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Premodern Women Writers

ENGL 553.401
instructor(s):
M 3-6

 

In this course we'll consider the relationships of women to writing from Hildegard of Bingen to Aphra Behn. Taking points of departure from Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, we'll consider how the contraction and expansion of possibilities for literate women square with conventional assumptions of periodization: why, for example, could Hildegard (1098-1179) do or get away with things still unimaginable to Virginia Woolf in 1928? How could Christine De Pizan fashion a career for herself as a professional writer in ways Woolf never dreamed of? And how could this be forgotten?

We begin with Hildegard by registering the extraordinary freedoms communities of women might enjoy-- writing and performing their own music and dramas, wearing colorful clothes and jewelry (rather than black nuns' habits), dreaming, writing and illustrating their own visions-- before the rise of university culture: for the development of universities (still haunted by Woolf as an outsider in 1928) can be seen as an advance for men's, but reversal for women's, educational opportunities. The powerful agon between Heloise and Abelard, which takes place just as universities are first forming, sheds further light on this process. And yet we will find that women of the later Middle Ages, even when apparently most abjected, found ingenious forms of textual and spiritual empowerment. The anchoress, for example, is walled away for life, dead to the world (the service for the dead being performed as she is walled into her anchorhold); yet precisely by occupying a liminal space between life and death, she acquires a spiritual authority sought out by all manner of people who come to speak at her window. And the female body itself (or herself, as medievals might say) possesses a power that white males often envied: for as the Christian God had abjected himself (herself, Julian of Norwich actually says) in descending from divinity to flesh and blood, so the female body better imitates this trajectory: "for then the soule is heyest, noblest and worthiest," according to Julian, "when it is lowest, meekest and myldhest."

Al medieval women of exceptional, sometimes ferocious, vision and commitment learned to negotiate most ingeniously with established textual conventions and institutional authority; if they did not learn this, as in the case of Marguerite Porete and her imperative to "Love, loveth, and do what ye wole," they might perish. Hildegard cunningly obtains a note of papal approval for her early ideas (subsequently employed like an umbrella to protect all later utterances); Catherine of Siena, a fierce critic of papal policy, becomes a Dominican tertiary (thus gaining the protection of an Order while remaining free to travel). Margery Kempe develops some outrageous personal practices (crying fit to empty a church) that can never be tagged as unorthodox; she travels the world and writes her own saint's life. At the Reformation, new strategies are needed: from the young Princess Elizabeth (fearing her father, Henry VIII); from Katherine Parr (Henry's queen); from Anne Askew (racked in the Tower; burnt at Smithfield). We'll see how women such as Margaret, Lady Hoby continue the kinds of services (including surgery on the kitchen table) long performed by nuns in the "big houses"; and how women such as Isabella Whitney make a living by getting into print. Having seen women's "closet drama" develop in aristocratic country houses, and having read the great and terrifying poetry of Mary Herbert, we end the semester with Aphra Behn-- traveler, spy, author of the now-foundational Oroonoko, and (above all) playwright: "All women together ought to let flowers fall," Virginia Woolf says, "upon the tomb of Aphra Behn which is, most scandalously but rather appropriately, in Westminster Abbey."

Examination for this course will be by one long essay (12-15 pages; no incompletes necessary). While it will be possible to get hooked and focus on one text from any part of the course, my hope is that essays will to some extent cover a longer span and consider the issue of periodizing women's writing. Is the Middle Ages to be seen, as some feminist historians have argued, as a 'golden age' for women? Does the coming of the 'Renaissance' reduce female options to that of marriage or marriage (while drastically reducing opportunities for travel)? How do both the observant and oppositional activities of women shift as we move from Catholic through Lollard to Protestant cultures? What are the implications of shifting from manuscript culture (which does not just vanish in the Renaissance) to print? How do masculine scribes and editors (we will be considering, in particular, John Bale's editing of Anne Askew) interact with, ventriloquize, or help shape the feminine text? How might the work of embroidery (especially in the case of Mary, Queen of Scots) be read textually? And how might this longue durÈ (for those of you working chiefly in later periods) be continued or amended if we follow events forward to 1928 and beyond?

Provisional list of texts (all currently available at Penn Book Center, 34th and Sansom; xeroxes form my office):

The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women's Writing by Carolyn Dinshaw (Editor), and David Wallace (Editor), Cambridge University Press, May 2003, paper, $22.

Ancrene Wisse: Guide for Anchoresses : text supplied.

Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents by S. P. Cerasano (Editor), Marion Wynne-Davies (Editor) Routledge, 1996, pb, $28.95

Women Writers in Renaissance England: Longman Annotated Texts by Randall Martin (Editor) (Textbook Binding - June 1997) List Price: $39.60

The Examinations of Anne Askew (Women Writers in English 1350-1850) by Anne Askew, Elaine V. Beilin (Editor) (Paperback - Oxford UP, July 1996) $26

Women's Writing in Middle English (Longman Annotated Texts) by Alexandra Barratt (Editor) (Paperback - April 1995): text supplied.

The Book of Margery Kempe (Norton Critical Editions) by Margery Kempe, Lynn Staley (Translator), List Price: $14.20

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise,translated by, Betty Radice Paperback: 312 pages ; Publisher: Penguin USA (Paper); 1 edition (September 3, 1998) ISBN: 0140442979

Oroonoko, the Rover and Other Works (Penguin Classics) -- by Aphra Behn, Janet Todd (Editor);Publisher: Penguin USA (Paper); 1 edition (August 11, 1999) ISBN: 0140433384. $11 Fulfills requirements.