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Premodern Women: Writing and Place

ENGL 553.401
instructor(s):
M 12-3

This course considers the relationships of premodern women to writing and to the places of their lives and travels. The relationship of premodern women to territory is particularly tenuous and fraught. Women, particularly aristocrats, were expected to leave their homes and native ground and marry into unfamiliar cultures in foreign landscapes: is homesickness originally a female complaint, before it is taken over by males dreaming of England from their distant colonial postings? Catholic English women, following the Reformation, continued living communally in continental Europe. Here too homesickness is a factor, expressed in their careful conservation of medieval English writings (Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century English anchoress, survives as written and conserved by seventeenth-century English women). Continents were often figured as naked female figures. Tensions at faith frontiers (east and west) were often expressed through conflicts over or within particular female bodies: figures to consider here include saints Dorothea of Montau and Rose of Lima. Women sometimes occupied places, knowingly or not, where earlier generations of women had lived, in quite different cultural and religious circumstances: places such as Wilton and Welbeck. The study of a particular place over time might make an interesting research essay. The question of continuing nun-nostalgia in Protestant cultures might also be raised. So too the question of women and travel: how did Margery Kempe manage to traverse the face of the known world, avoid injury, and return to compose her text? As centuries pass, do women travel less?

This course questions traditional periodizations by shooting the medieval/ Renaissance divide and by considering arguments of advance and decline for women. Does the rise of the university, for example, bring a diminution of educational opportunities for women? Is the Middle Ages to be seen, as some feminist historians have seen it, as a feminine 'golden age'? Does the coming of the 'Renaissance' reduce female options to that of marriage or marriage? How do both the observant and oppositional activities of women shift as we move from Catholic through Lollard to Protestant cultures? We might consider here the writings of Protestant Elizabeth I and embroideries of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots; other authors might include Anne Askew, Isabella Whitney (fl. 1567-1573), Mary Herbert (1562-1621), Elizabeth Cary (1585?-1639), and Rachel Speght (c. 1597-16??). Such developmental narratives can be challenged by others suggesting strange resemblances over time, featuring women occupying liminal places: the anchoress; the pregnant woman. We can thus read Trotula texts (female-authored gynaecological manuals), a manual for female recluses (Ancrene Wisse), a mystical text by a woman who uses her body as a spiritual laboratory (Julian of Norwich) and best-selling texts by Renaissance women who will not survive pregnancy. We can match texts from women centuries apart: such as Christine of Markyate (1096-1160), who defied family expectations of marriage to live as a recluse, eventually leaving us with an extraordinary lifestory and a psalter of her own; and Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, a playwright much reviled by Virginia Woolf who, nonetheless, wrote several plays imagining all-female academies long before Virginia penned A Room of One’s Own. 

On Saturday 11 November there will be a one day conference at Penn dedicated to issues of medieval/Renaissance periodization. There will be visiting Faculty speakers: but the event is chiefly envisioned as an opportunity for graduate students to explore these issues; this course might be seen as a conduit to that event. 

Assessment will be by one long essay, preceded by a one-page brainstorming abstract earlier in the semester.