Patriarchy, piety, and singlehood in early Stuart England

A microhistory of a never-married English gentlewoman named Elizabeth Isham, this book centres on an extremely rare piece of women’s writing – a relatively newly discovered 60,000-word spiritual autobiography held in Princeton’s manuscript collections that she penned circa 1639. The document is among the richest extant sources related to early modern women, and offers a wealth of information not only on Elizabeth’s life but also on the seventeenth-century Ishams. Indeed, it is unmatched in providing an inside view of her family relations, her religious beliefs, her reading habits, and, most sensationally, the reasons why she chose never to marry despite desires to the contrary held by her male kin, particularly Sir John Isham, her father. Based on the autobiography, combined with extensive research of the Isham family papers now housed at the county record office in Northampton, the book recreates Elizabeth’s world, placing her in the larger community of Northamptonshire and then reconstructing her family life and the patriarchal authority that she lived under at her home of Lamport Hall. Restoring our historical memory of Elizabeth and her female relations, this reconstruction demonstrates why she wrote her autobiography and the influence that family and religion had on her unmarried state, reading, and confessional identity, expanding our understanding and knowledge about patriarchy, piety, and singlehood in early modern England.

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A memory restored

The book has allowed Elizabeth Isham’s ‘Booke of Rememberance’ to become an invaluable document for viewing the early modern world in which she inhabited, with patriarchy, piety, and singlehood defining her internal and external existence. Life-writing conveyed this existence, and from it we view a woman who – through her individual agency – actively created a life in ways she saw fit within both the cultural framework at her disposal and the cultural constraints with which she had to negotiate. Her existence was lived and experienced, as it was for all her contemporaries, and this should remind us that we should always maintain an acute sensitivity to what an individual life can reveal and expose about the past. By engaging primarily with the ‘Booke of Rememberance’, we have placed a deeply ‘human face’ onto the history and historical memory of early modern England that can all too often lean towards generalizations, expanding our understanding of patriarchy, piety, singlehood of the period.

in The gentlewoman’s remembrance
Elizabeth Isham’s religion

This chapter addresses two central themes found throughout the monograph – Elizabeth Isham’s personal piety and confessional identity. At the foundation of her life was religion and it served as the key factor in her decision to write the autobiography. Elizabeth’s account allows us to open a window into both her internal and external religiosity finding that she held a strong penchant for the Book of Common Prayer while also engaging in an intense form of internal piety common among the godly, a combination of practices best described as ‘Prayer Book Puritanism’. A great deal of recent scholarship has sought to blur the confessional differences that existed in early modern England, with an underlying assumption that what best characterized the period was a broad Protestant culture, defined more by consensual coexistence and commonalities than religious conflict. On the surface, Elizabeth appears a perfect candidate to illustrate this, but to see her as such leads to a lack of appreciation for the uniqueness of her devotional practices. Instead, viewing her as an ‘exceptional norm’ pays more dividends showing how an individual could live her piety, full of contours and facets, in the ambiguous, diverse, and divisive context of early modern England’s religious environment.

in The gentlewoman’s remembrance
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Finding and remembering Elizabeth Isham

The Introduction lays out the central sources, themes, questions, and methods utilized in this microhistory of Elizabeth Isham. With the ‘Booke of Remembrance’ as the foundational source of the book, it is juxtaposed with the Isham papers that exist in the Northamptonshire Record Office. This juxtaposition underscores the value of Elizabeth’s autobiography in exploring life-writing, patriarchy, family history, never-married women, gender ideals, reading, and confessional identity, and religious beliefs in the seventeenth century. Moreover, the archival custody of the autobiography highlights the influence of patriarchy over the historical memory of women, especially those who never wed in their lives. Overall, the introduction stresses that an exploration of Elizabeth Isham’s life and world allows us to think about patriarchy, piety, and singlehood in fresh and new ways, expanding our understanding of early modern England.

