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.

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.


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


Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 1.32.19 PM
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.”


Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 1.05.45 PM
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 Monstrous Worlds of Two Seventeenth-Century Hispanic Women Writers: María de Zayas and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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

by Bonnie Gasior

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

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

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

Modern rendering of María de Zayas

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


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Title page, Novelas amorosas y ejemplares (1637)

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

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

Modern sketch of the immurement of Inés

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

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

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

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La respuesta, in Fama y obras póstumas (1700)

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

Bishop Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (anonymous portrait)

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Ward and the Society of Jesus

This blog post by Alexandra Verini recounts the life of Mary Ward, founder of a female religious community and controversial figure in her time.

by Alexandra Verini

Portrait of Mary Ward (anonymous, c. 1600)

Mary Ward is a fascinating early modern woman who has been relatively little studied. She was a Catholic born in a post-Reformation England and so spent much of her life in Europe where she founded a new congregation modeled on the Jesuit Society of Jesus, which served as a religious community for English Catholic women and a school for girls. I first became interested in Ward in my research on women’s utopianism and have found her to be a powerful example of how early modern women could refashion prescribed gender roles and enact prescient models of female community.

Despite her innovations, relatively few scholarly works have focused on Ward, in part, because, before 2007, all documents concerning her life and her society were kept under lock and key at the Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich. Recently, however, Sister Christina Kentworthy-Browne from the Bar Convent in York has published a biography of Ward written by her companions as well as Ward’s autobiographical fragments and select letters. Moreover, five German volumes have made available for the first time the entirety of the Ward archive, which includes letters between Ward and her followers, her spiritual writings, autobiographical fragments and institutional documents. These volumes, alongside with visual representations of Ward’s life, bear witness to a career that, in face of great challenges, staked a claim for women’s collective spiritual and political authority.


Opening page of A Briefe Relation from webpage for a Mary Ward Documentary

Born in 1585 to religious parents from a Catholic family in Yorkshire, Ward spent much of her early life with relatives. In 1599, she moved to the house of Sir Ralph Babthorpe at Osgodby, Selby, where, at the age of 15, she found a calling to religious life. As her biography, which was written after Ward’s death by two of her followers, recounts, when living at the Babthorpe residence, Ward “wou’d retyre herselfe alone in her Chaumber, with an old Catholicke Woman, and heare her tell storyes of Religious Women…which gave her such Light of the excellency of a Religious state, as all her Life she had a feeling of it (Kentworthy-Browne 6-7).


This period of her life is illustrated in the Painted Life, a series of fifty paintings illustrating significant events in Ward’s career commissioned by her followers Mary Wigmore, Mary Poyntz, and other early companions in the later seventeenth century. I traveled to Augsburg last year to see these paintings, which were helpfully explained to me by the sisters of the Congregatio Jesu.

Painted Life 9. Copyright ‘Painted Life’ Pictures, Mary Ward Spirituality Centre, Augsburg. Photo Tanner, Nesselwang, Germany.


Roger Lee, SJ. Miniature housed at Mary Ward Spirituality Centre, Augsburg.

In 1606, like many recusant Catholics, Ward left England to join the convent of Saint Clares in Saint-Omer in what was then Spanish Flanders, where she met her future spiritual director Roger Lee (1574-1615).

The following year she left the convent to start a new foundation of the same order specifically for English women at the nearby Gravelines. Five years later, however, she received a divine revelation, which she later called her glory vision, in which God instructed her to “take the same of the society,” referring to the Society of Jesus. This vision prompted Ward to leave Gravelines to found the Schola Beata Mariae, the first of over a dozen houses devoted to teaching Catholic girls and pursuing missionary work for the Catholic cause in England. Ward’s “Society of Jesus” was highly unusual as it was governed by women, unenclosed, and available for apostolic work worldwide, including the support of priests on the English Mission. In taking the step to found her society, Ward went against the establishment on multiple fronts: she was inherently at odds with her nation’s religion, but she also fell out of favor with the papacy since, by promoting women’s active ministry, she defied the Post-Tridentine prescription of enclosure for religious women.


