Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England

Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England

by Erica Longfellow


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Challenging critical assumptions about the role of religion in influencing women's experiences of authorship, the seventeenth-century Protestant women discussed in this book range across the entire religio-political and social spectrums. Yet, all display an affinity with modern feminist theologians. Rather than being victims of a patriarchal gender ideology, these women were active participants in wider theological debates.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780521837583
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publication date: 07/01/2004
Pages: 241
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.67(d)

About the Author

Erica Longfellow is Senior Lecturer in English at Kingston University.

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Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England
Cambridge University Press
0521837588 - Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England - by Erica Longfellow


The poetry of Lady Anne Southwell (1574-1636) would startle anyone who believes that early modern women were constrained to be always chaste, silent and obedient. Southwell's lyrics, which she and her husband together collected into a manuscript book, were particularly critical of how men manipulated gender roles in order to keep women in their place. Consider the following poem:

All.maried.men.desire.to.haue good wifes:
but.few.giue good example. by thir liues
They are owr head they wodd haue vs thir heles.
this makes the good wife kick the good man reles.
When god brought Eue to Adam for a bride
the text sayes she was taene from out mans side
A simbole of that side, whose sacred bloud.
flowed for his spowse, the Churches sauinge good.
This is a misterie, perhaps too deepe.
for blockish Adam that was falen a sleepe[.]1

Poor Adam frequently takes a beating in Southwell's poetry, as a symbol of all that is obstinate and foolish about men who crave power over women but do not understand the responsibility that comes with it. These men force women to be 'good wifes', to follow the command of St Paul's epistle to the Ephesians that wives must submit themselves to their husbands; but they refuse to follow the moral standard Paul sets for husbands, that they must love their wives to the point of self-sacrifice. Instead these husbands simply force their wives to obey, and if their wives rebel, Southwell's poem suggests, it is the husbands' own fault.

Southwell's poem is effective because it weaves a critique of the gender relations in Christian marriage into a statement about a universal Christian principle: men who abuse their wives are so foolish that they miss the greatest mystery of all, Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Her poem neatly demonstrates that gendered morals - what it means to be a good wife or a good husband - can only be understood within the context of the underlying truths of Christianity that apply to both men and women, particularly the saving capacity of sacrificial love. Any husband who misconstrues this principle will not be able to put his own privilege of headship in the right context. To his sleepy brain, the mystery is simply too deep.

But what is the 'misterie' in this poem? That the relationship between God and his people was like a marriage was an idea older than Christianity, and by the early modern period it had come to be known as 'mystical marriage'.2 It is the strange process by which the divine Christ and the sinful human soul, made clean through his sacrifice, 'doe meet and make a mariage', as John Donne preached in one of his nuptial sermons.3 Mystical marriage is not, in fact, a straightforward metaphor - if any metaphor ever is straightforward - but rather a cluster of Biblical descriptions of love drawn from Hosea, the Psalms, Ezekiel, I Corinthians 7, Revelation 22 and especially the Song of Songs. These were all read through the lens of Ephesians chapter 5, which likens the love of Christ for the Church to the love of a man for his wife and provided a loose framework under which to unite these variant texts. The Song of Songs, for example, is a collection of erotic love lyrics with only one oblique reference to God, but early modern commentators took it as read that the male speaker represented the voice of divine love and the female speaker the voice of sinful humanity.4

Beyond the identification of who was divine and who was human, however, it was difficult to say exactly who the players in this romance were. In post-Reformation English commentaries the speakers of the Song are variously identified as the historical King Solomon and his bride, Christ and all individual Christians, Christ and his bride the Church, Christ and the soul (always female), or even Christ and the 'Christian Man', whispering sweet nothings in each other's ears.5 The multiplicity of allegorical players opened the way for mystical marriage in general, and the Song of Songs in particular, to be used to talk about a wide array of issues. Male theologians, particularly Puritan male theologians, most often focused on the relationship between Christ and the Church, because mystical marriage provided them with a way to promote their particular ecclesiology as the true bride of Christ, all the while damning other systems, Roman, Laudian or radical Protestant, as merely whorish impostors. Following the passage in Ephesians, these writers imagined the Church as a woman, the bride of Christ, but they had no qualms about the fact that this female institution was in fact made up of both male and female believers, and controlled almost entirely by powerful men. Christ's love effectively transcended gender and blurred the distinction between the individual and the community: 'And that Iesus Christ is he,' George Wither asserted, 'who in this Song professeth an intire affection, not onely to the whole Mysticall body of the faithfull, but euen to euery member of it in particular.'6

