cavhannay Constructing a City of Ladies; MARGARET P. HANNAY
Shakespeare Studies   01-01-1997

EARLY MODERN WOMEN WRITERS searched for a tradition and a community. Theirs was not so much the anxiety of influence as "the anxiety of absence," as I observed in 1985, an absence that I felt myself, as did many others working in this field (Silent 1). Our writing was often no more valued than that of the women we studied, giving us a sense of solidarity with them. Parallels between the women we studied and our own situation are evident in Jean R. Brink's 1980 introduction to Female Scholars: "Learned women, conscious of being "exceptions," made every effort to establish contacts with contemporary women who lived in other countries and also to study the work of their predecessors regardless of nationality" (p. 1).

More an angle of vision than a single methodology, the study of early modern women requires interdisciplinary, cooperative scholarship across national boundaries. Our focus has widened as we have looked beyond Europe and as we have discovered a multiplicity of hitherto overlooked texts and material objects, such as wills and other legal documents, diaries, personal and business correspondence, medical receipts, advice books, religious meditations, musical compositions, paintings, architecture, monuments, and needlework. At the symposium on "Attending to Women in Renaissance England," sponsored by the Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies at the University of Maryland (1990), I was at first exhilarated and then utterly overwhelmed by the avalanche of new materials on women writers, artists, musicians, theologians, politicians, and scientists­not just aristocratic women, my own primary focus of study, but women of all social ranks. I was beginning to despair, realizing that I could never master all these new discoveries, when I had a moment of epiphany­no one person needs to know it all. The field is being shaped by an international community of scholars who now use a wide array of critical methodologies to study early modern women of all races and nationalities. Each of us brings different stones to the building, but together we are, like Christine de Pisan, shaping a City of Ladies. My comments, therefore, will be drawn primarily from my own field of English literature, with occasional glances at other locales and disciplines, as I consider two related questions: How did early modern women find communities that empowered their work, and how do we? My attempt to answer these questions has become a parallel search for networks of early modern women and networks of contemporary scholars.

By asking about early modern women, we raise questions of what we mean by historical research. How close can we come to reconstructing their lives and putting their achievements in context? How much are we blinded by our own position? When we read proscriptions for women, can we be certain how they were read and to what extent they were followed by typical women of the time? We have access to the cultural ideal through advice books, homilies, and even funeral sermons for women who were praised for conforming to the ideal. But the specific women who have left records tend to be exceptional­those whose violation of standards is recorded in legal records, or those whose social rank gave them prominence, or those who made a significant achievement in the arts or in politics.

We know that some women were an important part of the political community. For aristocratic women, the court and the country house served as the primary foci for women to meet together. In the sixteenth century, an age of queens, these female conversations had unprecedented political import when Marguerite de Navarre and her daughter Jeanne d'Albret, Catherine de'Medici, Mary Tudor, Mary Stuart, and Elizabeth Tudor acted on the public stage. While non-royal women were still barred from the formal power structures, women close to a queen wielded considerable informal power, as indicated by the assiduity with which their favor was courted by male courtiers and ambassadors. Women like Marguerite de Navarre and Queen Elizabeth, known for their eloquence, also empowered women writers and, to some undefinable extent, may have raised the expectations of most women. As Anne Bradstreet later observed in her elegy on Elizabeth, "Let such as say our sex is void of reason, / Know 'tis a slander now but once was treason" (198).

We know that the court could also serve as a venue for a literary coterie. In the court of Henry VIII, for example, the Devonshire Manuscript (BL MS add. 17492) was evidently circulated among the Howard family and others associated with Anne Boleyn by Mary Shelton, who also inscribed some original verse; Margaret Douglas and Mary Howard Fitzroy were also actively involved in the transcription and circulation of poetry within this "restricted social group" (Marotti 39). The family could also provide a community for personal verse, like the epitaphs written by Anne Cecil, Elizabeth Cooke Hoby, and Katherine Cooke Killegrew.

