Teaching Other Voices: Women and Religion in Early Modern Europe

Teaching Other Voices: Women and Religion in Early Modern Europe

by Margaret L. King

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The books in The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series chronicle the heretofore neglected stories of women between 1400 and 1700 with the aim of reviving scholarly interest in their thought as expressed in a full range of genres: treatises, orations, and history; lyric, epic, and dramatic poetry; novels and novellas; letters, biography, and autobiography;


The books in The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series chronicle the heretofore neglected stories of women between 1400 and 1700 with the aim of reviving scholarly interest in their thought as expressed in a full range of genres: treatises, orations, and history; lyric, epic, and dramatic poetry; novels and novellas; letters, biography, and autobiography; philosophy and science. Teaching Other Voices: Women and Religion in Early Modern Europe complements these rich volumes by identifying themes useful in literature, history, religion, women's studies, and introductory humanities courses. The volume's introduction, essays, and suggested course materials are intended as guides for teachers--but will serve the needs of students and scholars as well.

Editorial Reviews

Renaissance Quarterly - Victoria L. Mondelli
"Undoubtedly this volume will aid anyone looking to engage students in early modern studies. . . . The essays present the religious, historical, and literary contexts for the texts and figures discussed, and describe how female figures and their texts can be used in diverse ways. Most valuable to readers will be the pedagogical insights and teaching methods put forth, as they are logical, creative, and student-centered."
Comitatus - Heather Sexton Graham
"Essentially a 'how to' text, the book functions as a step-by-step guide to teaching the written records of early modern women's religious experience to undergraduate and graduate students. . . . [The text] provides an intellectually rich basis upon which numerous courses can be developed and countless themes explored. Inclusions of particular interest to instructors are the outline of suggested courses and pedagogy modules developed from the essays included in the text. . . . Teaching Other Voices . . . should be standard reading for anyone studying the social and religious history of early modern Europe. . . . Without exception, the essays included in the text deal with 'real life' issues of teaching outside the standard narrative of European history. Not only are the individual discussions well organized and edited, but the supplementary information—teaching rubrics, study questions, classroom anecdotes—is invaluable."
Women in French Studies - Jolene Vos-Camy
"Nuns, saints and failed saints, reformed and reforming women will find their vopice in classrooms thanks to this useful volume for professors. . . . The majority of the essays are intriguing and inspiring in their examination of the pedagogical possibilities of the texts in question. . . . This volume will prove valuable for anyone wishing to incorporate a variety of early modern religious texts by European women into an undergraduate course."

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TEACHING OTHER VOICES Women and Religion in Early Modern Europe
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-43632-6


Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil Jr.

From 1350 to 1750, women as well as men were actively involved in Europe's religious struggles and aspirations. This introduction provides an overview of the religious history of the era, placing the religious experience of women specifically in the context of that standard narrative.

Many people think of the European Middle Ages as deeply religious, and the following period-the "Renaissance" or the "Early Modern"-as increasingly secular. On the contrary, the four centuries from 1350 to 1750 are a period of intense religious experience and institutional transformation. Consider the religious history of the period in fifty-year segments.

The period 1350-1400: As this period opens, the papacy is in its "Babylonian captivity" (1309-78). It has been removed from Rome to Avignon in Provence (modern France), a displacement signaling high tension between the papacy and secular politics throughout Europe. In 1378, the pope returns to Rome. His return, however, is followed by the "Great Schism" (1378-1415), when different sets of interest groups affiliate themselves with two different popes. Meanwhile, in the Low Countries and north Germany, a religious movement of laymen known as the devotio moderna ("new devotion") flourishes. It emphasizes personal responsibility in the pursuit of the religious life. The spiritual guide attributed to Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, is popular in this movement and elsewhere.

