Gesine Brit: A Dutch Poet Defending Justice and Religious Freedom

By Francesco Quatrini

Figure 1. Balthasar Bernards, after Louis Fabritius Dubourg, Baptism at the Rijnsburger Collegiants (Doop bij de Rijnsburgse Collegianten), ca. 1736. RP-P-AO-10-48. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Among the many religious groups born in the decades following the Reformation, some belonging to the so-called “Radical Reformation” and others labeled as “Christians without a Church,” the Dutch Collegiant movement is certainly one of the most fascinating. They were a Protestant group founded entirely without clerical or governmental oversight. Their meetings were called Collegien (“Colleges”), from which the Dutch name Collegianten (“Collegiants”) for their members derived. They are also called Rijnsburgers, due to the name of the village in which they established their first College, Rijnsburg, near Leiden (Fig.1).

Figure 2. Meeting of the Collegiants (Bijeenkomst van de Collegianten), Pieter Tanjé, after Louis Fabritius Dubourg, 1736–1738. RP-P-AO-24-17. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Over the course of the seventeenth century, the Collegiants founded Colleges in several Dutch cities, the most important in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Leiden. These meetings were unique in the context of the Dutch Republic for several reasons. Firstly, no minister from any existing church was designated to oversee and direct meetings. Secondly, Colleges were egalitarian in nature, so much so that all people were welcomed, regardless of gender, social background, and confessional belonging. This means that women participated in these meetings as much as men (Fig. 2) and that Reformed people were gathering with Mennonites, Remonstrants with Socinians, and Quakers with Christians belonging to no church. Lastly, Collegiant assemblies revolved around the practice of free prophecy, or freedom of prophesying, which is a mode of utterance based on the free interpretation of Scriptural passages and the free expression of religious views. The goal of such a practice was mutual religious edification.

In short, Colleges were a-confessional urban spaces where all sorts of people could gather to practice egalitarianism, freedom of expression, and toleration in real terms. The Collegiants have received some attention in historiography, though perhaps not as much as they deserve. For this reason, to date, there are still aspects of their history that need further scholarly examination. One of these understudied aspects is certainly the role of women in Collegiant circles. Besides the many etchings showing women and men together in Collegiant meetings, Jori Zijlmans has devoted one chapter of her 1999 Ph.D. dissertation to the meetings organized in Rotterdam by four Collegiant women in the second half of the 1650s. These meetings are the clearest proof of women’s activities in Collegiant circles. They were not only involved in organizing Colleges but also defended their fellow Collegiants in writing. For instance, Gesine (or Gezine) Brit, a Mennonite-Collegiant poet from Amsterdam, put pen to paper to denounce the persecutions that the Collegiants in Groningen suffered at the hands of the Reformed Church.

We do not know much about Gesine Brit’s biography. She was born in Blokzijl around 1669 in a Mennonite family and moved to Amsterdam in 1682. That year, her parents registered with the Amsterdam Mennonite community named bij ‘t Lam en de Tooren (at the Lamb and the Tower). Gesine was baptized in the same community on February 15, 1688. We have no information about her education. It is possible that she contributed to Mennonite songbooks in her early years. She became widely known as a poet in the mid-1690s. In 1696, she published a Dutch translation of a Latin poem by the Socinian Martin Crell. Then, in 1699, she produced her most famous pastoral poem, “Koridon,” while contributing three further poems to a new Dutch edition of Uyerste wille van een moeder aan haar toekomende kind, a translation ofElizabeth Jocelin’s The Mother’s Legacy to Her Unborn Child (1624). In 1711, she married Jacob van Gaveren, a Mennonite from the Amsterdam community ‘t Zon (The Sun), who died in 1727. They had no children. During her married life, Gesine continued to write poems, hymns, and emblems, and in 1723, she contributed poems to Arnold Houbraken’s posthumously published emblem collection Stichtelyke Zinnebeelden (Devout Emblems). She died in Amsterdam in 1747.

Figure 3. Allard Pierson HS 65-129 (loan of the Mennonite Community of Amsterdam)

Brit’s poetry is mostly religious in nature, treating biblical and moral subjects and emphasizing the significance of a Christian education for children. But she composed at least one poem that has a more political stand, written to denounce the acts of persecution by the Reformed Church in Groningen and convince the burgomasters to take measures against the local Collegiant assemblies. “On the Persecution of the Collegiants in Groningen” (“Op de vervolging der Collegianten, te Groeningen”) was composed sometime in 1705 and published posthumously in 1775 by Elias van Nijmegen, the first historian of the Collegiant movement (Fig. 3). It remained largely ignored, though in the library of the Mennonite Community of Amsterdam in the Allard Pierson, there is a manuscript copy that has some variants compared to the published version. This makes it likely that this copy was produced before the poem was printed. There is no definitive proof, however, that it is in Brit’s hand. The following brief analysis is based on this manuscript version because the specific variants make it more likely that this copy is closer to the original than the published edition. In one case, for instance, the latter has the Dutch word staat (“state, condition”), while the manuscript has haat (“hate”), which makes more sense in the specific context of the passage.