We know that many early modern English women of all social ranks sought support in a religious community. That some of them chafed under gender restrictions is evident in their writings, as in Anne Lok's dedication to another devout woman, Anne Russell Herbert, countess of Warwick. Using the code phrase of building the walls of Jerusalem to mean contributing to the Protestant cause, Lok poignantly articulates the limitations placed on women:

Euerie one in his calling is bound to doo somewhat to the furtherance of the holie building; but because great things by reason of my sex I may not doo, and that which I may, I ought to doo, I have according to my duetie, brought my poore basket of stones to the strengthening of the walls of that Jerusalem, whereof (by grace) wee are all both Citizens and members. (sig. A3v-4)

Lok presents herself both as a full member of this religious community and as a woman disempowered because of her gender. It is not that she is incapable of "great things," she says, but that she is forbidden to do them. Lok shared a sense of mission with other deeply devout Protestant women and men. This religious community also empowered the works of other early Tudor women writers and translators. For example, Katherine Parr published her original Prayers Stirryng the Mynd unto Heavenlye Medytacions (1545) and The Lamentacion of a Sinner (1547); Anne Cooke Bacon translated fourteen sermons by Bernadino Ochino (1548) and Bishop John Jewel's volume of Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae (1564); and Elizabeth Cooke Hoby (who later became Lady Russell) translated A Way of Reconciliation Touching the True Nature and Substance of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament (eventually published in 1605). Anne Dowriche's The French Historie (1589) was intensely Protestant, including "fiery descriptions of the Catholic persecution of the godly" (Beilin, Redeeming Eve, 103). Recusant women were similarly empowered in their own days of persecution, including Elizabeth Cary and the daughter who wrote her biography as a (somewhat irregular) Catholic saint's life. For such women the religious controversy overrode cultural injunctions to silence, yet none of these English women defined herself or was defined by her society primarily as a writer; each wrote as part of a religious, rather than literary, community.

We know that these political, family, and religious communities were all the more important to such learned women in the early sixteenth century because they had no English women as role models. Some of them evidently turned to Marguerite de Navarre, who was part of the international Protestant community, an accomplished stateswoman and published writer who served as a model for both royal women and for aspiring writers. Young Elizabeth Tudor translated Marguerite de Navarre's The Mirror of the Sinful Soul as a gift for her stepmother Katherine Parr; and Anne, Margaret, and Jane Seymour wrote a series of Latin distichs, the Hecatodistichon (1550), in honor of her. Perhaps because she was celebrated as a political, religious, and literary figure, Marguerite seems to have been the most empowering model for English women writers, but they could look to the Continent for a wider tradition: in addition to celebrated medieval writers like Christine de Pisan, some women like Cecilia Gonzago, Baptista da Montefeltro Malatesta, Isotta Nogarola, and Laura Cereta were active in the humanist movement in the Italian Renaissance; women like Gaspara Stampa, Madeleine and Catherine des Roches, Veronica Franco, and Louise Labé were recognized poets; and in France women such as Pernette du Guillet could be "welcomed in independent literary coteries" that allowed them to "construct a literary self" by affiliating with a master (Jones 80-81). Prior to the seventeenth century such access to literary communities was denied to English women, even the few who did publish, and their public discourse was largely confined to religious matters.

Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, stands as a liminal figure between women writing as sacred duty and writing as belles lettres. Before the 1592 publication of her translations of Robert Garnier's Antonius and Philippe de Mornay's Discourse on Life and Death, the only secular translation published by an English woman was Margaret Tyler's translation of The Mirrour of Princely Deedes and Knighthood by Diego Ortuñez de Calahorra (1578); Tyler's preface nervously attempted to justify secular translation for women. Mary Sidney's translations, published without apology under her own name, we might call "semi-secular," secular works which raised important religious and ethical questions, as did her original encomia in praise of her brother and in praise of Elizabeth. But her most important writing was her poetic paraphrase of the Psalms, a work which could be praised as suitably "godly" even as it provided a model for later writers such as Aemilia Lanyer and Mary Wroth, and therefore the beginning of a woman's literary tradition in English. Before Mary Sidney, no woman in England was an acknowledged part of the poetic community. Although she was undoubtedly empowered by the example of women like her mother's friends the Cooke sisters, and although she may have known the coterie writings by women, the published writers who surrounded and celebrated her as she wrote were, to our knowledge, exclusively male. By situating herself as avatar of her brother Philip Sidney, she found a voice, as many who sought her patronage recognized. Thomas Churchyard, for example, presents the Sidney heritage as overcoming cultural injunctions to female silence: she is "a Sidney right" who "shall not in silence sit" (Churchyard sig. B1v). Mary Sidney herself evidently sought female predecessors in the scriptures, identifying with the women who sang in Psalm 68:

Wee house-confined maids with distaffs share ye spoyle Whose hew though long at home the chimnys glosse did foyle Since now as late enlarged doves wee freer skyes do try. (Early draft recorded by Samuel Woodforde, Bodleian MS Rawlinson poet 25)