The period 1400-1450: The Great Schism is resolved by the Council of Constance, called for that purpose and to combat heresy. In addressing the matter of heresy, the Council condemns and executes Jan Hus (1369-1415), the Bohemian (Czech) religious reformer who had urged the reading of the Bible by the laity in vernacular translation and the right of laypersons to receive communion in "both kinds"-both bread and wine, the two elements that, according to Catholic doctrine, are transformed, respectively, into the body and blood of Christ during the sacrifice of the Mass. Upon the deposition of all three schismatic popes, the Council elects Martin V, who proceeds to Rome in 1417. The Constance gathering further marks the high point of conciliar theory, the set of arguments defending the case that papal power should be exercised in consultation with, or limited by, an assembly of delegates.

The period 1450-1500: In Rome, the papal authority is asserted in verbal communications as well as in an architectural and urbanistic program enhancing the figure of the pope and the iconic figure of Saint Peter, considered to have been the first in the papal succession. The popes establish the Vatican Library, approve a new drive to seek out and punish witchcraft, designate a meridian separating Portuguese and Spanish claims in the New World, and condemn the Florentine visionary and reformer, the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98), who is executed in 1498. The Spanish Inquisition is launched, and all unconverted Jews and Muslims are expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497.

The period 1500-1550: At the height of their power, the Renaissance popes are faced with a rebellion against their authority, the legitimacy of the sacraments, and the validity of the veneration of saints, led by the German Augustinian friar Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther himself had been preceded by a number of protoreformers, including the archhumanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), critic of empty ritual and abusive clerics and editor and translator of the original Greek New Testament. Many reformers join Luther's revolt, some launching independent reform traditions, as did the French scholar John Calvin (1509-64), who eventually becomes head of the Swiss Reformed Church at Geneva. In England, the king separates from the Catholic Church so that he may marry again and gain a male heir, bringing about in 1535 the martyrdom of the learned Thomas More (1478-1535), former lord chancellor of England. The term "Protestant" is used for the first time in 1529 by an alliance of reformed cities and principalities objecting to imperial attempts to dismantle the movement, and the Protestant Reformation is launched. The Scandinavian kingdoms, along with many of the German states, have established Lutheran churches. Both Protestants and Catholics persecute sectarian groups that also spring up in this period of religious change, among them principally the Anabaptists. The Spanish and Roman inquisitions staunch the tide of Protestantism in those regions. In Italy, the pope approves the formation of the Jesuit Order, dedicated to the service of the papacy and the expansion of Catholic Christianity. In Spain, the persecution of Jewish and Muslim converts continues.

The period 1550-1600: From Geneva, Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant churches spread in the Low Countries, Scotland, and France. In Geneva itself, Calvin asserts Protestant orthodoxy with the execution in 1553 of the Spanish physician and unitarian Michael Servetus (1511-53). England seesaws from Protestantism to Catholicism and back again, with a via media ("middle-of-the-way") Protestant Anglican church finally established-despite a minority Reformed, or Puritan, presence-in 1559. France is embroiled in religious warfare between Catholic and Protestant nobles and burghers, climaxing in the 1572 Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands of Protestants are killed. The struggle finally concludes with the ascension of the Protestant-born king Henry IV, who subsequently converts to Catholicism but issues in 1598 the Treaty of Nantes assuring religious toleration to his former coreligionists.

In the German lands, the Peace of Augsburg of 1556 settles nearly thirty years of intermittent war. That treaty establishes the principle cuius regio eius religio ("whosesoever realm it is, shall determine its religion"), meaning that each state determines which religion shall be established within its borders. In the northern provinces of the Low Countries, a Protestant revolution against Spanish overlordship is launched. Intermittently from 1545 to 1563, a church Council meets at Trent (Italy) to reaffirm papal authority, the validity of the sacraments, and the veneration of saints and to reform Catholic institutions in the face of the Protestant challenge.

