Renaming Themselves: The Mottoes of Early Modern Women Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Page from Roemer Visscher’s Sinnepoppen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 thoughts on “Renaming Themselves: The Mottoes of Early Modern Women Writers

  1. Ah, so for hundreds of years women writers have been discounted and displaced by being lauded as “the muse” instead. Also, I’ve been to Texel! Still a shipping school there where you can learn to tie nets, a fishing industry, and the rough sea on which many ships were lost!


  2. An interesting article. I’m researching Margaret of Austria, and was intrigued to learn that she changed her motto several times, depending on her circumstances. This has provided an useful background

    Liked by 1 person

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