The use of New Testament women to consider the relationship between an individual and God is more forcefully revealed in early modern readings of Anna. In The glory of women, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa lists countless Old Testament women who assert pre-eminence over men, but the New Testament compilation is slight by comparison. Arguably, it was Jesus' mother Mary who was among the most discussed, and debated, New Testament women of the early modern period. The mother of Christ, Mary continued to have a literary presence in England throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even after reformers destroyed the Marian statues and other physical reminders of her medieval cult. Beyond the Gospels, women from other books of the New Testament also receive attention from early modern writers, including Sapphira, Dorcas (Tabitha), Lydia and Priscilla who appear in the Book of Acts.
The Old Testament's pages weave together the stories of mothers, daughters, wives and queens, as well as female prophets, judges and military leaders, who shape biblical history. Biblical women were mobilised in the period's domestic writings. In Genesis, the bodies and decisions of women, such as Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, enable the establishment of the Israelite nation. While Rebecca may indeed be understood to figure Elizabeth in Jacoband Esau, it was the Old Testament judge Deborah who was more commonly used to celebrate, and authorise, the authority of England's Queen. Identification with the speaking women of the Bible was an important authorising tactic of early modern women writers, and the prayer of Hannah, as well as the songs of Miriamand Deborah, acquired particular resonance. Tracing 'Womens words' across the Old Testament, Fell lays claim to a biblical tradition of female preaching that has been appropriated by men.
In the early seventeenth century in England a flurry of texts emerged formally debating the moral and ethical value of womankind. Eve, the first human to fall, was regularly used to define and malign woman, and her eating of the forbidden fruit was, for some, biblical evidence of womankind's inherent fallibility. Writers such as the horticulturalist mystics Abraham Cowley and John Evelyn increasingly reveal an Eve who is conflated both with Adam and with the garden itself. Ester Sowernam notes in Ester hath hang'd Haman: Or An Answer to a The Arraignment of Women that Eve is a Paraditian Creature. As the seventeenth century progresses, the readings shift ground, as Eve begins to become a prop in her Edenic garden for the Georgian fantasists and mystical horticulturalists of the 1650s.
This chapter aims to assess the extent to which sixteenth- and seventeenth-century readings of events in the Book of Esther were determined by the different generic forms and by the broader historical, cultural and religious contexts. Female petitioners, mindful of the strong civic and religious associations informing the Book of Esther, appropriated her spiritual image and reputation as a precedent in order to license their own forays into the political arena. It was as 'a patron saint of Civil War women's petitions', to borrow Susan Wiseman's phrase, that this biblical heroine scored her greatest impact. In his commentary on the Book of Esther, Timothy Laniak pertinently remarks that 'Esther is a story about falling and standing in which the Jews' enemies fall, and the Jewish people stand'. Power relations between suppliant and supplicated are inverted to the benefit of the Jews.
This chapter suggests that one should read the pilgrimage-minded Helena of All's Well That Ends Well in the light of two holy women, St Helena of Britain and Mary Magdalene. Despite the official marginalisation of Catholicism, there were many cultural uses made of Mary Magdalene in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The story of St Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and supposed finder of the True Cross, was well known in Britain. In Lewis Wager's The Life and Repentaunce of Mary Magdalene, Mary Magdalene, like Helena, is first introduced with reference to her late father. In most dramatic versions of her story, Mary Magdalene was the sister of Lazarus, like Helena, was also associated with narratives of death and miraculous or quasi-miraculous recovery. Antonina Harbus explains that St Helena was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This chapter argues that early modern Catholic accounts of Marian grief continued to nostalgically present Virgin Mary using the medieval motif of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa. The Virgin at the cross is understood, in the Stabat Mater Dolorosa tradition, to be poised between grief and happiness; sorrow and exaltation; agony and triumph. Mary's participation at the cross was understood to authorise her intercessionary powers, reasserting her significance in an era coming to terms with the eradication of purgatory from Protestant doctrine. Thomas Lodge's Prosopopeia containing the teares of the holy, blessed, and sanctified Marie, the Mother of God directly engages with the performative nature of the Virgin's grief. Mary's grief at the cross does not simply operate as a static image of medieval Catholicism; instead, that legacy is negotiated in the texts to reveal what the Virgin represented to the particular historical moment.
Early modern readings of biblical women are as full of variety and contradiction as the Bible itself. Zipporah and Michal are unusual for the challenges they pose to masculinity in literal and metaphorical ways. Though Jewish midrash unites Zipporah and Michal, the two do not appear together in any biblical narrative or text. Still, they are routinely linked in early modern discourse and in consistently unflattering ways. Zipporah's behaviour sets the stage for women's engagement in nationalistic enterprises an engagement that characterises the actions of several heroines in Exodus and in the biblical books that follow. Early modern readings echo charges of sin and injustice and include Michal in books such as God's judgments against whoring. The severe disconnection between the Bible's mix of compassion and wonder toward these women and the early modern disparagement of them invites us to consider what distinguishes these biblical women's narratives from others.