Mary Ward and the Society of Jesus

This blog post by Alexandra Verini recounts the life of Mary Ward, founder of a female religious community and controversial figure in her time.

by Alexandra Verini

Portrait of Mary Ward (anonymous, c. 1600)

Mary Ward is a fascinating early modern woman who has been relatively little studied. She was a Catholic born in a post-Reformation England and so spent much of her life in Europe where she founded a new congregation modeled on the Jesuit Society of Jesus, which served as a religious community for English Catholic women and a school for girls. I first became interested in Ward in my research on women’s utopianism and have found her to be a powerful example of how early modern women could refashion prescribed gender roles and enact prescient models of female community.

Despite her innovations, relatively few scholarly works have focused on Ward, in part, because, before 2007, all documents concerning her life and her society were kept under lock and key at the Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich. Recently, however, Sister Christina Kentworthy-Browne from the Bar Convent in York has published a biography of Ward written by her companions as well as Ward’s autobiographical fragments and select letters. Moreover, five German volumes have made available for the first time the entirety of the Ward archive, which includes letters between Ward and her followers, her spiritual writings, autobiographical fragments and institutional documents. These volumes, alongside with visual representations of Ward’s life, bear witness to a career that, in face of great challenges, staked a claim for women’s collective spiritual and political authority.


Opening page of A Briefe Relation from webpage for a Mary Ward Documentary

Born in 1585 to religious parents from a Catholic family in Yorkshire, Ward spent much of her early life with relatives. In 1599, she moved to the house of Sir Ralph Babthorpe at Osgodby, Selby, where, at the age of 15, she found a calling to religious life. As her biography, which was written after Ward’s death by two of her followers, recounts, when living at the Babthorpe residence, Ward “wou’d retyre herselfe alone in her Chaumber, with an old Catholicke Woman, and heare her tell storyes of Religious Women…which gave her such Light of the excellency of a Religious state, as all her Life she had a feeling of it (Kentworthy-Browne 6-7).


This period of her life is illustrated in the Painted Life, a series of fifty paintings illustrating significant events in Ward’s career commissioned by her followers Mary Wigmore, Mary Poyntz, and other early companions in the later seventeenth century. I traveled to Augsburg last year to see these paintings, which were helpfully explained to me by the sisters of the Congregatio Jesu.

Painted Life 9. Copyright ‘Painted Life’ Pictures, Mary Ward Spirituality Centre, Augsburg. Photo Tanner, Nesselwang, Germany.


Roger Lee, SJ. Miniature housed at Mary Ward Spirituality Centre, Augsburg.

In 1606, like many recusant Catholics, Ward left England to join the convent of Saint Clares in Saint-Omer in what was then Spanish Flanders, where she met her future spiritual director Roger Lee (1574-1615).

The following year she left the convent to start a new foundation of the same order specifically for English women at the nearby Gravelines. Five years later, however, she received a divine revelation, which she later called her glory vision, in which God instructed her to “take the same of the society,” referring to the Society of Jesus. This vision prompted Ward to leave Gravelines to found the Schola Beata Mariae, the first of over a dozen houses devoted to teaching Catholic girls and pursuing missionary work for the Catholic cause in England. Ward’s “Society of Jesus” was highly unusual as it was governed by women, unenclosed, and available for apostolic work worldwide, including the support of priests on the English Mission. In taking the step to found her society, Ward went against the establishment on multiple fronts: she was inherently at odds with her nation’s religion, but she also fell out of favor with the papacy since, by promoting women’s active ministry, she defied the Post-Tridentine prescription of enclosure for religious women.


Painted Life 22. Copyright ‘Painted Life’ Pictures, Mary Ward Spirituality Centre, Augsburg. Photo Tanner, Nesselwang, Germany

Female community was integral to Ward’s society, and she maintained strong female friendships throughout her life, describing herself in her spiritual exercises as “apt for friendship.” During her stay in London in 1609, she won over several young aristocratic women, who crossed over with her to Saint-Omer to serve under her direction. These women are shown sitting together in the Painted Life.

The value Ward placed on the female community that subsequently gathered around her is manifest in a set of addresses that she delivered in December 1617 at Saint-Omer to 60 of her followers. Speaking directly to these women, she describes them in exalted terms: “You are spectakells to god, angells and men. It is certaine that god has looked uppon you as he never looked uppon any” (Dirmeier, vol. 1, 363). Ward acted on the faith she invested in her followers when she founded centers for her society in Bratislava (Pressburg), Cologne, Hewarth, Liège, London, Munich, Naples, Perugia, Prague, Rome, St.-Omer, Trèves (Trier), and Vienna and entrusted their governance to her female friends with whom she corresponded regularly about administrative and spiritual matters.


Ward’s signature. Image from document housed at Mary Ward Spirituality Centre, Augsburg.

Her most frequent epistolary correspondent was Winefrid Wigmore (shown on the left of the Painted Life image 22 according to a sister from Augsburg). In her many letters, Ward addresses her friend affectionately as “My Dear Win” and commends her “mannaginge of matters” (Perugia 1624 July 23)

In another letter sent on July 16, 1627, Ward congratulates Wigmore on the progress she has made in the Latin education of girls and instructing her to encourage more pupils to study Latin: “Thes [words] are indeed cheifly to congratulate the unexpected progress of your lattin Schools … All such as are capable, invite them to yt; and for such as desirs to be of ours, noe tallant ys to be so much regarded in them as the lattin tounge.” Ward further praises Wigmore’s education of a particular girl, describing how priests have praised the girl’s Latin writing: “The lattin hand Maria Mich: wrote her theam in, ys hear by thes fathers much commaunded, though I thinke yt ys farr short of what yt wilbe.” In this letter and others, Ward demonstrates the value she placed on education for women and interest she took in each of her individual followers and pupils. Far from being the ego-driven project of one woman, Ward’s Society was formed through the collaborative efforts of a network of women and girls across Europe.


Modern stained glass image of Ward instructing young girls, Bishop Thornton Church, Harrogate

Despite Ward’s successes, her vision of a community for women engaged in active ministry was never fully realized in her lifetime, primarily due to Catholic opposition (including by one of her community’s former members, Mary Alcock). Opponents viewed Ward as heretical, dubbing her and her followers “galloping nuns,” referring to her society’s lack of enclosure. Ward’s breach of papal law led to the Vatican’s suppression of the Institute in 1631, with Pope Urban VIII’s signing of the Pastoralis Romani Pontificis. All Ward’s foundations were dissolved, and she herself was imprisoned, ironically in a foundation of the same order she had joined as a young girl: a Poor Clare convent, the Angerkloster, in Munich. She was denied the female companionship that had been so vital to her mission as the sisters of the Angerkloster were forbidden to speak to her and she was prohibited from writing letters. During this time, Ward communicated with her supporters secretly by sending letters written in lemon juice, whose words only appear when the paper was heated. Twenty-three of these fragile lemon-juice letters survive today.

When Ward was eventually freed in October 1631, she set out for Rome to seek a papal audience and make a case for her Society. Despite his verbal approbation of her work, Pope Urban VIII did not revoke the Bull condemning the Institute, and though the Inquisition issued a statement that neither Mary Ward nor her companions were guilty of acts against the Church, Ward remained under the shadow of the Inquisition. She was never allowed to see the written statements against her, and it was not until recently, when granted access to the Vatican’s archives, that the Institute realized the extent of papal opposition against the Society. Most of the members of the Society of Jesus were forced to leave their houses and either return to secular life or join other religious orders. Only in Munich and Rome were a limited number allowed to live together as laywomen.

Ward spent the remainder of her life under house arrest in Rome and moving between various spas in Europe due to her ill health before returning to Yorkshire where she died on January 30, 1645. Her tombstone reads:

Mary Ward’s tombstone in Osbaldwick Church

To love the poor,
persevere in the same,
live die and rise with them
was all the aim of
Mary Ward
who lived 60 years and eight days
and died on 20th January, 1645

After her death, the Ward’s foundation slowly gained recognition. The Society received full confirmation by Pope Pius IX in 1877; in 1900, the name Institute of the Blessed Virgin (in place of Society of Jesus) became its official title; in 1909, the petition for Ward’s rehabilitation received approval by Pope Pius X. Finally, in 1979, the Vatican approved Ward’s plan to adopt the Jesuit Constitutions; in 2002, the Roman branch of Mary Ward’s Institute returned to Mary Ward’s founding vision by changing its name from “Institutum Beatae Mariae Virginis” (IBMV) to “Congregatio Jesu” (“Congregation of Jesus” in English); and in 2004, the Roman branch of IBVM was renamed the Congregation of Jesus, fulfilling the vision of its foundress, who was given the title ‘Venerable’ by Benedict XVI in 2009. In 2015, during Pope Francis’s trip to Cuba, Mary Ward Associates presented him with a letter requesting that he beatify and canonize Ward, which would constitute the Catholic’s Church’s highest recognition of her achievements.

Sisters at the Loreto Institute in Australia (Archives of Loreto Institute)

Several branches of Ward’s order survive today, including the Roman branch of the order, the Congregatio Jesu, and the Sisters of Loreto founded by Sister Frances Mary Teresa Ball in the early nineteenth century. Both of these branches have established foundations and schools across the world.

There is still much work to be done on Ward. Most accounts of her life are biographies, which while valuable resources on her life, in many cases, did not have access to the documents in Munich. Her Painted Life, many letters in multiple languages, institutional documents, biography and autobiographical fragments are works of historical, theological, art historical and literary importance and hopefully will gain greater recognition in years to come.


Further Reading

Dirmeier, Ursula CJ, ed. Mary Ward ind hire Grundung. Die quellentexte bis 1645, 4 vols. Munster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2007.

Congregatio Jesu. Accessed April 21, 2017.

Gallagher, Lowell. “Mary Ward’s ‘Jesuitresses’ and the Construction of a Typological           Community.” In Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England, edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, 199-220. Oxford: Oxford         University Press, 1999.

Gallagher, Lowell. “Remembering Lot’s Wife: The Structure of Testimony in the Painted Life of Mary Ward.” In Religious Diversity in Early Modern English Texts: Judaic, Catholic, Feminist and Secular Dimensions, edited Arthur F. Marotti and Chanita Goodblatt, 77-106. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013.

Kentworthy-Browne, Christina, ed. Mary Ward (1585-1645): A Briefe Relation…with Autobiographical Fragments and a Selection of Letters. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press for the Catholic Record Society, 2008.

Littlehales, Margaret. Mary Ward: Pilgrim and Mystic 1585-1645. Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates, 1998.

