Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Medieval and Renaissance Women Writers

ENGL 290.401
instructor(s):
TR 9-10:30

Chaste, silent, and obedient? Not likely! Although contemporary perceptions of the past often assume that women were passive and universally oppressed prior to the birth of the women's liberation movement, many historical women found ways to negotiate positions of power in a patriarchal society. In this class we'll examine some of the eloquent and defiant literature produced by medieval and Renaissance women about gender and literary authority. At a time when writing was considered the privilege of men, how did women lay claim to the right to write? How did they reshape literary conventions, and what strategies did they use for self-authorization? Well consider the relationships of women to writing from the early thirteenth century text Ancrene Wisse, written for enclosed religious women, to Margaret Cavendish's play The Convent of Pleasure, written for enclosed but secular aristocratic women. Our focus will be mostly on 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. In the process, we'll question traditional divisions between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and consider the differences between women's relationships to literature before and after the Reformation. We will also be considering what makes a woman a writer and what counts as a woman's text. Should we study the poems and speeches of Queen Elizabeth I, for example, alongside the embroideries of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, and what happens when we read the Trotula texts (female-authored gynaecological manuals) alongside the Ancrene Wisse, a manual for female recluses with no known author? Other others may include Julian of Norwich, Annew Askew, Isabella Whitney (fl. 1567-1573), Mary Herbert (1562-1621), Elizabeth Cary (1585-1639), and Rachel Speght (c. 1597). Their writings will help us explore the way that literature opened up imaginative spaces for women.