editing Johnbod had inserted in the Judith beheading Holofornes article this edit to the effect that this subject was one of the most common subjects depicted in the topos. But this is simply not so. Judith was generally depicted as a heroine and worthy woman and it is in this first section of her book devoted to this theme (pages 29 to 75 supplied by Bernadine Barnes)  that Russell includes all their examples of Judith images without including a single example in the Power of Women  section (pages 147 to 177). At page 33 she discusses how Judith was only later sexualised as a femme fatale  and at note 45 page 35 remarks (quoting Susan Smith 1978, 278-279) that images of Judith in the topos were much less common than those as a heroine. Finally Ainsworth herself remarks it is not clear whether the Met's example of Cranach's painting was meant to be installed as a weibermacht subject (at page 66). The museum itself describes Judith as a virtuous heroine  in its write-up of the painting.

There is in addition a significant issue in the way Johnbod has quoted Ainsworth. This can be seen comparing his edit with the source. This is how his edit starts, quoting Ainsworth:

Without labouring the issue, it's clear that Johnbod ought to have started, " ... [a medieval and Renaissance artistic and literary topos] exemplifying 'the power or wiles of women' ..." Note that Judith is not amongst the tales listed by Ainsworth and that her citation [10] is in fact citing Russell. The effect of Johnbod's selective use of Ainsworth is to reinforce Judith as a Power of Women  subject whereas in reality, as Russell makes clear, in the Apocryphal account Judith did not use her feminine wiles to gain entry into Holofornes' tent (he was drunk). Her act  was regarded at the time of the weibermacht  prints as an act of heroism and not as an exercise of feminine wiles.

These are matters that should have been picked up in any peer review process worthy of the name and would have been by our editor were she not blocked by Aaij, of which more later.

Johnbod might have been influenced in his choice of Judith as the lead image by Aaij's evident fascination with Judith, carrying on his Talk page for a long time Artemesia's Gentileschi's enterprising treatment of it and reproduced in the article itself. But the fact is Judith was a late addition to the topos at a time when it was in the process of assimilation into late Renaissance painting and it's a very poor and confusing choice for the lead image.

When Johnbod said he had gone a "bit nuts" editing the article, no doubt he was striving to give the impression that his enthusiasm for the topic had got the better of him. The cynic in us, however, leads us to suspect that in reality he had a DYK (Did You Know) in his sights. These are eagerly collected by editors wishing to make their way up in the Wikipedia heirarchy, as they are proof of content creation: either you must have made an article start or significantly expanded an existing article to qualify for one. Aaij had a whole raft of them displayed on his User page before Hafspajen gave him a head (dreadful grammar as always) for making it into Arbcom. Likewise Johnbod has a section devoted to them on his user page (including Power of Women).  We can't fault Johnbod's choice of DYK "that images of the Power of Women, such as Phyllis Riding Aristotle (example pictured), decorated several Renaissance German town halls?" but we could have wished a fuller discussion in the article. No doubt they were meant to amuse both men and women but they doubtlessly had a more serious purpose in reminding town councillors of the all too human failings that all men are prey too (New York 1986 cat. 329 cited in Russell). And his boundless enthusiasm might well have extended to uploading to Commons Dürer's drawing, which is still extant (indeed cat. 329 just cited) as one of his footnotes record and which he could have sensibly used as illustration. That was left to our own editor to supply. For the record , we can note that the DYK review process essentially consisted in Woodrich rubber-stamping the nomination. We also find Aaij thanking Johnbod on behalf of readers all over the world. Evidently worth a head or two in the great man's estimation.

We can turn now to our editor Amy's contributions under her moniker KIC 8462852 . She began by linking the German article. Her main edit was to provide a new lead definition quoting Russell and this was eventually modified by us to read as follows:

This is a plainly better definition and Johnbod at first left it alone. Unfortunately, as we shall see momentarily, he reverted it at the first opportunity (in his lights anyway) he decently could.

This came about because Amy also edited on the topos  at other articles as well. In particular she edited quite extensively at Casket with Scenes of Romances (Walters 71264), where she provided most of the Gothic ivories database section (with helpful assistance from Johnbod it must be conceded).  She also provided a BLP (Biography of a Living Person) for Susan L. Smith. She then thought to provide one for Aaij (archived here and copied here on our site). For reasons that are not clear to us, Aaij took this as a personal effront and blocked Amy. In turn Johnbod reverted her edits at Power of Women. We interceded on her behalf, but to no avail. You can read the discussion on the Talk page of the article in the Lede Description of the Topos section.

It would be nice to see other editors contributing at the article.