In Brit’s poem, there are three main lines of thought. She condemns the endeavors of the Reformed ministers to stop the Collegiants from worshiping; she advocates for freedom of conscience and religion; and she urges the Groningen civil authorities not to follow the dictates of the Reformed Church, thus making an implicit Erastian argument about sovereignty and church-state relations. To support the first of these, she draws a double comparison to denounce the activities of the consistory of Groningen. At first, she likens the Reformed Church and the civil authorities who follow its dictates to a wild beast, “a wolf, a fierce winter bear” that “unexpectedly falls upon the innocent flock / … in order to ravish … / the defenseless nest” (“Gelijk een Wolf, een felle winterbeer / Om’t weerloos nest te schaaken […] / Op’t onversienst valt op de onnoozle kudden”) There is no doubt that the innocent flock whose nest is ravished by the Reformed Church is the body of true Christianity.

Figure 4. Allard Pierson HS 65-129 (loan of the Mennonite Community of Amsterdam)

Then Brit accuses the Reformed ministers of hypocrisy, saying they act exactly like the Spanish Inquisition in the years immediately preceding the Dutch revolt against the Spanish dominion. The Collegiants in Groningen endured nothing but violence, tyranny, and constraints imposed on their exercise of free conscience; according to Brit, government repression clearly violated ideals of justice and freedom. Therefore, she argues, the burgomasters need to teach the Reformed ministers that civil authorities have no duty to follow the dictates of the church in religious matters. Quite the contrary. Referring to “the maxim in front of the house of discipline” of Amsterdam, namely the prison Rasphuis, whose entrance door read “wild beasts must be tamed” (“wilde beesten moet men temmen”), she suggest that the burgomasters should do the same with the Reformed Church, making decisions independently of what any religious minister has to say. After all, she adds, “It is a virtue of the pious conscience / To tame that of which everyone is scared and before which everyone trembles” (“Het is een deugd van’t vroom gemoed / Het geen, daar elk voor schrikt en beeft te temmen”). Thus, the burgomasters will prove to be just regents in the eyes of pious citizens when restraining church authorities (Fig. 4). Brit’s short but very fierce and passionate poem is definitive proof that Collegiant women actively boosted their movement in several ways and that they were willing to enter the public stage if their group needed them to, be it to contribute to the organization of their assemblies or to defend Collegiant practices and ideals when the very existence of a College was at stake.

All images posted with permission.

Francesco Quatrini is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin.

Further Reading

Andrew C. Fix, Prophecy and Reason: The Dutch Collegiants in the Early Enlightenment, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991.

L. Kolakowski, “Dutch Seventeenth-Century Anti-Confessional Ideas and Rational Religion: The Mennonite, Collegiant, and Spinozan Connections,” trans. and Introd. by James Satterwhite, Mennonite Quarterly Review 64:3-4, 1990, pp. 259-297 and 385-416.

W. R. D. van Oostrum, “Brit, Gesine (1669?–1747),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 2014,

J. C. van Slee, De Rijnsburger Collegianten, Utrecht, Hes Publishers, 1980.

J. Zijlmans, Vriendenkringen in de zeventiende eeuw. Verenigingsvormen van het informele culturele leven te Rotterdam, Rotterdam, IJKPunt, 1999.

The Intrepid and Inquiring Celia Fiennes

This blog post by Heidi Craig introduces us to an early modern woman who traveled. Celia Fiennes was an impressive woman who traveled only accompanied by servants at a time when this was by no means easy.  

By Heidi Craig

Gesina ter Borch, Woman on Horseback in a Landscape (Vrouw te paard in een landschap, 1660). Rijksmuseum, BI-1887-1463-25

“It is a pretty long Parish and through it runns a water which came down a great banck at the end of town…they say it runns off of a poisonous mine or soile and from Coale pitts, they permit none to taste it, for I sent for a Cup of it and the people in the Street call’d out to forbid the tasteing it” (95-6). As a peripatetic academic, I’ve become inspired by the travelling nonconformist Englishwoman Celia Fiennes (born in Newton Toney in 1662, died in London in 1741). Fiennes’s memoirs have been called “most important travel journal of the seventeenth century” (McRae 176) and are valued by social and economic historians for their insights into the industries, manufacturing processes, social practices, and perceptions of England and Scotland of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They also paint a striking portrait of an intrepid, inquiring early modern woman, zigzagging across England on horseback—riding sidesaddle, no less, as the title of the first edition of her memoirs (published in 1888) reminds us—between the early 1680s and the 1710s.

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Title page of the 19th-century edition of Fiennes’s memoirs, GoogleBooks.

Striving to “be curious” in order to “regain my health,” the acquisition of knowledge through travel was key to Fiennes’s quest for self-care and self-improvement. Ironically, Fiennes sometimes risked life and limb in this pursuit; in the opening quotation, Fiennes describes how, while attempting to sample water from a stream near Sheffield, she was discouraged by locals from drinking the noxious liquid. Fiennes would not be put off, however, from other drinks and foods, to which she devotes considerable attention in her journal. She was a “connoisseur of beer,” and was “delighted whenever she was near enough the coast for French wine to be obtainable,” notes Christopher Morris (xxix); at a fish-market near Borough Bridge she marveled at “crabbs as big as my two hands” (83), and she describes Colchester as primarily notable for “exceeding good oysters,” “to gratify my curiosity to eat them on the place I paid dear” (116).

