Literature and Theatre
This chapter considers two questions what is Christian liberty and is it compatible with female rule, as they were debated in early modern Europe. It also considers the work of a number of English and Scottish Protestant political theologians during the 1550s. As Constance Jordan writes about the political and spiritual status of early modern women: 'In the language of Renaissance political thought, she is a persona mixta: her natural and political self balanced by her spiritual self '. The chapter argues that in each man's discussion of female rule in the Bible, the authority of women is regularly deprecated at a patriarchal level. Biblical exegesis and contemporary reality become intertwined: thraldom and slavery are the antonyms of Christian liberty. Mary Tudor, and her biblical antecedents like Jezebel, stand as wilful deniers of Christian liberty in the secular realm.
The Book of Proverbs was adapted and recycled in multiple versions in early modern England, primarily because it was easy to break down into digestible units. Through the powerful example of the Book of Proverbs, author suggests that Reformation thought re-invigorates the reading, interpretation and application of feminine precursors to be found in the Bible. The Book of Proverbs is a frequent and popular choice for female encomia in the seventeenth century. The positive valuations of female speech rest heavily on the preconditions supplied by situation, audience and context, and surface at various points throughout Proverbs. Frequently the model of the virtuous woman involves referring the reader to the catalogue of exemplary biblical women. Robert Cleaver's commentary highlights the virtuous woman of Proverbs as a model for emulation within the household, and is aimed at husbands and wives alike.
Early modern scholarship has accepted the Whore of Babylon's popularity and synonymy with Catholicism, and her evocation within discourses of anti-popery has been acknowledged in studies of Catholicism and discussions of dramas set in southern Europe. For Protestants, reading the Whore of Babylon was central to a broader attempt to create and maintain a strict opposition between the opposing factions of Christianity. Martin Luther declared the Whore's Roman Catholic identity by including a woodcut depicting her in the papal tiara in his 1522 New Testament. This interpretation gained credibility among reformers on the continent, it accrued similar respect and popularity in England through the work of John Bale, John Foxe and Heinrich Bullinger. Richard Bernard's instructions demonstrate that the reformers did not abandon their commitment to the literal but instead accepted a form of literalism that was, paradoxically, figural.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book considers how biblical women were read, appropriated and debated in a wide range of early modern texts. It considers the complex ways in which biblical women were positioned as both positive and negative exemplars. The book investigates the 'intersection' by unravelling the rhetorical potential of the Bible's women across political, cultural, gendered and theological discourses. It seeks to build on the developing corpus of work by locating the Bible's more familiar women, such as Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene, alongside their less familiar but nonetheless significant, counterparts such as Zipporah, Michal and Esther. The book addresses a particular biblical woman or archetype of femininity. It offers a purview of the diverse ways in which the women of the Old and New Testaments were read and represented in early modern England.
The reflection on the Hail Mary prayer colours the analogy between the Virgin Mary and Henrietta Maria to follow. Since venerating Mary was outlawed after 1559, subsequent poetry exalting her is in a sense recusant by default because it refuses Elizabethan conformity. The poetry to Mary of Richard Rowlands or Verstegan is less known than that of Constable, and their backgrounds seem initially rather different. Rowlands was a printer who, in the wake of Edmund Campion's execution, became a leading Counter-Reformation publicist on the continent. Rowlands was an important smuggler of recusant books and also people into England, and his works circulated widely on the continent. Recalling the deeply inscribed, indeed scriptural, Marys, the poets present the Church as a seventeenth-century Mary without name: thereby acknowledging a loss of memory metaphorically, but with maximum sadness and horror, termed defloration.
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.