In 1600-1650: Competition among the German states is fueled further by religious antagonisms, leading to the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) that will involve not only the German lands but also the Swedes, the Danes, and the French. By its conclusion, with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, political rivalries have overtaken religious issues as matters of contention. Meanwhile, in England, parliamentary leaders begin a civil war against the monarchy that has religious as well as political origins. It culminates in the execution of King Charles I (r. 1625-49) in 1649 and the ascendancy for a time of Puritan and sectarian currents. The revolution of the Netherlands is concluded with the constitution in 1648 of the Dutch Republic, largely Protestant, but tolerating all religious confessions. In Poland and the Habsburg lands, the Jesuits lead a successful drive to re-Catholicize regions that had previously adopted Protestant confessions. Throughout Europe, confessional boundaries become firmer and established churches extend the ways in which they exert discipline over church members.

In 1650-1700: The Interregnum, during which England is ruled by the Puritan general Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), ends in 1660, two years after the latter's death, with the Restoration of the Catholic king Charles II (r. 1660-85)-but not the restoration of Catholicism. Determined to prevent a lapse to Catholicism, Parliament intervenes in the reign of Charles's successor, his brother James II (1685-88), upon the birth of a Catholic male heir. James's Protestant daughter and her Protestant Dutch husband ascend to the throne. French king Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) revokes the Edict of Nantes in 1685, removing royal protection from French Protestants, called Huguenots, who now seek refuge in the Netherlands, England, and the American colonies. At home, the heterodox Jansenist movement, while remaining under the Catholic umbrella, attracts many followers. Among European Jews, messianic movements arise, especially that attracting the followers of Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76).

The period 1700-1750: John Wesley (1703-91) leads a reform movement within the Anglican Church that will eventually be designated the separate Methodist denomination, characterized by a more impassioned form of Christian piety. Similarly, in the German Lutheran lands, Pietism spreads, an evangelical and intensely pious form of Lutheranism. Hasidism, a popular and emotion-laden movement within Judaism, spreads in central and eastern Europe. Further west, many Jews seek assimilation into secular, mainstream society.

This brief recapitulation includes no mention of women and indeed could not rightly do so. With a very few exceptions, women were not at the forefront of the institutions or movements that contribute to the mainstream narrative of religious institutions and belief in this period. But neither were they absent. Women participated fully and critically in the religious history of the age, although generally from positions far from institutional or state power. The record of that participation gives us an alternate history.

The period 1350-1450: As in earlier centuries, women of mostly elite social origin are nuns resident in convents throughout Europe. They also participate in heretical movements and in the tolerated group of the Beguines (specific to the Low Countries and northern Germany), who form women-only communities outside the convent dedicated to spiritual reading and reflection and good works. In France, the hero of the Hundred Years' War, Joan of Arc (1412-31), who wages battles and helps secure the coronation of the king of France, is burned at the stake as a witch and heretic. The English anchoress, or hermit, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), writes of her mystical experience. A generation later, Margery Kempe (d. ca. 1438), mother of fourteen children, embarks on her unique and original version of the religious life outside the cloister. In Italy, the phenomenon of the "holy woman," an uncloistered solitary living an ascetic life alone or within a household, comes to the fore. Among these, the most famous is Catherine of Siena (see below), who vigorously urged the pope, then in Avignon, to return to Rome. Many women are active in the "tertiary" orders (as was Catherine) attached to Franciscan and Dominican houses that engage in charitable work. Women also participate in lay confraternities whose purpose is repentance, praise of God, and charitable service.

The period 1450-1550: Elite women of the High Renaissance acquire serious educations and often write on religious themes, among them Lucrezia Tornabuoni and Marguerite de Navarre (see below). Reform movements in the early 1500s, followed by Protestant and Catholic Reformations, attract women participants. In Italy, several high-ranking women patronize reformers and themselves give voice to evangelical opinions that would later be considered heretical. In the German lands, wives of reformers and of princely patrons of the Reformation act and write as advocates of the new religion. Cloistered women are faced with the alternatives of leaving the convent and joining the Reformation or remaining loyal to the old church, and they leave reflections of this predicament in their works. Women participate in the radical sects that emerge alongside mainstream Lutheran and Calvinist reform movements, often speaking as "prophets" and accepting martyrdom.