Image from Richard Head’s The English Rogue (London, 1680), Wing (2nd ed.) / H1248cA.

Fiennes’s zest for travel is remarkable given the ideological and practical challenges faced by travelers in early modern England in general, not to mention women in particular. As Andrew McRae has noted, the Protestant Reformation brought an abrupt end to pilgrimages in England and beyond; moreover, in the Tudor and early Stuart period, “the Protestant assault on pilgrimage dovetailed with wider attacks” “on the causelessly mobile individual,” whose curiosity and ambition were increasingly viewed with suspicion (177). All this resulted in “the dismantling of structures of hospitality directed towards the sustenance of pilgrims on the road” (McRae 177-78). English roads had actually worsened since the Middle Ages; seventeenth-century roads were often narrow, poorly marked, susceptible to flooding, overgrown with hedges, and heavily trafficked (Morris xxx). Robbery was also a persistent concern. Fiennes recounts her encounter with probable highwaymen on the road to Chester. She describes them as “truss’ed up with great coates and as it were bundles about them which I believe was pistols,” and their efforts to “justle my horse out of the way to get between one of my servants horses and mine,” attempting to make conversation by “disown[ing] their knowledge of the way.” The men turned back once Fiennes arrived at a busy market town, but not before “they described the places we [i.e. Fiennes and her servants] should come by,” “which shew’d them no strangers to the road as they at first pretended” (225).

Guillaume Blaeu, Map of Great Britain and Ireland (1631), Wikimedia Commons.

As a seventeenth-century English traveler, Fiennes was vulnerable to robbery, getting lost, swamped, or hedged in on poor English roads. As a woman, Fiennes faced added challenges. As the introduction to Travel and Travail: Early Modern Women, English Drama, and the Wider Worlda forthcoming collection edited by Patricia Akhimie and Bernadette Andrea, tells us, “popular English travel guides from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries asserted that women who wandered too far afield were invariably suspicious, dishonest, and unchaste.” “However,” it continues, “early modern women did travel, and often quite extensively, with no diminution of their moral fiber” (n.p.). Nevertheless, despite the seeming ordinariness of early modern women’s travel, the autonomous Fiennes–unmarried, travelling without a male companion of her social station, and accompanied only by a small retinue of servants–would have stood out.

Traveling with servants and possessing funds to satisfy her curiosity about oysters and other cates, Celia Fiennes was clearly an elite traveler. Yet she was not simply an idle tourist. This gentlewoman made a concerted effort to learn as much as she could about the industries and social practices of England and to expose herself to a wide range of experiences and persons. Fiennes visited the various different “spaws” or medicinal springs across England frequented by the wealthy, the middle classes, and low-income persons; in Malton she noted approvingly of Mary Eure, a landlady who “set up a manufactory for linen which does employ many poor people” (93), a tantalizing reference to another industrious early modern woman.

With her clear agenda to learn and write about the economic and social practices she encountered on her travels, Fiennes produced detailed accounts of the manufacture of cloth; she also investigated the production of glass, iron, and brick, as well as of gloves, lace, silk, and stockings. Her description of her visit to Barton Mill, a paper-mill near Canterbury, is one of the few known accounts of English papermaking in the seventeenth century:

There are also Paper mills which dispatches paper at a quick rate; they were then makeing brown paper when I saw it; the mill is set agoing by the water and at the same tyme it pounded the raggs to morter for the paper, and it beate oatmeale and hemp and ground bread together that is at the same tyme; when the substance for the paper is pounded enough they take it in a great tub and so with a frame just of the size of the sheets of paper, made all of small wire just as I have seen fine screens to screen corne in, only this is much closer wrought, and they clap a frame of wood round the edge, and so dip it into the tub and what is too thin runs through; then they turn this frame down on a piece of coarse woollen just the size of the paper and so give a knock to it and it falls off, on which they clap another such a piece of wollen cloth which is ready to lay the next frame of paper, and so till they have made a large heape which they by a board on the bottom move to a press, and so lay a board on the top and so let down a great screw and weight on it, which they force together into such a narrow compass as they know so many sheets of paper will be reduced, and this presses out all the thinner part and leaves the paper so firme as it may be taken up sheete by sheete, and laid together to be thoroughly dryed by the wind. (124)

Peter Thomas notes that the multi-use mill, used for both paper making and to “beat oatmeale and hemp and ground bread together,” would have made low quality paper; as he puts it, because the mill “combined three or four operations,” “this would have been a very dirty place and so it is questionable if they could have produced much, if any, good white paper” (n. 4). One imagines that the bread made from flour milled at Barton Mill was even worse!