This original rendition of the psalm reveals her most effective strategy for finding a speaking voice. Though the women had been confined to the female role symbolized by the distaff (her original addition to the psalm), speaking God's word frees them to soar like doves, in the familiar association of poetry with flight. Mary Sidney herself speaks through the words of the psalmist, thereby creating an impeccably virtuous self that cannot be tained by the frequent connection of female eloquence and unchastity, and creating an individual voice that speaks out of and on behalf of the godly community. In this her position is similar to that of Anne Lok, who wrote a sonnet sequence on Psalm 51, yet the countess of Pembroke was in her lifetime celebrated not only as a religious figure like Lok, but also as a writer.

Recent research has demonstrated how her example empowered Aemilia Lanyer, who appeals to her as a writer whose "holy Sonnets" are celebrated on earth and in heaven, thereby continuing to connect female writing with devotion (Salve Deus 27). In her religious meditation, Lanyer constructs "an enduring community of good women that reaches from Eve to contemporary Jacobean patronesses," as Barbara Lewalski has established (Writing Women 213). Mary Wroth, who barely mentions religion, also constructs a community of good women in her Urania; Pamphilia and her friends recite poems, as well as share their experiences of politics, love, marriage, and child rearing. Her bold move from a religious to a literary community was empowered by her position as a Sidney, but she was castigated for her secular writings. In Edmund Denny's familiar words, she has wasted her time on "lascivious tales and amorous toys," and should instead follow the example of her "vertuous and learned aunt." Denny's words are particularly ironic, for Wroth's writing was undoubtedly encouraged by her aunt, who is shadowed in the Urania as the queen of Naples, an accomplished secular poet who recites a love complaint she has written (490).

Literary coteries empowered seventeenth-century women who wrote, transcribed, and circulated both sacred and secular poems, such as Katherine Thimelby Aston, who contributed verse to the manuscript compiled by her sister-in-law Constance Aston Fowler, part of the collection of the Astons of Tixall, which also included one of the most important manuscripts of the Sidney Psalmes. We see with what joy Katherine Philips writes to her circle of friends; as "Orinda" she became a model for other women writers. Yet when Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea, searches for a tradition in her "Introduction," she does not acknowledge Philips or her contemporaries, but, like Pembroke, claims her poetic predecessors in scripture; like Pembroke, she pictures herself as a bird, but whereas Pembroke's doves soar, Finch's bird sings "with contracted wing, / To some few freinds." Those friends, however few, constituted a community that enabled her work: without them, she may not have written at all, and she certainly would not have published even a selection of her poems that carefully omits transgressive works (Williamson 119).

We now know that early modern women had extensive networks in political, family, religious, and eventually literary circles. Many were well known to their contemporaries, so why were their works unknown to my own undergraduate and graduate professors? Why were these women and their interconnections lost to scholars for so long? The answer again seems to lie in communities. As English literature became an academic discipline, it sought respectability by rigorous pruning of the literary tradition to construct a coherent canon of works by male authors that would rival those taught in classics departments. Memories of early modern women writers were kept (barely) alive in such marginalized collections as George Ballard's Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (1752), Louisa Costello's Memoirs of Eminent Englishwomen (1844), and Frederic Rowton, The Female Poets of Great Britain (1853). Such works, while acknowledging the existence of early modern women writers, often tended to disparage them, so that in the early twentieth century women writers were still seeking a usable past. Virginia Woolf was searching for a female tradition when she looked on the shelves "for books that were not there" and lamented that "nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that" (A Room of One's Own, 68-69). As Margaret Ezell has demonstrated, her judgments have had considerable impact on subsequent scholarship.

What Woolf lacked was not access to works by women, for she often wrote in the British Library, which houses most of the print works by early modern English women and also many of their manuscripts. Nor did she entirely lack knowledge of early women writers, since she mentions Anne Finch, Margaret Cavendish, Dorothy Osborne, and Aphra Behn. What Woolf lacked was a community that valued these works: Finch was too consumed with "hate and fear" to be a great poet; Margaret Cavendish was "hare-brained, fantastical"; Dorothy Osborne "wrote nothing. Letters did not count"; Aphra Behn "earned [women] the right to speak their minds" by earning her living as a writer, but she was so notoriously unchaste that she frightened society and "the door was slammed faster than ever" (A Room of One's Own, 87-98). Viewing the early modern period through the lens of Trevelyan's History of England, with its depiction of early modern women as "locked up, beaten and flung about the room" (A Room of One's Own, 66), Woolf could not accept these women as part of her literary tradition. She also appeared to lack knowledge of the scholarly community that was already creating the histories that she sought, works that focused on the cultural climate for women, their education, and the restrictions on their behavior, such as Foster Watson, Vives and the Renascence Education of Women (1912); Mary Agnes Cannon, The Education of Women During the Renaissance (1916); and Myra Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England, 1650-1760 (1920).