Peters, Henrietta. Mary Ward: a World in Contemplation. Leominster, UK: Gracewing Publishing, 1994.

Wallace, David. “Periodizing Mary Ward (1585-1645) and the Premodern Canon.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.2 (2006): 397-495.

Wallace, David. Strong Women: Life, Text and Territory 1347-1645. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Alexandra Verini is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include medieval and early modern women’s writing, devotional culture, and gender theory. Her dissertation, “A New Kingdom of Femininity: Women’s Utopias in Early English Culture and Imagination,” examines women’s utopian writing between 1405 and 1666. You can learn more about Alexandra’s work on her personal website or her profile

The Delicate Hand: Female Engravers

1. Jan van der Straeten,  Plate 19 of the Nova Reperta (New Discoveries). Late 16th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Digital Photo #: DP102228.tif

I have been researching glass engraving recently, and my readings sparked my interest in the related art of copper engraving.  Although some of them were well known, there were not many women copper engravers and printmakers in the early modern period. To what extent was it a gendered activity? Unlike glass engraving, which could easily be practiced at the home, copper engraving, as a famous image by Jan van der Straeten shows, was often done in a print shop in what was very much a male environment. The process of turning the copper engraving into print relied on collaboration, with tasks marked off separately as the designations on the print, “invenit” (designer), “sculpsit” (engraver) and “excudit” (publisher) suggest. Although these tasks might all be performed by one person, often they were not. This type of collaborative production, along with the material environment needed to engrave and print, presented obstacles to women, whose art was more commonly created within the household and intended for limited consumption or distribution to close friends. Besides, the product of copper engraving was meant to be widely disseminated, and this association of engraving with the marketplace would have meant it was off-limits to upper-class women.

In this context, it is important to keep in mind the social distinction Elizabeth Honig describes, between “amateur” female artists of the elite, whose art was a product of pastime, and female artists who worked in a family business, whose art was situated in the male-dominated professional realm. These distinctions, she notes, were sometimes fluid, and it was certainly possible for works created by “amateurs” to be marketed and sold or to become widely known (34). All the same, we can situate the majority of early modern female engravers firmly within the professional sphere. For instance, looking at a list of early modern female map engravers and printers in a blog post by the Osher Map Library, it is immediately obvious that they were mostly widows or daughters of male map engravers. Perhaps the Low Countries were the most promising location in Europe to find women engravers, given that it was home to some of the best known engravers and that a number of crucial innovations in the craft originated there (see The Brilliant Line on the developing techniques). Yet, female engravers were rare even in the Low Countries. Although there were small numbers of women engravers in countries all over Europe in this period, I’d like to use this post to explore in brief two Dutch women who engraved in copper, one professionally and the other, remarkably, as pastime.

2. Portrait of Magdalena van de Passe by Simon van de Passe (1630). Rijksmuseum. Object number RP-P-OB-15.811.

Magdalena van de Passe (1600-1638) was the most famous female engraver of her own day. She was the daughter of Crispijn van de Passe and sister of Crispijn the Younger, Simon, and Willem, all established and well-known engravers themselves. As Ilja Veldman explains in her detailed study of the family, Magdalena already signed prints at age 14, suggesting she must have been very talented (200). She would develop what Veldman calls “her own, very delicate engraving style” (283-84). Even within the open environment of her father’s print shop, there seems to have been a gendered difference between Magdalena and her brothers: unlike the men, she usually worked from the designs and models of others. In this sense, we might compare engraving to translation: it can be based on an original, but nonetheless in subtle ways add its own touches, creating a product that is both original and an imitation. Just as translation was considered respectable for women, engraving after a male design may have been considered a more suitable occupation for Magdalena than original creation.

3. Magdalena van de Passe, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Based on Ovid; after a painting by Jacob Symonsz. Pynas (1623). Rijksmuseum. Object number RP-P-OB-15.828.

Magdalena engraved only a small number of portraits mostly of female sitters (Veldman thinks she knew three of them personally), turning to landscapes after 1620. More surprisingly, she created a small number of engravings based on episodes in Ovid, embarking with her father on an ambitious project of making a large book of Ovidian prints. Unfinished during her lifetime, a book was eventually published in 1677, long after her death, including prints by her father and brother Crispijn. Contrary to much of her other work, the Ovidian prints show the latitude possible in female engraving. Ovid was considered immoral reading for women, and women artists did not usually depict nudes in other art forms like painting, Yet Van de Passe’s Ovidian prints break such rules. A striking example of this is her engraving of the sensual episode of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, showing strongly expressed female-male desire, placed in what looks like an emotionally charged landscape.

Van de Passe also printed engravings on satin and even on nightcaps. In 1630, she was given a three-year license by the States General, making her the only person in the Republic allowed to print on fabric. How many people wanted to sleep with an image on their nightcap of battles and noble Protestants like King Sigismund II, King Frederick V, and King Gustave II of Sweden is unknown, and none of them survives (as far as we know). Still, they represent an instance of blending different types of craft, not unlike some of the more politically themed glass engravings and embroidery of the period. Thus, while Van de Passe seems to have limited herself largely to engraving after male designs and paintings, she nonetheless crossed gendered bounds, infusing her work with her own style and inventing her own objects by superimposing political subject matter onto a domestic piece of clothing. Apparently, she stopped engraving after her marriage in 1634, as is not unusual for professional women artists (Honig 31-32).

Equally intriguing is the evidence that Van de Passe taught the skill of engraving to the versatile and multitalented Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), a frequent subject in this blog, who was famous for her book learning but also practiced in a wide range of arts. Katlijne van der Stighelen has argued persuasively that an early account that mentions that Van Schurman learned engraving in the printshop of the Van de Passe family, being “apprenticed” as it were to Magdalena, is probably true (116-17).Van Schurman is a prominent example of the amateur artists examined by Honig, who, she notes, were much more inclined to experiment and work in a variety of mediums than professionals, as they were unencumbered by guild regulations and the pressures of the marketplace (33). Still, engraving as amateur pastime is exceptional, and the link between Van de Passe and Van Schurman is a fascinating instance of female to female instruction in a craft dominated by men.

4. Anna Maria van Schurman, Self-Portrait (1633). Rijksmuseum. Object number RP-P-OB-59.344.

Van Schurman’s first venture into the art of engraving is also her most famous. In a remarkable self-portrait, dated 1633, she shows herself holding a cartouche bearing a poem in Latin. The poem denies that there is pride or vanity in the choice of herself as subject. She says that she did not want her inexperienced pen to attempt a more weighty subject for this first try. The engraving gave rise to a series of poems by men, including especially Constantijn Huygens (I discuss his poem at some length in my book on early modern women). Agnes Sneller has remarked on the sexual innuendo used by Huygens when he calls it “the first cut / She ever did in her days.”[1] Presenting the cartouche behind which Van Schurman hides her hands as a shield to highlight her virginity, Huygens’s punning on “cut” ignores the modest poem inscribed on it. He reminds his readers of the sharpness of the burin  and suggests that the very act of engraving itself could be perceived as inappropriately sexual for women.

5. Anna Maria van Schurman, Self Portrait (1640). Rijksmuseum. Object number RP-P-1887-A-11946.

Another, equally well-known self-portrait was engraved in 1640. It would later be included in a print publication of her letters, giving it wide distribution. This engraving went through several states and was frequently copied. Since both Magdalena and her father had passed away at this point, Van Stighelen notes that Van Schurman must have had access to a different studio with the necessary equipment and materials. Here too, the hands are conspicuously hidden from view, but there is great detail in the dress, which combines a kind of opulence with modest respectability. Compared with the earlier portrait, there is a more sophistication in the relation between sitter and background, creating a tension between the artistry of the engraving and the modest subscription, which reads, “See here depicted our appearance in image / If it is lacking in art, your grace will make up for it.”

Not coincidentally, perhaps, praise poems for Van Schurman and especially Van de Passe tend to shy away from describing engraving as “cutting.” Rather than hiding the hands involved in the carving motion, they present engraving in aesthetic terms and emphasize the movement of the hand and the grace with which the lines are drawn. Adriaen van de Venne, for instance, focused on Van de Passe’s hand, which “with sweet bending, / Sets something new in the copper.”[2] Her brother Crispijn, who honored his sister with a poem in French after her death, wrote that she “has shown with her delicate hand that bronze / Yielded to the daring lines of her skilled burin” (Veldman 294). Such poems, in their aestheticizing of the act of engraving, suggest, though less explicitly and crudely than the poem by Huygens, that the cutting involved may have been perceived as just beyond the boundaries of properly feminine art. In making their engravings, whether in the context of a family business or as pastime, Van de Passe and Van Schurman moved female art in new directions and helped pave the way for others, such as Geertruydt Roghman and Maria Sybilla Merian, both daughters of engravers themselves.


Further Reading

On engraving generally:

This video shows the process of engraving: From Paper to Copper: The Engraver’s Process.

Emily J. Peters, Evelyn Lincoln, and Andrew S. Raftery, The Brilliant Line: Following the Early Modern Engraver 1480-1650 (Providence: Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, 2009).

Timothy Riggs, Larry Silver, and Walter S. Melion, Graven Images: The Rise of Professional Printmakers in Antwerp and Haarlem (Evanston: Mary and Leigh Block Gallery, 1993).

On women artists and female engravers:

Elizabeth Honig, “The Art of Being ‘Artistic’: Dutch Women’s Creative Practices in the 17th Century,” Women’s Art Journal 22.2 (2001-2002): 31-39.

Katlijne van der Stighelen, Anna Maria van Schurman of ‘Hoe hooge dat een maeght kan in de konsten stijgen’ (Leuven: Universitaire Pers, 1987).

Agnes Sneller, “‘If she had been a man…’ Anna Maria van Schurman in the Social and Literary Life of Her Age,” Choosing the Better Part: Anna Maria van Schurman (1607-1678), edited by Mirjam de Baar, Machteld Löwenstein, Marit Monteiro, and Agnes Sneller (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996), 133-150.

Ilja M. Veldman, Crispijn de Passe and His Progeny (1564-1670): A Century of Print Production. Trans. Michael Hoyle (Rotterdam: Sound and Vision, 2001).



[1] Sneller, 138-39. The line is “d’eerste sné / Die sij van haer dagen dé.” De Gedichten van Constantijn Huygens, naar zijn handschriften uitgegeven, tweede deel, 1623-1637, ed. J. A. Worp (Groningen: Wolters, 1893), 301. DBNL.