In 1990, the book artists and papermakers Peter and Donna Thomas created a miniature book (2 9/16″ x 2″) that reproduced Fiennes’s account of her visit to Barton Mill. Celia Fiennes: A Record of 17thCentury Papermaking includes text by Peter Thomas, illustrations cut by Donna Thomas, and a reproduction of seventeenth-century brown paper by Ray Tomasso. The book was also printed on very special recycled paper, namely, “paper trimmed from the margins of an incomplete copy of Keble’s Reports (which was printed in England around in 1685)” as the edition’s end note tells us. Two hundred copies of the book were produced; the copy pictured here is held by the Newberry Library in Chicago.

Previously belittled and overshadowed in criticism by Daniel Defoe’s later Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1726), Fiennes’s writings are finally getting their due as among the most extensive, detailed, and, occasionally the sole surviving accounts of English industries and social practices in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth centuries. While an early editor notes Fiennes’s “masculine interest in the national economy” (xli), in fact,this remarkable early modern woman established a model and standard of travel writing that would be followed by male writers in the eighteenth century and beyond.

Dr. Heidi Craig recently completed her PhD in English and Book History & Print Culture at the University of Toronto. She has been a fellow at the Huntington and Newberry Libraries and in September 2018 will begin a year-long fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is completing a book manuscript on the production and reception of English Renaissance drama during the English theatre ban of 1642 to 1660. She is also researching ragpickers, rag-sorters, and women working in the early modern book trade and paper-making industry. 

Photos of Celia Fiennes: A Record of 17thCentury Papermaking by Heidi Craig, reproduced with permission of Peter and Donna Thomas.

References and Further Reading

Akhimie, Patricia and Bernadette Andrea,eds. Travel and Travail: Early Modern Women, English Drama, and the Wider World. Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

Bohls, Elizabeth A. and Ian Duncan, eds. Travel Writing 1700-1830: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Fiennes, Celia and Christopher Morris, ed. The Journeys of Celia Fiennes. London: The Cresset Press, 1947.

Fiennes, Celia, with an introduction by Mrs. [Emily] Griffiths. Through England on a side saddle in the time of William and Mary: Being the Diary of Celia Fiennes. London: Field & Tuer, the Leadenhall Press; New York: Scribner & Welford, 1888.

Kaderly, Nat Lewis. “Southey’s Borrowings from Celia Fiennes.” Modern Language Notes. 69: 4 (1954): 249-253.

Kinsley, Zoë. Women Writing the Home Tour, 1682-1812. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

Herbert, Amanda E. “Gender and the Spa: Space, Sociability and Self at British Health Spas, 1640–1714.” Journal of Social History 43.2 (2009): 361-383.

McRae, Andrew. Literature and Domestic Travel in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Osborne, Bruce and Cora Weaver. Aquae Britannia: Rediscovering 17th Century Springs & Spas: In the Footsteps of Celia Fiennes. Malvern: Cora Weaver, 1996.

Picciotto, Joanna. “Breaking through the Mode: Celia Fiennes and the Exercise of Curiosity.” Literature Compass 6:2 (2009): 291-313.

Thomas, Peter and Donna Thomas. Celia Fiennes: A Record of 17thCentury Papermaking. Santa Cruz: Peter & Donna Thomas, 1990.

Willy, Margaret. Three Women Diarists: Celia Fiennes, Dorothy Wordsworth, Katherine Mansfield. London: Published for the British Council and the National Book League, by Longmans, Green, 1964.

Printers, Cleaners, and Brewers: Early Modern Dutch Women Behind the Stage

by Martine van Elk

As part of my next book project on early modern women and the theater, I have been tracing the contributions of Dutch women in the seventeenth century to the Schouwburg, the only public theater in Amsterdam. This blog post, based on a paper I gave at the Renaissance Society of America annual conference in March, gives a progress report, including much information that has not been discussed by theater historians and some important archival records not found before for Katharina Lescailje, a playwright who also ran the printing house that did all the printing for the Schouwburg.

Prob. Jacob van Meurs, Interior of the Schouwburg (1663-1664), Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-81.421

While much research has been devoted to women performing on stage in the early modern period, Natasha Korda first drew our attention to the vital contributions of women to theaters behind the stage in England in her Labors Lost, published in 2011. Concentrating on the all-male stage prior to the Civil War, she does not include playwrights or actresses in her analysis, but looks at women who performed a variety of other services in and for public theaters. We might divide these women into two groups: one group that sold goods to the theater without actually working there and another group that worked in the physical building itself. In the former group, Korda found records of women’s financial involvement (as brokers and lenders) and women who were active in the textile industry, making clothing and hats, embroidering, and delivering silk and accessories needed for the players. In the second group, there are women who sold concessions, women who worked as gatherers, and so-called tire-women, that is women who helped dress the players. She also found a female scene painter. As Korda notes, many women will have gone unrecorded, but these findings do demonstrate what she calls “a gendered division of theatrical labor” that contrasts with how women’s work was represented on stage (18). Her study argues against the perception of the public theater as male-produced and -dominated. Many female workers discussed by Korda were immigrants from the Low Countries, and she devotes a chapter to “immigrant sempstresses, laundresses, and starchwomen” (95) as well as tirewomen, most of whom were Netherlandish.

