The art of calligraphy was practiced widely in the seventeenth century with various levels of skill, showing the writer’s ability to control the movement of the quill and therefore his or her sophistication and education. Handbooks on writing and copybooks, books that contained examples of various types of handwriting, were popular and at times explicitly represented themselves as catering to men and women. This is the case in Honest Education in the Literary Arts (1669), a book that advertises itself, in spite of a title page that features an image of men engaged in learning, as capable of teaching “all persons” to read and write in a short amount of time, including “men, women, daughters and young lads.”
In the Low Countries, like elsewhere in Europe, some women enjoyed practicing calligraphy, as pastime but also to produce gifts for others. Gift-giving in general, as scholarship has been uncovering, involved much more than simply personal expressions of affection. For the Low Countries, for instance, Irma Thoen has shown that gifts could range in meaning and function, helping to establish someone’s position in networks, gain patronage, convey political messages, and give expression to ideas on all kinds of subjects. This is true for women as for men; Lisa Klein has written an elaborate analysis of embroidered gifts given to and by Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, and Susan Frye has analyzed the deeper meanings of texts by women in different forms, treating embroidery as a textual art form along with poetry and pamphlets; many of the “texts” she discusses were gifts to others. Calligraphy can be situated in a socio-political context too, displaying female elegance but also conveying messages and affording the opportunity for a special kind of self-expression, as the presence of calligraphic flourishes in signatures, such as the one shown here of Anna Roemers Visscher, shows.
Calligraphy must also be seen in the context of broader ideas on female handwriting of the period. In a chapter on the subject of women’s handwriting, Heather Wolfe explains that early moderns debated whether women should learn to write at all. Even among those who advocated female handwriting there was disagreement on which script would be most suitable, given women’s supposed weaker bodies and inability to concentrate for long on arduous tasks. Wolfe cites John Davies, for instance, who writes in The writing schoolemaster (1631) that women “naturally lack strength in their hand to perform those full strokes, and (as it were) to bruise a letter as men do” (28). Thus, she writes, “Early modern writing manuals casually perpetuated familiar stereotypes about women’s flighty and weaker nature in order to explain why Italian hands might be more suited than secretary to women writers. The truth was that writing was laborious, messy and tiring for both genders” (29). Considering these perceived and real hurdles, female calligraphy flies in the face of such stereotypes, showing the calligrapher to be physically and mentally capable not simply of handwriting itself, but of writing in different hands with extraordinary ease and talent, bruising a letter as well as her male counterparts.
While female calligraphy can thus be taken to deny gendered assumptions in a display of sophistication, at the same time, it also confirms them. Engaging in calligraphy has women position their handwriting in a primarily decorative context, rather than a functional or pragmatic one, allowing for a focus on the form over the content of the writing. Featuring handwriting as calligraphy and therefore as upper-class pastime reaffirms its suitability for women and aligns it with embroidery, painting, paper cutting, and other feminine activities designed primarily to avoid idleness and prove one’s elegance. In this sense, it was evidence of what Ann Jensen Adams calls “disciplining the hand,” rather than subverting expectations.
Some elite Dutchwomen were publicly known for their ability to handle the pen. Anna Maria van Schurman, for instance, was praised as a highly skilled calligrapher and enjoyed writing elaborate inscriptions for others, in their alba amicorum (friendship albums), for instance. Anna Roemers Visscher and Maria Tesselschade Roemers Visscher used calligraphy on glass, and Anna’s translations of Georgette de Montenay’s emblems were done in a graceful hand. Late in life, she created a manuscript version of her poems, entitled Letterjuweel (Jewel of Letters, see above) in similarly elegant handwriting. For some women, we have no actual physical evidence of their calligraphy, but they are praised in poems for it. Cornelia Kalf, for one, is praised by Constantijn Huygens for her “manly hand” (“uw manhafte Penn”). The praise alone suggests an association of ornate handwriting with masculinity, rather than femininity, furthering the notion that calligraphy was unlike embroidery, for instance, which was considered a uniquely feminine pastime.
But while these were upper-class women whose calligraphy circulated among a small group of friends, no female calligraphers gained such a wide audience as the remarkable Maria Strick (1577-after 1625), the only Dutch female professional calligrapher. She was comparable to Inglis in making a living from her craft—though her work was aimed at a large, print-based audience, rather than an elite clientele. Born Maria Becq, daughter of a schoolmaster, and married to Hans Strick, she became a teacher, running schools for girls and teaching in schools for boys. She became famous as a calligrapher by winning prizes in calligraphy competitions and, remarkably, publishing four copybooks. More prolific in print than many of the best-known male calligraphers in this golden age of calligraphy, Maria Strick collaborated with her husband, who did the engravings for her books. Early modern women usually are only able to make their mark in arenas that are male-dominated if there is strong male support in their immediate surroundings, and that was clearly the case for Strick, whose father taught her calligraphy and whose husband helped enable her publications. Moreover, the importance of competition in the world of professional calligraphy, derived from the traditions of the chambers of rhetoric (rederijkerskamers) of her day, helped Strick gain additional prominence.
Strick’s calligraphy matches that of her best known male colleagues for its copiousness: she displays her mastery of different types of handwriting and decoration, though her style is less ornate than some others. Interestingly, in a fine essay discussing Strick’s career and work, Ton Croiset van Ughelen links this somewhat sober style, which seems a contradiction in terms when it comes to calligraphy, to her Lutheran faith (118). Of course it is not surprising that Protestantism, with its emphasis on words over images, could be aligned with calligraphy’s textual nature, but we can still perceive some tension in the very decorative nature of calligraphy and Protestantism’s abhorrence of idolatry and ornamentation. After all, the decorations may be perceived as important in their own right, overwhelming the substance of the text. Strick negotiates these tensions by toning down the flourishes and avoiding making them images of animals and other objects as other calligraphers did. Her decorative abstractness aligns with her religious worldview, in other words, keeping as much focus as possible on the text.
At the same time, Strick’s work shows her command of different languages, including especially French, and a courtly sprezzatura (or nonchalance) that was generally associated with individuals of higher social status. The tension between sober religion and copiousness is perfectly illustrated in her engraved portrait (see above), with its ink wells, quills, religious inscriptions and copious fruit. Calligraphy was, therefore, not simply an elegant pastime, but rather also a challenge to preconceived notions of femininity and a means of self-expression. Strick represents an important example of female calligraphy, not only because she was such an outstanding calligrapher but also because she gained a reputation for her art in a professional, male-dominated realm.
Adams, Ann Jensen. “Disciplining the Hand, Disciplining the Heart: Letter-Writing Paintings and Practices in Seventeenth-Century Holland.” Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer. Ed. Peter C. Sutton et al. London: Lincoln, 2003. 63-77.
Croiset van Ughelen, Ton. “Maria Strick, Schoolmistress and Calligrapher in Early Seventeenth-Century Holland.” Quaerendo 39 (2009): 83-132.
Frye, Susan. Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
Klein, Lisa M. “Your Humble Handmaid: Elizabethan Gifts of Needlework.” Renaissance Quarterly 50.2 (1997): 459-93.
Stighelen, Katlijne van der. Anna Maria van Schurman of ‘Hoe hooge dat een maeght kan in de konsten stijgen.’ Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 1987.
Thoen, Irma. Strategic Affection? Gift Exchange in Seventeenth-Century Holland. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007.
Wolfe, Heather. “Women’s Handwriting.” The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing. Ed. Laura Lunger Knoppers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.