The confusions between male and female, the believer and the Church, open up possibilities for early modern writers to negotiate gendered power relations, whether real or metaphorical. For generations of men, this meant the chance to use the feminine gender, and human marriage, as a convenient shorthand. The first chapter of this book considers the theological heritage of mystical marriage, demonstrating how Puritan male writers of the seventeenth century exploited the femaleness of the 'Bride' to invoke a traditional principle of women's utter submission to men: the Church and the soul were completely inferior to Christ, and therefore must obey him. Although this was one way, metaphorically, of imagining women's role, it was not one that had kept pace with the prevailing views on human marriage in the early modern period. These writers were in fact far more concerned with evoking the mystery than with defining marriage, and their statements about the Bride of Christ cannot be read as indicative of their standards for the brides of men.

For women writers mystical marriage offered the opportunity to do precisely what the men did not: to rewrite the human aspects of the metaphor, particularly what it meant to be a devout Christian woman. Southwell's poem demonstrates the special facility that the metaphor offered to women who had to craft a position between the conflicting gender roles of human relationships and the ultimately ungendered truths of divine love. This study is an exploration of how women writers like Southwell seized upon the fluidity of gender in mystical marriage scriptures in order to claim authority for their own religious writing. For some women, like Southwell and Aemilia Lanyer (1568-1645), mystical marriage enabled them to conceive a moral standard that was beyond gender, a Christ in whom there truly was no male or female (Galatians 3:28). For others, mystical marriage was the primary legitimiser of their speech: both Anna Trapnel (b. 1620) and the anonymous author of Eliza's babes (1652) use their metaphorical identity as the bride of Christ to justify their politically and socially subversive speech. Finally, some women use mystical marriage in much the same way as men, as a means of talking not about human marriage but about divine providence in human institutions; Lucy Hutchinson (1619/20-81), the subject of the final chapter, is the prime example, as she uses notions of divine union to talk about the new English Republic that both she and her husband had longed to inaugurate.


Although mystical marriage is the unifying theme of this study, Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England is not a history of the mystical marriage metaphor, which would be better written as a balance of texts by both men and women. It is rather a series of case studies of five women writers that uses the common metaphor of mystical marriage as a means of bringing into focus a cross-section of early modern women's experience of authorship. This study operates within the feminist critical framework that is deliberately attentive to early modern women writers, removing them from the margins to the centre of the critical project.

At the same time, however, this study also seeks to push the boundaries of feminist critical frameworks for reading early modern women. Since the 'first wave' of such criticism in the 1980s, feminist critics have only recently begun to theorise an approach to early modern women writers.7 We have yet to decide between the goals of historicising our own feminism and recovering the history of early modern women, or to grapple with the fact that these goals may be mutually exclusive. That there is no consistent definition of 'feminist' criticism and its aims is perhaps not surprising or even unhealthy in a movement that encompasses individuals who are a cross-section of society in all but their gender. Nevertheless, these theoretical lacunae cannot simply be ignored, for it is only in the scrutiny of such theoretical issues that the prejudices and partialities of modern criticism become apparent. What sort of early modern women are we interested in? Are we still desperately seeking Virginia Woolf 's Judith Shakespeare, as so many essays on Aemilia Lanyer suggest? Or is our project one of historical recovery, with its difficult balancing act of weighing awareness of modern agendas against the desire to be as objective as possible? How do women writers fit within the confines and paradigms of modern literary studies? Should we be looking for what is unique about women writers?

These are threatening questions. They go to the heart of critical inquiry: what do we hope to gain from a study of early modern women? This book is an attempt to address this fundamental question by approaching early modern women with a deliberate awareness of such issues. It posits a method of studying women writers with a clear purpose: historicising our understanding of them, in particular how they negotiated gender and authority in religious discourse. This study works to reclaim not early modern feminists but the historical actors who until recently had disappeared from scholarly history. As a historian and a critic, I aspire to be honest about my biases, clear about my judgements, open about the strengths and weaknesses of each woman's work and careful about when a woman's work is opposed to conventional gender standards, when it is collusive and when (perhaps most often) it negotiates between these two poles.