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Caspar Luyken, after Jan Luyken, Brewer (from Het Menselyk Bedryf, 1694), detail. Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-44.505.

Inspired by Korda’s work and in light of the importance of Dutch immigrant women to what Korda calls the “commercial networks” (8) around the theater, I have begun to explore women’s work behind the stage of the Schouwburg in Amsterdam, the only public theater in the city and the most important public stage in the Dutch Republic, to see what contributions women made to its daily functioning. Historians have been complicating our picture of working women in the Dutch Republic more generally, sketching a broader context in which we might situate the women working for the Schouwburg. Danielle van den Heuvel, Ariadne Schmidt, and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk have studied female participation in various trades and industries. Their research on women as entrepreneurs in the textile industry, fish markets, and so on, shows that their ability to work varied across these sectors, largely because of different guild regulations. The rule that women could, under certain circumstances, trade independently even when married, that is the law of the femme sole trader, seems to have allowed more women to work freely in certain trades, but other sectors had rules that barred women. Yet, it is clear that in the Dutch Republic, as elsewhere in Europe, the labor force in general included many single, married, and widowed women. Records can obscure in particular the labor of married women, since their husbands might be in charge of the business in which they worked, but nonetheless there is much that has been uncovered about early modern Dutch women’s work.

Historians of women’s work have not yet, however, looked closely at the account books for the Schouwburg. These records, found partly on-line at the city archives for Amsterdam, give a broad sense of the types of spending done for the theater and show the indisputable presence of women behind the stage. Two-thirds of the profits made by the theater were given to the Municipal Orphanage or Burgerweeshuis, and the Regents of the Schouwburg were accountable to this institution, leaving us with substantial, though incomplete records. The account books (now available on-line) show receipts and expenditures and list names and sometimes details for payments, both to actors and to others who contributed in some form to the stage (though playwrights are curiously absent). These records have helped us uncover when the first woman actor performed in a leading role, in 1655, something I discuss in an essay that came out in 2017, as well as some isolated earlier instances of female performance, such as two female singers were paid in 1649. Beyond performances there are a substantial number of women to whom payments were made, often frustratingly just listed by name without any detail, but at times telling us what they were paid for and showing female involvement in the theater from the outset.

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Jan Luyken, Taylor (from Het Menselyk Bedryf, 1694), detail. Rijksmuseum, RP-P-1936-457.

I have begun to look broadly at account books dating to the period from the opening in 1638 to the 1680s, before and after women began acting and writing plays. My research is partial at the moment, but some preliminary observations can be made with regard to the categories of services for which the Schouwburg paid women. To begin with the women who provided goods, as is true for England, one category is made up by those who were active in the textile industry. Two widows got paid for providing silk or silk trousers for instance; another got paid for caps, one for linen, and a fourth for making curtains. Korda discusses women who worked as “spanglers,” that is who embroidered spangles onto costumes for the theater. I have so far found one record that may refer to this, for someone named Lucretia van Marwijk, who got paid on 10 December 1680 for “pelseteren” and on the same day for “pillentteren,” terms I think may mean “pailleteren” or spangling (431.16) though I have not been able to verify this usage in the GTB dictionaries. Elisabeth van Doorn and Janneke Swaan were paid for embroidering pairs of shoes on 4 February 1681. Anna van Nes is paid for a buckle; Amelia de la Naviere is paid for “caps” (23 March 1639). Other records, such as payments for “blue silk fabric for curtains” (3 June 1639; 426.15) for the “embroidering of nine cushions” (8 January 1639; 426.11), and for “a black satin drape” (7 June 1639; 426.15) do not feature names but may well have been to women.

Gabriel Metsu, The Greens Market (1660-1661). Louvre @2004 RMN Franck Raux

A second group in this category is food-related. While there is no explicit indication that these were concessions (they also provided food for players), some women got paid for beer and wine. One name that appears frequently is Aefje Victorijns, whose husband Johannes also appears in the records, and the payments are, whenever there is detail, for beer. Intriguing names come up regularly, such as someone called Trijntje Jacobs, but often unfortunately without noting what payments were for. Of these women, we might assume that the majority had their primary profession outside of the Schouwburg, and they would on occasion provide their services or goods to it.


The second category, of women working in the building of the Schouwburg itself, also has a regular presence in the records. Some were paid to clean: for instance, there are multiple 1638 records of payments to “Gijsbertje Michiels for the cleaning of the Schouwburg” (12 October 1638; 425.61) and another simply lists a payment to “two girls” for cleaning “the chamber” (17 March 1642; 425.109). There are payments to the “dienstmaagt” or “serving maid,” but her duties are not defined. Secondly, Geesje Reinderts and to Anna de Soetert worked as “tirewomen,” a profession that involved preparing costumes and helping players get dressed. I haven’t found pre-1655 records for tirewomen yet, though they may be hidden because many records just list women’s names. However, it is clear in the records after the arrival of actresses that the Schouwburg hired tirewomen for them specifically. The records use different terms to describe the job. Sometimes the women are called “kleedster” (dresser) but at other times, they are described as “vrouwen-parsoneerster,” a term related to “personeeren,” meaning here to dress for the stage (19 November 1680, 431.14). Yet a third term is used in one record that indicates Reinderts was paid for “het cameneren [kamenieren] van de comediennes van de Schouwburg” or the dressing and undressing of the actresses (5 October 1680; 431.11).

