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Premodern Women

ENGL 553.401


 Was bleibt, asked Christa Wolf of her sometime homeland, communist East Germany (What Remains, 1990); and what remains of any woman (a question posed in her 1969 novel, written within that now-lost society, Nachdenken über Christa T)? This question is especially urgent for premodern women: for how, given masculine control of literary production and dissemination, might a woman account for herself, leave us a life that, to a greater or lesser extent, is hers? Chances of independent, self-authoring life diminished dramatically in England during the Reformation: brave women—Anne Askew, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Barton (the Nun of Kent)—died for reasons of state; the writing of their lives was out of their hands. But the exceptionality of these few decades misleads, viewed over a longer durée of female lives and lives.

Hildegard of Bingen provides the best pan-European point of departure because her life as Gesammtkunstwerk never again repeated: the rise of universities-- which postdated her life as musician, composer, cosmologist, scientist, playwright, jewelry designer, manuscript commissioner and illuminator, itinerant preacher, theologian, political critic, female friend and foundress of a monastery of one’s own—signaled a decline in female educational opportunity still not reversed when Virginia Woolf visited women at Cambridge in 1928. Heloise, humanist scholar and Latinist, becomes entangled with the first brilliant superstar of this emergent university culture; she ends her life much loved but entirely enclosed. The struggle to immure dedicated Catholic women continues across the Reformation: Clare of Assisi is denied the mobility of the friars who follow Francis; compliantly enclosed nuns (as in Germany) are rewarded with possibilities of literacy and textual culture denied to rebellious nuns (as in England); Teresa of Avila (poster-child of the Counter-Reformation; doctor of the Church since 1970) imposes newly ascetic and unforgiving enclosure upon Catholic women. Ironically, this vision of convent life becomes normative upon English Renaissance stages (rather than the more porous model, open to local needs, that actually prevailed in earlier English centuries).

Christina of Markyate, brilliant scion of an Anglo-Saxon and Norse-derived family, frustrated familial ambitions by refusing to marry, or to become a cleric’s kept woman. She instead lives a singular, religious life, becomes the darling of a French-speaking abbot and thus ensures that, after her death, that her life will be written; she is also portrayed in a Book of Hours. Christina’s Life, which sees her escape the clutches of five men, stands generically on the cusp of romance; so too the Lais of Marie de France, work of a brilliantly talented Anglo-Norman author who writes of werewolfs, enchanted ships and expiring lovers. Julian of Norwich, having enjoyed potent visions in a near-death experience (interrupted only by her solicitous mother) decides to spend the rest of her life meditating upon them. Margery Kempe, her East Anglian neighbor, elects rather for a life of travel and public witness; she ensures that her life be written by commissioning a scribe-amanuensis for her book. Her Book is discovered and identified in 1934 by Hope Emily Allen: a brilliant product of the precocious community of erudite women up the road at Bryn Mawr. Allen’s little-worked archive still exists (at Bryn Mawr and at Penn); the history and promotion of women’s lives by forms a subtheme of this course. We might consider Margery’s Prussian contemporary Dorothea: a first would-be saint of the pagan frontier, given to extremes of self-punishment, who was ridiculed by Günter Grass but much praised by Joseph Ratzinger.   

The most important religious foundation in England between the Norman Conquest and the Reformation was Syon: a Thameside community of enclosed Bridgetines nuns whose ferocious reading habits (as attested by books in Philadelphia libraries) were catered to by  monks across the river. Bridget and Catherine, the only two women canonized in late-medieval Europe, were fiery saints much loved by this elite community and later (via early printed texts) by citizens of London. Syon did not expire at the Reformation, but reconstituted itself abroad (at Lisbon). Dame Eleanor Hull, following the death of her son in the Wars of the Roses, retreated to a convent to translate psalms; Mary Sidney retreated to a former convent—Wilton—to translate psalms following the death of her brother. Protestant Englishwomen’s awareness of convent culture as a lost possibility of collective living and learning persists well into the nineteenth century. Elizabeth Cary, brought up in a priory previously inhabited by Augustinian hospitalers, imagined female rebellion in her Tragedy of Mariam and then lived it out by converting to Catholicism (as her husband, the king’s vicar in Ireland, tortured Catholics in Dublin castle). One of Elizabeth’s daughters danced at court and married well; four of the others became Benedictines in exile, copying, inter alia, the Showings of Julian of Norwich. Mary Ward, born like Elizabeth Cary in 1585, traveled to Spanish Flanders to become an enclosed Poor Clare, but then changed her mind in favor of an apostolate of the street (of more benefit, she reasoned, to the priestless poor of England). Her movement, which had spread rapidly across Europe, was stymied by a papal bull; the extraordinary cache of her materials, has just now been published for the first time, awaits serious literary investigation.

The course ends with Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Although condemned by A Room of One’s Own as “hare-brained, fantastical Margaret,” Cavendish represents something new and distinctive in this long project of premodern female life writing; if we need a period marker, she is it.             

The course requirement will be one long essay, with independent research component.  Special attention will be given to investigation of place; resources such as the Victoria County History (and continental equivalents) will thus be of special interest.

Undergraduates need to fill out a permit form and receive the approval of the Graduate Chair, their advisor, and the professor for all 500-level courses.

fulfills requirements