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.

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).



The Court Beguinages of the Low Countries

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

by Sarah Joan Moran


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Cavendish and Deshoulières: Women and Philosophy

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

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

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

Anonymous portrait of Deshoulières

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

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

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

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

Pierre Gassendi (portrait after Louis Édouard Rioult)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


This is a new blog on women who lived, worked, wrote, and created art in the seventeenth century. At the moment, there are not very many blogs devoted to women of the early modern period, but there are some very promising initiatives, such as RECIRC, WEMLO (Women’s Early Modern Letters Online), and Women’s Work in Rural England, 1500-1700 , that show the value of publishing the latest research in the field in this form.

When I started working on Dutch and English women writers, I was surprised to find out how few scholars were producing cross-cultural research on women writers of different nationalities. This seems to be changing, thankfully. Presses seem more open to transnational and cross-cultural studies in general, and the American and English academy is showing more interest in non-English women writers than before. My book, Early Modern Women’s Writing: Domesticity, Privacy, and the Public Sphere in England and the Dutch Republic (Palgrave, 2017), tries to fill a gap by concentrating on women from England and the Low Countries. Its premise is that cross-cultural investigations in general help us construct a fuller picture of early modern women’s writings and lives.

There are at least two reasons that we should look at seventeenth-century women from a cross-cultural perspective. First, looking at women from different countries, even if we need translations to do so, means we can explore the surprising differences and interesting similarities between them. This can tell us what experiences women shared across borders and how they responded to them. It can also help us determine what seems to be specific to any particular country. The point is not to uncover some national essence, but instead to arrive at informed assessments of the cultural climate in which women worked. Cross-cultural research makes us think more deeply about women’s relationships to their environment.

The second reason is that women rarely thought of themselves as defined or confined by national boundaries. They felt affinities to men and women abroad with, for instance, the same religious convictions. Many women were in touch with people in other countries. Some women traveled or had close relatives or husbands who did. They did business with people in other countries. If they had money, they might purchase products that came from other countries, like spices or tapestries. Those with the necessary education and time read books from other countries and translated them. We have learned much about seventeenth-century women in recent years, and one of the things we are beginning to understand is that they were much less limited to the domestic realm and to proper feminine pastime activities than was previously thought. Even when they did engage in those activities, they often used them to reach out and address topics that were normally considered out of women’s purview.

The subtitle of this blog is deliberately broad: lives, texts, objects. This is because this blog is not only cross-cultural, including women from different countries, but also interdisciplinary. Early modern women who produced art and writing—whether published in print form, circulated in manuscript, or simply written for themselves or to one other individual—frequently did not imagine themselves as “authors” in the modern sense, because the modern idea of authorship was still developing (as it was for men) and because much of their writing was produced outside of the realm of professionalism and profit. In cultures that tended to identify women through their relationships to the men in their lives—as mothers, wives, and daughters—it was not easy for women to present themselves as primarily something else. We should also note that many women saw writing as only one aspect of their self-expression: they wrote texts, whether literary or not, but also made objects, such as paintings, glass engravings, paper cuttings, and embroidery, and many of these objects can tell us as much about early modern women’s views of themselves as “authors” as their letters, diaries, poems, plays, prose works, and cookbooks.

Each post on this blog will discuss some aspect of early modern women’s textual and non-textual productions and lives. Many of the upcoming posts will consider women from the Low Countries and England, because my research has been focused on those two countries, but I plan on including posts about women from other countries as well. A post may focus on one woman or on more than one, on a literary text or an object, on the life of someone, or on a particular theme. I would love to have others write guest blog posts. If you have ideas or suggestions for a post, please contact me.

This blog is largely meant for people who are in academia, whether they are established scholars or students, to call attention to and encourage cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research into a greater range of early modern women writers and artists from different countries. I also hope it will be of interest to anyone outside academia who would like to find out more about women of this fascinating time period. The aim is to bring greater visibility to some of the lesser known women, shed new light on some of the well-known ones, and explore women’s works and lives with the kind of openness, immediacy, and clarity that blogs can provide.


Picture credit: the image above is a detail from a portrait of the Dutch flower painter Maria van Oosterwijck (1630-1693), painted by Wallerant Vaillant in 1671. The painting is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.