This is painstaking business, and it requires careful, microcosmic attention to a handful of early modern women in order to historicise the categories that were once assumed. Each chapter considers elements of the author's biography, not for the sake of any simplistic equation between women's lives and their writings (characteristic of much early anti-feminist criticism of women writers), but for the purpose of situating these women and their writings in the precise nexus of family, factional and economic capital that went into constructing an individual's status.8 In order to work against the temptation to essentialise women, the writers of this study are as diverse as possible, from widely different family, religious, geographical and educational backgrounds.9 At the beginning of the time-scale, Aemilia Bassano Lanyer was a Londoner who aspired to move beyond her Italian-Jewish musician origins to a place in a gentry family or even a knighthood for her husband; perhaps in keeping with these aspirations, her theology is unexceptionable English Calvinism. Lucy Apsley Hutchinson, at the other end, was a staunch Independent and republican who was lavishly educated by her gentry father and married into one of the provincial elite families in Nottinghamshire. In terms of wealth, education, social connections and historical circumstances, it is difficult to imagine two more different women. The purpose of this book is, in part, to highlight these differences, to demonstrate how such identifying factors functioned along with gender to shape a woman's approach to writing.

This strategy is in keeping with the work of literary critics who are rethinking approaches to early modern gender relations and particularly the tendency to rely on outdated social history for our understanding of women's place in society.10 Life for women in early modern England was certainly not as easy or as liberated as life for women in twenty-first-century England. There was an ethic demanding women's subordination to men and ridiculing their attempts to write. But this was only one of many competing strands of discourse, and it was a strand frequently contradicted or at least modified in women's actual experience, as more recent social historical work proves. Although they had considerably less access to education and official forms of power, in daily activity most women who were not servants enjoyed economic agency, and the social and intellectual accomplishments of many gentlewomen and noblewomen crucially smoothed their families' paths to elevation and preferment.11 As these instances illustrate, 'patriarchy' was never uniform: a woman's experience of 'patriarchy' and her relation to writing in particular was always a result of economics, geography, social status and religious affiliation. In practice, women's writing seldom functioned in direct opposition to men and patriarchal culture, but rather was part of a process of negotiating gendered power roles that involved the agency of both men and women.

By locating a woman's social, economic and religious affiliations as precisely as the evidence allows, the following case studies open a way for exploring the interrelations between these identifying factors and gender and power. Through their writing, the women of this book experienced complex interactions with men and male systems of authority in which they were continually negotiating power relationships. A critical moment in Lucy Hutchinson's Life of her husband comes when she tells her readers that her husband was initially drawn to her because of her skills as a linguist and poet, while the women of their social circle urged him against the match because they believed no woman could be so studious and still be sociable and physically attractive. The example serves as a neat demonstration of the existence of competing ideals of femininity, and that men and women did not always take sides on this debate in the ways twenty-first-century readers might anticipate. This book works not to summarise or encapsulate these gender standards, but rather to expose their conflicting and fluid incarnations, and particularly how women play an active part in the constant redefinition of these ideals, in ways that are not always straightforwardly subversive.

In addition to biography, each chapter also investigates the bibliographic evidence of the writer's works to clarify how the material production of a text, whether in print or manuscript, informed a woman's experience of writing. The texts explored here cover almost all available bibliographic forms: loose papers, drafts, manuscript collections, commonplace books, presentation copies and small and large format printed books. Examining each of these objects as objects, reading the physical appearance of the texts as well as the words on the page, can yield provocative conclusions about the significance of a woman's writing within religious and social power structures. These conclusions support a model of textual exchange in which women's writing served as an important form of currency, spent in the effort to advance political religious agendas or social ambitions. Anna Trapnel's 1658 folio, for example, seems to have carried an enormous weight of authority in her circle of Fifth Monarchist sectarians, almost as if it were a new form of scripture. Lady Anne Southwell's manuscripts, on the other hand, betray evidence of husband and wife working together to exploit her poetic reputation for social and perhaps financial gain.

The case studies of Trapnel, Southwell and the other writers of this book are an effort to extend the work of social historians of texts into the realm of women's writing. Peter Beal, Harold Love and Arthur Marotti's studies of manuscript production and circulation have enhanced our view of the interplay between manuscript and print as early modern forms of publication.12 In her 1993 book Writing Women's Literary History, Margaret Ezell addressed the importance of such methods to an approach to women's writing that goes beyond simple oppositional modes. Ezell demonstrated that the theoretical basis of criticism of early modern women writers was heavily dependent on Virginia Woolf 's ahistorical view of women's literary past, and particularly Woolf 's paradigms of women's authorship, which elevated writers of fiction who sought a 'public' audience and economic gain through commercial print. As Ezell argues in her most recent book, the feminist scholars she criticised in Writing Women's Literary History are not alone in conflating 'published' with 'printed' and searching for Romantic individualistic authors.13 Despite the seminal work of these scholars, manuscript culture remains adjunct to print in the eyes of many critics. It is perhaps further confirmation of the battle of 'evidence versus agenda', as social historian David Cressy characterised the curious ahistoricism of some 'historicist' critics, including many feminist scholars.14

