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.

Laundry in the Cityscapes of Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam

Figure 1. Hendrik Keun, De Kleine Vismarkt aan het begin van de Singel, 1770. Traces of pencil and pen in grey, 290 x 403 mm, Amsterdam City Archives, 10097: Collectie Stadsarchief Amsterdam: tekeningen en prenten, 010097014798, <>. Detail.

Within the historiography of gender and urban space, a division has been made between the public realm of the street and the private realm of the home (Van den Heuvel 693). According to this narrative, domestic work should be seen as an activity of the last category. The city street, on the other hand, is regarded as part of the public realm. This strong narrative calls for a better understanding of the daily practice of street use in early modern cities – the subject of examination of the research project The Freedom of the Streets led by Danielle van den Heuvel. A type of source material that cannot be overlooked when investigating the everyday street life of early modern Amsterdam is the topographic art genre of cityscapes, which became popular among eighteenth-century artists in the Dutch Republic. Among all the places, buildings, people, and events that were drawn or painted to portray the streets of Amsterdam, domestic work took place in the streets of those cityscapes. By depicting women doing domestic work on the streets these visual sources broaden our view on how and where domestic work took place in early modern cities. This blog post will focus on one specific type of domestic work portrayed in several eighteenth-century cityscapes: the activities of washing, drying, and bleaching laundry. 

In the second half of the eighteenth century, a whole new genre of painting the urban space had evolved in the Dutch Republic: the cityscape. Unlike the traditional manner of drawing the urban space as a background component of a painting representing a historical event, the cityscape itself was the dominant subject manner (Bakker 6). Although the roots of this genre were already visible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during its heyday in the second half of the eighteenth century ‘the cityscape’ was a full-grown artistic genre with its own rules for perspective and composition. Painting the city environment as truthfully and with as much detail as possible was part of the genre’s conventions. Artists sometimes used a canvas or a panel, but most of the time, they worked with pen and pencil on paper, which enabled them to be at their drawing locations. Characteristic of all cityscapes from this period is that they contain detailed information about the street life of the city they portray.

In his essay on the cityscape as an art genre, Boudewijk Bakker discusses three striking characteristics of the Amsterdam cityscapes that point towards a coherent “well-defined model of the cityscape” as a genre (26–27). In most cases, the main topic of a cityscape is a specific building, church, gate, street, canal, garden, or park. Bakker notes that cityscapes depict not only well-known or wealthy parts of the city but also less-known and insignificant locations. Another characteristic of the Amsterdam cityscape is the fact that most are populated “with a great variety of representatives of the urban population: young and old, rich and poor” (27). Lastly, the city of Amsterdam is shown at its best, meaning that all buildings and streets are in perfect condition, everything looks clean, and the weather is always nice. In the catalogue Kijk Amsterdam for the 2017 exhibition at the Amsterdam City Archives, 229 cityscapes of Amsterdam are collected and categorized. This catalogue provides extensive material for research into the depiction of domestic work on the streets of eighteenth-century Amsterdam.

The cityscapes collected in Kijk Amsterdam portray a wide variety of people, places, and activities in the streets of Amsterdam. We see people walking and chatting together, buying and selling various goods at various locations (markets, streets, door-openings, shops, canal bridges), children playing, women cleaning the street or their doorways, and women washing, drying, and bleaching laundry. It is this last category of depicted events that offer us an interesting view of the gendered street use of Amsterdam. Of the cityscapes collected in Kijk Amsterdam, seven paintings portray activities involving laundry. In some of those paintings, the women washing, drying or bleaching their laundry are situated at the foreground of the image; in others, they are part of the background. An example of the latter is the painting of the Herengracht by the art collector and amateur painter Johann Edler Goll van Frankenstein, who lived on this canal and who presumably painted the view from his own doorstep (figure 2; Baker 131). To the right a woman is drying white laundry on the railing of the canal bridge, using the public built environment to do her laundry work.

Figure 2. Johann Edler Goll van Frankenstein, De Herengracht gezien richting de Warmoesgracht, c. 1755-1765. Pen in black and grey, 291 x 260 mm., Amsterdam City Archives, 10055: Collectie Van Eeghen, invt. no. 138, <>.

Another woman using the public environment of the city of Amsterdam to do her laundry work is seen on a painting of the Montelbaanstoren at the canal the Oudeschans by Reinier Vinkeles, a Dutch draughtsman and engraver who lived and worked in Amsterdam for a large part of his life (figure 3). In front of the Montelbaanstoren, which is the central subject of Vinkeles’ cityscape, there are a few small ships including a so-called ‘waterschuit,’ which carries around drinking water. The man on the gangplank has just filled two buckets of water from the pump. The woman uses the flat top of the water boat to do her laundry. In the distance, you can see the IJ river along with various sea-going vessels.

Figure 3. Reinier Vinkeles, De Oudeschans met de Montelbaanstoren, 1801. Pen in brown, pencil in colour, 237 x 182 mm., Amsterdam City Archives, 10001: Collectie Atlas Splitgerber, 010001000511, <>.