More important was the question of genre, for works by several early modern women were available in modern editions in whole or in part when Woolf wrote. Despite her dismissal of Dorothy Osborne, she was so drawn to her lively style that she later devoted an essay to her letters, noting that "The art of letter-writing is often the art of essay-writing in disguise" (Second Common Reader, 52), thereby anticipating recent work on the epistolary genre. Besides Dorothy Osborne's letters, she had available in print other collections, such as The Private Correspondence of Jane Lady Cornwallis (1842), the Letters of Lady Brilliana Harley (1854), and the letters of Arbella Stuart (1866). Diaries, such as The Journal of Lady Mildmay (1911), she must have discounted as writing, especially since she must have known of The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford edited by Vita Sackville-West (1923). Translations she must also have discounted, such as Margaret Beaufort's translation of De imitatione Christi (1893), Elizabeth's translation of Marguerite de Navarre (1897), and three of her classical translations (1899). She may also have discounted autobiographical writing and memoirs, such as Lucy Hutchinson's Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (1806), the Memoir of Lady Warwick: Also Her Diary (1848), and The Examination of Anne Askew (1849). She either did not know, or did not value, original works available in nineteenth- and twentieth-century editions, such as The Lamentacion by Catherine Parr (1808), poems by Katherine Philips in Minor Poets of the Caroline Period (1905), and Elizabeth Cary's The Tragedie of Mariam (1914). Although she wrote an essay on Philip Sidney's dedication to his sister in "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia," she does not recognize the countess as a writer herself, nor does she mention Frances Young's 1912 biography Mary Sidney.

The state of scholarship on early modern women was not quite as dire in 1929 as Woolf thought, and yet in the next decade research continued primarily in the muted form of unpublished dissertations, notably Rugh Willard Hughey's "Cultural Interests of Women in England from 1524 to 1640, Indicated in the Writings of the Women" (1932), and Charlotte Kohler's "The Elizabethan Woman of Letters: the Extent of Her Literary Activity" (1936). Other studies in the field tended to focus on why women had not written more, often by examining the controversy over women in medieval and Renaissance texts. Such works often served to establish early modern women in an environment that was essentially hostile to their independence and achievement, as in Louis B. Wright's "The Popular Controversy over Women" in Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England (1935) and Frances Utley's The Crooked Rib: An Analytic Index to the Argument About Women in English and Scots Literature to the End of the Year 1568 (1944). Their efforts were continued by Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (1956) and Katharine Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (1966).

All these works were available by the time I graduated from college and yet, like Woolf, I had no knowledge of this tradition. Then Joan Kelly-Gadol asked a provocative question, "Did Women have a Renaissance?" in her essay appearing in the aptly titled collection Becoming Visible: Women in European History (1977). In the 1970s women were indeed becoming more visible in biographical studies such as Roland Bainton's three volumes on Women of the Reformation (1971) and Pearl Hogrefe's Tudor Women: Commoners and Queens (1975) and Women of Action in Tudor England (1977). The study of early modern women raises new questions by the nature of the material itself. Ironically, at a time when the death of the author is loudly proclaimed, we have been engaged in a quest for the author. Since so many of these women are unknown, we had to begin with basic biographical and textual recovery; indeed, the rediscovery of these hundreds of "new" early modern texts has contributed to the resurgence of textual scholarship in a poststructural age, as Josephine Roberts discussed in the previous forum. We cannot give a psychoanalytical or New Historicist or even a gendered reading of a text or painting that is unknown and unavailable, nor can we comment on the historical importance of a life until the basic facts are collected.