Painted Life 22. Copyright ‘Painted Life’ Pictures, Mary Ward Spirituality Centre, Augsburg. Photo Tanner, Nesselwang, Germany

Female community was integral to Ward’s society, and she maintained strong female friendships throughout her life, describing herself in her spiritual exercises as “apt for friendship.” During her stay in London in 1609, she won over several young aristocratic women, who crossed over with her to Saint-Omer to serve under her direction. These women are shown sitting together in the Painted Life.

The value Ward placed on the female community that subsequently gathered around her is manifest in a set of addresses that she delivered in December 1617 at Saint-Omer to 60 of her followers. Speaking directly to these women, she describes them in exalted terms: “You are spectakells to god, angells and men. It is certaine that god has looked uppon you as he never looked uppon any” (Dirmeier, vol. 1, 363). Ward acted on the faith she invested in her followers when she founded centers for her society in Bratislava (Pressburg), Cologne, Hewarth, Liège, London, Munich, Naples, Perugia, Prague, Rome, St.-Omer, Trèves (Trier), and Vienna and entrusted their governance to her female friends with whom she corresponded regularly about administrative and spiritual matters.


Ward’s signature. Image from document housed at Mary Ward Spirituality Centre, Augsburg.

Her most frequent epistolary correspondent was Winefrid Wigmore (shown on the left of the Painted Life image 22 according to a sister from Augsburg). In her many letters, Ward addresses her friend affectionately as “My Dear Win” and commends her “mannaginge of matters” (Perugia 1624 July 23)

In another letter sent on July 16, 1627, Ward congratulates Wigmore on the progress she has made in the Latin education of girls and instructing her to encourage more pupils to study Latin: “Thes [words] are indeed cheifly to congratulate the unexpected progress of your lattin Schools … All such as are capable, invite them to yt; and for such as desirs to be of ours, noe tallant ys to be so much regarded in them as the lattin tounge.” Ward further praises Wigmore’s education of a particular girl, describing how priests have praised the girl’s Latin writing: “The lattin hand Maria Mich: wrote her theam in, ys hear by thes fathers much commaunded, though I thinke yt ys farr short of what yt wilbe.” In this letter and others, Ward demonstrates the value she placed on education for women and interest she took in each of her individual followers and pupils. Far from being the ego-driven project of one woman, Ward’s Society was formed through the collaborative efforts of a network of women and girls across Europe.


Modern stained glass image of Ward instructing young girls, Bishop Thornton Church, Harrogate

Despite Ward’s successes, her vision of a community for women engaged in active ministry was never fully realized in her lifetime, primarily due to Catholic opposition (including by one of her community’s former members, Mary Alcock). Opponents viewed Ward as heretical, dubbing her and her followers “galloping nuns,” referring to her society’s lack of enclosure. Ward’s breach of papal law led to the Vatican’s suppression of the Institute in 1631, with Pope Urban VIII’s signing of the Pastoralis Romani Pontificis. All Ward’s foundations were dissolved, and she herself was imprisoned, ironically in a foundation of the same order she had joined as a young girl: a Poor Clare convent, the Angerkloster, in Munich. She was denied the female companionship that had been so vital to her mission as the sisters of the Angerkloster were forbidden to speak to her and she was prohibited from writing letters. During this time, Ward communicated with her supporters secretly by sending letters written in lemon juice, whose words only appear when the paper was heated. Twenty-three of these fragile lemon-juice letters survive today.

When Ward was eventually freed in October 1631, she set out for Rome to seek a papal audience and make a case for her Society. Despite his verbal approbation of her work, Pope Urban VIII did not revoke the Bull condemning the Institute, and though the Inquisition issued a statement that neither Mary Ward nor her companions were guilty of acts against the Church, Ward remained under the shadow of the Inquisition. She was never allowed to see the written statements against her, and it was not until recently, when granted access to the Vatican’s archives, that the Institute realized the extent of papal opposition against the Society. Most of the members of the Society of Jesus were forced to leave their houses and either return to secular life or join other religious orders. Only in Munich and Rome were a limited number allowed to live together as laywomen.