A similar event in which two women are washing laundry is portrayed in one of the other cityscapes, by Henrik Keun, depicting laundry work in a canal in the city centre of Amsterdam (figure 1 and 4).

Figure 4. Hendrik Keun, De Kleine Vismarkt aan het begin van de Singel, 1770. Traces of pencil and pen in grey, 290 x 403 mm, Amsterdam City Archives, 10097: Collectie Stadsarchief Amsterdam: tekeningen en prenten, 010097014798, <>.

Different laundry work seen in several cityscapes is the bleaching of linen on grass fields. An example is the drawing by the Dutch draughtsman Jurriaan Andriessen from the late 1780s, showing the Nieuwe Prinsengracht in the Plantage (nowadays Artis). Two groups of two women are bleaching white linen on the grass next to the canal (figure 5).

Figure 5. Jurriaan Andriessen, Gesicht in de Plantagie, c. 1785–c. 1790. Pencil in grey and colour, 234 x 330 mm., Amsterdam City Archives, 10097: Collectie Stadsarchief Amsterdam: tekeningen en prenten, 010097010710, <>.

The bleaching of laundry by groups of women is also central in another drawing by Vinkeles (figure 6). His painting of the Haarlemmerpoort is part of a series on the eight gates of Amsterdam (the Haarlemmerpoort, the Zaagmolenpoort, the Raampoort, the Leidsepoort, the Weteringpoort, the Utrechtsepoort, the Weesperpoort, and the Muiderpoort). However, the people around the Haarlemmerpoort, and especially the eight women bleaching their laundry on the grass field on the top of the city wall, are more eye-catching than the gate itself.

Figure 6. Reinier Vinkeles, De Haarlemmerpoort met het Haarlemmerplein, 1766. Pencil in grey and colour, 173 x 206 mm., Amsterdam City Archives, 10001: Collectie Atlas Splitgerber. Stadsarchief Amsterdam, 010001000228, <>.

Together these cityscapes depicting laundry in the streets of eighteenth-century Amsterdam do not tell us anything about specific women drying, washing or bleaching laundry on a specific date; we do not know whether the artists based their drawings on one specific observation. Yet, what those images do tell us is that around the time these cityscapes were painted, women were engaging in those activities at those places. Drying, washing, and bleaching laundry took place in several public places in Amsterdam. It is noteworthy that all persons participating in the depicted events are women.

Looking at the information from these images, there are three distinct groups of images. In the first group, women are washing laundry in a canal. The second depicts a woman drying laundry on the railing of a bridge in the Herengracht. In the last category, several groups of women are involved in bleaching laundry on the grass on several locations – some by spreading out white textile on the grass and/or waiting in the grass for the textile to be dry, others by carrying baskets of laundry before or after bleaching it on the grass. Several activities are thus involved in ‘doing the laundry’ in eighteenth-century Amsterdam, and several women are doing the same activity in the same place. By far the most women were involved in ‘laundry activities’ relating to bleaching laundry on the grass.

The women bleaching laundry and the women drying and washing laundry tend to do their work in different locations. All bleaching laundry on the grass takes place in relatively quiet, green areas at the outskirts of Amsterdam: at the Plantage, the border of the Plantage, the area around the Utrechtsepoort, and the area around the Haarlemmerpoort. Drying and washing, on the other hand, happens in the city centre within the canal belt of Amsterdam. This suggests that there were several ‘hot-spots’ of bleaching laundry at relatively quiet, green areas at the outskirts of Amsterdam. It also suggests that women might have to carry their laundry over quite some distance to those green hot-spots, especially because the activities of washing, drying, and bleaching laundry do seem to be in the same locations. This, together with the fact that bleaching laundry took plenty of time, made laundry work a very time-consuming activity.

These observations on women bleaching laundry in the outskirts of Amsterdam raise a couple of questions. Who were those women and what was their position? Although it is clear that the women are involved in domestic work, it remains an open question whether this was private or paid work. The existence of several hot-spots with groups of women suggests the latter. Moreover, the identical white linen apron as part of their clothing suggests the women are servants. If this is the case, another interesting question would be whether the groups of women working in the same location were in some way related to or interacting with each other. Doing the same time-consuming work at the same location must have created some sort of mutual understanding or connection. Maybe these laundry hot-spots functioned as social spaces in which women could communicate with each other.

These cityscapes depicting laundry in the streets of eighteenth-century Amsterdam are a good example of how visual source material can provide insights and raise new questions on early modern everyday street life. They show that laundry work was part of the street life of early modern Amsterdam, taking place in different streets, canals, and areas of the city. In this way they shed new light on the narrative in which domestic work is inherently connected to the private realm of the home.

A previous version of this blog appeared on The Freedom of the Streets website. Marie Keulen is a graduate student in History at Leiden University.

All images reproduced with permission.

References and Further Reading

Bakker, Boudewijn, et al. Kijk Amsterdam 1700 – 1800. De mooiste stadsgezichten. Bussum: Uitgeverij Thoth, 2017.

Van den Heuvel, Danielle. “Gender in the Streets of the Premodern City.” Journal of Urban History 45.4 (2019): 693-710.