The period 1550-1750: Following the Council of Trent, women's religious activity is strictly limited in the Catholic countries. The extraclaustral phenomenon of the "holy woman" is delegitimized, and even the charitable and educational activities of laywomen are placed under ecclesiastical surveillance. The same holds for private life, with the priest in the confessional serving as an agent of the church in enforcing the Catholic domestic ideal. Under intense scrutiny, female mysticism continues as a dimension of religious experience; in this era, Saint Teresa of Avila is its most noted representative. In Protestant countries, where the cloister is no longer an option, bourgeois wives, widows, and noblewomen write devotional works. The radical sects, especially that of the Quakers, remain more open than mainstream Protestantism to women's activity as leaders or preachers. The Jansenist and Pietist revival movements in Catholicism and Protestantism, respectively, also attract female adherents.

The differential history of women's participation in religious life is striking in several ways. It has, to begin, longer arcs: we look at periods of a century or more at a time because of the greater continuities in women's religious activity.

Those continuities are tendencies not present in every figure, but in many of them; and they weave their way through the tapestry of women's religious expression. They include above all these four: first, the convent (or alternate type of informal female community) as a force that shapes women's lives; second, women's special pull toward inner vision and the mystical experience; third, the somatic expression of religious devotion, as participants in religious exercises and as agents of charitable service; finally, women's resistance to authority, seen in their evasion of limits on imagination and movement.

These tendencies are features of the religious experience of women in the period 1350-1750, as they were in the centuries from the sixth to the thirteenth. They will emerge as we look at the individuals examined in this book. The figures we highlight include a sampling of women writing about religion in the Western world during this era-some, not all-and all included here are Protestant or Catholic Christians. Omitted, because they are not yet represented in the Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series, are any exemplars of Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, or sectarian (Anabaptist, Quaker, and the like) female authorship.


The first group of women authors encountered is presented in two volumes in the Other Voice series. The first is an anthology of works by various holy women, including, among several others, Catherine of Siena (1347-80), a famous and representative figure; Francesca of Rome (Romana; 1384-1440); and Angela Merici of Brescia (1474-1540). The second consists of two brief works by the little-known Bartolomea Riccoboni (1395-1436). Of these figures named, Catherine was a Dominican tertiary, active in Siena and elsewhere in northern Italy; Francesca was the wife of a prosperous Roman burgher; Merici was a Franciscan tertiary; and Bartolomea was a nun in a Venetian convent. Their diverse circumstances give a sense of the multiplicity of possibilities available to devout women in medieval and Renaissance Italy.

And why was that? Because Italy in this period was a bustling center of commercial, political, and intellectual innovation. The northern half of the peninsula was home to some forty cities and many smaller towns and villages, aggregated in larger and smaller states of diverse political organization. Here a stratum of bankers and merchants engaged in profitable long-distance trade, and managers of textile industries, professionals including judges, notaries, physicians, and experts in canon and civil law, and highly skilled artisans dominated an urban society that was inexhaustibly inventive. This wealthy, urban society required and supported an intellectual elite, both lay and clerical, that not only produced essential documents for commerce and governments, but also engaged in creative thought.

This advanced urban society that many observers, incorrectly, have assumed was secular in fact gave women opportunities for religious expression and activity not found in the quieter, less populous, agricultural societies of some other parts of Europe, or an earlier era in Italy. (The Low Countries was the one other region that offered women similar opportunities.) In those more traditional settings, most of the women engaged in religious expression were nuns drawn from prominent families; in Italy, their origins and their destinies were both more varied.


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Meet the Author

Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil Jr. edit The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series for the University of Chicago Press.

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