Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Life Writing: Premodern Women, from Runaway Bride to Mad Madge

ENGL 016.401

If you were asked to write your life, in the first person or third person, what would it look like? What genre of writing would this be?

In this seminar we will come to appreciate how women from premodern England, c.1140-1673, fashioned independent and meaningful lives from challenging circumstances: and how they ensured that they would leave behind stories to be told. We begin with Christina of Markyate, a young woman who fled home to avoid a forced marriage and then maintained her independence by negotiating with a series of determined men. We end with Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, a woman who believed in the power of science and also in the power of fashion (her outfits were amazing). Dismissed by Virginia Woolf as 'Mad Madge,' she nonetheless managed to compose numerous plays, to pioneer scientific inquiry, and to write utopian fiction.

This course questions traditional periodizations of study 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, hagiographies, upon real women? Does the coming of the 'Renaissance' reduce female options to marriage or marriage? We might consider here the writings of Protestant Elizabeth I and embroideries of Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. We will study texts featuring women who occupy difficult but magical spaces: the anchoress; the pregnant woman. We might 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 will consider Mary Ward, a young woman from Yorkshire who travelled all over Europe, believing that religious women need not be enclosed in convents. And we encounter Elizabeth Cary, who composed one of the earliest plays of the English Renaissance, The Tragedy of Mariam, and who tried to help poor children in Ireland before converting to Roman Catholicism (thus scandalizing her husband). And what do we make of the nun-nostalgia that continues right through the English Renaissance to our own time; what are the possibilities of female collective living? And what are the possibilities, then, and now, for female travel? We’ll see how the first autobiographer in the English language, Margery Kempe, managed to traverse the face of the known world, avoid injury, and return to compose her text.

This seminar will pay particular attention to writing, helping with the transition to university-quality essay writing. Assessment will thus be by a series of essays, and there will be plentiful feedback; there will be no midterm or final.

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

fulfills requirements
Elective of the Standard Major
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major