Susanna Teellinck, the Earliest Known Dutch Reformed Woman Editor and Biographer

In this blog post, Amanda Pipkin draws attention to a little known Dutch editor and biographer, making the important argument that because “authorship” can take many forms for women in the early modern period, we should appreciate the textual contributions of women that take smaller forms such as prefaces and dedicatory poems.

Nicolaes Maes, Dutch, 1634–1693; The Account Keeper, 1656; oil on canvas; 26 × 21 1/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum. Museum, Purchase 72:1950

What counts as authorship? When are translations and edited works actually quite original? What can we learn by examining other ways women have contributed to textual production? Over the last decade many scholars have revealed the value of women’s literary contributions beyond traditional forms of authorship. Two inspiring examples are Martine van Elk’s clever identification of original elements in Anna Roemers Visscher and Esther Inglis’ adaptions of Georgette de Montenay’s emblem books and Leah Chang’s groundbreaking study of Jeanne de Marnef’s editorial strategy (chapters 8 and 4 respectively in Julie Campbell and Anne Larsen, Early Modern Women and Transnational Communities of Letters, 2009). These studies show that we can learn a great deal about women’s literary involvement when we look beyond single-authored, original texts to consider other forms of writing, translating, and editing.

1. Teellinck, C titlepage Google books
Title page of Cornelia Eeuwout Teellinck, Een Corte Belijdenisse Des Geloofs… in Druck uyt-ghegheven by Susanna Eeuwout Teelinx Dochter hare Suster (A Short Confession of Faith… published by Susanna Eeuwout Teelinx’s Daughter, her Sister). Amsterdam, 1625. Google books Leiden University Special Collections, SEMREM 5673: 1.

Likewise, this blog is an act of recovery of untraditional authorship and editorial work. Susanna Teellinck (1551-1625) is not usually listed among Dutch women authors. And yet, she wrote a seven-page introductory dedication in 1607 providing a brief biography of her sister Cornelia’s life (1554-1576) and an explanation of why Cornelia’s works merited publication (The surviving edition of this book from 1625 is available on Google Books). Following Susanna’s introduction, the book contains a short poem by Susanna’s son, the Zierikzee statesman and esteemed humanist author Adrian Hoffer (1580-1644) recommending the book, Cornelia’s twelve-page confession of faith, and nine of Cornelia’s poems.[1] Susanna’s work has been overlooked at least since Pieter de la Rue mentioned it in his 1734 book on authors from Zeeland. De la Rue fails to mention Susanna in Cornelia’s entry, and in fact he highlights Adrian’s poem by including eight lines of it instead citing Cornelia’s work.[2] Modern databases such as the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands and the fabulous Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland note Susanna’s contribution as the editor of Cornelia Teellinck’s Short Confession of Faith, but do not provide Susanna with her own entry with a link to the bibliographic information. While this is a great improvement, this shows that modern scholars do not consider Susanna an author in spite of the evidence to the contrary.


2. Susanna Teellinck Sign off
“In the year 1607. Your willing serving sister in the Lord, Susanna Eeuwout Teellinx’s Daughter” [handwritten addition: widow of the Lord Rochus Hoffer, Lord Burgermaster of Ziericzee], Introduction, Een Corte Belijdenisse Des Geloofs…Leiden University Special Collections, SEMREM 5673: 1. Photo A. Pipkin.
At first glance this seems a small oversight; However, overlooking Susanna’s efforts as author makes it easier to obscure the magnitude of her literary contribution as editor of her sister’s works and – what is more – the value of Dutch Reformed women’s writing during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It was after all Susanna who initiated the oldest known publication by a Dutch Reformed woman. Without her efforts as an author and editor, Cornelia’s works would never have survived. Even as popular as this book must have been given that it was published in at least five editions, it survives only in one single fifth edition from 1625 in the Leiden University Special Collections. Moreover, it is impossible to know what editorial contributions Susanna made to her sister’s confession of faith and poetry because as far as we know no manuscript copy of Cornelia’s work has survived.

Ignoring Susanna’s ability to write and circulate her sister’s religious works between 1607 (when she wrote her introduction (see below)) and 1625 (the date of the only surviving edition) has allowed scholars to consider Cornelia’s writings from the 1570s an aberration, an exception to the rule that Reformed women’s literary contributions were not valued during the first generation of the Reformation in the Low Countries. Susanna’s work bridges the temporal gap between Cornelia’s writing in the 1570s and the most prolific and well-known Dutch Reformed woman Anna Maria van Schurman whose oldest surviving work “To the Muses of my lord (Jacob) Cats” (Aen de Musen Van mijn heer Cats, Koninklijk Bibliotheek 78 D 34) is from 1632. Considering Susanna’s contributions during the first two decades of the seventeenth-century and the possibility that Susanna may have written other works over the course of her long life means that Cornelia’s works were not necessarily an early exception to the rule, but a way for Reformed women to express their religious devotion over a longer period.