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Record of payment to Geesje Reinderts, tirewoman, Amsterdams Stadsarchief (reference above)

A 1765 book on Amsterdam by Jan Wagenaar includes a lengthy account of the workings of the Schouwburg. Wagenaar explains that at that time there was someone in charge of women’s clothes, who would hand out costumes and make sure they were clean and put away after performances in addition to four separate dressing women; he says the men had one overseer and two dressers (404). The situation may have been somewhat different in the seventeenth century, as I have found only Reinders and De Soetert in the records for the 1680s. After the renovation, the floor plan of the Schouwburg included two rooms for dressing of actresses, which is where Reinderts and De Soetert would have worked. The regular presence of these women in the Schouwburg is indicated by their inclusion in an index of actors and actresses, showing what they owed to and were owed by the Schouwburg.

Floorplan for renovation of the Schouwburg, including spaces for dressing actresses. Willem van der Laegh, after Philips Vinckboons (1658). Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-46.816.

Some women who received payments were wives, widows, or mothers of players. Widows, for instance, were occasionally owed money just after their husbands died—the widow of Pieter de Bray, an actor of female roles in the early days of the Schouwburg, got paid shortly after his death, on 22 February 1639 (425.45; De Bray was buried on 26 February of that year, according to death records of the city). The mother of Isabella Petit, who acted and sang for the Schouwburg along with several siblings, is mentioned repeatedly in the 1680 records as a recipient of payment for her daughter’s acting, up to a certain point, after which Isabella mostly received her own payments.

More importantly for our purposes in looking at women’s work behind the stage, as Ben Albach has detailed, especially in the early days of the Schouwburg, the actors were often paid for additional services and jobs, making money through other trades (35-36). In De Bray’s case, his payments range from those made for acting to payments for cleaning linen, making caps (perhaps nuns caps), and embroidery; he may have done this himself, but the possibility arises that these payments were also for work done by his wife. The actress Catharina Christina Petit, sister of Isabella, was paid for embroidering repeatedly, suggesting actresses could also provide occasional services aside from acting (eg. 12 November 1680; 431.13). Wives of actors sometimes worked for the Schouwburg. The wife of Thomas Luts, one of the actors, for instance, is regularly paid in the 1680s for laundering and for “keeping of the till” (eg. 430.7). Marital and birth records from the city archives show that this unnamed “wife” was called Helena Overcourt, who was married to Luts in 1674 and gave birth to what may have been their only child in 1683.

Another woman who fulfilled a key role behind the stage is Anna van Santvoort. Anna’s husband, Isaac Arentszoon de Koer, was a musician, who, according to Rudolf Rasch, succeeded his older brother as a flute player for the Schouwburg in 1652 (15). I have not yet been able to find out when he died exactly, but Rash writes that he played for the Schouwburg from 1652 to 1679 (17). He must have been dead by 1680 when Santvoort is listed as his widow in the Schouwburg account books.[i] Birth and marital records in the Amsterdam city archives give us some more information: Isaac and Anna were reformed, married in 1654, and she was his second wife. She gave birth to at least seven children between 1656 and 1669, one of whom died at the age of three. She died in 1705. Rasch says that in 1681, Isaac’s son Eduard was hired as a musician by the Schouwburg (19), and although I cannot find a birth record for Eduard, Anna herself is at times paid for his services, and the account books call him her son (17 June 1681; 431.38).

In the account books, Anna van Santvoort is listed as “living in the Schouwburg” (8 October 1680; 431.11) and frequently paid for “small necessities.” Kastelein, a word now mainly used for an innkeeper or pub owner, originally meant caretaker of a building. Jan Wagenaar describes the work of the kastelein of the Schouwburg in detail:

The Kastelein of the Schouwburg, where to, already more than once, one of the ablest Actors or Players has been chosen, takes care of the chamber of the Regents, when they are meeting, or takes care that such, by someone in his place, happens. Further, he rents the places which, for playing times have been reserved; he keeps clean the stage area, the stage, the Regents’ chamber, and the other rooms of the Schouwburg, and watches the fire and lights which are used while playing or at other occasions. He oversees the carpenters and other workers at the Schouwburg and keeps a record of their earned wages. For these services he has been given free accommodation in the Schouwburg, also fire, light and other benefits.[ii] (404)

It seems then that for at least a number of years, a woman fulfilled this important function (by Wagenaar only described with male pronouns), a job that gave her an extensive set of responsibilities and certainly a close association with the theater.