[2] Veldman, 73-74. Hoyle translates the phrase “met zoet gebuig” as “gracefully” (Veldman 293); it makes poetic sense, but I retranslated it, awkwardly, to reflect Van de Venne’s emphasis on the movement of the hand. The original, from his Tafereel van Sinne-mal (1623), reads “Opdat u handt met soet ghebuygh / Wat nieuws int coper sett, / Ontfangt dit lied nu voor u cunst / Die gij my hebt vereert” (Veldman n376, 430).

Book Announcement


With apologies for the self-promotion, I’d like to use this post to announce the publication of Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic, published in the Early Modern Literature in History series by Palgrave Macmillan. The book is available on Amazon and on Palgrave’s website in e-book format, with print publication expected in early February. Many of the women featured on this blog are discussed in-depth in book, which explores English and Dutch women writers.

Here is the synopsis from Palgrave’s website:

“This book is the first comparative study of early modern English and Dutch women writers. It explores women’s rich and complex responses to the birth of the public sphere, new concepts of privacy, and the ideology of domesticity in the seventeenth century. Women in both countries were briefly allowed a public voice during times of political upheaval, but were increasingly imagined as properly confined to the household by the end of the century. This book compares how English and Dutch women responded to these changes. It discusses praise of women, marriage manuals, and attitudes to female literacy, along with female artistic and literary expressions in the form of painting, engraving, embroidery, print, drama, poetry, and prose, to offer a rich account of women’s contributions to debates on issues that mattered most to them.”

The aim of the book, as is true of this blog, is to explore women in ways that are cross-cultural and interdisciplinary. Early Modern Women’s Writing offers new readings of Dutch women writers, who have not yet received the attention they deserve internationally, and fresh approaches to English women writers, who are too often discussed within their national context only.


The Court Beguinages of the Low Countries

This blog post by Sarah Moran explores the lives of Court Beguinages, women who lived in religious communitiesHer overview moves from the Middle Ages to today, with particular focus on the early modern period, to trace their fascinating history.  

by Sarah Joan Moran


1. Anonymous, Béguine allant en Ville (Antwerp Beguine habit, worn outside the Beguinage) in Johann Friedrich Schannat, Lettre de Mr. l’Abbé S… à Mlle De G… Beguine d’Anvers, sur l’origine et le progres de son institut (Paris, 1731)

During the early modern period, tens of thousands of women in the Low Countries, a region roughly comprising modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands, and part of Northern France, joined unique communities known as Begijnhoven or Court Beguinages. These were semi-monastic institutions whose members, called Beguines, made the traditional monastic vows of chastity and obedience but eschewed the vow of poverty, meaning that each Beguine was responsible for her own financial needs. Although this excluded most poor women from the Court Beguinages, it also allowed members to maintain control over their personal property, and thus to a great extent over the course of their lives, which they could not have done had they married or joined a convent. Moreover, the Beguines enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom: unlike nuns, they did not have to spend their time singing canonical hours, and their gates stood open during the day so that they might come and go as they pleased. These factors made the Beguinages enormously popular, with the smaller communities counting around a hundred members, and the largest topping out at over a thousand (the term “Court Beguinage” comes from the architectural complexes, built around courtyards, that were necessary to house such large communities). All but the smallest Court Beguinages also acquired independent parochial rights, making them the only all-female parishes in Christian history.


2. Church of the former St. Christopher Beguinage in Liège, constructed c. 1241-1257

The Court Beguinages’ roots were in the early thirteenth century and the religious revival that was then sweeping Western Europe. Around 1200 the term beguinae appeared to refer to the many women active in the movement. Many of these women, including a number of now-famous mystics like Marie d’Oignies (1177-1213), Margaret of Ieper (1216-1237), and Lutgard of Aywières (1182-1246), embraced an apostolic and itinerant lifestyle. Alongside them, however, the Court Beguinages emerged as highly structured residential institutions, which quickly also became quite well-endowed.


3. Anonymous, Béguine allant à l’Église (habit of the Antwerp Beguines, worn in church and for other formal occasions) in Schannat (see fig. 1).

They built their wealth through pious donations, both from their own members and from their local communities, usually in the form of testamentary bequests that were given in exchange for the Beguines praying for the donors’ souls so that they might sooner be released from purgatory. Since as women the Beguines could not perform the sacraments, each Court Beguinage had to have a priest and, often, several chaplains to perform masses and to hear their confessions. The priests governed the communities together with one or more elected Beguine superiors or “grand mistresses,” who oversaw staffing and financial administration and acted as representatives of the communities to the outside world. A system of internal administrative divisions coupled with the fact that Beguines were responsible for supporting themselves made the institutions financially flexible and that in turn helped make them remarkably stable. So too did their strong, often familial connections to the local secular and clerical elite, which allowed them to escape the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century campaigns of persecution against ‘heretical’ beguinae unscathed to flourish throughout the High Middle Ages.


4. Braun and Hogenberg, Mechelen, from Civitates orbis terrarum (1575)

The Beguines played prominent roles in the dazzling public ritual culture of Low Countries cities under Burgundian rule in the fifteenth century, for example walking in the annual Holy Blood procession, participating in the ‘joyous entries’ of Charles the Bold into Ghent and Mechelen in 1467, and greeting Charles’s new bride Margaret of York when she arrived in Bruges the following year. By the early sixteenth century the largest of the Court Beguinages, the Beguinage of Saints Alexis and Catherine at Mechelen, counted between 1500 and 1900 Beguines along with several hundred employees and boarders. Braun and Hogenberg’s 1575 map from the Civitates orbis terrarum shows the institution’s enormous scale; the Beguinage appears at bottom left on the city’s northern edge.


The Italian expat Ludovico Guicciardini wrote in his Descrittione di tutti Paesi Bassi (1567) that the Mechelen Beguinage resembled an immense walled castle,[1] while other early modern sources noted that this and other Court Beguinages seemed like little cities in and of themselves. Inside their walls Beguines supported themselves in various ways, some working in the institutions’ breweries, bakeries, and washhouses—the Mechelen Beguinage even had its own printing press where Beguines could find employment—while others ran their own small businesses, with lacemaking workshops and small schools being especially popular. Wealthy Beguines, on the other hand, lived on investments in loans and real estate held throughout their cities, and some of them turned that financial experience to use in managing the Beguinages’ vast assets when they served as mistresses.


5. Detail from fig. 4 of St. Catherine’s Beguinage outside the walls, which was destroyed in 1578-1580

Just one year after Guicciardini’s book was published, however, growing political discontent and Protestant beliefs erupted in a wave of iconoclasm across the Low Countries, and most of its provinces declared open rebellion against Spanish rule. From the late 1560s into the 1580s the Court Beguinages, along with other Catholic religious institutions, were decimated by iconoclasts, soldiers, and Protestant municipal governments. When Spain regained control over the Southern provinces in 1585, many Beguinages, including the Large Beguinage at Mechelen, had been utterly destroyed, while others had sustained major damage to their architectural complexes, property portfolios, and population numbers. In the Northern provinces, which became the independent and Protestant Dutch Republic, all of the Court Beguinages except those at Amsterdam and Breda were shut down outright or prohibited from admitting new members, so that by the 1670s the communities died out.


6. Anonymous, St. Begga as the Patron of the Beguines and the Begards. From Joseph Geldosph Ryckel, Vita S. Beggae ducissae Brabantiae, Andetennensium, begginarum, et beggardorum fundatricis: vetus, hactenus non edita, et commentario illustrata. Adjuncta est Historia Beginnasorium (Leuven, 1631) 

In the South, by contrast, most began to rebuild, and as they did, the Low Countries’ bishops took steps to bring the Beguines more tightly under Church control. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries their lack of enclosure had helped make them a target of anticlerical and misogynist criticism, and they had also been a source of anxiety for the Church, who feared that they might cause scandal through sexual misbehavior. But in the early seventeenth century the Tridentine reformers decided to turn the Beguines’ freedoms and liminal status to their advantage, by making them into model Catholics who could help spread the Counter-Reformation’s messages to the laity. In order to improve their image the Beguines were given something of a ‘monastic makeover,’ so that they would be more closely allied with the traditional virtues of nuns—most importantly religious chastity. Clerical scholars “discovered” the Beguines’ historical founder in the seventh-century abbess and duchess of Brabant St. Begga of Andenne (we know today that Begga had nothing to do with the Court Beguinages, but this was only established in the twentieth century), which made them seem more like a regular order, as did the fact that the Beguine habit was now standardized for the first time.


7. Frederick Bouttats II, Frontispiece of Het wonder-baer leven van Joanna Dedemaecker… (1662)

The bishops instituted more frequent visitations to ensure that the Beguines were, in fact, behaving themselves, and they asserted the Court Beguinages’ rightful, if idiosyncratic and local, position within the ecclesiastical hierarchy as places where women who for whatever reason were unsuited for a convent could pursue a more spiritually perfect life. In published biographies, like those of Anna van Schrieck and Joanna Dedemaecker, and the nearly 700-page Het Leven van de seer edele en doorluchtigste H. Begga met een cort begrip van de levens der salige, godtvruchtige en lof-weerdige Beggijntjes der vermaerde en hoogh-gepresen Beggijnhoven (1712), exemplary Beguines were presented as models of

8. Philibertus Bouttats, Frontispiece of Cort begryp van het godtvruchtigh ende deughtsaem leven van Señora Anna van Schrieck (1698)

orthodoxy whom any good Catholic should emulate. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century the Beguines were also major patrons of religious art and architecture, building massive churches filled with images that communicated orthodox Catholic messages. The Court Beguinages were thus essential components of the social fabric of early modern Low Countries cities, playing important social, economic, and religious roles and from the early seventeenth century onwards also acting as agents of the Counter-Reformation.


9. Anonymous, Beguinage of St. Amandsberg, Ghent, postcard, late 19th century

The end of the eighteenth century, however, saw the first major disruption at the Court Beguinages since the Dutch Revolt. In the 1790s the French Republican Army under Napoleon swept through the Low Countries and annexed the region, and most Beguinages saw their property confiscated. In the early nineteenth century most of the Beguinages regained at least some of their property, rights, and privileges, and they experienced a limited Renaissance. With the establishment of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830, the Beguines further became romanticized symbols of a particularly Flemish heritage, appearing in impressionist paintings and, later, thousands of photographic postcards.


Anonymous, Beguine of Ghent’s St. Amandsberg Beguinage Making Lace, postcard, early 20th century

But by the first decades of the twentieth century the Court Beguinages were in a final and irreversible decline—as women gained equal legal and economic rights the institutions simply ceased to fill the social and gendered needs that had made them so popular for so long. A few kept functioning as schools into the 1970s, but as new professions dried up these too shut down. Today the Court Beguinages are, architecturally, in various states of preservation. About two dozen are substantially intact, with most of their structures dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in 1998 thirteen of these Flemish Beguinages were named as World Heritage sites by UNESCO.

The Beguinage of Hasselt is one of those not under UNESCO protection, and the city has recently approved sale of part of it for commercial development. If you’d like to protest this action, please fill out this petition. It’s in Dutch, but all you need to do is fill in your name, location, and email address on the right side and click on the “Onderteken” button. You’ll then get an email and you need to click the link under “BEVESTIGEN” to confirm your signature.


Further Reading

Aerschot, Suzanne Van, and Michiel Heirman. Les Béguinages de Flandre: Un patrimoine mondial. Brussels: Editions Racine, 2001.

Coomans, Thomas. “La plus ancienne église médiévale du mouvement béguinal.”Bulletin monumental 164, no. 4 (2006): 359-376.

D’Huys, Bert, et. al., Werken en kerken: 750 jaar begijnhofleven te Gent, 1234-1984. Ghent: De Stad, 1984.

De Moor, Tine. “Single, Safe, and Sorry? Explaining the Early Modern Beguine Movement in the Low Countries.” Journal of Family History 39, no. 1 (2014): 3-21.

Grieten, Stefaan. “Een heilige verbeeld: iconografie en ideologische recuperatie van de heilige Begga.” Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (1994): 89-183.

Eck, Xander. Van “Between Restraint and Excess: The Decoration of the Church of the Great Beguinage at Mechelen in the Seventeenth Century.” Simiolus 28, no. 3 (2000): 129-162.

Majérus, Pascal. Ces femmes qu’on dit béguines… Guide des béguinages de Belgique. Bibliographie et sources d’archives. Introduction bibliographique à l’histoire des couvents belges antérieure à 1796, Vol. 9. Brussels: Archives générales du royaume et archives de l’Etat dans les provinces, 1997.

Moran, Sarah Joan. “Of Locked Doors and Open Windows: Architectural Strategies at the Court Beguinages in the Seventeenth Century.” Chicago Art Journal 20 (2010): 2-27.

Simons, Walter. Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.


[1] “Congiunto alla citta allato alla porta di santa Caterina verso Anuersa, è un’degnisimo, & memorabil’ munistero, quasi a guise di castello, con le sue mura attorno attorno, per amplisimo spatio, oue e una bella chiesa dedicata a Sant’ Alesso […].” Ludovico Guicciardini, Descrittione di tutti i Paesi Bassi, altrimenti detti Germania inferiore (Antwerp: Guglielmo Silvio, 1567), 153.


Sarah Moran has taught at the University of Bern and will be joining the faculty of Art History at Utrecht University in January 2017. Her primary research interests center on cultural production in the Counter-Reformation Southern Low Countries, with foci on women’s patronage, material culture, religious art and architecture, public performance, authorship, and image theory. For more on the Court Beguinages (especially in the seventeenth century) you can check out Sarah Moran’s page and keep an eye out for her forthcoming book Unconventual Women: Visual Culture at the Court Beguinages of the Habsburg Low Countries, 1585-1794


Renaming Themselves: The Mottoes of Early Modern Women Writers

1. Print by Daniel Veelwaard, reproducing a letter by Maria Tesselschade Roemers Visscher, with her motto. Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB66.611.

When I first started this blog, my 13-year-old son recommended that I “put in a lot of puns” because that would be sure to attract readers. I told my pun-loving son that unfortunately, I didn’t think many puns would apply to the subject of early modern women. But of course, early modern women themselves used and enjoyed puns, as did everyone else at the time. One form their puns take is in the phrases with which they most closely associated themselves. Working on early modern English and Dutch women writers for my forthcoming book, I came across some striking mottoes that early modern women chose for themselves. Normally, these mottoes are a short saying or proverbial-sounding phrase with which the person in question wants to be associated, a succinct expression of her philosophy and worldview, used to sign off letters and poems, placed on a self-portrait, or engraved on a glass. Mottoes are reminiscent of aristocratic devices, and they were adopted to highlight someone’s sophistication, literacy, devotion, and respectability. At the same time, like those devices, they are reminiscent of emblems. After all, emblems consist of an image, a poem or prose gloss, and a motto, and the pleasure in reading emblems lies in the intellectual challenge of combining those three elements and considering similarities and tensions between them. By formulating a personal motto, early moderns offered themselves up as an emblem to be read by others. Mottoes create a signature and add a concise superscript to the textual, visual, material, and embodied selves found in books, letters, poems, portraits, and objects .

2. Detail from Toneel- en Mengelpoezij (Amsterdam, 1731). Vol 1, Fol. 337, Vvr.

Mottoes may pun on the name of the person in question. An example that stands out of for me is the motto of the Dutch writer Cornelia van der Veer: “Ik tracht veerder” or “I try harder.” The pun on “veer” for farther is expanded on in friendship poems by her fellow author Katharina Lescailje, to include the Dutch word for quill, which is also veer. As I have argued (Van Elk, 2012), these puns on Van der Veer’s name formulate a double approach to authorship: Van der Veer’s writing is the product of honest hard work (these were Calvinist women after all), and yet she is also presented as born into the profession of writer by virtue of her last name. The motto is not aristocratic in that it explicitly denies the need for sprezzatura or courtly nonchalance; instead, it is suggestive of a strong sense of self and a concept of authorship founded both on divine predestination and sustained effort. The strength of the authorial self put forward by Van der Veer is particularly obvious in print, where her name is often placed in capital letters (fig. 2).

3. Signature from a manuscript by Anna Roemers Visscher entitled Letterjuweel. Currently in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, the Hague (KB128 G 28).

The motto of another well-known Dutch author of the period, Anna Roemers Visscher, was “Genoeg is meer” or “Enough is more.” Visscher was not only a poet but also a writer of emblems, encouraged by and expanding on her father’s work in this genre. Visscher’s own motto is reminiscent of those emblems and indeed of early moderns’ love of sententiae, quick proverbial phrases used to sum up an experience or resolve life’s complexity. In the case of Visscher specifically, the motto highlights her temperance and exists in interesting conflict with the elaborate, artistic way in which she signed her name in manuscript form and in letters (fig. 3). It can also be read as a counter to the hyperbole with which she was praised by male poets, who called her the “Tenth Muse.” It gave her a reputation that, I argue in my book, prevented her from being seen as an author in her own right and instead limited her to a role as inspiration to others.

4. Page from Roemer Visscher’s Sinnepoppen

Anna’s sister, the equally well-known Maria Tesselschade already had a kind of pun in her name: her father invented the name Tesselschade to remind himself of the insigificance of wordly goods, recalling the losses he suffered when a number of ships sank close by the island Texel (Tesselschade means damage done in Texel). Tesselschade’s self-chosen motto was “Elck zijn waerom” or “To each his wherefore,” a motto she took from one of her father’s emblems in his popular collection Sinnepoppen (1614; fig. 4 and fig. 1). The tolerance evident in her motto is characteristic of her father’s collection and gives her self-presentation a much more practical, down-to-earth character than the somewhat sterner moralism of her sister. Both women, in other words, chose mottoes that summed up their world view. Tesselschade’s motto would become particularly meaningful later in her life, when she was attacked for converting to Catholicism.

5. Title page of the English translation of Anna Maria van Schurman’s Dissertatio Logica, with her motto in Greek

The motto of another famous Dutch writer, Anna Maria van Schurman, was the far more religiously explicit phrase “Amor meus crucifixus est” or “my love has been crucified.” The phrase is taken from Ignatius of Antioch and is a sign, as Pieta van Beek has explained, of Van Schurman’s commitment to celibacy. She often inserted it next to her signature in entries in alba amicorum (the friendship albums people kept) and returned to it, Van Beek writes, in some of her poetry. Tesselschade took her motto from her father’s work, and Van Schurman’s motto was also connected to her father: it was a personal reminder of the promise she made to him on his deathbed never to marry, setting her apart from ordinary Dutch women, for whom marriage was the expected fate. In this regard, it is important that in Greek, the usual language in which she cited her motto, the word for love is “eros,” and, as Anne Larsen notes,“has been crucified” can also be translated as “is the crucified.” In a poem in one friendship album, Van Schurman wrote the line “My longing has been crucified [is the crucified].” A life without “eros,” or earthly desire, is what she espouses in her motto, either erasing such desire entirely (“has been crucified”) or directing it towards Christ (“is the crucified”), rather than a husband. The motto presented a powerful counter to those authors who hinted at her sexuality, even as they praised her virginal state. But it also shows that her status as an exceptional scholar and author depended on her decision to remain unmarried. Mottoes often served to mark the woman in question as properly religious, but these mottoes also show the contrast between the Visscher sisters’s more secular, practical self-representation and the deeply religious, sacrificial identity put forward by Van Schurman.

6. Self-Portrait by Esther Inglis, with her motto. Folger, v.a. 91, fol. 1v. Detail.

Elsewhere, women writers took on a variety of mottoes as well. The French-Scottish writer, calligrapher, and embroiderer Esther Inglis used two different ones. One was “Nil penna, sed usus” (“The feathers are of no force, but useful”), taken presumably from an emblem by Claude Paradin. Sarah Gwyneth Ross argues that this motto deemphasizes Inglis’s skill and penmanship, to direct others to the “use” or proper religious purpose of her writing. Thus, Inglis, like Anna Roemers Visscher, carefully anticipates and counters potential accusations of overreaching or pride. In self-portraits, Inglis also used the motto “de dieu le bien, de moi le rien” (“from God the good, from me nothing”), showing, as Laura Lunger Knoppers has pointed out, her affinity with the French emblematist Georgette de Montenay. The small self-portrait above (fig. 6) shows Inglis in exactly the same position as De Montenay (fig. 7), mimicking the woman who was her inspiration. De Montenay, whose emblems were translated by Inglis and by Anna Roemers Visscher, accompanied her self-portrait with motto, “O plume en la main non vaine” (“O pen in my hand not vain”). Here too, we are directed away from the courtliness and ostentation that is associated with taking up the pen towards proper religiosity. While women could chose mottoes to articulate the relationship between their religious beliefs and their social status, Inglis appears to have chosen hers to forge a close connection with her literary inspiration and enhance our sense of her as writer.

7. Title page image of Georgette de Montenay’s Cent Emblemes Chrestiennes (1584)

Perhaps not surprisingly, many female mottoes highlight their modesty, but they also provided women with means to adjust the impression they made on others as writers or makers of artful objects. They emphasize that courtliness, elite femininity, and aesthetic skill can be combined with devotion and modesty. At the same time, the use of the pen in these mottoes suggests that they are keen to present themselves as authors, concerned with projecting humility and morality, but not necessarily with defending female writing itself, which is beyond question. Less explicitly and more privately, we may see a similar tactic in the fact that Lady Mary Wroth, even once married, marked her manuscripts with the initial S, for Sidney, associating herself with her famous family members and literary ancestors Philip and Mary Sidney, rather than with her married name (fig. 8). It is merely an initial and not a motto, but this type of signature performs similar cultural work.

8. Detail from a page of Mary Wroth’s manuscript Songs and Sonnets (ca. 1625). Folger v.a.104, 46v.

In brief, the motto, the signature, and the device are affiliated cultural practices that foreground self-presentation, reputation, and authorial identity. Here I have concentrated on writers, but these types of inscriptions by women can be found in many places, from letters and embroidery to portraits and engravings. Mottoes offered educated women the opportunity to “name” themselves, in a culture in which the name of the father and husband tended to override their identity. Some chose a motto that was associated with their father, but others did not. Research into letters by women, stimulated by digital efforts such as WEMLO, will hopefully turn up more instances of this type of subtle self-fashioning, which is, in the sense in which the word was originally used by Stephen Greenblatt, both a submission to conventions and a performance with possibilities for improvisation.

Further Reading

Pieta van Beek, The First Female Student: Anna Maria van Schurman (1636), translated by Anna-Mart Bonthuys and Dineke Ehlers (Utrecht: Igitur, 2010). Accessible here.

Martine van Elk “Lady Mary Wroth’s Love’s Victory.” Reading Early Women: An Anthology of Printed Texts and Manuscripts, 1500-1700. Eds. Helen Ostovich and Elizabeth Sauer. New York: Routledge, 2003. 422-28.

Martine van Elk, ““True Fire, Noble Flame: Friendship Poetry by Katharina Lescailje, Cornelia van der Veer, and Katherine Philips,” Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7 (2012): 157-90.

Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980).

Laura Lunger Knoppers, “Introduction: Critical Framework and Issues,” The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Anne R. Larsen, Anna Maria van Schurman, ‘The Star of Utrecht’” (London: Routledge, 2016).

Katharina Lescailje, Toneel- en mengelpoezij, 3 vols. (Amsterdam, 1731). On Google Books, here.

Georgette de Montenay, Emblematum Christianorum Centuria/Cent Emblemes Chrestiennes (Zurich, 1584). Accessible at French Emblems at Glasgow.

Sarah Gwyneth Ross, “Esther Inglis: Calligrapher, Linguist, Miniaturist and Christian Humanist,” in Early Modern Women and Transnational Communities of Letters, ed. Julie Campbell and Anne R. Larsen (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009).

Roemer Visscher, Sinnepoppen (Amsterdam, 1614). Accessible here.

Mary Wroth, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. Sonnets and Songs Manuscript (ca. 1625). Accessible on Luna, the Folger database, here.

The Contradictory Life of the Handkerchief

This blog post by Bella Mirabella explores the handkerchief, for early modern women a highly significant accessory.

By Bella Mirabella

1. Due Dame, Due Cortigiane (1490-1495), by Vittore Carpaccio. Museo Correr, Venice.

In his 1558 book, Il Galateo, Giovanni Della Casa offers the following advice about the handkerchief:

And when you have blown your nose you should not open your handkerchief and look inside as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brain.

With this comment Della Casa touches on one of the more practical uses of the handkerchief, while also giving advice about the proper etiquette associated with this small but very important piece of cloth. In another vein, John Stowe writing in England in 1580 observes that women often give their “favorites” “little handkerchiefs of about three to four inches square, wrought round about with a tassel at each corner”; the men put these love tokens in their “hatbands” for all to see.

2. Eleonora di Toledo (c. 1562), by the school of Agnolo Bronzino

As these two examples reveal, the handkerchief in early modern Europe was a complex accessory and one with multiple uses: it could be a receptacle for bodily fluids and filth from mucus to tears to blood to sweat, as Della Casa indicates; it could be an essential agent of compassion and healing as the legend of Veronica wiping the blood from Jesus’ face illustrates. In drama we recall the delicately embroidered hanky Desdemona offered to Othello to cure his headache. The handkerchief could also be a sign of woman’s domestic work associated with the art of needlework, a desired gift, and an item that repeatedly shows up in wardrobe and dowry lists. In mountebank performances, handkerchiefs were the means of exchange during the transaction where money was passed to the stage and remedies in turn sent to members of the audience. A handkerchief could be a disguise for bandits, a sign of flirtation, and a token passed between lovers, as Stowe notes. The handkerchief was also a symbol of cleanliness and beauty, found in the hands of ladies of good breeding and fine taste, such as Eleonora di Toledo (image 2), or perhaps a sign of sexual transgression when found in the hands of prostitutes and courtesans (images 1 and 6).

3. Robert Dudley (c. 1564), formerly attributed to Steven van der Meulen

As these examples make clear, the handkerchief is a complicated accessory, particularly with regard to gender. Men used handkerchiefs too—see the many portraits in which men have a handkerchief in hand or in a little purse, hanging from their belt, such as Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (image 3). However, if we look at the many portraits of women holding hankies, or literary and dramatic references in which the handkerchief appears, we realize the deep contradictions embedded in the use of the handkerchief for women; in fact, I suggest that the uses of the handkerchiefs parallel the many and often paradoxical roles that women were expected to play at the time.

Male writers of the time, desperate to understand, define, and restrain women, often found themselves arguing between extreme views of the female. Consider Baldesar Castiglione’s third book in The Book of the Courtier (1528), which focuses on the debate over women. While one male speaker says that women are imperfect and defective and will lead men to their moral and physical demise, another, the Magnifico, counters that women are paragons of virtue who will elevate men to truth and nobility.

According to Castiglione, well-behaved Renaissance woman understood that morality, virtue, and good manners were always bound up with and mediated by grace. For women grace is in part attained through beauty, and grace comes perfectly into play when the female can use all of her lovely traits to “entertain graciously every kind of man with charming and honest conversation.” But the Magnifico quickly realizes that this quest has its erotic elements and can lead a woman into dangerous territory. Therefore, he advises that women “observe a certain difficult mean, composed” of “contrasting qualities,” and that they “take care not to stray beyond certain fixed limits.” This advice encapsulates the dilemma early modern women faced and reflects the uses of the handkerchief, which needed to mediate between the transgression of being a receptacle for bodily excretions and a silken cloth emblematic of virtue, good taste, and excellent manners.

4. Flanders (1600-1620). Museum number 484-1903. @Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The constant appearance of the handkerchief indicates that it was a popular accessory in the material culture of Renaissance Europe, an indispensible accessory to be held and possessed by all who could get their hands on one. But although it reached heights of popularity in the early modern period, the handkerchief had been in use for quite a while, waved, for example, by Romans at public games or court functions. In one of his poems the Roman poet Catullus mourns the loss a stolen napkin/handkerchief, which had reminded him of friendship and dear friends. And Juvenal writes about a wife who is threatened from banishment from home because she is always wiping her nose.

Later, from the 1300s through the 1500s, more advice appears which emphasizes both the necessity and use of the handkerchief in an effort to manage those bodily excretions. This was clearly an important task for servants, who had to use a handkerchief to wipe his or her nose rather than blowing into their hands. Erasmus also counsels how to manage “the filthy collection of mucus” that can haunt the nostrils in his 1530 book of manners for boys, De Civiliate Morum Puerilum. According to the French dancing master Thoinot Arbeau, it is important to spit and blow one’s nose infrequently but if you need to do so, a handkerchief is indispensible. And Della Casa adds that it is “disgusting” to offer anyone your handkerchief, even if it is clean. Della Casa warns that, if a friend had loved you, once you offer the handkerchief, “he is likely to stop then and there.”

These examples illustrate how the handkerchief is clearly associated with decorous behavior but also how it played an important role in the pursuit of cleanliness. Cleanliness indicates control over the body and a sense of order over disorder; it also carries moral implications. For Torquato Tasso, cleanliness conferred dignity, as well as nobility. Since appearance was crucial to public regard and respect, unsoiled linens, like a clean handkerchief became the visible symbol of the marriage of cleanliness and morality, good behavior and civility. When Lady R-Mellaine completes her wardrobe, she is certain that along with her gloves, purse, “mask, fan Chayne of pearls,” she has a “clean handkerchief.”

Diana Cecil, Countess of Oxford, by William Larkin
5. Detail from a portrait of Diana Cecil, Countess of Oxford, by William Larkin (1614)

The handkerchief had its role to play not only in the pursuit of cleanliness but also in the pursuit of a more perfect world. In fact, the handkerchief was such an important and ubiquitous fashion item in the Renaissance, not only because it was so closely tied up with morality and the practice of fine behavior, but also because it promised the possibility of true nobility for those who held it. To writers like Castiglione and Della Casa good manners are outward signs of inner virtue. In fact, Della Casa argues that decorous behavior is the practical way to attain nobility since it must be followed each day, “whereas justice, fortitude” and other great virtues are only infrequently called upon. Even earlier than these two male writers, Christine de Pizan, in her Treasure of the City of Ladies, written in 1405, understood that the purpose of good manners, particularly for women was to perfect virtue and nobility and, hence, be well regarded. The handkerchief used daily and held in the hand for all to see, is a most visible sign that the holder possesses virtue. De Pizan well understood that women were vulnerable to the accusations of immorality and poor behavior; her book is devoted to counter this by arguing that women are capable of honorable behavior. The handkerchief offered a small, but practical and powerful image to counter this negative attitude.

6. Image of a courtesan from Cesare Vecellio, Habiti antichi et moderni (1590). Reproduced with permission Ann Rosalind Jones.

If we briefly look at the dramatic examples of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, and Celia in Ben Jonson’s Volpone we see how the handkerchief moved between notions of virtue and potential vice. In Act 2 of Jonson’s play, Volpone has disguised himself as a mountebank, performing under the window of Celia, the wife of the wealthy merchant Corvino, with the intended purpose of seducing her. After presenting a brilliant imitation of a mountebank harangue, Volpone comes to the selling of his miraculous unguent, a cure for most ills, including aging, weakness, and sexual difficulties. Celia watches from her window and is eager to buy the cure with the help of her handkerchief, particularly after Volpone promises a “little remembrance” to the first person to “grace” him “with a handkerchief.” But when Corvino crashes into Celia’s room, pulls his wife from the window and disperses the mountebanks, he accuses his wife of being “an actor” with her handkerchief. Corvino is angry because Celia’s desire to purchase the unguent with the help of her handkerchief takes her into the public eye—at the window—which allows her to participate in the public sphere with one of her most intimate of linen objects. The handkerchief, carrying with it both the memories of its more unsavory uses and its symbolic value of purity, here transports filthy lucre, as it were, which is taken by the lecherous Volpone, who then fills the hanky with a fluid of his own making, and sends it along with a kiss to the female he hopes to seduce. Corvino’s anger at Celia’s performance at the window indicates that he thinks the handkerchief contains his wife’s body, transported from hand to hand in a public transaction. Further, rather than constraining her behavior, the handkerchief enables her to act.


7. From Cesare Vecellio, Habiti antichi et moderni. Reproduced with permission Ann Rosalind Jones.

In many ways this response is similar to Othello’s. When Othello gives Desdemona the handkerchief, he has certain expectations about how the love token would control and contain his wife’s behavior. As things unravel for him, he reminds her of its exotic and powerful origins. Given to Othello’s mother by an Egyptian, sewn by a sibyl, “dyed in mummy,” a medicinal liquid made from “maidens’ hearts,” the strawberry-studded handkerchief is not a simple piece of cloth. Othello’s expectations are that Desdemona will treasure the token remembering that it has the power to either make her “amiable” and “subdue” her to her husband, or, if she loses it, become “loathed” by her husband who in turn must “hunt / After new fancies” (3.4.57-76). In the beginning of the play Othello expects that Desdemona will adhere to the purity and modesty that the handkerchief represents but, as his expectations are not met, he is quick to abandon that notion and embrace the darker side of the accessory. Reproaching Desdemona with “Oh, thou publick commoner,” Othello conflates his wife with the handkerchief. Like Corvino, Othello “sees” his wife passed from man to man just as the handkerchief is in the monetary transaction.

8. Detail from portrait of Anna of Austria (c. 1571), by Alonso Sanchez Coello

As I have been suggesting, the handkerchief was a complex accessory, moving between public and private, virtue and potential vice. As such the handkerchief gave women some control over their actions and how those actions were perceived. The cloth accessory was a sign that women understood and participated in the discourse of manners and morality and symbolized their ability to attain beauty and virtue, even if the more unsavory elements of the handkerchief remained a threat.



Further Reading

Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesography, trans. Mary Stewart Evans (New York: Dover, 1967).

Bryne (Muriel St. Claire), ed., The Elizabethan Home Discovered in Two Dialogues by Claudius Hollyband and Peter Erondell (London: Methuen, 1949).

Baldesar Castigione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. George Bull (New York: Penguin, 1976).

Giovanni Della Casa, Galateo, trans. Konrad Eisenbichler and Kenneth R. Bartlett (Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1986).

Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies or the Book of the Three Virtues (London: Penguin Books, 1985).

Desiderius Erasmus, De Civiliate Morum Puerilium, Collected Works of Erasmus, ed. J.K. Sowards (Toronto: University Press of Toronto, 1985).

Ben Jonson, Volpone, ed. Philip Brockbank (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968).

Bella Mirabella, “Embellishing Herself with a Cloth: The Contradictory Life of The Handkerchief,” Ornamentalism: the Art of Renaissance Accessories (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).

William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. E.A.J. Honigman (London: Bloomsbury Arden, 2000).

John Stowe, The Annales or a generall chronicle of England…continued by Edmund Howes (London: 1558, 1631).

Cesare Vecellio, The Clothing of the Renaissance World-Europe, Asia, Africa, The Americas, trans. Ann Rosalind Jones and Margaret F. Rosenthal (London: Thames and Hudson, 2008).

Bella Mirabella is a professor of literature and humanities at NYU Gallatin and director of the Gallatin Humanities Seminar in Florence. She is editor of Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories, co-editor of the Arden book Shakespeare and Costume (Bloomsbury, 2016)and has written articles on women, performance, and sexual politics in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  



Seventeenth-Century Women of Color and the First Biography of an African Woman

In this guest blog post, Wendy Laura Belcher offers a brief introduction to Walatta Petros, an early modern African woman. 

by Wendy Laura Belcher

Manuscript Portrait of Walatta Petros
Walatta Petros in a vision. Photo by Claire Bosc-Tiesse, 1997. MS D, f. 132v (130v).

Wälättä P̣eṭros is an early modern African woman who was an important religious leader and nonviolent resister to early protocolonial European incursions and who became a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I became interested in this fascinating woman when I came across mentions of the royal Ethiopian women in Samuel Johnson’s translation of a book about Ethiopia. I soon learned that paired with the Jesuits’ European accounts about Ethiopia in the seventeenth century were Ethiopian accounts of the same events, when these women resisted converting from their ancient African form of Christianity (dating to the fourth century) to Roman Catholicism. These women were sainted in the Ethiopian church for their resistance. The more I learned about Wälättä P̣eṭros, the more I admired her. She was a fierce leader, with none of the saccharine sweetness we have come to associate with women saints.

To learn more about Wälättä P̣eṭros, see the new translation of her hagiography, done by myself and Michael Kleiner. The book was written by a monk named Galawdewos in the African language of Gəˁəz in 1672.

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman

In the process of translating the book, we discovered many new things about the saint, including the fact that an anecdote in the text about nuns being lustful with each other had been censored in nineteenth-century versions of the hagiography. This story and many other intriguing facts and observations can be found in the translation.

A digital version of the original manuscript of the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros, located in Walatta Petros’s monastery of Qʷäraṭa on Lake Ṭana in Ethiopia, is posted online for all to read.

belcher&kleiner_PLATE 19_ed
Eheta Kristos reading to Walatta Petros. Copyright Sachsische Landesbibliothek Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (Saxony State and University Library Dresden [SLUB], Germany), Eb.415.e,2, f. 152v.

Two hymns in honor of the saint are posted online: Portrait of Walatta Petros and Hail to Walatta Petros. They are great for teaching with, as they include a page with the English literary translation and a facing page with a word-by-word translation, transliteration, and Gəˁəz, as well as an Ethiopian priest singing  one in the original language: audio file

My introductory preface about my childhood experiences in Ethiopia with manuscripts is also available: Introduction

You can listen to a slide presentation in which I analyze women’s relationships in the text: Women’s Intimacies in an Early Ethiopian Text.

The book has received a fair amount of media attention, one of which was  Earliest Known Biography of an African Woman Translated to English for the First Time in The Guardian (December 3, 2015). (17,461 shares on social media)

My summer 2016 article on women’s relationships in the text Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text Gädlä Wälättä Peṭros (1672): Queer Reading an Ethiopian Woman Saint is posted on my site.

Wendy Laura Belcher is associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author and Honey from the Lion: An African Journey. Michael Kleiner is a historian of Ethiopia and a translator. He has taught at the universities of Göttingen, Marburg, and Hamburg, as well as at Addis Ababa University.

Cavendish and Deshoulières: Women and Philosophy

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter (1663), with a large map in the background

Although much social pressure worked to confine wealthier early modern women to the household, many crossed borders. They did so directly, by traveling or living abroad for a while, and indirectly, by reading and translating books by authors from other countries, corresponding with people abroad, and consuming, cooking with, and using luxury products from other countries. No wonder that many early modern Dutch painters represented their female subjects in a conflicted way as enclosed within the domestic space, but reading letters from elsewhere, accompanied by maps and oriental tapestries; the world outside always intrudes on the household. Women’s writings also show that national borders are permeable. This means that it is not enough to contextualize women’s writing by looking only at historical, literary, and social circumstances in their own country. Aspects of early modern women’s texts are international in orientation, whether or not there were tangible connections to others abroad.

One way of going about cross-cultural analysis is by discussing the intertextual relationships between texts by women from different countries. Philosophy is a discipline in which comparative and cross-cultural analysis is common, and efforts such as Project Vox help us consider female philosophers in such a light. This post will take a brief look at the lives and writings of two women authors—one English, the other French—who ventured into the male-dominated arena of philosophy. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673) and Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshouilieres (1638-1694) were invested in natural philosophy, a precursor of science. In my forthcoming book on early modern Dutch and English women, Early Modern Women’s Writing, I include a chapter on Cavendish and Anna Maria van Schurman, the remarkably talented Dutch woman who was famous for her learnedness all over Europe. But the comparison between Cavendish and Deshouilières makes for equally compelling subject matter.

Anonymous portrait of Deshoulières

Cavendish and Deshoulières were aristocrats, raised and married in the upper echelons of society, at one point or another presented at a royal court, and deeply affected by political turmoil of their time, partly due to the political and military careers of their husbands. Deshouilières followed her husband Guillaume de la Fon-de-Boisguérin to Flanders in the 1656 where he was involved in the French Civil Wars, supporting the Fronde. She ended up being imprisoned and escaped back to France in 1657. After her legal separation from her husband and recovery from her subsequent social decline and poverty, she became the head of her own salon and published her poetry to much acclaim during the 1670s and 1680s, receiving official accolades and praise from literary institutions dominated by men, including the Académie Française.

5.5 Cav Philosophical
One of a small number of frontispieces Cavendish used in her works

Cavendish left for France in 1644 as a member of Henrietta Maria’s court-in-exile during the English Civil Wars. Once there, she met and married the aristocrat William Cavendish, a prominent royalist who had fled abroad after having lost the battle at Marston Moore. The Cavendishes lived in Antwerp from 1648 until the Restoration in 1660, when they returned to England. With the clear and explicit support of her husband, the Duchess of Newcastle wrote numerous books in virtually every genre imaginable. Her oeuvre is more substantial and varied than that of Deshoulières, who wrote mainly poetry, but the latter also broke new ground for women, for instance in writing tragedies and an opera libretto. In spite of the praise afforded both women, they were controversial in their own day, accused of not writing their own works and not being properly feminine. Their contributions to philosophy and the history of scientific enquiry were ignored for centuries. Perhaps surprisingly, although Cavendish has become the subject of a vast amount of scholarship, Deshoulières is still largely an obscure figure, especially internationally. With the exception of her play Genseric and a small number of poems in anthologies, no English-language editions exist of her work.