Thus our first step is to discover and disseminate the works themselves. The gradual development of the field can be seen in the waves of anthologies, with a gradually sharpening focus. In the early 1970s general anthologies of women's writing were useful to supplement texts such as the ubiquitous Norton major authors volume that included no women. A few medieval and early modern representatives were included in the first general surveys of women writers, like By a Woman Writt: Literature from Six Centuries By and About Women, edited by Joan Goulianos (1973) and The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950, edited by Louise Bernikow (1974). More focused was Mary R. Mahl and Helene Koon, The Female Spectator: English Women Writers before 1800 (1977), but the first anthology devoted solely to the works of early modern women was The Paradise of Women: Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance, edited by Betty Travitsky (1981). After compiling collections of works by many women, the next step is to produce scholarly editions of major works; Aemilia Lanyer's Salve Deus, Elizabeth Cary's Mariam, and Lady Mary Wroth's Urania have recently become available, and many other editions are in preparation, including the works of Queen Elizabeth, the Countess of Pembroke, and Katherine Philips. Parallels in art history can be seen in the movement from the ground-breaking exhibition Women Artists 1550-1950 held in Los Angeles in 1976, to the more focused exhibition Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman, presented at The National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1995; and similar parallels could be drawn for other disciplines as scholars move from the initial discovery that there were early modern women in their fields to full incorporation of these women into the normal corpus of materials studied, enabling theorists to construct new models of the past.

Like early modern women themselves, contemporary scholars who study them have searched for and have built communities. Academic conferences have replaced the court and the country house as venues, and the modern technologies of telephone, fax, and the internet have had an impact on our modes of communication as revolutionary as the advent of print. Our own networks and alliances, which cut across disciplines and geographical boundaries, may be at their most visible through the most typical of all publications in the field, the collection of essays, often based on conferences or panels, such as the 1982 Yale conference on "Renaissance Woman/Renaissance Man," resulting in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, edited by Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers (1986). Several other volumes in the 1980s also reflect conference panels: Beyond their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, edited by Patricia H. Labalme (1984), was based on papers delivered at commemorative conferences at Swarthmore and Vassar Colleges celebrating the tercentenary for the first doctorate in philosophy awarded to a woman, Elena Cornaro (1678); Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators and Writers of Religious Works, edited by Margaret Hannay (1985) was an outgrowth of "Renaissance Women and the Scriptural Tradition," sponsored by the Conference on Christianity and Literature, MLA 1983; Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, ed. Mary Beth Rose (1986) was based on "Changing Perspectives on Women in the Renaissance," a 1983 conference at The Newberry Library.

Like literary coteries assembling poetic miscellanies, modern scholars have joined together in collaborative projects. Perhaps most important has been the NEH-Brown Women Writers Project initiated by Susanne Woods, which has undertaken to make texts available for classroom use, first in photocopies, and now in affordable paperback editions and on electronic database. Because of the circulation of such individual texts, and the inclusion of early modern women writers in many recent anthologies, these writers regularly appear in the classroom. There is now enough interest in pedagogical strategies to justify a volume on Teaching Early Modern British Women Writers in the MLA series, another collaborative effort. Other large-scale projects include the facsimile series being issued by Scolar Press, the compilation of texts by women in the French Renaissance by the Groupe d'analyse et de recherche sur l'écriture des femmes au XVIe siècle, and English translations of texts by continental women in the forthcoming series, "The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe, 1350-1750." Our knowledge is also extended by bibliographic surveys such as the Women Writers Bibliography Project at the University of Oklahoma. Paralleling these rediscoveries of women writers has been the scholarship interpreting these works; so extensive has the literature become that the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies is creating a database of secondary source materials. Such collaborative efforts are both products and producers of scholarly communities.

Discussion groups have provided another opportunity for community building, notably three groups that were outgrowths of the Folger Colloquium on "Women in the Renaissance" (1985-89). Members of the Folger group who wanted to extend discussions of recent scholarship on early modern women founded colloquia in New York at CUNY in 1987, in New England at the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard University in 1987, and in Washington at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in 1989. In 1994 the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women (EMW) was founded to promote discussion across disciplinary boundaries and across geographical borders. The internet also enables ongoing discussions on Women Writers Project ListServe and now on the EMW Listserve.

We have discovered a tradition and created a community that values it. This international group of scholars, tied together through meetings at conferences, joint projects, and discussions on the Internet, has undertaken an enormous communal task: the reinterpretation of the past to include early modern women, constructing a true City of Ladies. In some parts of this city we are still laying the foundations by doing biographical research and editing texts; in other parts of the city, we are building theoretical structures. Here each of us, women and men who utilize a wide spectrum of methodologies can, like Anne Lok, bring our own "basket of stones to the strengthening of the walls of that [City], whereof ... wee are all both Citizens and members."


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