Some intriguing detail on Anna van Santvoort’s life is provided in the records of notaries, as reported by J. W. Sterck in a 1929 essay. He cites testimony by Anna in her capacity as kastelein as to financial mismanagement of the Schouwburg. An earlier document recounts an argument Van Santvoort had with one of the actresses, and in that account she is referred to as the “daughter of the castelein.” An investigation by a “chief officer” revealed, writes Sterck, that Adriana Eeckhout had seen that “the daughter of the castelein, Anna du Court, had, coming from the stage, behaved very inappropriately to Adriana Eeckhout. Without any cause she shouted at her, ‘There comes that little Venus,’ to which she answered ‘that she, needing something from her, would take it from her.’ At that, Anna du Court gave her “in an outburst of filthy anger, a very forceful blow in the face and pulled her cap into pieces off her head” (131). Apparently, Adriana’s finger on the left hand was broken and “left on the outside of her hand.” Susanna van Leen, the mother of Adriana, also received a number of blows, and one of the regents had to separate the two women.”[iii] Aside from the intriguing exchange, we find out here that Anna was the daughter of the previous kastelein, a role she obviously inherited.

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Records of payments to Anna van Santvoort, including “for 6 great beards.” Amsterdams Stadsarchief (reference below)

Of course, account records give us no hints of conflicts behind the scenes, mainly listing Santvoort for payments for “small necessities.” One specific payment to Van Santvoort gives more detail: she was paid on 4 February 1681 “for six great beards” and for paying someone for “the renting of two small copper crowns” (431.22), indicating that she did more than take care of the building and may have helped with costuming as well. The fact that the statement to the notary describes her as “coming from the stage” may hint at a presence on-stage at times, though she was not paid for playing, singing, or dancing in any of the records I have looked at. But the story does reveal a kind of closeness between actors and others who worked at the Schouwburg and a working environment of which women were very much a part.

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Frontispiece to collected edition of Lescailje’s works, Toneel- en Mengelpoezij (Amsterdam, 1731). Google Books.

Perhaps the most substantial contribution to the functioning of the Schouwburg was made by Katharina Lescailje and possibly her sister. She worked in and—after the death of their father—was in charge of the printing house that printed all play texts of plays performed at the Schouwburg and supplied ink, pens, and paper as well as playbills to advertise performances. Although the Schouwburg did not have a direct financial stake in the printing of plays, they were sold during performances and used in rehearsal. At times, small payments are made to actors for “playbooks,” suggesting they bought them and then sold them to the Schouwburg. These books were virtually all printed by the Lescailje printing house. While this tremendous amount of work supporting the public stage was carried out by women, there is little evidence of it even in the existing records. Indeed, scholars have so far noted that it was not entirely certain Katharina Lescailje was running the print shop since the guild records only name “the inheritors of Jacob Lescailje” but not Katharina or her sister specifically (cf. eg. Rozemarijn van Leeuwen). They had a brother-in-law named Matthias de Wreedt, who worked in the book trade in Germany and may have been in charge too though there are no records naming him and he probably died in 1681 (Grabowsky fn. 46). Overviews of records pertaining to her by Van Leeuwen and Ellen Grabowsky show some tantalizing hints, including a fine for printing a libel that specifically names Katharina Lescailje (listed in the overview by Van Eeghen IV, pp. 49-50). A paper inspection in 1674 stated one of the sisters was present (Grabowsky fn. 45).

My research into the Schouwburg records, however, has unearthed more definitive information. I have found three records so far of payments made to Katharina Lescailje herself for printing playbills, the strongest evidence to date that she was in charge of the printing house after her father’s death, confirming what we have long suspected, that she played a central role behind the stage, not just as playwright but also as printer. These payments are listed has having happened on 11 March 1681: “aen catharina lescalie voor drucken van biljetten volgens rekeningh” (“to catharina lescailie for printing of playbills according to bill”; 431.27); on 2 September 1681: “aen Catharina Lescailie volgens reken” (“to Catharina Lescailie according to bill”; 431.47); and on 22 September 1681: “aen Catharina Lescailie voort drucken vande biljetten volgens reken:” (“to Catharina Lescailie for the printing of the playbills according to a bill”; 431.55). These payments show definitively Lescailje’s role in printing for the Schouwburg, something we have long suspected.

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Record of a payment to Katharina Lescailje, Amsterdams Stadsarchief (reference above).

The cultural silence on contributions to the stage by working women contrasts with public acknowledgement of actresses and female playwrights. In the case of Lescailje, we find praise poetry, for instance, that mentions her talents as an author and writer of six plays performed on stage, but very little in the way of explicit reference to her career as printer. Yet, while her primary business was not located inside the building of the theater, her work as a printer, bookseller, and publisher was almost all associated with it, as was much, though by no means all, of her literary output. Bridging, as it were, the two categories of women who worked for the Schouwburg, Lescailje’s career proves, as do the records that name women, the significance of female work for what may have seemed on the outside a male-dominated environment. A look at other women working for the Schouwburg also helps situate Lescailje’s labor alongside theirs, rather than isolating her significance as author. Lescailje was a working woman with a professional career, making her authorship unlike that of many Dutchwomen, who wrote as pastime and whose writing was supposed to stop once they got married. The account books help us uncover something of the types of labor women undertook for the theater. And while many follow the division of labor seen in English playhouses, some women, like Santvoort and Lescailje, did not.


