What Is Manly? What Is Womanly?


Annapolis -- On this page March 11, Delegates Tim Malone and Sheila Hixson provided a clear and compelling argument that "Fatti Maschii Parole Femine" is not the state motto, but it belongs to George Calvert. It should be retained with any representation of the 1648 Great Seal of Maryland. To remove it would be to tamper with an important link to Maryland's colonial achievements, not the least of which were the Calvert efforts to provide a context for religious freedom far in advance of what England had to offer.

The controversy over the Calvert family motto stems from what many believe is its meaning. In 1969 the archivist of Maryland had the temerity to offer a translation, "Deeds are manly, words are womanly" that for a time was written into law. The sexist implications of this translation were repealed in 1975, when the legislature endorsed an older "loose" translation, "manly deeds, womanly words."

There is no doubt about the prevalent meaning of Fatti Maschii Parole Femine in George Calvert's day. In 1622 when his Italian motto was added to the Calvert family coat of arms, its English translation was in common use, generally expressed as "Deeds are Men, Words are Women." In other words, men act and women just talk too much.

Scholars like Erasmus and poets like John Florio (according to Professor P. A. Parker of Stanford University) argued eloquently in prose and poetry that words are precious, persuasive and far more important than military or other aggressive acts, but their opinions remained in the minority.

But does the popular meaning of the phrase in the 17th century have to be carried unalterably into the present as the best "loose" translation? I think not. The whole history of Maryland to which the use of the Great Seal of 1648 pays tribute argues

persuasively that the meaning of words can and should change.

We can never know for certain what was in the mind of George Calvert in 1622 when he chose his motto. We can, however, speculate on the basis of the surviving evidence that George Calvert may have been influenced by the scholarly minority that was striving to reinterpret the phrase. Calvert was a much maligned but thoroughly dedicated diplomat in the service of King James I who prided himself on the use of words to calm the stormy world of court politics and international intrigue on behalf of his sovereign.

The saying, as Professor Parker makes clear, was widely known in 17th-century England, both in its Italian and English form. George Herbert, a contemporary of Calvert, translates it in his "Jacula Prudentum" (from which, by the way, Benjamin Franklin drew a number of his familiar "Poor Richard" maxims) as "words are women; deeds are men." Did Calvert mean it as Herbert did to imply that he was a man of action while others sat behind in England like women only talking about what they might do? Or did he mean it to imply something quite different, aligning himself with a poet like John Florio?

George Calvert often found himself in the minority and his son Cecil (with the help of his brothers Leonard and Philip) forged a whole colony around the principle of trying to protect a diversity of opinions. In his personal life, George Calvert proved compassionate and supportive of his many daughters, providing them with education and ample legacies. He is known to have braved the plague to care for the maid in his household who had charge of his youngest son, Philip.

Indeed, in February, 1625, when he was granted a coat of arms on his elevation to an Irish passage, he chose to incorporate elements of his wife's family shield into his own, quietly reinforcing the idea that women in the Calvert household played more than a passive role in shaping the destiny of the family, and, for that matter, the colony of Maryland.

None of this, of course, proves that George Calvert chose a family motto in defiance of its popular meaning, but as a Jesuit friend of mine suggests, perhaps we owe him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we should change the present "loose" translation embedded in Maryland law to a more modern translation that may well reflect George Calvert's intent, but which also forcefully states what is intended every time a document is stamped with the great seal of Maryland.

My friend offers: "Strong in Deeds; Gentle in Words."

Such a translation would be in keeping with what the poet John Florio advocates in his preface to "A World of Wordes" (1598):

"Some perhaps will except against the sex [Florio writes], and not allow it. . . . As our Italians say, Le parole sono femine, & i fatti sono maschii, words they are women, and deeds they are men. But let such know that detti and fattii, words and deeds with me are all of one gender, and though they were commonly feminine, why might not I, by strong imagination (which physicians give so much power unto), alter their sex?"

Why not? And why should not Maryland adopt as its motto: "Strong in Deeds, Gentle in Words."

Edward C. Papenfuse is state archivist and commissioner of land patents.

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