These women philosophers are the product of the French culture of the salon and the international Republic of Letters—fluid networks of thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and poets, which, thanks to their non-institutional nature, allowed the presence and limited participation of women. Since women were excluded from attending universities, they were of necessity confined to these informal means of engaging with philosophy. In France in particular, aristocratic women were fascinated with the subject and often made up, John Conley explains, an important segment of the readership for the latest publications. David Norbrook’s essay about Van Schurman and Cavendish makes a compelling argument about their relationship to the Republic of Letters, hampered in Cavendish’s case by her inability to read and write in Latin. All the same, as Norbrook and others have noted, Cavendish’s thought was influenced by salon culture, through her husband’s salon and patronage and her brother-in-law’s connections, which included important contemporary figures like René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and Pierre Gassendi. Although Cavendish’s presence in Paris postdates that of Deshoulières, connections between the two can be imagined as part of the networks sketched by the scholars behind Digital Cavendish, Mapping the Republics of Letters, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, and Cultures of Knowledge.

Pierre Gassendi (portrait after Louis Édouard Rioult)

These connections are what make the comparison between Cavendish and Deshoulières not just interesting but necessary: both women were drawn to the philosophies of people like Gassendi, who had formulated a Christian version of ancient Epicurean atomism, the belief in a material world made up of atoms. Although as Lisa Sarasohn has shown, Cavendish’s atomism changed over time and she rejected aspects of Gassendi’s thought, both women were vitalist materialists: they believed in the essentially material nature of everything, including the human soul, and in matter (atoms) as animate, moving on its own. Both had a tricky, complex relationship to institutionalized religion. For much of their lives, even as they maintained a respectable impression of conventional religious affiliation (one with the Catholic church, the other with the Church of England), their philosophies point to skepticism, perhaps not so much about the existence of God as about immortality, the spiritual nature of the soul, and the superior place of human beings in the natural world. While Cavendish’s thought developed over time and was articulated in prose treatises, a novel, and a series of scientific poems, Deshoulières’s philosophy is confined to her poems. Such poetic reflections on natural philosophy were not unusual, especially for atomists, who relied on the most famous Epicurean epic poem of all, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. But poems were also considered a more respectable literary form for women, both in France and in England.

The kinship between Deshoulières and Cavendish is evident in some of their philosophical poetry. Deshoulières is perhaps best known for her idyllic poems in which she glorifies sheep, birds, and flowers over human beings. Poems like “The Sheep,” “The Birds,” and “The Flowers” exalt an existence of quiet leisure, free of the desire, ambition, and envy that characterizes humans. Similarly, Cavendish critiques man’s foolish desire to construct stately homes, acquire knowledge, and gain political power in “A Dialogue between an Oake, and a Man Cutting Him Downe.” She also deplores human hubris in killing animals in “The Hunting of the Hare.” The conclusion to Cavendish’s poem on the hunt is an indictment of human vanity and self-delusion:

Yet Man doth think himself so gentle, mild,
When he of Creatures is most cruell wild.
And is so Proud, thinks onely he shall live,
That God a God-like Nature did him give.
And that all Creatures for his sake alone,
Was made for him, to Tyrannize upon. (Bowerbank 258)

Likewise, in “The Stream,” Deshoulières uses the symbol of the river to argue that

It is humanity itself which tells us that, by a just choice,
Heaven placed, in forming human beings,
The other beings under its laws.
Let’s not flatter ourselves. We are
Their tyrants rather than their kings.
Why do we torture you?[1]

Such accusations against the use of religion as a justification for man’s subjugation of nature are grounded in a materialist philosophy that acknowledges the kinship of all nature and denies man his special status.

Deshoulières and Cavendish describe the natural environment at times more joyfully as made up of atoms that move harmoniously as if in a dance. Nonetheless, atoms are also marked by desire and difference. In her “Imitation of Lucretius,” Deshoulières describes a tension between chaos and hierarchy:

These atoms conjoined with the light,
By their extreme fluidity,
Are always in society
With the regulating essence,
And, in a cyclone of subtle matter
Placing them everywhere in inequality,
All the human race is the blessed offspring.[2]

In Poems and Fancies, Cavendish too perceives social division on the level of the atom. Her “A World in an Eare-Ring” famously imagines a world within the earring of a lady, peopled with individuals who die, feel desire, mourn, and love. “A warr with Atomes” describes fights and factions among different types of atoms (Cavendish 16). Perhaps these visions that present the world of atoms as at once harmonious and conflictual are the product of the larger questioning of certainties in a highly unstable time. Certainly, the accusations of tyranny and the language of war indicate that these women infused their philosophies with their experience of political instability.

Although Deshoulières was more consistently Lucretian in her philosophy than Cavendish, their affinities are important. Both women wrote poems that reverse traditional binary oppositions. They valued nature over reason, animal over human, and the material over the spiritual. Their experience on the margins of male-dominated discourse, the political and social chaos that characterized their lives, and the many obstacles to their self-expression translated into a remarkably confident emergence into publicity and a willingness to venture into contentious arenas of debate. There are numerous possibilities for further research: we should explore the reception of these two authors, the overlapping cultural environment from which these writings emerged, their relationship to absolutist ideology, their relationship to fame, and so on. If, however, we treat women like Cavendish and Deshoulières within their national contexts alone, we miss out on the richness of the thematic, social, and cultural connections between the works and thoughts of female authors who wrote and published on different sides of the English Channel.

Further Reading

When it comes to Margaret Cavendish, there is a wealth of scholarly material. Useful sources can be found by looking up some of the most important scholars on Cavendish, such as James Fitzmaurice (check out his blog), Hero Chalmers, Emma Rees, Lara Dodds, Lisa Sarasohn, and Sara Mendelson. Specific works cited in this post are:

Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson, editors, Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000).

Margaret Cavendish, Poems and Fancies (London, 1653).

David Norbrook, “Women, the Republic of Letters, and the Public Sphere in the Mid-Seventeenth Century,” Criticism 46 (2004): 223-240.

Lisa T. Sarasohn, The Natural Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish: Reason and Fancy during the Scientific Revolution (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

For Deshoulières, there is not much scholarship in English yet. A useful place to start is the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on her, by John Conley, whose book also provides necessary context for her work.

John J. Conley, The Suspicion of Virtue: Women Philosophers in Neoclassical France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002). Contains a chapter on Deshoulières with biographical information and analysis of her poetry.

Madame Deshoulières, Poésies, edited by Sophie Tonolo (Paris: Garnier, 2010). The only modern French-language critical edition of the works of Deshoulières.

Perry Gethner, editor and translator, Challenges to Traditional Authority: Plays by French Women Authors, 1650-1700 (Toronto: Iter, 2015). Contains a translation of Deshoulières’s play Genseric with a fine introduction.

Norman R. Shapiro et al., The Distaff and the Pen: French Women Poets of Nine Centuries (Baltimore: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). Bi-lingual anthology with a small selection of Deshoulieres’s poems.


[1] Translations from the French by John Conley (this quote is on p. 62). The original poem, entitled “Le Ruisseau,” reads: “C’est lui seul qui nous dit que, par un juste choix / Le Ciel mit, en formant les Hommes, / Les autres Êtres sous leurs lois. / À ne nous point flatter, nous sommes / Leurs Tyrans plutôt que leurs Rois. / Pourquoi vous mettre à la torture?” (Tonolo 217).

[2] Conley, 52-53. The original poem is entitled “Imitation de Lucrèce,” and says “Ces atomes conjoints avecque la lumière, / Par leur extrême fluidité / Sont toujours en société / Avec l’essence régulière, / Et dans un tourbillon de subtile matière, / Répandant à grands flots leur inégalité” (Tonolo 444).

Catharina Verwers: A Mysterious First Playwright

This blog sets out to approach women’s work in interdisciplinary ways, compare women from different countries, consider women’s “authorship” as not merely textual but also material, and highlight the lives and work of women who are not usually discussed, even in academic circles. The first of these blog posts will do the last of these and shine the spotlight on a remarkable writer who is still virtually unknown internationally in spite of her importance in terms of literary, theatrical, and women’s history.

Title page of the first edition of the play, which identifies Verwers by her married name

Catharina Verwers (ca. 1618-1684) was the first published female playwright in the Dutch language. Like many early modern Dutch women writers, she is often mentioned and briefly described in overviews, but her play, Spanish Pagan, is rarely examined in detail, even by scholars in the field. Yet her work is intriguing, for its content and in light of her biography, which does little to explain how she came to write a play, especially one that made it onto the stage of the Schouwburg, the only public theater in Amsterdam, in 1644. Unlike the only two other Dutch female playwrights of the seventeenth century, Verwers had no obvious connections to the world of professional theater in her immediate family. A tantalizing suggestion made by Annelies de Jeu is that one of the board members of the Schouwburg for 1645-49, Dirck Claeszoon Verwer, was related to her; there is no proven family relation to the cloth dyer, so more research is needed. A more likely pursuit for Verwers than playwriting would have been painting, given her family and marriage. Her father and brother were painters, as was her husband, Christiaan Dusart, who was friends with and perhaps worked as an apprentice for Rembrandt. Perhaps this family of painters is what explains the connection to the Schouwburg: the theater employed painters to decorate its sets and backdrops, and it is possible that Verwers was familiar with people who worked there.

We know very little else about this playwright. The records show that Verwers converted after her marriage from one Protestant affiliation (the Anabaptists) to another (the Remonstrants, or adherents of Arminianism). She gave birth to five daughters, three of whom died young. Although her play was possibly written before her marriage in 1642, it is interesting that it was printed and performed afterwards. Many Dutch women withdrew from public view, as authors especially, upon marriage, but Verwers did not emerge into publicity until she was married.

Interior of the Schouwburg (Salamon Savry, 1658)

If playwriting was an unusual choice for Verwers, getting the play performed was definitely outside the realm of expectations. No woman had managed to bring her work to the public stage. Numerous women wrote poetry, but after Verwers, there were only two other female playwrights who wrote for the Schouwburg in the 17th century, both of whom had familial connections to the theater. It is not difficult to speculate about the reasons for this small number; they are the same reasons for the scarcity of female playwrights elsewhere in Europe at this time. First, any type of published production that required collaboration and a degree of professionalism posed formidable obstacles to seventeenth-century women. The public realm was largely considered unsuitable to the “weaker” sex, and when women did publish their work, it was often presented as the individual product of elegant leisured pastime, as an example of particularly admirable religious devotion, or as useful household advice. Second, although women were welcomed as audience members in the theater, the stage itself was inhospitable to women in the Dutch Republic, at least up until the famous appearance of the first professional actress, Ariana Nozeman, in 1655 (more on her in a future blog post). Although there was a tradition of female acting at fairs, the female roles in Verwers’s play were performed by men when it was first staged.

