November 8

Dead White Females

Becoming a (Female) Auctoritee in the Medieval Period

The Path of Divine Inspiration

Female public utterance becomes permissible if a woman lays claim to divine inspiration, speaks or writes as a conduit for divine illumination. Consider the visionary religious experiences recorded by Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) and Margery Kempe (c.1373-1438).

Both women belong to the category of Christian writers called mystics.

The anchoress Julian of Norwich based her The Book of Showings on a series of 16 visions she experienced during a near fatal illness. She shares with her readers her visual experience, her auditory experience, but also something that transcends normal sense impressions and is only partially translatable into human language.

Julian describes her visions in the vernacular; the unlettered Margery, meanwhile, dictates her spiritual autobiography to priestly scribes in the third person ("this creature"). Note Margery's "transgressive desires":

The bodily manifestations of her visionary experience suggest another challenge to clerical authority: her "impure" female flesh appears to have special access to spiritual purity and inner illumination.

Even though this links her to the doctrine of affective piety, which emphasizes imaginative participation in Christ's suffering and his redemptive actions, Margery is accused of heresy--not because her doctrinal beliefs are unorthodox, but because of her social transgression in abandoning her role as a respectable townsman's wife.

Margery's defense? Her "imitation of Christ"­her portrayal of herself as a believer who is following in Christ's footsteps.

Alternative Paths

So what happens when a woman makes her utterances public but does not authorize her speech or writing by positioning herself as the bearer of the divine Word or a humble follower in the footsteps of Christ? Although the highly educated woman of the English Renaissance is the exception rather than the rule, the writings of a few Englishwomen begin to appear in print in the late 16th and early 17th century. These writings fall into the following categories:

Other categories include the following:

The Renaissance Woman

Lady Mary Wroth (1587-1651?) breaks new ground. Wroth, the niece of Sir Philip Sidney, publishes the first secular sonnet sequence in English written by a woman. "Pamphilia to Amphilanthus" is appended to her long prose romance Urania (published 1621). Its 103 songs and sonnets are presented as the work of Pamphilia, the heroine of the romance.

Wroth presents several problems to her readership.

The "Problem" of Female Authorship

Edward Denny on Wroth: "Hermaphrodite in show, indeed a monster." Does Wroth's very action in publishing her writing suggest to Denny a transgressive confusion of gender roles? He goes further:

"Work other works, leave idle books alone / For wise and worthier women have writ none"

The Problem of Women "Going Public"

Remember the long-standing tendency has been to connect public female speech/writing and unchastity; thus, to engage in imaginative writing is also perceived as exacerbating "natural" female tendencies towards deceit. According to Juan Vives (humanist educator):

when a woman shall learn to write, let not her example be void verses nor wanton or trifling songs, but (...) sentences prudent & chaste, taken out of holy Scripture.

The Problem of the Female Petrarchan

Paradigm for the lyric expression of desire traditionally involves a man who woos, a woman who may allow herself to be wooed, but who doesn't take the active part in the wooing. To take on the "I" of a lover speaking her own desire is to risk exposing oneself to derision or even to accusations of promiscuity. A woman's "honor" is still tied up with society's perception of her chastity--to make public your passion is to risk being perceived as unchaste. (See handout for Wroth's description of Pamphilia's "self-betrayal" in making her private writing public.)

What are the implications of female writer taking on the subject position in the Petrarchan model (i.e., becoming the speaking "I", not the object of representation)? One can't just reverse the usual situation. The problem with Amphilanthus, for example, is NOT his resolute chastity!

Note Wroth's modifications of Petrarchism: