Capable of Bruising a Letter: Early Modern Women’s Calligraphy


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Instructional image from Cornelis Dircksz. van Niervaart, Oprecht onderwijs van de leer-konsten (1669, p. 60). Reproduced from Google Books.

The art of calligraphy was practiced widely in the seventeenth century with various levels of skill, showing the writer’s ability to control the movement of the quill and therefore his or her sophistication and education. Handbooks on writing and copybooks, books that contained examples of various types of handwriting, were popular and at times explicitly represented themselves as catering to men and women. This is the case in Honest Education in the Literary Arts (1669), a book that advertises itself, in spite of a title page that features an image of men engaged in learning, as capable of teaching “all persons” to read and write in a short amount of time, including “men, women, daughters and young lads.”


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From Anna Roemers Visscher’s Letterjuweel. Nicholaas Beets, Alle de gedichten, vol. 2, p. 122. Reproduced from

In the Low Countries, like elsewhere in Europe, some women enjoyed practicing calligraphy, as pastime but also to produce gifts for others. Gift-giving in general, as scholarship has been uncovering, involved much more than simply personal expressions of affection. For the Low Countries, for instance, Irma Thoen has shown that gifts could range in meaning and function, helping to establish someone’s position in networks, gain patronage, convey political messages, and give expression to ideas on all kinds of subjects. This is true for women as for men; Lisa Klein has written an elaborate analysis of embroidered gifts given to and by Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, and Susan Frye has analyzed the deeper meanings of texts by women in different forms, treating embroidery as a textual art form along with poetry and pamphlets; many of the “texts” she discusses were gifts to others. Calligraphy can be situated in a socio-political context too, displaying female elegance but also conveying messages and affording the opportunity for a special kind of self-expression, as the presence of calligraphic flourishes in signatures, such as the one shown here of Anna Roemers Visscher, shows.


Title page of John Davies of Hereford, The Writing Schoolemaster (2nd ed, 1636).

Calligraphy must also be seen in the context of broader ideas on female handwriting of the period. In a chapter on the subject of women’s handwriting, Heather Wolfe explains that early moderns debated whether women should learn to write at all. Even among those who advocated female handwriting there was disagreement on which script would be most suitable, given women’s supposed weaker bodies and inability to concentrate for long on arduous tasks. Wolfe cites John Davies, for instance, who writes in The writing schoolemaster (1631) that women “naturally lack strength in their hand to perform those full strokes, and (as it were) to bruise a letter as men do” (28). Thus, she writes, “Early modern writing manuals casually perpetuated familiar stereotypes about women’s flighty and weaker nature in order to explain why Italian hands might be more suited than secretary to women writers. The truth was that writing was laborious, messy and tiring for both genders” (29). Considering these perceived and real hurdles, female calligraphy flies in the face of such stereotypes, showing the calligrapher to be physically and mentally capable not simply of handwriting itself, but of writing in different hands with extraordinary ease and talent, bruising a letter as well as her male counterparts.


While female calligraphy can thus be taken to deny gendered assumptions in a display of sophistication, at the same time, it also confirms them. Engaging in calligraphy has women position their handwriting in a primarily decorative context, rather than a functional or pragmatic one, allowing for a focus on the form over the content of the writing. Featuring handwriting as calligraphy and therefore as upper-class pastime reaffirms its suitability for women and aligns it with embroidery, painting, paper cutting, and other feminine activities designed primarily to avoid idleness and prove one’s elegance. In this sense, it was evidence of what Ann Jensen Adams calls “disciplining the hand,” rather than subverting expectations.


Anna Maria van Schurman, Inscription in Album Amicorum of Gerard Thibault. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Den Haag. Reproduced from Europeana.

Some elite Dutchwomen were publicly known for their ability to handle the pen. Anna Maria van Schurman, for instance, was praised as a highly skilled calligrapher and enjoyed writing elaborate inscriptions for others, in their alba amicorum (friendship albums), for instance. Anna Roemers Visscher and Maria Tesselschade Roemers Visscher used calligraphy on glass, and Anna’s translations of Georgette de Montenay’s emblems were done in a graceful hand. Late in life, she created a manuscript version of her poems, entitled Letterjuweel (Jewel of Letters, see above) in similarly elegant handwriting. For some women, we have no actual physical evidence of their calligraphy, but they are praised in poems for it. Cornelia Kalf, for one, is praised by Constantijn Huygens for her “manly hand” (“uw manhafte Penn”). The praise alone suggests an association of ornate handwriting with masculinity, rather than femininity, furthering the notion that calligraphy was unlike embroidery, for instance, which was considered a uniquely feminine pastime.


Maria Strick
Engraving of Maria Strick from Schat oft voorbeelt (1618) by Willem Jacobsz. Delft.

But while these were upper-class women whose calligraphy circulated among a small group of friends, no female calligraphers gained such a wide audience as the remarkable Maria Strick (1577-after 1625), the only Dutch female professional calligrapher. She was comparable to Inglis in making a living from her craft—though her work was aimed at a large, print-based audience, rather than an elite clientele. Born Maria Becq, daughter of a schoolmaster, and married to Hans Strick, she became a teacher, running schools for girls and teaching in schools for boys. She became famous as a calligrapher by winning prizes in calligraphy competitions and, remarkably, publishing four copybooks. More prolific in print than many of the best-known male calligraphers in this golden age of calligraphy, Maria Strick collaborated with her husband, who did the engravings for her books. Early modern women usually are only able to make their mark in arenas that are male-dominated if there is strong male support in their immediate surroundings, and that was clearly the case for Strick, whose father taught her calligraphy and whose husband helped enable her publications. Moreover, the importance of competition in the world of professional calligraphy, derived from the traditions of the chambers of rhetoric (rederijkerskamers) of her day, helped Strick gain additional prominence.


Title page of Toneel Der Loflijcke Schrijfpen (1607), reproduced on

Strick’s calligraphy matches that of her best known male colleagues for its copiousness: she displays her mastery of different types of handwriting and decoration, though her style is less ornate than some others. Interestingly, in a fine essay discussing Strick’s career and work, Ton Croiset van Ughelen links this somewhat sober style, which seems a contradiction in terms when it comes to calligraphy, to her Lutheran faith (118). Of course it is not surprising that Protestantism, with its emphasis on words over images, could be aligned with calligraphy’s textual nature, but we can still perceive some tension in the very decorative nature of calligraphy and Protestantism’s abhorrence of idolatry and ornamentation. After all, the decorations may be perceived as important in their own right, overwhelming the substance of the text. Strick negotiates these tensions by toning down the flourishes and avoiding making them images of animals and other objects as other calligraphers did. Her decorative abstractness aligns with her religious worldview, in other words, keeping as much focus as possible on the text.


From Maria Strick, Toneel Der Loflijcke Schrijfpen (1607), reproduced on

At the same time, Strick’s work shows her command of different languages, including especially French, and a courtly sprezzatura (or nonchalance) that was generally associated with individuals of higher social status.  The tension between sober religion and copiousness is perfectly illustrated in her engraved portrait (see above), with its ink wells, quills, religious inscriptions and copious fruit. Calligraphy was, therefore, not simply an elegant pastime, but rather also a challenge to preconceived notions of femininity and a means of self-expression. Strick represents an important example of female calligraphy, not only because she was such an outstanding calligrapher but also because she gained a reputation for her art in a professional, male-dominated realm.


Further Reading 

Adams, Ann Jensen. “Disciplining the Hand, Disciplining the Heart: Letter-Writing Paintings and Practices in Seventeenth-Century Holland.” Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer. Ed. Peter C. Sutton et al. London: Lincoln, 2003. 63-77.

Croiset van Ughelen, Ton. “Maria Strick, Schoolmistress and Calligrapher in Early Seventeenth-Century Holland.” Quaerendo 39 (2009): 83-132.

Frye, Susan. Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Klein, Lisa M. “Your Humble Handmaid: Elizabethan Gifts of Needlework.” Renaissance Quarterly 50.2 (1997): 459-93.

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

Thoen, Irma. Strategic Affection? Gift Exchange in Seventeenth-Century Holland. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007.

Wolfe, Heather. “Women’s Handwriting.” The Cambridge Companion to Early Modern Women’s Writing. Ed. Laura Lunger Knoppers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.


The Phenomenon of the Married Woman Writer in the Dutch Republic

In this blog post, Nina Geerdink makes a startling discovery. Even though it has often been noted that many Dutch women stopped writing once married, she finds that there was a sizable group of women who did continue or even start writing after getting married. Here, she shows that their motivations for writing were complex but often related to their husbands.

The Marriage Net: Allegory on Marriageby Hendrik Noorderwiel (1647). Rijksmuseum, SK-C-1550

In the afterword to her inspiring monograph about English and Dutch women writers in the early modern period, the editor of this blog, Martine van Elk, asks some intriguing questions about Dutch women writers. Among these, the question most difficult to answer is probably, ‘Why did Dutch women often stop publishing their writing once married when English women did not?” (260). Earlier in her book, Van Elk has argued the reason must have been “ideologically motivated and culturally specific” (13-14), but further research would be necessary to get to the bottom of the Dutch ideology referred to. It is this blog’s aim to take a first, tentative, step towards it, by looking at some of the exceptions: the women that did continue publishing their writing after their marriage or in some cases started writing at that moment.

Courtyard with women by a linen closet, by Pieter de Hooch (1663). Rijksmuseum, SK-C-1191

Indeed, there are exceptions to the rule. From a quick count in Met en zonder lauwerkrans (With and without laurels, a comprehensive anthology of early modern Dutch women writers), it appears that 19 out of the 62 women writers active in the Dutch Republic between ca. 1600-1750 mentioned in the book published literary works while married. Maybe there were more, but for many women we don’t have enough biographical information to decide whether they were married or, when we know they were, whether they published only before or also during their marriage. The published works of the 19 women that did so for sure were often supportive of their husband’s jobs or public roles, which could very well be an explanation for the fact that they did not live up to what was expected from them as housewives in the Dutch Republic, that is putting down their pens and focusing on their household and children.


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Titlepage of Van Westrem’s Ziels-opwekking (1725). GoogleBooks.

A group of women for whom the supportive function is very evident is clergymen’s wives. Women like Fransina Jakoba van Westrem (active around 1725), Alegunda Ilberi (active around 1730), and Magdalena Pollius (active around 1745), all published pious works, in some cases combined with occasional poetry distributed within their husband’s network of clergymen. They are presented on the title page of their books as “the housewife of,” and their husband’s job is mentioned emphatically. In some cases, the husband-clergyman is also present in the work itself, with a laudatory poem or an introduction. In all cases, the edifying function of the book is, more or less explicitly, presented as a justification of the fact that a married woman had taken up her pen. As Van Westrem formulated it: in ‘atheistic days’ like hers, it was important that everybody who had the ability, made him- or herself strong for the praises of God.[1] The publications of clergymen’s wives could support their husbands’ work within the community, by edifying the members of his congregation, or even, theoretically, enlarge this congregation by addressing and edifying people who were not a member of the church yet.

For other married women the supportive function of their works is less evident at first sight, but in almost all of the cases, some tentative further research does lead to at least a hypothesis about such a function. There are women like Anna Maria Paauw (?-1710) and Cornelia Pluvier (ca. 1626-1711), who wrote occasional poetry within their husbands’ networks of possible clients or patrons. Both women were married to a painter who depended for his income on the rich and wealthy elite of the towns they lived in. Indeed, Paauw wrote occasional poetry within this elite network in her hometown Gouda. Frequently, she even wrote poems on the same occasion that her husband had written poems on. Less work by Pluvier, who was married to Willem Kalf, has survived, so we don’t exactly know to whom she addressed her poetry, but we do know she was known within the network of poets that addressed poetry to the elite of Amsterdam.

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Poem with Emblem by Coomans, published in Zeeusche nachtegael (1623). A1v-A2r.

One of the earliest and in any case the most famous example of a Dutch married woman who published her writings is Johanna Coomans (?-1659). because of her own and contemporaries’ reflections on this fact.[2] Only a few of her writings survived, which makes it, just like in the case of Pluvier, difficult to investigate the possibility of a relationship with her husband’s job. Would it be too far-fetched to assume that her writings, aiming at a network in the province of Zeeland and singing the praises of this province, did advance her husband, who worked there as a high official?

Portrait of Maria-Louise van Oranje-Nassau, by Louis Volders (1710)

Sometimes, poetry turns out to be a rather direct attempt to advance a husband’s position. This is true of Aurelia Zwartte (1682-?), who was married to a Leeuwarden burgomaster. At some point, he was turned down as burgomaster, and apparently the family encountered even more social troubles. Zwartte refers to the misfortune in several poems, which she presents as consolation for her husband. By dedicating her printed collection of poetry to Maria-Louise van Oranje-Nassau, the stadholder-governor (‘stadhouder-regentes’) in Friesland, she seems to have tried to put her family’s misfortune in the spotlight for the ruling elite, maybe hoping for a favour that could improve their situation.

Birthday poem for Charles I by Elisabeth Hoofman. Photo by Nina Geerdink. Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, shelf mark PORTEF qu 10:60.

Such hope for advancement most certainly played a role in the writing and publishing of poetry of Elisabeth Hoofman (1664-1734). Hoofman, born in a wealthy, intellectual family, initially wrote primarily social poetry for acquaintances. She only started to write for possible patrons after she and her husband encountered financial problems (probably because they lived beyond their means). When Hoofman’s husband was offered a job in Germany in the retinue of the landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, Charles I, in 1721, this seemed a good opportunity to solve their money problems. Hoofman immediately started to write poems for her husband’s new employer and his family. It seems that in this way she tried to secure his position, and later, after the landgrave’s death in 1730, the family’s pension. Her efforts seem to have been unsuccessful in the last phase of her life: after her husband died in 1732 the landgrave’s sons refused to pay Hoofman a widow’s pension.

Poem on the death of Charles I, by Hoofman. Photo by Nina Geerdink. Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, shelf mark PORTEF qu 10:61.

Before her marriage and her family’s decline, Hoofman was, as were many women writers, reluctant to print-publish her poems. Apart from some Latin poems that appeared in print without her involvement and against her wishes, Hoofman print-published only two poems in this period, both addressed to close relatives. Between 1726 and 1736, however, Hoofman print-published nine poems, seven of which were addressed to landgrave Charles I and his sons and successors William VIII and Frederick I of Sweden. Her son-in-law, the official court printer of Hesse-Kassel, published a collection of her religious poems in 1734. It can be no coincidence that Elisabeth put her reservation for publishing aside in a period in which her financial situation was bad, while the poems she wrote and published were almost all addressed to people who did improve this situation or were able to do so. The two published poems that were not addressed to members of the landgrave’s family were written for Hoofman’s cousins, of whom we know they supported her financially on a structural basis.

This short overview of exceptional Dutch women who published their writings during marriage suggests their authorship is supportive of their husband’s job and public function, by networking in circles of colleagues, possible clients or patrons, by publicly supporting their husband’s cause, by offering consolation when needed, or by advancing their husband’s public image. Many of the women discussed in this blogpost not only continued publishing after marriage, but their publications increased or they started publishing after marriage. Marriage was possibly an incentive to publish. How does this observation relate to the question posed as the starting point of this blog? What does it say about the Dutch phenomenon that women were supposed to stop publishing after they married? I think it shows we should connect the phenomenon to the ideology of the ‘ideal housewife’, which in any case reinforces Van Elk’s idea that there is an ideological reason for it. The ideal housewife, in the Dutch context, had first and foremost the task to support her husband. This supportive function was traditionally carried out within the household, where it meant taking care of the daily business and the kids. However, it seems that this support, if possible and necessary, could also be offered in the public domain. Women that did not support their husbands publicly although they had been active as poets before marriage, might really have been too busy within their household, as they often contend, but it is also possible that the husbands of these women were not in a job or function where they could benefit from their wives’ writing, or their wealth and social standing was such that they did not really need advancement. If their authorship could not support their husbands in their public role, Dutch women indeed were expected to stop publishing, and they most often did.

Nina Geerdink is an assistant professor of early modern Dutch literature at Utrecht University. She is currently working on a NWO-funded project about poets and profits in the Dutch Republic. She has published a monograph about the authorship of the Amsterdam poet Jan Vos and his relationships of patronage (Hilversum, 2012), an edited volume about early modern war literature (Hilversum, 2013), and several articles about literary authorship, politics and literature, women’s writing, and more specifically the Amsterdam woman writer Katharina Lescailje.

Further Reading

Nina Geerdink, ‘Possibilities of Patronage: the Dutch poet Elisabeth Hoofman and her German Patrons’, in Carme Font Paz & Nina Geerdink (eds.), Economic Imperatives for Women’s Writings in Early Modern Europe, Leiden: Brill, 2018 [forthcoming].

Els Kloek, Vrouw des huizes. Een cultuurgeschiedenis van de Nederlandse huisvrouw. Amsterdam: Balans, 2009.

Riet Schenkeveld-van der Dussen et al., Met en zonder lauwerkrans. Schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 1550-1850: van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1997.

Martine van Elk, Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic. Cham: Springer/Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.

Lia van Gemert et al. (eds.), Women’s Writing from the Low Countries 1200-1875: A Bilingual Anthology. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

[1] See Martine van Elk, Early Modern Women’s Writing. Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017, 44.

[2] Quoted by Nelleke Moser, ‘Fransina Jakoba van Westrem (?-?; actief ca. 1725). ‘Geen breinwijk mannenwerk, maar vrouwen-huisgezangen’’, in M.A. Schenkeveld-van der Dussen et al. (eds.), Met en zonder lauwerkrans. Schrijvende vrouwen uit de vroegmoderne tijd 1550-1850: van Anna Bijns tot Elise van Calcar. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 1997, 488-490, 488.

Erasing Pregnancy in Early Modern Mothers’ Legacies: Elizabeth Richardson’s Revisions

In this post, Amanda Zoch discusses mothers’ legacies, books that were written by early modern women for their children but often gained a larger audience in print form. She focuses particularly on the fascinating, shifting self-representations in the legacies by Elizabeth Richardson. 

By Amanda Zoch

Portrait of an Unknown Lady circa 1595 by Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2-1636
Fig. 1. Portrait of an Unknown Lady, c.1595, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts. Tate Collection, T07699.

The genre of mothers’ legacies flourished in seventeenth-century England. A sub-genre of domestic and courtesy literature, mothers’ legacies are advice books written from a mother’s perspective that provide educational and religious instructions to the author’s children.[1] The form of advice ranges from specific directives—such as Dorothy Leigh’s rather imperious insistence that her unborn grandchildren be named Philip, Elizabeth, James, Anna, John, and Susanna (Leigh 29)—to more general materials intended to promote devotional behavior, such as prayers and religious meditations.

A legacy serves as a textual surrogate after a mother’s death, and, therefore, many, like Leigh’s, were written when a woman was older and her children grown. Some legacies, however, were composed during pregnancy because the author fears she might die during childbirth. Elizabeth Jocelin, for example, felt an “apprehension of danger that might prevent me from executing that care I so exceedingly desired” at the same time that her child first moved within her womb (Jocelin B1r-B1v). Anticipating her death in childbirth, Jocelin composed a legacy for her unborn child. Tragically, Jocelin’s prediction came true; her child—a daughter—survived, presumably turning to Jocelin’s legacy for its intended purpose.

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Fig. 2. The final page of Richardson’s incomplete, 1606 legacy. Folger Shakespeare Library MS. V.a.511 fol.86v. Image from Luna.

In my research on mothers’ legacies, I consider how women’s attitudes toward childbirth shifted as they aged. During a woman’s child-bearing years, each pregnancy could pose a mortal threat; even the halest women could die in childbed with little to no warning. For older, post-menopausal women, references to childbirth were no longer entangled with fears of death, but employed as an opportunity to exercise maternal authority over one’s children. For the most part, women only wrote one legacy, or, alternatively, only one version of a woman’s legacy survived, usually because it was published (either due to the woman’s efforts or a male relation’s). Elizabeth Richardson, therefore, remains an unusual case: with three extant and distinct legacies, she offers the most comprehensive portrait of an individual woman’s evolving perspective on motherhood and authorship within the genre of mothers’ legacies.

Fig. 3. Sir Thomas Richardson. Attributed to Thomas Athow, after unknown artist (early 19th century). National Portrait Gallery, NPG D23260.

Elizabeth Richardson was born in 1576/7 to Sir Thomas Beaumont and Catherine, his wife. In 1594, she married John Ashburnham, and together they had ten children, with six surviving to adulthood. In 1620, Ashburnham died, and six years later Richardson married Sir Thomas Richardson (fig. 3), eventually becoming the 1st Lady Cramond. Sir Thomas died in 1634, and Richardson outlived him by nearly twenty years. She died at age seventy-five in 1651 and was buried next to her first husband.

Richardson is primarily known to us because of the success of her 1645 published legacy, A Ladies Legacie for her Daughters. Compared to the specific advice of legacies like Leigh’s, Richardson’s seems rather quotidian, with such offerings as “A prayer for Thursday morning” and “A prayer for Friday night” (fig. 4). Unlike most legacies, however, Richardson’s was intended for daily use. Printed in octavo size, Ladies Legacie was highly portable, and, as Sylvia Brown notes, the prayers themselves are generally impersonal—fitted for an everyman or everywoman to use on different days of the week (Brown 144).

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Fig. 4. The table of contents for Books II and III of A Ladies Legacie (A4r-A4v). Image from EEBO.

Although she did not publish her legacy until she was in her sixties, Richardson was writing in the maternal legacy genre as early as 1606. An incomplete 1606 manuscript collection of prayers and meditations on biblical passages resides at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and a different legacy, written in 1625 and presented to one of her daughters in 1635, is housed at the East Sussex Record Office. While Richardson does not appear to reuse any of the material from her 1606 manuscript in later versions, material from the 1625 copy appears in the first part of the published version, to which Richardson added two additional books.

Spanning nearly forty years, Richardson’s works reveal her evolving perspectives on maternity. While each text builds—if only conceptually—on the previous one, the individual manuscripts and published texts also exhibit evidence of continuous revision. Although many of the changes are minor and merely indicative of aesthetic preferences, such as substituting “respect” for “regard,” other changes contribute to a revision of her self-presentation. In fact, Richardson appears to be grappling with a tension between her identity as a pregnant woman and a mother as early as the 1606 manuscript, which bears many marks in her hand as she adds and alters phrases to refine her ideas. In the original composition, Richardson describes her writing as “poor labors” (2), a physically evocative reference that draws the reader’s attention to Richardson’s many travails in childbirth, in addition to the author’s humility and her intellectual labor in producing the legacy.

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Fig. 5. Richardson’s revision from “poor labors” to “motherlie endeavors.” Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.511. Image taken by the author with permission from the library.

At a later date, Richardson crosses out “poor labors” and replaces it with “motherlie endeavors” (fig. 5). Though essentially synonymous with “poor labors,” the phrase “motherlie endeavors” is arguably more poetic than the original. Moreover, this change replaces the physical connotations of labor with the more abstract “endeavors.” Victoria Burke reads this change as “a significant emendation, which genders [Richardson’s] efforts and places them in an established tradition of mother’s advice writing” (Burke 101). In addition to gendering Richardson’s text as female, I contend that this revision also identifies her first and foremost as a mother, rather than a laboring lady.

V0014914EL A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by
Fig. 6. Woodcut of a woman on a birthing stool. The original is a plate to: E. Roeslin, Rosengarten, 1513. Image from the Wellcome Collection. Wellcome Library no. 16926i.

Pregnancy is often viewed as a state of troubling in-betweenness. As Monika Karpinska notes, “when [women] are pregnant, they are not quite mothers” and certainly not maids (Karpinska 427). Because the early modern period idealized femininity in the form the virgin and the mother (ideals married in the Virgin Mary and, occasionally, Elizabeth I), patriarchal society had difficulty reconciling the chastity of virginity with the sexual activity necessary for biological motherhood. The pregnant body, therefore, often discomfited men and prompted misogynist speculations about parentage and the expectant mother’s virtue. It is no surprise, then, that women, especially those intending to publish their works like Richardson, would highlight their maternal, rather than procreative, identities.

On the one hand, Richardson’s revisions across her three legacies show the development of a confident writer who clarifies her prose and eliminates redundancies. The 1625 prayers, for example, are lengthy and prone to digressions. In the 1645 version, however, Richardson takes some of her earlier prayers and divides them into more focused meditations. The 1625 “A prayer for the Lords day” becomes a prayer of the same name and the more versatile “An entrance to prayer.” Similarly, Richardson splits the 1625 “A private morning prayer” into a prayer for morning and also one for thanksgiving. More significantly, however, Richardson’s revisions reveal a transformation from pregnant hesitancy to maternal confidence. For example, in 1625’s “A letter to my four Daughters,” Richardson refers to her text as “a smale token & motherly remembrance, commending this my little labour.” The 1645 version takes the same sentiment and condenses it: “a motherly remembrance, commend this my labor.” By dropping “smale token” and the “little” from “little labour,” Richardson erases her earlier hesitancy at her textual offerings. Furthermore, the 1625 version refers to the author’s “straying soul,” but the published version drops the descriptive “straying.” While Richardson carefully displays humility, she also intentionally limits her self-remonstrations so as not to diminish her authority as a mother.

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Fig. 7. Richardson’s revised title. Image from Christie’s Auction page.

Brown argues that revisions like this reveal Richardson’s growing confidence as a writer, and while Richardson’s changes certainly streamline her prose, I contend that her increased confidence can also be understood as an increased desire to assert her maternal identity. For example, in some presentation copies of the 1645 legacy, Richardson emends the title from A Ladies Legacie to The tytle is A Mothers Legacie, crossing out “Ladies” in her own hand (fig. 7). While some have critiqued this emendation as Richardson’s inability to leave well enough alone, I see this post-publication change as evidence that Richardson never considered her work as a writer, or as a mother, to be complete. Similar to the change from “poor labors” to “motherlie endeavors,” Richardson’s revised title underscores her maternal role and her maternal authority to write and publish. Although Richardson’s legacies avoid explicit references to the author’s pregnancies, this change of self-presentation from “lady” to “mother” effectively negates the pregnant self, a self that, perhaps, feared death or doubted God’s plan, as legacies like Jocelin’s suggest. Richardson’s changes erase “labor” as a physical effort and instead frame it as a textual and spiritual endeavor, privileging maternal labor over the physical labor of pregnancy.

The content of Richardson’s legacy also serves to further erase the labor of childbirth. In a collection dedicated to her daughters and daughters-in-law and intended for help with daily life, it is surprising that Richardson offers no prayers for childbirth or for thanksgiving afterwards. Such genres of prayer are common in compilations for women, such as Thomas Bentley’s Monument for Matrons. Richardson does include “A prayer in sicknes, either for recoverie, or patience, willinglie to referre my self to the good pleasure of god,” which is immediately followed by “Meditations of thankes givinge” and “A thankesgivinge for benefits received with a prayer for continuance of them” (76). These entries echo the themes and sequence of Elizabeth Egerton’s prayers for herself during and after childbirth, yet Richardson’s are far less specific, intended for the more generic issue of “sicknes” rather than childbirth. This departure from traditional prayers for women, like those composed by Egerton or Bentley, shows Richardson’s effort to appeal to a diverse audience beyond the daughters to whom she dedicates her legacy, as well as another instance of eliminating the dangers and fears of childbirth in favor of a more detached, authoritative maternal self-presentation.

Richardson’s textual revisions across and within her three legacies illuminate a shift in representation from pregnancy—an unruly site for misogynist skepticism, as well as a mother’s own anxieties—to the stability and authority of motherhood. For Richardson, increased confidence in her role as author mirrors a shift in her self-presentation, from the uncertainty of pregnancy to maternal authority. Indeed, the erasure of pregnancy and its attendant effects and feelings is not unique to Richardson, nor to the early modern period—consider, for example, Thaisa in Shakespeare’s Pericles or the countless unmarried women who hid their pregnancies until birth.[3] Even today, pregnancy, particularly the pregnant body, can be a source of scrutiny and unease. While some people claim that a “halo effect” erases the trauma of birth from the minds of new mothers, other sources—like celebrity gossip magazines—linger on the physical, rather than mental effects of pregnancy as they speculate about baby bumps and, later, highlight full-term bellies. After childbirth, however, these women typically fall out of the spotlight, only to return about a month or so later with newly toned figures. These “magical” transformations are just another example of the instability occasioned by pregnancy and the need to remake it into something more easily known and controlled.

Amanda Zoch is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at Indiana University. She is the recipient of an American Association of University Women American Dissertation Fellowship for her project, “Narratives of Erasure: Performing and Revising Pregnancy in Early Modern Drama and Women’s Writing.” Her essay on maternal revision in mothers’ legacies and Thomas Middleton’s More Dissemblers Besides Women is forthcoming in Stage Matters: Props, Bodies, and Space in Shakespearean Performance (eds. Annalisa Castaldo and Rhonda Knight).

Further Reading 

Brown, Sylvia. Women’s Writings in Stuart England: The Mother’s Legacies of Dorothy Leigh, Elizabeth Joscelin, and Elizabeth Richardson. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1999.

Brownlee, Victoria. “Literal and Spiritual Births: Mary as Mother in Seventeenth-Century Women’s Writing.” Renaissance Quarterly 68.4 (Winter 2015): 1297-1326.

Burke, Victoria E. “Elizabeth Ashburnham Richardson’s ‘Motherlie Endeauors’ in Manuscript.” English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700. 9 (2000): 98-113.

Burke, Victoria E. Richardson, Elizabeth, suo jure baroness of [sic] Cramond (1576/7–1651). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Demers, Patricia. Women’s Writing in English: Early Modern England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Dowd. Michelle M. “Structures of Piety in Elizabeth Richardson’s Legacie.” Genre and Women’s Life Writing in Early Modern England. Eds. Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011. 115-30.

Heller, Jennifer. The Mother’s Legacy in Early Modern England. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

Trubowitz, Rachel. Nation and Nurture in Seventeenth-Century English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Wall, Wendy. The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.


[1] All of the legacies discussed here are composed by women, though some mothers’ legacies, such as Nicholas Breton’s The Mothers Blessing (1602), are written by men who have adopted the persona of a mother.

[2] Karpinska, Monica. “Early Modern Dramatizations of Virgins and Pregnant Women.” Studies in English Literature 50.2 (Spring 2010): 427-44.

[3] See Laura Gowing’s book Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England for more discussion of the management of pregnancies outside of wedlock.



Selfie Fashioning and the Self-Portraits of Calligrapher Esther Inglis

In this blog post, guest blogger Taylor Clement explores the richly complex self-portraits of Esther Inglis. 

By Taylor Clement

In 2013, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary named “selfie” the word of the year and added the noun to the official English vocabulary. Since the rise of the selfie, art historians and media scholars have re-evaluated modes of self-representation, tracing a history of self-portraiture spanning from Dürer to Kardashian. Journalists and bloggers have also drawn comparisons between Renaissance self-portraiture and contemporary selfies. For example, a 2015 article in The Atlantic calls Matthäus Schwarz’s Klaidungsbüchlein (1520-1560) “the first book of selfies,” and Bustle’s “13 Selfie Lessons from Renaissance Portrait Paintings” gives advice to twenty-first-century photographers based on the sixteenth-century stylings of painters like Paolo Veronese and Hans Holbein the Younger. Earlier this year in Frontiers in Psychology, Claus-Christian Carbon examined the “universals” in depicting the self across centuries.

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Fig. 1. Portrait of Esther Inglis (unknown artist, c. 1595). National Galleries of Scotland. (Not a self-portrait.)

Curators and museum educators on The Getty’s blog The Iris and Alli Burness’s Museum in a Bottle critique these anachronistic comparisons between selfies and self-portraits, but they mostly discuss paintings on panels or canvas (often by Rembrandt) and neglect artwork in different media, like the paper-and-ink portraits in early modern books. French-Scottish calligrapher Esther Inglis (1571-1624) was one of the first artists in Scotland to create a self-portrait,[1] but she did not paint on panels or canvas. Instead, Inglis drew miniature portraits of herself on paper and tucked them away within the first pages of her handmade manuscript books. During her career as a scribe and bookmaker, Inglis created at least nineteen self-portraits that “authorized” her manuscripts.

Inglis was the child of Huguenot refugees; she was born in London in 1571 shortly before her family relocated to Edinburgh. Her father Nicholas Langlois worked as a French schoolmaster and her mother Marie Presot taught her to write calligraphy. Inglis made gift books on spec, copying French devotional poetry, the Psalms, and proverbs, among other texts in hopes of patronage from wealthy aristocrats and political leaders. Almost all of her self-portraits appear in gift books designed for royal patrons like Queen Elizabeth, King James I, and James’s sons, Prince Henry of Wales and Prince Charles. Her gift-books capitalize on both the private circulation of manuscripts and the novelty of print – two types of early modern social media.

Although Inglis’s drawings and paintings of herself are not selfies, they have more in common with millennial self-representation than one might assume. To understand this connection we have to move beyond assumptions that smartphone self-portraits are motivated by narcissism. Sure, twenty-first-century selfie photographers do promote themselves, but they also participate in online communities by mimicking others’ digital portraits. Many selfie photographers model their behaviors and self-representations on other photos already in circulation. In other words, a person may create a selfie using the same filters, poses, and/or backgrounds as her favorite celebrities on Instagram and her friends on Snapchat. At its core, the selfie is not so much about individual self-expression as it is about imitation and intertextuality.

Like postmodern selfies, Inglis’s self-portraits are conscious of other writers’ and translators’ presences and poses on the pages of early modern media. Although her work is in manuscript, Inglis’s self-promoting portraits have strong ties to Renaissance print culture where mass-produced portraits in books first appeared. Early modern printers created copperplate engravings or woodblock prints of authors’ or translators’ faces in the sticky, oil-based ink of the press, reproducing these faces again and again, stamping hundreds of books with portraits – some of the earliest “facebook pages,” so to speak. These pictures of authors or translators provided authorial credibility as they peered out at consumers from title pages and front matter of books.

Fig. 2. Esther Inglis, Type I Portrait in Le Livre de l’Ecclésiaste (1601). Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Digital Collections.

Inglis modeled her own image after printed author portraits, but her drawings are radically different from print in construction and context. First of all, she meticulously designed every portrait by hand, unlike the mass production of portraits stamped into printed books. Second, Inglis did not broadcast her image to the reading public in ways that authors in print did. Instead, she designed her manuscripts for a coterie audience of likeminded readers. In some ways, these portraits have the conversational intimacy that selfies have because of the function of manuscript as a text shared among close friends and acquaintances.[2]

Bibliographers A.H. Scott-Elliot and Elspeth Yeo catalogue four main types of self-portraits that Inglis created: Type I (1599-1602), Type II (1606-1607), Type III (1612-1615), and Type IV (1624). These self-portraits mark subtle changes in her self-presentation over time. Sometimes Inglis mimics print through black and white frontispiece portraits, and other times she uses color to enliven the image, painting her reddish-blonde hair and rosy cheeks onto the page.

Fig. 3. Jan van der Noot, translator portrait. Frontispiece in Het theatre (London: John Day, 1568). Folger Shakespeare Library copy (on EEBO).

Ingils created eight renditions of the Type I portrait, and one of these appears in Le Livre de l’Ecclésiaste [and] Le Cantique de Roy Salomon (1601; Fig. 2), which Inglis dedicated to French poet and humanist Catherine de Parthenay. In the self-portrait, Inglis sits at her table with writing and music books; she holds a pen in her right hand and looks out at the reader. To produce this image, Inglis used a penwork style that mimics the engraver’s burin and framed her portrait with adapted designs from Clément Perret’s Exercitatio Alphabetica (1569). The architectural and symmetrical framework of the drawing also resembles other author portraits in sixteenth-century print. For example, if we compare Inglis’s portrait with the frontispiece portrait of Dutch writer Jan van der Noot (1568; Fig. 3), we see the same kinds of architectural scrolls and flower/fruit designs that frame the portrait. Various other author and translator portraits also used these kinds of borders and decorative scrolls. Inglis rendered her own portrait by appropriating designs she encountered in other books.

Fig. 4. Esther Inglis, Type II Portrait in Cinquante Octonaires… (1607). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

One of Inglis’s Type II portraits can be found in the Cinquante Octonaires… (1607; Fig. 4) dedicated to Prince Charles. She depicted herself in a black dress and decorated the frame around her portrait with colorful scrolls, fruit, and animals. A. E. B. Coldiron has shown that additions of animals to translators’ portraits can signify fidelity to the original text; she argues that dogs can symbolize loyalty, while the monkey denotes the translator/printer’s “aping” or imitating the original text through translation.[3] Coldiron uses the example of John Harington’s translation of Orlando Furioso (1591), in which the title page frontispiece features an oval-shaped portrait of Harington near the bottom of the page. To the right of Harington’s portrait, an image of a dog rests in the corner. Inglis’s portrait frame also includes a dog below her portrait, but the squirrel in the right corner is a new addition. Inglis depicts the squirrel holding but not consuming an acorn, perhaps indicating her own role as a “collector” of verses. The two parrots that sit above Inglis’s portrait also denote mimicry. Again, Inglis constructs her own self-portrait by imitating and adapting others’ portrait conventions, and perhaps her strategies can be likened to modern trends in which selfie photographers frame their faces with flowers or use the popular deer and dog filters to capture their own likenesses on Snapchat.[4]

Fig. 5. Esther Inglis, Type III Portrait in The Psalmes of David (1612). Folger MS V.a.665.

The Type III portraits appear in the smaller books in Inglis’s oeuvre, and they present a minimalist approach to self-representation. One of these Type III portraits appears in The Psalms of David in English (1612; Fig. 5), a manuscript dedicated to Henry, the Prince of Wales. The tiny book, smaller than the smallest iPhone (at around 3×2 inches), is a new acquisition by the Folger Shakespeare Library. In this portrait, Inglis wears the same black dress, ruff, and hat as she does in the Type II portraits. Below her image, Inglis included a sonnet upon the anagram of her name: RESISTING HEL. Anagrams were very popular among poets and other educated elite in the seventeenth century.[5] Inglis imitates and appropriates the self-stylings of writers in print, demonstrating her awareness of early modern popular culture.

Fig. 6. Esther Inglis, Type IV Portrait in Octonaries (1600; portrait dated 1624). Folger MS V.a.91.

Inglis’s Type IV portraits are direct imitations of French emblematist Georgette de Montenay (Fig. 6).[6] In De Montenay’s Cent Emblemes Chrestiennes (1584), engraver Pierre Woeiriot depicted the French poet with a pen and inkwell, a small book at her right hand, and a music book at her left. In a similar fashion, Inglis displays her writing materials and books, as well as her lute, compass, and other objects that signify her status as an educated woman and artist. She models almost all of her poses and settings in portrait Types I, II, and IV on the portrait in Emblemes Chrestiennes. Inglis relies on De Montenay as an imitable icon throughout her works, much like twenty-first century selfie-photographers look to Kim Kardashian West for lighting tips and contouring tricks to enhance the appearance of their own portraits.

As I have written in my article “Moveable Types,” the copying of portraits and faces in print informs early modern readers’ conception of selfhood. Much like the intertextualities of her transcriptions, Inglis’s self-portrayals are always in conversation with other authors and artists as she mimics their costumes, settings, and decorative frames. When we compare her self-portraits with postmodern selfie photography, the similarities might cause us to question how much of individual self-depiction relies on representations of others. Especially when we consider that millions of Snapchat and Instragram users are circulating similar photographs, constantly fashioning themselves with the same filters and frames.

Taylor Clement is a doctoral candidate in English Literature and History of Text Technologies at Florida State University. Her research interests include early modern print, illustration, remix, and copies. She is the recipient of a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship for her project, “Visualizing Verse in Early Modern England.”

Further Reading

On Esther Inglis

Bracher, Tricia. “Esther Inglis and the English Succession Crisis of 1599.” Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450-1700. Ed. James Daybell. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2004. 132-146.

Frye, Susan. “Materializing Authorship in Esther Inglis’s Books.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.3 (Fall 2002): 469-491.

Frye, Susan. Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Ross, Sarah Gweneth. “Esther Inglis: Linguist, Calligrapher, Miniaturist, and Christian Humanist.” Early Modern Women and Transnational Communities of Letters. Ed. Julie D. Campbell and Anne R. Larsen. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. 159-182.

Scott-Elliot, A. H. and E. Yeo. “Calligraphic manuscripts of Esther Inglis.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 84 (1990): 11–86.

Tjan-Bakker, Anneke. “Dame Flora’s Blossoms: Esther Inglis’s Flower Illustrated Manuscripts.” English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 9 (2000): 49-72.

Van Elk, Martine. “Courtliness, Piety, and Politics: Emblem Books by Georgette de Montenay, Anna Roemers Visscher, and Esther Inglis.” Early Modern Women and Transnational Communities of Letters. Ed. Julie D. Campbell and Anne R. Larsen. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. 159-182.

Ziegler, Georgianna. “Hand-ma[i]de Books: The Manuscripts of Esther Inglis, Early Modern Precursors of the Artists’ Book.” English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700 9 (2000): 73-87.

Ziegler, Georgianna. “‘More than Feminine Boldness’: The Gift Books of Esther Inglis.” Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain. Ed. Mary E. Burke, Jane Donaworth, Linda L. Dove, and Karen Nelson. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000. 19-37.

On portraits and print

Bizer, M. “The reflection of the other in one’s own Mirror: The Idea of the Portrait in Renaissance Imitatio.” Romance Notes 36.2 (1996): 191-200.

Clement, Taylor. “Moveable Types: The De-Individuated Portrait in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Renaissance Studies 31.3 (2017): 383-406.

Howe, Sarah. “The Authority of Presence: The Development of the English Author Portrait, 1500–1640.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 102.4 (2008): 465-499.

Loh, Maria. “Renaissance Faciality.” Oxford Art Journal 32.3 (2009): 341-363.

Mann, Alastair J. “The Anatomy of the Printed Book in Early Modern Scotland.” The Scottish Historical Review 80.210 (2001): 181-200.

Woods-Marsden, Joanna. Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.


[1] Art historian Duncan Macmillan calls her the first Scottish artist to paint a self-portrait. See Macmillan, Scottish Art 1490-1650, 2nd and Revised Ed. (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing 2000), 65.

[2] Alli Burness argues that selfies are “part of a conversation, a series of contextual interactions and are connected to the selfie-maker in an intimate, embodied and felt way.” See her 2015 blog post, “What’s the Difference between a Selfie and a Self-Portrait?” here.

[3] See Coldiron’s forthcoming chapter, “The Translator’s Visibility in Early Printed Portrait Images and the Ambiguous Example of Margaret More Roper,” in Thresholds of Translation: Paratexts, Print, and Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Britain, ed. Marie-Alice Belle and Brenda Hosington (Palgrave, forthcoming). Coldiron discussed Caxton’s image of the ape in her talk “Visibility, Collaboration, and The Author-Function in Early Modern Translators’ Portraits” (presentation, Renaissance Society of America, Chicago, IL, March 31-April 2, 2017).

[4] While early modern viewers saw the dog as a symbol of fidelity and loyalty, apparently some 21st century viewers see Snapchat’s “puppy filter” as a symbol of promiscuity. See

[5] Alastair Fowler “Anagrams,” The Yale Review 95 (2007): 33–43. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9736.2007.00307.x

[6] You can read more about Inglis’s imitation of De Montenay in Martine van Elk’s blog post below.






The Monstrous Worlds of Two Seventeenth-Century Hispanic Women Writers: María de Zayas and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

This blog post by Bonnie Gasior explores monstrosity and/in the works of two early modern Hispanic women writers.

by Bonnie Gasior

Disclaimer: this post contains no references to flying, three-headed creatures or fire-breathing one-eyed beasts. Or even Medusa, for that matter.

When people, both academics and their non-academic counterparts, hear the term “female monstrosity” used in an early modern Hispanic (con)text, they frequently imagine an observable, physical abnormality in either the (female) characters female writers engender or the authors themselves. While these more traditional types of female monsters do exist in literature of the period (e.g., in classical and mythological references), my research instead looks at monstrosity of the female persuasion as particular deviations from the norm. These abnormalities can manifest in a multiplicity of ways but typically manifest as transgressive behavior from within or outside of the text. When Aristotle asserted that women were merely deformed men, he probably had no idea that his incendiary claim would lay the groundwork for literary feminist scholarship and inform studies on monstrosity in enduring and compelling ways.

Two female authors from the Hispanic tradition—María de Zayas (Spain) and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Mexico)—both wrote in the 17th century, though the latter was only in her first decade of life when the former left this earth. Both women were monsters in their own right, having permeated literary spheres dominated by men at a time when women who spoke up or appropriated the plume were regarded negatively. Today, their texts—from plays to essays to poems—have (successfully) challenged the notion of canonicity, cast light on women’s issues, and secured their rightful place in literature classrooms.

Modern rendering of María de Zayas

María de Zayas was born in Madrid of noble lineage in 1590 and participated in the poetry gatherings of her day (academias). Other than these scant details, history has revealed little more about her, even after almost four-hundred years. We do know, however, that she maintained a close friendship with another Spanish contemporary female writer, Ana Caro, as other literary publications of the time indicated. The date of Zayas’ death is accepted as 1691, though the last years of her life are shrouded in mystery.


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Title page, Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (1637)

Though both a poet and a playwright, Zayas is probably most recognized for her two riveting short novel collections, inspired by masters of the Italian school, including Giovanni Boccaccio and Masuccio Salernitano on one hand and Miguel de Cervantes on the other: Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (Amorous and Exemplary Novels, 1637) and Desengaños amorosos (Disenchantments of Love, 1647). Both enjoyed a robust readership during the era, as the intriguing storylines figured as the soap operas of their day. In the first, Lisis, a young, aristocratic woman summons her friends to her home to celebrate her pending nuptials and distract her from an unnamed illness. Over the course of several days, men and women take turns telling (long) stories and narrating. In the second installment, Lisis once again gathers her friends for more camaraderie. However, this time, she allows only women to be the storytellers, a decision surely tied to the cancellation of her wedding and subsequent disillusion with her suitor (and most likely, men in general). Both collections are rife with violence, grotesque imagery, and sexual predation.

In what ways, then, is Zayas’s world “monstrous”? One can find monsters throughout her body of work, from her characters to Zayas herself, as her voice destabilizes hegemony through side commentary, in the vein of Bakhtinian heteroglossia (“another’s speech…serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way”). For example, in the 1637 prologue, “To the Reader” of her first collection, she opens by stating, “Oh my reader, no doubt it will amaze you that a woman has the nerve, not only to write a book but actually to publish it, for publication is the crucible in which the purity of genius is tested” (1). She drives home her point by affirming that the blood of males and females is chemically identical, a claim that advocates for gender equality in general. Likewise, Zayas, through her narrators often interrupts with interjections, particularly when women are treated unjustly, as seen here in the novella from the Desengaños, Amar solo por vencer (“Love for the Sake of Conquest”): “Now even gentlemen noted for their gentility, who promise to defend women, get carried away by common public opinion, without realizing that they’re failing to uphold the name of gentlemen and the values they espouse!” (240).

Modern sketch of the immurement of Inés

The novella La inocencia castigada (Innocence Punished) from the Desengaños illustrates Zayas’ awareness of and attention to monstrosity, particularly as it affects women. As the title hints, Inés, although declared innocent of adultery, is nonetheless made to suffer an unthinkable ordeal: for six years she is forced to subsist in a living, vertical tomb behind a wall her husband and sister-in-law have constructed and through which only negligible amounts of sustenance are passed. Just as Inés is about to succumb, a female neighbor hears her cries, notifies the local authorities, and denounces Inés’ family. When Inés finally and unceremoniously emerges from behind the concrete partition, the way in which the narrator describes her—lice-infested tresses, maggot-ravaged flesh, excrement-laden body—is unimaginable, if not monstrous. On a more figurative level, Inés’ appearance could furthermore signal the way society viewed women in general. We are informed that time restores everything except for Inés’ eyesight due to long-term exposure to darkness. The symbolism of this particular scene and Inés eventual fate—retreating to a convent—are impossible to overlook and call into question the men of the novel, including Inés’ stalker, the purported insurers of justice, and even her own spouse, all of them monstrous in their own right for their deplorable actions.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, portrait by Miguel Cabrera (c. 1750)

The theme of monsters takes an even more personal turn with Sor Juana. In contrast with Zayas, much more can be said about the life of Sor Juana, where monstrosity is at the forefront. The Mexican nun has been portrayed in television shows, movies (I, the Worst of All) and most recently, a 2016 Mexican mini-series titled Juana Inés, though none of these fully or faithfully capture her spirit. For many people familiar with the Hispanic literary tradition, Sor Juana is the embodiment of feminism, having penned poems such as “Hombres necios” (“Foolish Men”) in which she lambasts men’s hypocrisy: “But who has carried greater blame / in a passion gone astray: / she who falls to constant pleading, / or he who pleads for her to fall? (167). Born to a criolla (a descendent of Spaniards born in the New World) mother and Spanish father, Sor Juana was born Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez de Santillana in Nepantla around 1650. Sor Juana was, by all accounts, a precocious child and an autodidact who reportedly was reading by age three and composing poetry at around eight. In 1669, she became a Hieronymite nun and continued her studies behind convent walls, where it was claimed she amassed an extensive library of nearly four-thousand books. Sor Juana’s relationship with the vicereine, María Luisa Manrique de Lara, has been cause for intense speculation as a result of the poetry the former dedicated to the latter, but notwithstanding, the protection Manrique de Lara afforded Sor Juana was instrumental in allowing her to continue to write, particularly toward the end of the seventeenth century, when she had her works published in Spain.

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La respuesta, in Fama y obras póstumas (1700)

Sor Juana’s acclaimed essay La respuesta a Sor Philotea (The Answer to Sor Filotea, 1691) demonstrates at once how she was both a threatened and threatening individual. Its genesis includes a written critique by Sor Juana of a Portuguese priest’s forty-year old sermon, which was intended to be a private, spiritual exercise; the Bishop of Puebla’s learning of the critique’s existence and subsequently publishing the piece without Sor Juana’s permission, probably to make a spectacle of her; and the “correspondence” that ensued between the two in the form of two epistolary essays.

Bishop Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (anonymous portrait)

The Bishop, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, responded to Sor Juana’s critique of the aforementioned sermon with his Carta Atenagórica (Letter Worthy of Athena, 1690), in which he hides behind a pseudonym, Sor Philotea, in order to admonish the nun more slyly for her secular transgressions. Sor Juana, in turn, delivers a rhetorical, reasoned retort, The Answer, which could be read as part biography (“people marveled not so much at my intelligence but my memory and the facts I knew at an age when it seemed I scarcely had time to learn to speak The Answer 51); part self-vindication (“My writing has never proceeded from any dictate of my own, but a force beyond me” 47) infused with humanistic mastery (“Without logic, how should I know the general and specific methods by which the Holy Scripture is written?” 53); not to mention a dose of false modesty (“What understanding do I possess, what studies, what subject matter, or what instruction, save for profundities of a superficial scholar?” 47). Sor Juana at once defends and promotes women’s causes in general, particularly as they relate to the pursuit of and access to knowledge, which, ironically, the Bishop was obviously trying to curtail but failed to do by virtue of the Respuesta’s publication.

The fodder these two early modern female writers offer, in the form of themes, characters, and circumstances, exemplifies the workings of monstrosity. I have argued previously that monstrosity operates in varying ways but often has specific, telltale signs in the context of gender. Ultimately, I see women deemed monstrous (by others) when they overstep their gender roles (Sor Juana as a detractor) or as a form of punishment (Inés’ spell-induced outings). Rendering women monstrous thus exposes them, incites (self)reflection, and in theory is a corrective if not curative measure. In a way, though, those same displays of monstrosity are what best serve a feminist agenda by exposing the mechanisms that so often have and continue to victimize women.

In the spirit of political phenomena such as the Hillary Clinton support group Pantsuit Nation or Trump-inspired pussy hats; cultural ones like the Netflix series Orange is the New Black; and literary examples, such as the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy, female monsters are more prominent than ever, moving from the shadows toward the spotlight in a world that now champions and celebrates them.

I would like to take this opportunity to invite anyone interested in similar topics to submit an abstract or panel proposal to the GEMELA (Grupo de estudios sobre la mujer en España y Las Américas) conference. Since its inception, the organization has devoted itself to examining the cultural production of women (1300-1800) in Spain, the Americas and Portugal. Our biennial conference has taken place in numerous locations in the U.S. and Latin America, including Portland, Houston, Long Beach (CA) and most recently, San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2018, we will meet in Reno, NV and welcome scholars whose work dovetails with ours. Please see for further information about membership, conferences, newsletters and other relevant details.

**I would like to thank my colleagues, Yolanda Gamboa and Mindy Badia, for their suggestions during the editing process and more importantly, their unwavering friendship.

Further Reading

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Caputi, Jane. Goddesses and Monsters. Women, Myth, Power, and Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisonsin Press, 2004.

Cohen, Jeffery Jerome, ed. Monster Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Castillo, David. Baroque Horrors: Roots of the Fantastic in the Age of Curiosities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine. Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993.

De la Cruz, Sor Juana Inés. The Answer/La Respuesta. Trans. Arenal, Electa and Amanda Powell. New York: The Feminist Press, 2009.

Gasior, Bonnie L. “Monstrous Maneuvers and Maneuvering the Monstrous in Two of Sor Juana’s Dialogic Romances.” Hispanic Issues Online. Special issue of Writing Monsters: Essays on Iberian and Latin American Cultures 15 (Spring 2014): 60-77.

—. “Women’s Webs of Dialogic Poetry in Early Modern Spain.” Calíope: Journal of the Society for Renaissance and Baroque Hispanic Poetry 16.2 (2011): 45-64.

Gamboa, Yolanda. “Architectural Cartography: Social and Gender Mapping in Maria de Zayas’s Seventeenth-Century Spain.” Hispanic Review 71.2 (Spring, 2003): 189-203.

Hanafi, Zakiya. The Monster in the Machine: Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Huet, Marie-Hélène. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Merrim, Stephanie. Feminist Perspectives on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Nelson, Bradley. “Zayas Unchained: A Perverse God or Theological Kitsch?” Hispanic Issues Online. Special issue of Writing Monsters: Essays on Iberian and Latin American Cultures 15 (Spring 2014): 42-59.

Paz, Octavio. Trampas de la fe. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1982.

Platt, Peter G, ed. Wonders, Marvels, and Monsters in Early Modern Culture. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

Velasco, Sherry. The Lieutenant Nun: Transgenderism, Lesbian Desire, and Catalina de Erauso. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2000.

Vélez-Quiñones, Harry. Monstrous Displays: Representation and Subversion in Spanish Literature. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 1999.

Vollendorf, Lisa. Reclaiming the Body: María de Zayas’s Early Modern Feminism. North Carolina Studies in Romance Languages and Literatures 270. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Welles, Marcia. “Maria de Zayas y Sotomayor and her Novela cortesana: a Re-evaluation.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 55.4 (1978): 301-10.

Whitenack, Judith A., and Amy R. Williamsen, eds. María de Zayas: The Dynamics of Discourse. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995. Print

Zayas, María de. Desengaños amorosos. Ed. Alicia Yllera. Madrid: Cátedra, 2000.

—. Disenchantments of Love. Trans. H. Patsy Boyer. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

—. The Enchantments of Love: Amorous and Exemplary Novels. Trans. H. Patsy Boyer. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Bonnie Gasior is Professor of Spanish and Faculty Athletics Representative at California State University, Long Beach. She is co-editor of Crosscurrents: Transatlantic Perspectives on Early Modern Theater (Bucknell UP, 2006) and the forthcoming Making Sense of the Senses in the Spanish Comedia (Juan de la Cuesta Press, 2017). She is also co-author of a forthcoming third-year literary analysis textbook entitled Redes literarias (McFarland Press, 2017).

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).