Women Writers of the Renaissance

The number of women writers featured in anthologies of the Renaissance period is a comparatively small one. Men seem to dominate the period with an overpowering voice.

We hear the scholastic Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) with his pedantic cries for a return to the more orderly life. But, what of his daughter, Margaret More Roper (1505-1544)? Where is the sound of her tender yet learned voice?

We hear the incomparable Shakespeare with his eloquent sonnets. But, what of the lady that he supposedly speaks about? Is she to be kept silent while her lover sings on?

Many feminist scholars have asserted that the silence of the feminine voice during the period was part of a larger plan to maintain societal order. But, was this indeed the case? Were gifted women writers kept unpublished and ignored due to their sex?

An eloquent woman is never chaste?

During the Medieval Ages, women were identified with Eve, the wife of Adam in the Genesis account, in the most exaggerated fashion. Women were depicted as disobedient and unchaste shrews that always got themselves in trouble with their mouths. Margaret P. Hannay has noted, “Ominously, silence was said to be connected to that primary feminine virtue, chastity, as in the proverb, ‘An eloquent woman is never chaste.’”

But what of those women that dared to write and be deemed “unchaste” for using their eloquent voice? Did they spend too much energy redeeming themselves, as Elaine V. Beilin has so precisely put it, by “Redeeming Eve”? And in the end, did a preoccupation with religious works discredit these women writers’ claim to Renaissance fame?

To answer adequately the question, “Did women writers have a Renaissance?” some details of the culture need to be explored. We need to see why they wrote what they wrote and who these women writers were. We need to look at the world from their perspective.

To look back on the history of women writers with the eyes of modern feminism, I believe, is too limiting. Two people with equal abilities do not always manifest themselves in the same manner. We cannot simply compare the amount of women’s works with that of men and exclaim that there was not a Renaissance for women. Nor, can we point to the amount of education that women generally had at that time and exclaim that a Renaissance among women writers was impossible.

Woman writers, though not as educated and prolific as their male counterparts during the period, nevertheless had a Renaissance. As wives and mothers, their interests were different than that of men. Husbands and children were within their scope of care and change. Their writings therefore were more practical in focus. They did not discuss in length the implications of ancient Greek and Roman philosophies. Rather, they were concerned with the Rebirth and application of Christian theology. “Piety was the lifeblood of Renaissance women writers…” (Beilin).

Christine de Pizan

During the Middle Ages, Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) began her crusade against “all treatyses of phylosophres, poetes and all rethorycyens which sholde be longe to reherce all theyr names speaketh as it were by one mouthe and accordeth all in semble conclusion determynygne that the condycyons of women ben fully enclyned to all vyces.”

As a woman of intelligence and piety, Pizan felt it her duty to right the wrongful accusations against women. In her book, Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, she proposes that women protect themselves by building a walled city under the direction of Reason, Righteousness, and Justice (Beilin). The city would help women live more godly lives, thus reversing the popular notion that they were nothing more than gossips, sluts, and rebels.

Pizan saw no contradiction in a woman who was intelligent and courageous and who lives a life of obedience to God, the church, and her husband (Beilin). At the beginning of the women’s Renaissance was the idea that education and creativity was a means to greater piety.

The city that Pizan looked forward to did not begin to be built until the dawn of the Reformation. Beilin stated correctly that “the Reformation, with its emphasis on individual salvation and the reading of Scripture, was in fact the single most important influence on women writers…” The doctrines of the Reformation insisted that the Scriptures could be read and understood by simple men and women. You did not need to be a priest to read or, for that matter, to write.

Margaret More Roper

Both Catholic and Reformed women benefited from these culture-changing doctrines. Margaret More Roper (1505-1544) was the daughter of one of the leading Roman Catholics in England, Thomas More. More opposed the Protestant Reformation and its elevation of the individual’s interpretation of Scripture above the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. However, More encouraged his daughter to read ancient texts in their original languages. The study of Greek and Latin was part of a new approach to education, known as the New Learning. Its connection to piety made it acceptable for women to study on a level never before possible. Greek and Latin became the language of the cultural movers and shakers of the time.

Margaret, with her ability to read Greek and Latin, was encouraged by her father to translate Erasmus’ Precatio Dominica into English. First published anonymously in Latin in 1523, Precatio Dominica “domesticates and disseminates Erasmus’s view of the devotional life” (Wilson). Like many women writers of the Renaissance, Margaret translated deep theology and philosophy into practical use.