Engraving by Adriaan van de Venne, from The Wedding Ring, showing the first meeting between Don Jan and Pretiose

There is little in her personal and cultural environment, then, to suggest why Verwers decided to write a play, but we are also uncertain about her sources for Spanish Pagan, which is loosely based on a novella by Cervantes about Preciosa, a young noblewoman who, having been kidnapped as a child, lives as a gypsy and meets with the dashing Don Juan, who falls in love with her and joins the gypsies in order to marry her. Dutch women generally did not know Spanish, so it is unlikely that Verwers would have read the original story. It has been speculated that she commissioned a Dutch prose translation or read it in French. This may be the case, but it is also clear from some details that she read Jacob Cats’s The Wedding Ring (Trou-ringh, 1633), a compendium of stories and poems on marriage, which includes a poetic retelling of Cervantes’s romantic story. Whether or not she used additional sources for this narrative is hard to say. In places, Verwers’s play echoes Cats and uses details from his version of the plot, rather than Cervantes, but she also introduces her own ideas, freely adapting the story to fit the stage and her own interests. This type of playwriting is intertextual and complex, and in converting the story from one medium to another affords the playwright quite a bit of freedom to express her own ideas.

There are many ways in which Verwers made story by Cervantes and Cats her own. Perhaps most touchingly, she includes some painting terms that seem more specific than conventional poetic praise of female beauty, betraying her knowledge of painting techniques and interest in the visual arts. When seeing his beloved gypsy, Don Jan remembers admiring her for the first time:

here was [then] a sketch of her figure put up,
In the pure room of this loving heart,
Where her beautiful coloring was gradually reproduced more faithfully,
Yes, was given her full posture, by Dame Nature’s powers,
Which brought my panel and paint, pallet, brushes
And the spirit I lacked, to imitate the identical image,
In artful way [it] is now finished and plays
As if real—see, she swirls there past me.[1]

The grammar is a bit convoluted, but the lines use painterly detail to reflect on whether it is possible to capture the beloved, either in art or in the heart, contributing to the famous Renaissance debate on art and nature and addressing a favorite subject among playwrights and poets. It seems that Don Jan’s vision of his beloved has moved from the realm of the real to art and back again; his view of Pretiose as a work of art come to life suggests the extent to which one’s understanding of the real might be influenced by art. His lines also make the audience take a closer look at the person playing the part of Pretiose, an actor who embodies a representation. These seem broader concerns for Verwers, whose play explores the different conventions for describing ideal femininity.

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Paulus Bor, Pretiose, Don Jan and Majombe (1641)

Ivan Gaskell has discussed the popularity of Cats’s story in Dutch painting of the time and points out that this painterly subject was part of a fashionable fascination with gypsies. It is certainly possible that Verwers chose this story out of an awareness of this trend in painting, but she goes beyond her sources in thinking about representations of women in literature, on stage, and in art. In choosing to base her play on a Spanish source, just as Spanish plays were becoming popular on the Dutch stage, Verwers also made a choice that was professionally smart. Another playwright, Mattheus Gansneb Tengnagel, decided to use the same story for a play, composed, as he admits in a dedicatory letter, well after Verwers wrote her version, but staged not long after hers. Tengnagel’s letter was written about a year before Verwers’s play was first staged, suggesting two possibilities: that Verwers circulated her play in manuscript before it was performed and, perhaps, that Verwers had difficulty getting her play performed. Could this be because the regents at the Schouwburg were still reluctant to put on a play by a woman? If so, what changed their minds? It seems that the climate for female participation in drama was already changing in the 1640s, a decade before the first certain appearance on stage of a woman in a leading role. At the same time, it is possible that Verwers hadn’t written her play for the stage at all, but was persuaded to give it to the Schouwburg by those who read it in manuscript. Playwriting does not seem to have been financially necessary for her, and she never published another play. Instead, she contributed some poems to a collection of Amsterdam poems and a stanza to a collaborative poem consisting of stanzas by seventeen poets. Catharina Questiers, the second published female playwright, wrote a poem on the occasion of the joint birthday of Verwers and her husband. These are indications that Verwers had developed friendships and connections in the literary networks of Amsterdam, so she might have been well positioned to publish more, but didn’t.

However we choose to explain its publication, this first play by a woman was a remarkable piece of writing. How successful was it? We can only speculate based on the number of times it was performed and the amount of revenue her play took in. Again, the evidence is a bit mystifying, mainly because the account keepers who kept track of this information did not always distinguish between Verwers’s play and Tengnagel’s; sometimes they gave the name of the author and sometimes they did not. Her work was caught up, that much is certain, in a stage rivalry of sorts, and I would imagine that audiences enjoyed seeing this story they knew from Cats in two different theatrical forms.

Let’s look briefly at what we know from the records of performances. OnSTAGE, the database of Golden Age theater in Amsterdam, lists five performances of the play by Verwers for 1644. Another performance is listed for 1645 and three for 1649, the first of which is explicitly identified as Verwers’s play in the account book. The total revenue for these nine performances is, in guilders, fl. 1,510.45, making the average revenue per performance fl. 167.83. Performances of Tengnagel’s play that are noted down as his include six in 1644, three in 1645, and two in 1646, with a combined revenue of fl. 1,786.875 and an average take-away of fl. 162.44, just below Verwers’s average. Clearly, then, although Tengnagel’s play was performed more frequently, neither outdid the other in any obvious financial way.

There was a revival of a play listed as “Spaanse Heydinne” (Spanish Pagan) in 1657 (four performances) and 1658 (one performance). This was a pretty successful rerun, taking in a total of fl. 1,082.35, averaging fl. 216.47 per performance, more than either of the previous two sets of performances. But whose play was this? OnSTAGE currently identifies it as Tengnagel’s Spanish Pagan, which was reprinted in 1657, a sure sign that it was again performed. This attribution is based on an assessment of the Schouwburg’s policies in reviving known successful and established plays. However, I think there is strong evidence that it is Verwers’s play, not Tengnagel’s, that was revived, and I feel we should return to the earlier identification of the revival as Verwers’s play by E. Oey-de Vita and M. Geesink. First, Verwers’s play was also reprinted in 1657. Second, the listing of the title as “Spaanse Heydinne” is one that was used for Verwers’s play in 1649, never for Tengnagel’s play, which was more frequently identified as “Heydinnetje,” although recordkeeping is notoriously imprecise when it comes to titles. Third, and most importantly, for the season 1658-1659, we have records of payments to actors, and the listing of characters matches Verwers’s dramatis personae, not Tengnagel’s. The performance in 1658, then, must have been of Verwers’s play, which makes it likely that her play is also the one performed in 1657. Three women took part in the 1658 performance: Susanna Eeckhout-van Lee played the leading role, while Ariane Nozeman played the role of Leanne, a noble lady who tries to seduce Don Jan, and Elisabeth Kalbergen played the minor role of Catrijn. Other female roles, like that of Majombe, the gypsy grandmother, and the real mother of Pretiose were still played by men. All three actresses were already performing at the Schouwburg in 1657, so the evidence suggests that the first Dutch play by a woman received its first performance with a woman in the leading role in all likelihood in 1657, an important milestone in Dutch theater history.

While there is still much we do not know about this play and this playwright, Verwers’s work represents a fascinating debut. A woman’s play made it to the public stage of Amsterdam, competing with the work of a better-known male author. She chose to retell a story that was included in a popular book by the country’s leading cultural authority on marriage, Jacob Cats, and does so very much in her own style. For reasons that are unknown, she never wrote another play that we know of, unlike the two other female playwrights of her time, who both wrote multiple plays that were successfully performed. Yet, in spite of the small size of her oeuvre, Verwers leaves us with an intriguing, rich record with many possibilities for fruitful historical, theatrical, and literary research.


Further Reading

Ivan Gaskell, “Transformations of Cervantes’s ‘La Gitanilla’ in Dutch Art,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 45 (1982): 263-70. Overview of representations of the story of the Spanish gypsy in Dutch art.

Annelies de Jeu, “‘Hoe dat een Vrouwen-beelt kan maken zulke Vaarzen’: Reacties op de toneelstukken van Catharina Verwers en Catharina Questiers,” in Kort tijt-verdrijf: Opstellen over Nederlands toneel (vanaf ca 1550) aangeboden aan Mieke Smits-Veldt, ed. W. Abrahamse, A. C. G. Fleurkens, and M. Meijer Drees (Amsterdam: A D & L, 1998), 179-84. Speculates on reception of Dutch female playwrights based on dedicatory poetry.

Annelies de Jeu, ’t Spoor der dichteressen; Netwerken en publicatiemogelijkheden van schrijvende vrouwen in de Republic (1600-1750) (Hilversum: Verloren, 2000). Discusses networks and ways in which women got their works published.

Els Kloek, “Verwers, Catharina (ca. 1618-1684),” Digitaal vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, Huygens Instituut voor de Nederlandse Geschiedenis, 2014. Biography and overview of Verwers’s works. Found here.

Dennis Koopman, Cervantes, Cats en de Amsterdamse Schouwburg: De geschiedenis van een Spaans zigeunermeisje (2008). Chapter on the Dutch reworkings of Cervantes’s novella. Found here.

E. Oey-de Vita and M. Geestink, Academie en Schouwburg: Amsterdams toneelrepertoire, 1617-1665 (Amsterdam: Huis aan de drie grachten, 1983). Records of the Schouwburg listed.

OnSTAGE: Online Datasystem of Theatre in Amsterdam in the Golden Age. Amsterdam Centre for the Study of the Golden Age. Database featuring plays, persons, and analysis. Found here.

Mieke Smits-Veldt, Het Nederlandse Renaissancetoneel (Utrecht: Hes, 1991). Overview of Dutch early modern theater, but with no attention to Verwers. 

Katarina Verwers van Dusart, Spaensche Heydin, blijspel (Amsterdam, 1657). Found here.


[1] “hier is doen een schets van haer postuer ghehangen, / In ’t suyvere vertreck van dit verliefde hart, / Daer haer schoon koloriet al langhs ghelijcker wert, / Ja krijgt haer volle stant, door Vrouw-natures krachten, / Die mijn panel en veruw, palet, penselen brachten, / En geest die mij ontbrack, om ’t geens gelijcken beeldt, / Te bootsen nae de konst is nu vol toyt en speelt / Als wesentlijck, sie daer swiert sy voorby my heenen” (A6v, 12).