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Women and Writing in Medieval and Renaissance England

ENGL 221.401
MW 3:30-5

In this course we'll consider the relationships of women to writing from c. 1220 (Ancrene Wisse, a text written for enclosed religious women) 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'? 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  (Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mad Madge’) who wrote several plays that imagined all-female academies long before Virginia penned A Room of One’s Own. 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 two essays: one of 5 pages (written after about six weeks) and one researched in the latter part of the semester and handed in during the final week of class (12 pages). We'll try to develop a friendly, collaborative working mode in this seminar; students will have the opportunity of writing a one-page, brainstorming abstract of their final paper in week 12.


Attendance: please let me know by e-mail of any intended absences due to religious holidays, illnesses, or other causes.


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