Taken together, the Teellinck sisters’ experiences provide insight into how and which women could write and circulate religious texts during the first fifty years of the Reformation in the Low Countries. Based on the correlation between crisis and women’s increased opportunities to make religious contributions outlined by Natalie Zemon Davis, Merry Wiesner, and others, it makes sense that Cornelia’s contemporaries appreciated her religious writings. After all, she lived and wrote during the crisis years of the 1570s when many of the newly-converted Netherlandish Calvinists faced persecution and death. In 1568, the ruler of the Netherlands, Phillip II of Spain ordered the Duke of Alba to root out all Protestant heretics.

3. Hogenburg_ Antwerp
Frans Hogenberg, Spanish Violence at Antwerp (85, 158, November, 1576). In Frederik Muller, De Nederlandsche geschiedenis in platen. Beredeneerde beschrijving van Nederlandsche historieplaten, zinneprenten en historische kaarten. Amsterdam: F. Muller, 1863. New York Public Library, MDE, Print Room 30. Photo A. Pipkin.

Alba complied by instituting a court that found 10,000 Netherlanders guilty of heresy and treason and marched his troops on a number of cities of the Low Countries to terrify the Protestants into submission starting in 1572. These included Susanna and Cornelia’s hometown of Zierikzee (1575-76) and Antwerp where Cornelia lived with her husband when the Army of Flanders mutinied, viciously attacking the city in 1576.

4. Spinola
Crispijn de Passe the Elder, Portrait of Marquis Ambrogio Spinola, etching, after 1606, British Museum 1927, 1008.330.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in 1607, when Susanna authored her text and published her sister’s works, the situation was similar to circumstances of the 1570s when Cornelia authored her works. Again, the Spanish were determined to regain control over the seven northern provinces of the Netherlands and were making rapid headway. Starting in 1601, the Spanish commander Ambrogio Spinola launched a series of very successful attacks on the new Dutch Republic, inspiring a wave of panic among the Dutch. Spinola captured a number of towns along the new Republic’s eastern border, including Oldenzaal, Lingen, Rijnberk, and Grenlo as the following Crispijn de Passe the Elder etching details.

The Dutch had good reason to panic during Spinola’s wave of conquest of many cities along the eastern border with Germany, as well as the southern port of Ostende after a particularly long and bloody siege. And, demonstrating that even the interior of the Dutch Republic was not safe, Spinola captured the the Zutphen quarter of Gelderland. Spain could not however maintain this momentum. By 1607 both sides were exhausted, the Spanish treasury was bankrupt, and the adversaries began to negotiate what was to become the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621).

For many devout Calvinists, this was terrible news. They believed that the Dutch should fight Spain until the enemy was expelled from the Republic; And they feared that the Spanish planned to use diplomacy as a ruse to catch the Reformed Republic off guard and return the Northern Netherlands to Catholicism. So, they published a wave of anti-Spanish propaganda that reused Hogenberg’s prints (like the one of Antwerp above) precisely during the years that Cornelia and Susanna’s book was popular.[3]

As this demonstrates, the Teellinck sisters’ opportunities to write and publish religious works rested in part on Spanish resurgence and crisis. But they were also members of a powerful, middle-class Zeeland family. Their father Eewoud Teellinck (d.1561) a brewer in Zierikzee, served as alderman (schepen) and treasurer (penningmeester) in Schouwen and left his children an inheritance of 7,150 guilders, a house on the northside of the harbor, and a library with Latin, French, and German books.[4] Their relatives included many esteemed local and regional bureaucrats, and even a few high-ranking national officials. As the chart below indicates, Teellincks often intermarried with other powerful families and dominated the bureaucratic posts of Zierikzee.

5. Teellinck Family Tree
Genealogical information compiled by A. Pipkin

This genealogical chart also shows that Susanna was the aunt of the very influential and prolific minister Willem Teellinck (the son of her brother Joos), who dedicated his Garden of Christian Prayer (1635) to her. Willem praised her as leading an exemplary prayful life and lauded her lifelong service to the needy.[5] Because Susanna’s husband Rochus Hoffer had served as an elder, it is not unlikely that she would have helped him take care of needy people in their community of Zierikzee given that contemporaries expected elders of the church and their wives to assist the poor, the sick, foreigners, widows, and orphans.

6. W. Teellinck, Dedication to Susanna
Willem Teellinck’s dedication to his aunt Susanna in Lust-hof der christelijcker gebeden, aen-wijsende hoe wy elcken dagh onses levens christelijcken sullen toebrenghen. Amsterdam: Johannes Schulperoort, 1648. University of Amsterdam Library, OTM: OK 62-1842. Photo A. Pipkin.

It is even possible that Susanna may have been recognized as a deaconess in her own right since the position of deaconess was possible but not encouraged in the Dutch Reformed church since the national synod of Middelburg in 1581.[6] However, most official deaconesses were widows of men who had served as deacons or elders, and although Susanna’s husband had served as elder, they died in the same year.