in The gentlewoman’s remembrance
The spiritual autobiography of Elizabeth Isham

Written circa 1639, the ‘Booke of Rememberance’ covered the first thirty years of Elizabeth Isham’s life, and was the product of a number of influences and purposes. An act of spiritual meditation, repentance and memory, Elizabeth’s account was a testament of puritan self-examination. The autobiography also served as a defence of her marital status, allowed her to provide religious instruction to later generations of Isham women, and was a memorial to her mother, Lady Isham. For its style and structure, the reading of devotional literature proved important, with William Watt’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions serving as Elizabeth’s primary literary model when producing an account of her life. Essentially a hybrid form of life-writing, the spiritual autobiography pre-dated the emergence of the genre of the seventeenth-century conversion narrative, and it allows us to underscore the long-standing scholarly debate over the connections between early modern life-writing and the birth of a modern subjective self centred on an intense interiority. Indeed, we find elements of both Elizabeth’s interiority and exteriority expressed in the ‘Booke of Remembrance’, suggesting that to preference one over the other creates a false dichotomy that pays few, if any scholarly dividends.

in The gentlewoman’s remembrance
The Ishams of Lamport and their world

To fully understand the ‘Booke of Rememberance’ and, by extension Elizabeth Isham, we must place both within their familial and county contexts. Crucial to this endeavour is the recovery and construction of the historical memory of her life, which requires a juxtaposition of the perspectives that the Isham collection and the autobiography provide on her and her family. Such methodology highlights the stark patriarchal history we find in the family papers, a history overwhelmingly skewed towards Sir John and Sir Justinian Isham because of the ample documentation on them in the collection. If we attempt to reconstruct similar portraits for Elizabeth’s female relations just from the Isham papers, the venture is impossible, particularly in the cases of Lady Isham and Judith Isham. Yet when we turn to the ‘Booke of Rememberance’ these women appear in full scholarly light, and their memory is found and restored, revealing the intimate and mutually supportive relationships they shared as they faced spiritual, emotional, and physical trials and tribulations. The chapter demonstrates the potential power that patriarchy exerts on our historical memory of past women, as well as maps essential contexts for fully analysing Elizabeth Isham, her life-writing, and her world.

in The gentlewoman’s remembrance
Singlehood in the patriarch’s household

This chapter gives pride of place to the interplay that existed in the early modern period between piety, marriage formation, singlehood and patriarchy by examining Elizabeth Isham’s relationships with her father and brother, and her negotiation with their familial authority. The most dramatic manifestation resulted from her aversion to marriage. When the financial impasse occurred between the Isham and Dryden families, Elizabeth approved that her father dissolve the match in order to protect him from conceding to the Drydens’ demands. Her decision also rested on Elizabeth’s interpretation that the breakdown of the match was the result of God’s judgment against her for loving Dryden more than God himself. To prevent a similar outcome from happening again, Elizabeth refused all successive suitors that her father presented her in order to wholly devote herself to God. In sum, she chose to obey the wishes of her heavenly father over those of her earthly father. It was a dramatic outcome, and it gives further nuance to our understanding of singlehood and patriarchy in early modern England, showcasing a significant demographic of women and their possible avenues for negotiating male authority in the period.

in The gentlewoman’s remembrance
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Elizabeth Isham’s reading

The household library that exists at Lamport Hall still contains sixteenth and seventeenth- century books, and it is a testament to the bibliophilic character of the Isham family. Hence, it is little surprise to find that there is much evidence of Elizabeth Isham’s engagement with texts. We learn from the autobiography that both books and reading were fundamental to the Ishams’ familial interactions, with members giving texts as gifts, Sir John and Lady Isham teaching their children and servants to read, and aural reading being a favourite pastime in the household. With Lady Isham and Judith suffering from large degrees of physical and spiritual trauma in their lives, aural reading of devotional literature served as a cordial for their sufferings. She also applied autodidactic reading to her own spiritual growth and piety, as her engagement with books served not only a communal but also a deeply personal and private function. Predominantly, the texts that she owned and those that she referenced in the ‘Booke of Rememberance’ were guides of practical divinity, and she demonstrated her mastery of Scripture with exegesis that often conflated her own language and ideas with biblical passages as she produced the life-narrative in the autobiography. All of this allows us to access current scholarship on early modern reading, especially that centred on private and communal engagement with books.

in The gentlewoman’s remembrance