The freedom that Margaret took with Erasmus’ text demonstrated, as one critic has stated, “a growing tendency of the times—the passionate delight in fullness of expression.” Margaret, though intent upon the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, nevertheless was a woman of the Renaissance.

Like many of the male writers of the Renaissance, their female counterparts were usually from aristocratic backgrounds. People with wealth and power usually had more educational opportunities and social leisure in which to pursue the betterment of themselves and others.

Katherine Parr

Katherine Parr (1512-1548) was one women of the Renaissance and the Reformation who engaged herself in a life of piety, authorship, and patronage. The sixth wife of Henry VIII (and the only wife to out live him), Parr used her position to support Protestant scholars and encourage the New Learning by inviting well-known humanists such as John Cheke and Roger Ascham to tutor her stepchildren.

The two books that Katherine published under her own name were devotional in nature and Reformed in doctrine. The publications of the queen’s own works set a new precedent for aristocratic women. Parr’s Prayers and Meditations (1545) was the first book to be published by a woman in English under her own name.

The Lamentation of a Sinner (1548), Katherine’s second book, was revolutionary in that it pushed for the literacy of all people, not just men. Of no small consequence, the publication of The Lamentation of a Sinner was sponsored by the Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine Willoughby. The duchess was the queen’s close friend and ally in the fight for further theological, and consequently, social reforms in England and abroad.

Parr’s Prayers and Meditations and The Lamentation of a Sinner had a duel effect on women. The books encouraged the younger aristocratic women to embark “on an ambitious program that fused Bible reading with private theological study” (Hannay). Moreover, Parr’s books helped foster the publication of devotional books for the ordinary reader (Hannay). Of more universal impact, she opened the door for other women writers to walk through.

Queen Elizabeth I

As the stepdaughter of Queen Katherine Parr, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was a direct benefactor of Parr’s Protestant humanism. Educated by Roger Ascham, Elizabeth was a model of humanistic learning.

As part of her education, Elizabeth translated Queen Marguerite de Navarre’s Mirror de l’âme pécheresse. Elizabeth’s English translation from the original French is very literal. However, in places where it is not, it belies a social progressiveness, which was to characterize her future reign.

Elizabeth often substituted “mother” for the French word for father in her translation of Mirror de l’âme pécheresse. Elizabeth’s manipulation of the text demonstrates a freedom that many women translators of the time took. As translators women became authors, working their way into positions of influence that they might not always achieve with their own by-line.

Elizabeth’s work on the Queen Marguerite’s Mirror suggests a desire for religious influence that she could not have achieved on her own as a young princess. Elizabeth also completed translations of Petrach, Seneca, Boethius, Plutrach and the Psalms.

Mary Herbert

Another English aristocrat, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1562-1621), also translated many religious works. Among her most notable work is the completion and expansion of Arcadia (1590) written by her brother, Sir Philip Sidney.

As a patron of the arts, Mary invited poets and musicians regularly to her home. Sir Philip Sidney was one of the first to have stayed and worked at Wilton House. It is during his intermittent visits with his sister that he began to write the Arcadia. He intended his “idle work” for her eyes only. But, the countess could not keep the work to herself.

After Sir Philip’s death, Mary began to edit and expand her brother’s work. Her development from prose to poetry seemed to be part of a conscious plan. Like many of her male peers, she was training herself by “imitation and exercise in the arts of poetry” (Beilin).

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke was not simply a talented poet and writer, she was deeply interested in the relationship between divine truth and poetry (Beilin). She was a Puritan and a Calvinist who believed that a Christian delighted to glorify God in all spheres of life. Her poetry no less displayed her abilities and beliefs than her prayer life or her domestic duties.

As a woman writer, and not strictly a translator, the Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke made advances into a field that had been reserved only for men. Her poetry idealizes virtue. She sought perfect lyrical articulation (Beilin). As a poet of great religious zeal, we find in the countess a writer that desired the rebirth of religion as well as a rebirth of the arts.

Continue reading: Women Writers of the Renaissance, Part 2

Works cited and consulted (for this series):

Abrams, M.H., ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986.

Beilin, Elaine V., Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.

Hannay, Margaret Patterson, ed., Silent But for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works. Kent: Kent State UP, 1985.

Stevenson, Jane., Women Writers in English Literature. Essex: York Press, 1993.

Wilson, Katharina M., ed., Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Athens: U Georgia P, 1987.