To return to the questions posed above, Susanna Teellinck was certainly an author even if she only wrote seven pages. Although she was not the primary author of the book she edited, her introduction to her sister’s writings should certainly count. On top of that Susanna should be famous for editing and preparing for publication the oldest known writing by a Reformed woman, a noteworthy contribution not only for the history of early modern women’s writing, but also one which transforms our understanding of women’s contributions to the Reformation in the Low Countries. The fact that she was able to do so rested on a number of factors including the fact that she wrote during a period of crisis, that she had a powerful, wealthy, supportive family, and that she conveyed a message of which influential ministers approved. Recognizing her achievements clarifies that contemporaries welcomed women’s written contributions. Her example also offers hope that many more examples of untraditional authorship will come to light under closer examination of archives and library collections, and also when databases and catalogues credit women and men for more diverse kinds of contributions such as introductions, prefaces, and supplementary poems.


Amanda Pipkin is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is author of Rape in the Republic, 1609-1725: Formulating Dutch Identity, co-editor of Women and Gender in the Early Modern Low Countries, 1500-1750 (available for free in Open Access), chair of the nominations committee of SSEMWG, and available on Twitter: @Pipstorian.

Further Reading

Campbell, Julie D, and Larsen, Anne R., eds. Early Modern Women and Transnational Communities of Letters. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “City Women and Religious Change,” in Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975.

Geudeke, Liesbeth. “Positie van vrouwen in de gereformeerde kerk, 1566-1650,” in Vrome vrouwen: betekenissen van geloof voor vrouwen in de geschiedenis, 67-86. Edited by Mirjam Cornelis, and Fred van Lieburg. Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 1996.

Hof, W.J. op ’t. Willem Teellinck (1579-1629). Leven, geschriften en invloed. Kampen: De Groot Goudriaan, 2008.

Israel, Jonathan I. The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Jeu, Annelies de. ’t Spoor der dichteressen. Netwerken en publicatiemogelijkheden van schrijvende vrouwen in de Republiek (1600-1750). Hilversum: Uitgeverij Verloren, 2000.

Kloek, Els, “Teelinck, Cornelia Eeuwoutsdr.” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland.  URL: [13/01/2014].

Knight, Leah, Micheline White, and Elizabeth Sauer, eds. Women’s Bookscapes in Early Modern Britain. Reading, Ownership, Circulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2018.

Meertens, P. J. “Cornelia Teellinck.” Nederlandsch archief voor kerkgeschiedenis Nederlands archief voor kerkgeschiedenis 28 (1936): 209–11.

Parker, Geoffrey. The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 1567-1659: The Logistics of Spanish Victory and Defeat in the Low Countries’ Wars. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Pipkin, Amanda. “Women’s Writing in the Dutch Revolt: The Religious Authority and Political Agenda of the Devout Teellinck Women in Zierikzee, 1554-1625,” in Women and Gender in the Early Modern Low Countries. Edited by Sarah Moran and Pipkin. Leiden: Brill, 2019. Open Access.

Wiesner, Merry. “Women’s response to the Reformation,” in The German People and the Reformation. Edited by R. Po-chia Hsia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.



[1] Susanna describes the whole book including her introduction in this way: “Dit sommierlijck verhael hares levens, ende stervens, ende dese hare corte belijdenisse des Gheloofs, met noch eenighe andere leersame ende stichtelijcke Stucxkens in dichte van haer over-ghebleven”, Susanna’s introduction in Cornelia Ewouts Teellinck, Een Corte Belijdenisse Des Geloofs: Voormaels Schriftelijck Overghegeven Den Kercken-Raedt Binnen Ziericzee (Amsterdam: Broer Jansz., fifth edition, 1625), 9.

[2] Pieter de la Rue, Geletterd Zeeland, verdeeld in drie afdeelingen, bevattende in zig de schryvers, geleerden, en kunstenaars, uit dien staat geboortig, met bygevoegd levensverhaal der voornaamsten onder dezelve (Middelburg: Michiel Schrijver, 1734), 194-195.

[3] For more on anti-Spanish propaganda see: Pipkin, “‘They were not humans, but devils in human bodies’: Depictions of Sexual Violence and Spanish Tyranny as a Means of Fostering Identity in the Dutch Republic,” Journal of Early Modern History 13 (2009): 229-264.

[4]Cornelia Eeuwoutsdr. Teelinck,” in Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland.

[5] “Although you long to be with Christ, the sufferers whom you come to help in your city seek God to grant you a long life, because … you demonstrate an extraordinary holy compassion for all people disturbed, saddened, and needy … with comfort and understanding (that the Lord has richly bestowed on you)” Willem’s dedication to Susanna Teellinck preceeding his Lust-Hof der Christelijcker Gebeden [Garden of Christian Prayer] (Amsterdam: Johannes Schulperoort, 1648), A4 verso-A5 recto.

[6] For more see Liesbeth Geudeke, “Positie van vrouwen in de gereformeerde kerk, 1566-1650,” 70.


The First Woman Shakespeare Scholar Questions “Genius”

In this blog post, Susan Carlile explores Charlotte Lennox’s groundbreaking work on Shakespeare, which made her one of his first editors and literary critics and also allowed her to formulate her take on authorship and use of source material in writing.

