Topics in Medieval Literature: Women and Writing in Medieval and Renaissance England
In this course, we'll consider the relationships of women to writing from c.1140 (Christina of Markyate, a runaway bride) to 1673 (the death of 'Mad Madge,' a playwright much reviled by Virginia Woolf). We'll concern ourselves mostly with texts written, dictated, inspired, or commissioned by women, plus texts written against or forced upon women: texts, in short, that helped shape the possibilities of premodern women's lives.
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'? What might be the influence of female saint’s lives, such as those of the Golden Legend, upon real women? Does the coming of the 'Renaissance' reduce female options to that of marriage or marriage? 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 (Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mad Madge’) who wrote several plays that imagined all-female academies long before Virginia penned A Room of One’s Own. In between we consider Mary Ward, a young woman who defied tradition by insisting that religious women need not be confined behind convent walls; and Elizabeth Cary, author of one of the earliest and most radical 'closet dramas' of Renaissance England, and mother of four remarkbale literary daughters. 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?
Examination in this advanced undergraduate seminar will be by three writing assignments. The first will be a conventional essay of about five 5 pages (written after about five weeks); this can be considered a ‘tuneup’ exercise. The second assignment will report on research conducted towards the final, long essay: this will allow some feedback before the writing of the final assignment (to be submitted by e-attachment just after the final class). We'll try to develop a friendly, collaborative working mode in this seminar that will, above all, appreciate the courage and initiative shown by women in shaping meaningful lives in difficult circumstances.