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Premodern Women and Writing

ENGL 553.401
also offered as: GSWS 553, HIST 553, COML 554
Mondays 9-12:00 pm



This course considers relationships between women and writing over almost six centuries, beginning c. 1150. My own particular interest in recent years has been how a woman’s lived, biological and historical life becomes a life, a written artefact, and how that first written text mediates down to us via later manuscripts, printed editions, popular translations, strategic revivals, etc. My book Strong Women also traces the long theme of enclosure, the promise extended to women that if they will only accept some form of physical confinement their powers of self-realization, and access to writing, will greatly increase. It also proposes that the allure of the convent, a private, self-regulating space for women, never goes away, just changes its form. The Introduction to Strong Women may be downloaded here:


This course will, however, offer a Smorgasbord of texts, open to the full range of critical approaches, and to extended individual investigation. The class will be collaborative, with opportunity for class reports that draw upon individual areas of expertise in Latin, French, and other vernaculars (including Welsh). Texts will be drawn from four historical phases, beginning with a group of four that just predate the secure establishment of universities: Hildegard of Bingen (briefly), Christina of Markyate (and associated artwork), Marie de France, and Heloise. One broad thesis here is that the rise of universities leads to a decline in intellectual opportunities for women that is not rectified until the late nineteenth century.


Phase II concentrates upon Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, two East Anglian women who actually met, but whose written texts differ greatly. Julian meditates questions of love and death, memory, and the body with an intellectual brilliance second to none in English tradition (according to Rowan Williams, the brilliantly polymath ex-Archbishop of Canterbury); only prejudice against thought channelled through theology can keep her off the Comp Lit Theory list (which features few women). Margery, au contraire, could not write her own text, but hired a male amanuensis/ scribe/ co-author (each term is keenly contested) in writing the first autobiography (some say auto-hagiography) in English: a text named by Hope Emily Allen of Bryn Mawr, the scholar who identified the manuscript, as The Book of Margery Kempe. HEA is herself a fascinating author; her archive remains at Bryn Mawr, and at Penn.


Clerics, pressured by central government, were keen to hereticate Margrey Kempe as a Lollard, but she refused to oblige and defended herself ably. Lollardy is seen as proto-Protestant, or as ‘the Reformation in a minibus’, according to Ann Hudson. Women become deeply invested in Reformation  and counter-Reformation projects, but are often burned or crushed by them, or sacrificed as political pawns: figures to consider here include wives of Henry VIII, the nun of Kent, Anne Askew, and Margaret Clitheroe. Part III of the course ponders whether women can in such circumstances really can live a life that leaves a life of their own invention. Isabella Witney provides welcome relief as a woman using printed literacy to advance her own career, although London ultimately proves a cruel lover for her, too. Mary Sidney lives in seclusion at Wilton, as did nuns many centuries before, and writes religious verse of brilliant inventiveness. Elizabeth Carey writes the first closet drama in English by drawing Miriam, Queen of Jewry, from the pages of Josephus; she then disgraces herself by becoming Catholic and mothering four brilliant daughters, who conserve the text of Julian of Norwich. This they must do abroad, as Catholic nuns; Mary Ward, a Catholic from Yorkshire, joins them in exile, but in the attempt to found an international order for women who will not be enclosed. Her vast archive, closed to the public for centuries, is now available for the first time, with much work to be done.


Finally we come to the English civil war and the Restoration, and to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, and Aphra Behn. Two texts that we will visit in Van Pelt tell an eloquent story: the vast, lavishly-funded tome of Cavendish’s plays, and Behn’s meagre play text. Cavendish eagerly keeps up with contemporary science, authors a feminist utopia, and strategically exploits the resource of her own beauty. Behn’s Oroonoko embroils us in issues of violence, sexuality, royalty, and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.


The syllabus may be adapted to suit interests of those taking the course, as reported on the first class day. It is hoped to feature guest classes by Prof. Patricia Stoop (Antwerp, an expert on nun’s literacies) and our own Prof. Melissa Sanchez.     



fulfills requirements
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major