By Susan Carlile

The Chandos Portrait, Attributed to John Taylor (c. 1600-1610). NPG 1. @ National Portrait Gallery, London

“Why Shakespeare?” Countless readers from around the world have asked what made his plays stand out above those of so many of his successful contemporaries.  In fact, the sorting process that determined worthy “intellectual” content and selected authors of great merit who came to be called “geniuses” emerged in the 1700s.  Privileged men who had the luxury and contacts to publish their own assessments weighed in, becoming the first-line promoters of what would become the English canon. The expanding British empire hungered for a national literary hero, a Dante, a Cervantes, to bolster the growing nation’s cultural status on the Continent. These early eighteenth-century literary critics would be responsible for setting in motion the brand that would soon dominate English letters, Shakespeare. Scholars were not the only ones who adored the author they began to call “the bard.” There was also something about Shakespeare that caused audiences, even one hundred years after his death, to flock to theaters for Macbeth, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, and so many others. By one estimate 1 in 6 theatrical performances in London between 1701 and 1750 was a play by Shakespeare, though many were radically adapted to fit modern audience tastes and most were not known to be by Shakespeare (Dobson, 2 and Hume, 43)

Charlotte Lennox, engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi, after Sir Joshua Reynolds (1793). NPG D 13802. @ National Portrait Gallery, London

Onto this London stage stepped Charlotte Lennox, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a now-deceased captain of the British fort in Albany, New York. An orphan who boasted a strong publishing record in London, Lennox not only researched the origins of twenty of Shakespeare’s plays and reminded audiences that Shakespeare himself was adapting prior plots, but she also printed with a leading publisher her own translations of these texts from French and Italian, her own studies of Latin and Danish texts, and her personalized commentary about Shakespeare’s genius, under the title Shakespear Illustrated (1753-4). She was dramatically expanding Gerard Langbaine’s systematic search for sources in 1688. Today we identify numerous source texts for Shakespeare’s plays, but Langbaine was the first to begin this catalog. He listed twelve sources and published a seventeen-page inventory of his findings, noting “many things will escape my observation. However, this may serve for a hint to others; who being better vers’d in Books, may build upon the Foundation, which is here laid” (Preface). Lennox’s far more extensive three-volume publication was an extraordinarily impressive feat of scholarship. Hers was not simply source study. She also articulated power relations by drawing attention to women’s dignity and criticizing the plausibility of some of Shakespeare’s female characters.

Some have argued that Lennox’s work was at the bidding of Samuel Johnson, who had begun crafting his own commentary about Shakespeare’s plays. But Lennox was already an accomplished author, having published a book of poetry (1747) and two novels, the second of which, The Female Quixote (1752), was making her a genuine celebrity. Lennox and Johnson arrived in London in the mid-1740s to a literary scene in upheaval. Although initially she may have been nudged by Johnson to research Shakespeare’s source material, Lennox’s experience as an actress helped refine her understanding of Shakespeare’s task. She performed popular female roles as audiences were increasingly exposed to women acting. Lennox was quick to capitalize on the public literary rage that was growing around Shakespeare. In fact, Arthur Murphy declared, “With us islanders Shakespeare is a kind of established religion in poetry” (Vickers, Volume 4, 1753-1765, 1). Lennox’s acting experience as well as her novelistic celebrity ideally positioned her to publish a book about Shakespeare.

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Title page of Shakespear Illustrated (1753-54). Private copy. Photo by Susan Carlile.

Not only seeking to capitalize on audience taste and enthusiasm, Lennox was also interested in serious literary criticism and specifically in his construction of narratives. Scholars reference Holinshed’s Chronicles as an important influence on Shakespeare, and Lennox “translated” (her words) Holinshed to illustrate how it was a source for Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, and Henry the 4th, Henry the 5th, Henry the 6th, Henry the 8th, and King Lear. She also provided a Cliff’s Notes-type summary of both Holinshed’s history and Shakespeare’s adapted plots. But Lennox didn’t stop there, she found source texts in French, Italian, Latin and Danish and thus made it abundantly clear that Shakespeare crossed borders for his narratives. Her knowledge of French and Italian meant she could translate, or in our current sense summarize, these plots and provide deeply informed literary analysis and commentary for English readers.


It has long been known that Shakespeare wasn’t original; that is, his plots were not fully formed from his imagination alone. Borrowing from earlier authors was also not surprising to anyone at the turn of the eighteenth century. In fact, most authors during Shakespeare’s time created stories that had some basis in the plots of those that came before. As a published author herself, Lennox was interested in authors’ craft and thought it important that audiences know in detail just how Shakespeare had borrowed. Her comprehensive source analysis was the first of its kind.

In addition to her thorough presentations of each text, what distinguished Lennox’s work from her predecessors was that, rather than a catalog of titles that Shakespeare had drawn from, Lennox gave her readers the actual source texts, either in summary form or in translation; and after each, she provided commentary and critical notes to explain the ways in which he altered these original plots. Promoting newly emerging literary values of originality and concepts of authorship, she strove to be factually accurate and meticulously faithful to her standards of novelty, which included the belief that authors should be innovative, if not original. This was not universally believed, as imitation was still—in many circles—thought to be the highest form of compliment.  As a crafter of plots herself, Lennox criticized Shakespeare’s ability to adapt judiciously, adopting the neo-Aristotelian principle of probabality. She wasn’t derisive of the fact that he borrowed others’ plots, but she was recklessly frank about how unconvincingly he had done so.