Further Reading

Albach, Ben. Langs kermissen en hoven. Onstaan en kroniek van een Nederlands toneelgezelschap in de 17e eeuw. Zutphen: Walburg, 1977. DBNL.

Eeghen, I. H. van. De Amsterdamse boekhandel, 1680-1725. Vol. IV. Amsterdam: Scheltema en Holkema, 1967. HathiTrust Digital Library.

Elk, Martine van. “‘Before she ends up in a brothel’: Public Femininity and the First Actresses in England and the Low Countries.” Early Modern Low Countries 1.1 (2017): 30-50. (For more on the first actresses at the Schouwburg).

Leeuwen, Rozemarijn van. “Katharyne Lescailje: ‘Vermaarde en volgeestige dichteresse tot Amsteldam’1649-1711.” Rozemarijn Online, 1993.

Grabowsky, Ellen M. “Katharina Lescailje (1649-1711) en de “vrouwenzucht”. Schijn of werkelijkheid?” Mededelingen van de Stichting Jacob Campo Weyerman 23 (2000), 65-79. DBNL.

Heuvel, Danielle van den. Women and Entrepreneurship. Female Traders in the Northern Netherlands c. 1580-1815. Amsterdam: Askant, 2007.

Korda, Natasha. Labors Lost: Women’s Work and the Early Modern English Stage. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Schmidt, Ariadne, Overleven na de dood. Weduwen in Leiden in de Gouden Eeuw. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2001.

Schmidt, Ariadne, ed. Vrouwenarbeid in de vroegmoderne tijd in Nederland, Special Issue of Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis 2.3 (2005).

Schmidt, Ariadne, and Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk. “Reconsidering the ‘First Male-Breadwinner Economy’: Women’s Labor Force Participation in the Netherlands, 1600–1900.” Feminist Economics, 118: 4 (2012) 69-96.

Nederveen Meerkerk, Elise van. De draad in eigen handen. Vrouwen en loonarbeid in de Nederlandse textielnijverheid, 1581-1810. Amsterdam: Askant, 2007.

Rasch, Rudolf. Geschiedenis van de muziek in de Republiek der Zeven Nederlanden 1572-1795. Hoofdstuk Tien: De Theaters I: Amsterdam. Published on-line.

Sterck, J. W. “Uit het Amsterdamsche tooneelleven op het einde der XVIIe eeuw.” Jaarboek van de Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde (1913): 97-148. DBNL.

Wagenaar, Jan. Amsterdam in zyne opkomst, aanwas, geschiedenissen, voorregten, koophandel, gebouwen, kerkenstaat, schoolen, schutterye, gilden en regeeringe. Vol. II. Amsterdam: Tirion, 1765.

[i] Rash lists his date of death as 1682 (16), but this is Isack ten Koer in the records, so it may be someone else or a son of his. The accountbooks have Santvoort as a widow at least as early as 8 October 1680 (431.11).

[ii] De Kastelein van den Schouwburg, waar toe, reeds meer dan eens, een der bekwaamste Acteuren of Speeleren verkooren is, neemt de Kamer der Regenten waar, wanneer dezelven vergaderd zyn, of draagt zorg, dat zulks, door iemant, in zyne plaatse, geschiede. Wyders, verhuurt hy de Plaatsen, die, voor de Speeltyden, besproken worden; hy doet de Schouwplaats, het Tooneel, de Regenten- Kamer, en de andere vertrekken van den Schouwburg schoon houden, en geeft agt op het vuur en licht, welk, onder ‘t speelen, of by andere gelegenheden, gebruikt wordt. Hy heeft het oog over de Timmerluiden en andere arbeiders aan den Schouwburg, en houdt boek van derzelver verdiende loonen. Voor deezen dienst is hem, boven vrye wooning in den Schouwburg, ook vuur, licht en andere voordeelen toegelegd.


[iii] :Wederom een verhoor voor den Hoofdofficier, 25 Aug. 1679. Adriana Eeckhout, huisvrouw van Nicolaas Rigo, en deze, gewoon akteur op den schouwburg, verklaren, dat zij in het voorhuis van den schouwburg samen present waren, en gezien hebben, dat de dochter van den kastelein, Anna du Court, zich, komende van het tooneel, zeer onbehoorlijk heeft gedragen tegen Adriana Eeckhout. Zonder eenige aanleiding riep zij haar toe: ‘Daar komt dat Venusie aan’, waarop deze antwoordde: ‘dat zij, moetende wat van haar hebben, het van haar afhalen zoude.’ Anna du Court gaf haar hierop, ‘in vuyle boosheit ontsteeken, een seer forcelijke slag in het aangezicht en trok haar de kap aan stukken van ‘t hoofd.’ Adriana Eeckhout werd door haar bij de hand gegrepen, zoodat de tweede vinger van de linkerhand gebroken werd, en op het buitenste van de hand bleef liggen. Zij werd door een barbier verbonden. Juffr. Susanna van Leen, die de moeder van Adriana was, kreeg ook verscheidene slagen. Door een van de regenten werden de vechtende vrouwen gescheiden” (131).



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.

PG 3556
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