This book not only collapses the dichotomy of manuscript and print but also questions the underlying assumption of the gendering of 'public' and 'private' modes of communication. While we have for the most part moved beyond the old argument that a woman who printed her works was more daring because she had transgressed into a masculine 'public' realm, the underlying categories of 'public' and 'private' and their implicit binary gendering remain crucial to much feminist criticism, and indeed criticism of early modern literature in general.15 The prevalence of this dichotomy is in fact evidence of the latent power of 'separate spheres' ideology in current critical discourse. Although the phrase 'separate spheres' is seldom used by early modern scholars, the paradigm still holds sway in many studies of gender relations: women's sphere of influence was confined to home and family, while men's sphere encompassed economic and political transactions. As a historical concept, 'separate spheres' is a conflation of nineteenth-century notions of domesticity (themselves now shown to be at best a partial picture) and Lockean conceptions of the family as politically 'private', in the sense that it is cordoned off from all 'public' activity and authority.16 The effect of 'separate spheres' on historiography has been precisely the polarisation the name implies. The complex interplay between men, women and the shifting worlds of personal and political is simplified to the equations 'public' equals men and 'private' equals women.

Such a model is not only a distorted representation of the family, whether in seventeenth- or nineteenth-century England, but it is also a rather cavalier and unexamined use of the terms 'public' and 'private'. At a time when the theoretical framework of English literary history is continually under discussion, these terms have endured surprisingly little scrutiny, particularly in seventeenth-century studies.17 The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historian Amanda Vickery points out that scholarly use of the terms 'public' and 'private' is in fact extraordinarily vague:

The shortcomings of the public/private dichotomy as an analytical framework are many, but most obviously there is little unanimity among historians as to what public and private should be held to mean in this context. Current interpretations of 'the public' vary enormously. In a historian's hands, a public role can mean access to anything from politics, public office, formal employment, opinion, print, clubs, assembly, company, the neighbourhood, the streets, or simply the world outside the front door. However, we should take care to discover whether our interpretation of public and private marries with that of historical actors themselves.18

The same confusions exist in seventeenth-century studies, in which, to take the opposite term, a private role can mean interaction with family, friends, social equals, select members of a political faction, a religious mentor, a patron or God himself. David Cressy has proposed that in fact all life 'had public, social, or communal dimensions' in early modern England.19 Cressy's position is perhaps extreme, and I suspect is a result of the bias of his sources, Church court records that are designed precisely to bring to the community's awareness acts that our post-Lockean culture would consider 'private', particularly sexual transgression and marital discord. But Cressy's point is well taken: it is dangerously misleading to accept as given the separation between 'public' and 'private' behaviour in early modern culture. Like the relationship between manuscript and print, the interplay between these two realms is far more complex than we have yet acknowledged.

The unwillingness to historicise these terms is particularly fraught because it is part of the attempt to maintain the fiction that these categories are value-free. In fact, twenty-first-century scholars consistently privilege the 'public' - in practice, what is masculine or political - over the 'private', what is feminine and often, for modern individuals, pertains to religious faith.20 For scholarship of early modern women to subscribe to this ahistorical misconception of 'public' and 'private' does the subject a profound disservice by assuming a model of culture in which only exceptional women who transgress perceived boundaries of the male 'public' can write anything of value.21 The vast majority of women writers who wrote works that express their 'personal' devotion, often in manuscript, are implicitly categorised in a less transgressive and therefore less interesting aesthetic. By refusing to interrogate its own notions of 'public' and 'private', such criticism effectively restricts women writers to the very categories from which it was designed to liberate them.

© Cambridge University Press

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements; Abbreviations; Note on transcription and citation; Introduction; 1. 'Blockish Adams' on mystical marriage; 2. Ecce homo: the spectacle of Christ's passion in Salve deus rex jud'orum; 3. Serpents and doves: Lady Anne Southwell and the new Adam; 4. Public worship and private thanks in Eliza's babes; 5. Anna Trapnel 'sings of her Lover'; 6. The transfiguration of Colonel Hutchinson in Lucy Hutchinson's elegies; Conclusion; Bibliography; Indexes.

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