Marcus Stone, Claudio Deceived by Don John Accuses Hero (date unknown). Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

Still, Lennox valued many of Shakespeare’s contributions. She praised his Macbeth as “a most beautiful piece” and noted his clever move to adapt Holinshed for political purposes (I: 292). Yet she also illustrated how Shakespeare was not only unoriginal, but using prior sources to adverse effect. For example, he employed Lodovico Ariosto’s sixteenth-century epic poem and heroic romance Orlando Furioso (specifically the fifth canto, “Tale of Geneura,”) to construct the Claudio-Hero plot in Much Ado about Nothing. According to the twentieth-century source scholar, Geoffrey Bullough, “The story of the Beatrice and Benedick is usually more interesting to modern readers than that of Hero and Claudio, but the latter is the core round which the other was wound, and to trace the provenance of the Hero-Claudio actions throws light on Shakespeare’s conception of his play and also on his manner of blending sources” (II: 62). The Claudio-Hero plot has numerous variants. In Ariosto’s version the end of Canto IV centres on Geneura (an alternate spelling of Guinevere), daughter of the King of Scotland and her true love Rinaldo (Hero and Claudio respectively in Much Ado). Lennox identifies a failure in Shakespeare’s characterization of Don John, who is part of a plot to stage Hero’s supposed betrayal of Claudio. Lennox maintains that Shakespeare did not provide enough of a motive for Don John to persuade Hero’s waiting woman to double cross her:

Margaret is all along represented as faithful to her Mistress; it was not likely she would engage in a Plot that seemed to have a tendency to ruin Hero’s Reputation, unless she had been imposed on by some very plausible Pretences, what those Pretences were we are left to guess, which is indeed so difficult to do, that we must reasonably suppose the Poet himself was as much at a Loss here as his Readers, and equally incapable of solving the difficulty he had raised.

Lennox describes Shakespeare’s one-dimensional Don John “as a Villain merely through the Love of Villainy (III: 262-3).” In contrast, Ariosto had detailed Don John’s ambition and need for revenge, thus creating a more believable scene. How Margaret is “imposed upon” and why Don John devises a plan that requires Margaret be seduced is a question grounded in Lennox’s interest in understanding evil. Lennox is also pointing to the way that Margaret is treated by Shakespeare and asking what reason she would have for being unfaithful to Hero. Today lack of motivation is seen as lifting Shakespeare’s work above his sources by adding complexity and depth, but Lennox was of the school that believed audiences wanted to understand a characters’ drive.

Gustav Pope, Three Daughters of King Lear (c. 1875). Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

In keeping with this theme of believability, Lennox also describes Shakespeare’s “utter disregard to probability” (III:267). She argues that he did not represent the ways people actually behave, nor did he satisfy his audience with explanations of those behaviors. For example Lennox writes in detail about Shakespeare’s injudicious adaptations from Holinshed of “the fable” of King Lear. Cordelia, whom Lennox describes as having “Greatness of Soul,” is only disinherited in Holinshed for her “noble disinterestedness.” Lennox critiques Shakespeare for instead having Cordelia’s father conduct “an absurd Trial (III: 288)” [the love test], banish her to poverty. This cruel treatment of a daughter makes no sense to Lennox, as it makes Lear only seem mad: “what less than Phrenzy can inspire a rage so groundless, and a Conduct so absurd?” (III: 287).

Lear adapted by David Garrick, 1756. Palimpsest Productions. Credit to Chloe Hanks Ladenburg at Reproduced with permission.

Lennox had a high opinion of the intelligence of audiences and frequently did not accept Shakespeare’s violation of what she deemed credible. She explains, “So unartfully has the Poet managed this incident” that Cordelia has to “seek rather to free herself from the Suspicion of Guilt, than modestly enjoy the conscious Sense of superior Virtue” (III: 288). Lennox is interested in power relations, and here she shows Shakespeare’s lack of practicality in exchange for shock value… and at the expense of an honorable woman. One year after Lennox’s critique, Shakespeare actor and powerful theater manager David Garrick, added lines to the play that are more sympathetic to her plight. Rather than following Nahum Tate’s (1681) adaptation of Act IV, Scene III, Garrick who had frequently worked with Lennox wrote in more sympathetic lines for Cordelia.

Doctor Samuel Johnson ?1772 by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1723-1792
Samuel Johnson. By Joshua Reynolds (c. 1772). @ Tate Gallery.

Today, Lennox’s extraordinary Shakespeare scholarship has been overshadowed by Samuel Johnson, who eleven years after Lennox, published The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765). Jacob Tonson and his associates, the publishers for the renowned Shakespeare scholar William Warburton controlled the rights to the current edition of Shakespeare. Tonson et. al. granted Johnson the right to publish. Yet it took a mysterious nine years for him to complete, perhaps because Johnson felt pressure to idolize Shakespeare. Still, his edition would be cited as the publication that canonized the bard.