Ward spent the remainder of her life under house arrest in Rome and moving between various spas in Europe due to her ill health before returning to Yorkshire where she died on January 30, 1645. Her tombstone reads:

Mary Ward’s tombstone in Osbaldwick Church

To love the poor,
persevere in the same,
live die and rise with them
was all the aim of
Mary Ward
who lived 60 years and eight days
and died on 20th January, 1645

After her death, the Ward’s foundation slowly gained recognition. The Society received full confirmation by Pope Pius IX in 1877; in 1900, the name Institute of the Blessed Virgin (in place of Society of Jesus) became its official title; in 1909, the petition for Ward’s rehabilitation received approval by Pope Pius X. Finally, in 1979, the Vatican approved Ward’s plan to adopt the Jesuit Constitutions; in 2002, the Roman branch of Mary Ward’s Institute returned to Mary Ward’s founding vision by changing its name from “Institutum Beatae Mariae Virginis” (IBMV) to “Congregatio Jesu” (“Congregation of Jesus” in English); and in 2004, the Roman branch of IBVM was renamed the Congregation of Jesus, fulfilling the vision of its foundress, who was given the title ‘Venerable’ by Benedict XVI in 2009. In 2015, during Pope Francis’s trip to Cuba, Mary Ward Associates presented him with a letter requesting that he beatify and canonize Ward, which would constitute the Catholic’s Church’s highest recognition of her achievements.

Sisters at the Loreto Institute in Australia (Archives of Loreto Institute)

Several branches of Ward’s order survive today, including the Roman branch of the order, the Congregatio Jesu, and the Sisters of Loreto founded by Sister Frances Mary Teresa Ball in the early nineteenth century. Both of these branches have established foundations and schools across the world.

There is still much work to be done on Ward. Most accounts of her life are biographies, which while valuable resources on her life, in many cases, did not have access to the documents in Munich. Her Painted Life, many letters in multiple languages, institutional documents, biography and autobiographical fragments are works of historical, theological, art historical and literary importance and hopefully will gain greater recognition in years to come.


Further Reading

Dirmeier, Ursula CJ, ed. Mary Ward ind hire Grundung. Die quellentexte bis 1645, 4 vols. Munster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2007.

Congregatio Jesu. Accessed April 21, 2017.

Gallagher, Lowell. “Mary Ward’s ‘Jesuitresses’ and the Construction of a Typological           Community.” In Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women’s Alliances in Early Modern England, edited by Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, 199-220. Oxford: Oxford         University Press, 1999.

Gallagher, Lowell. “Remembering Lot’s Wife: The Structure of Testimony in the Painted Life of Mary Ward.” In Religious Diversity in Early Modern English Texts: Judaic, Catholic, Feminist and Secular Dimensions, edited Arthur F. Marotti and Chanita Goodblatt, 77-106. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2013.

Kentworthy-Browne, Christina, ed. Mary Ward (1585-1645): A Briefe Relation…with Autobiographical Fragments and a Selection of Letters. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press for the Catholic Record Society, 2008.

Littlehales, Margaret. Mary Ward: Pilgrim and Mystic 1585-1645. Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates, 1998.

Peters, Henrietta. Mary Ward: a World in Contemplation. Leominster, UK: Gracewing Publishing, 1994.

Wallace, David. “Periodizing Mary Ward (1585-1645) and the Premodern Canon.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36.2 (2006): 397-495.

Wallace, David. Strong Women: Life, Text and Territory 1347-1645. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Alexandra Verini is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include medieval and early modern women’s writing, devotional culture, and gender theory. Her dissertation, “A New Kingdom of Femininity: Women’s Utopias in Early English Culture and Imagination,” examines women’s utopian writing between 1405 and 1666. You can learn more about Alexandra’s work on her personal website or her profile

The 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