Reviving Lennox’s groundbreaking contribution to Shakespeare studies is long overdue. Offering her readers another vantage point based on carefully presented and parsed evidence, Lennox recognized that what constitutes “good” literature was an evergreen subject for heated debate and would be relative to a critic’s subject position. With a scholar’s eye, she considered expectations for what the English canon should contain and who an English genius was. She was rewarded by being recognized as an important contributor to Shakespeare studies by dozens of succeeding Shakespeare scholars, from the popular and prolific late eighteenth-century commentator George Steevens (1:466) to the romantic literary icon Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in 1811-1812; p. 219). In the twenty-first century she appears in many of the iconoclastic literary critic Harold Bloom’s twenty-one volumes of Shakespeare criticism and is now placed in the pantheon of  important early American theater critics.

Shakespeare emerged from Lennox’s pen not as a literary hero, but as an author worth studying and critiquing. Until 1790 Lennox frequently engaged with questions about literary value, not least in her novels and plays, and published 15 more works, including groundbreaking translations of the memoirs of the principle advisor to Henry IV, Maximilien de Béthune (1756) and of Pierre Brumoy’s Le Theâtre des Grecs (1759), as well as a magazine commited to engaging women’s minds in intellectual pursuits (1760).[1] With an eye to future audiences Lennox deftly participated in the Enlightenment deliberation about what constitutes a genius and how he (or she) is selected. In the 1750s her Shakespear Illustrated articulated the newly evolving literary value that genius is a relative quality, that the characteristics associated with it require reassessing, that more minds should be taken seriously, and that perhaps some overlooked ones deserve glorifying.

Susan Carlile is a Professor of English at California State University, Long Beach. Her book Charlotte Lennox: An Independent Mind was published in 2018 by University of Toronto Press. She was a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow and has held fellowships at the Huntington Library and the Chawton House Library. You can follow Charlotte Lennox and Susan Carlile on Twitter.

Further Reading

Bennett, Alma. American Women Theater Critics: Biographies and Selected Writings of Twelve Reviewers, 1753–1919. McFarland, 2010.

Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Shakespeare through the Ages. Chelsea House Publications, 2007.

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Columbia UP, 1957-75.

Carlile, Susan. Charlotte Lennox: An Independent Mind. U of Toronto P, 2018.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other Dramatists. Oxford, 1931.

Dobson, Michael. The Make of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660-1769. Clarendon, 1992.

Doody, Margaret Anne. “Shakespeare’s Novels: Charlotte Lennox Illustrated.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 19, no. 3, 1987, pp. 296–310.

Gevirtz, Karen. “Ladies Reading and Writing: Eighteenth-Century Women Writers and the Gendering of Critical Discourse.” Modern Language Studies, vol 33, no 1/2, Spring-Autumn 2003, pp. 60-72.

Green, Susan. “A Cultural Reading of Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespear Illustrated.” Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater, edited by J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne, U of Georgia P, 1995, pp. 228–57.

Hume, Robert. “Before the Bard: ‘Shakespeare’ in Early Eighteenth-Century London,” ELH, vol 64, no1, Spring 1997, pp. 41-75.

Kramnick, Jonathan. “Reading Shakespeare’s Novels: Literary History and Cultural Politics in the Lennox-Johnson Debate.” Eighteenth-Century History: An MLQ Reader, Duke University Press, 1999, pp. 43–67.

Ritchie, Fiona. Women and Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Scarsi, Selene. Translating Women in Early Modern England: Gender in the Elizabethan Versions of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso. Ashgate, 2010.

Steevens, George. The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare. Bulmer and Co, 1802.

Thompson, Ann and Sasha Roberts, eds., Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900: An Anthology of Criticism, Manchester UP, 1997.

Vickers, Brian, ed. Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, Volume 3, 1733–1752. Routledge, 1975.

–. Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, Volume 4, 1753-1765, Routledge, 1975.


[1] All of Charlotte Lennox’s works:

Poems on Several Occasions (1747)
The Life of Harriot Stuart, Written by Herself (1751)
Memoirs of Maximilian de Bethune, Duke of Sully, Prime Minister to Henry the Great (transl. 1751 abridged and 1756)
The Female Quixote (novel, 1752)
Shakespear Illustrated (literary criticism, 1753-4)
The Memoirs of the Countess of Berci (transl., 1756)
The History of the Count de Comminge (transl., 1756)
Memoirs for the History of Madame de Maintenon and of the Last Age (transl., 1757)
Philander (play, 1758)
Henrietta (novel, 1758)
The Greek Theatre of Father Brumoy (transl., 1759)
The Lady’s Museum (magazine, 1760-1)
Sophia (novel, 1762)
The History of the Marquis of Lussan and Isabella (transl., 1764)
The History of Eliza (novel, 1767)
The Sister (play, 1769)
Meditations and Penitential Prayers (transl., 1774)
Old City Manners (play, 1779)
Euphemia (novel, 1790)

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.