Home > Christianity, History > Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England

Women and Religious Writing in Early Modern England

Cambridge University Press 2004 | 252 Pages | ISBN: 0521837588

Challenging critical assumptions about the role of religion in influencing women’s experiences of authorship, the seventeenth-century Protestant women discussed in this book range across the entire religio-political and social spectrums. Yet, all display an affinity with modern feminist theologians. Rather than being victims of a patriarchal gender ideology, these women were active participants in wider theological debates.

This study challenges critical assumptions about the role of religion in shaping women’s experiences of authorship. Feminist critics have frequently been uncomfortable with the fact that conservative religious and political beliefs created opportunities for women to write with independent agency. The seventeenth-century Protestant women discussed in this book range across the religio-political and social spectrums and yet all display an affinity with modern feminist theologians. Rather than being victims of a patriarchal gender ideology, Lady Anne Southwell, Anna Trapnel and Lucy Hutchinson, among others, were both active negotiators of gender and active participants in wider theological debates. By placing women’s religious writing in a broad theological and socio-political context, Erica Longfellow challenges traditional critical assumptions about the role of gender in shaping religion and politics, and the role of women in defining gender and thus influencing religion and politics.

The poetry of Lady Anne Southwell (1574–1636) would startle anyone who believes that early modern women were constrained to be always chaste, silent and obedient. Southwell’s lyrics, which she and her husband together collected into a manuscript book, were particularly critical of how men manipulated gender roles in order to keep women in their place. Consider the following poem:


Poor Adam frequently takes a beating in Southwell’s poetry, as a symbol of all that is obstinate and foolish about men who crave power over women but do not understand the responsibility that comes with it. These men force women to be ‘good wifes’, to follow the command of St Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians that wives must submit themselves to their husbands; but they refuse to follow the moral standard Paul sets for husbands, that they must love their wives to the point of self-sacrifice. Instead these husbands simply force their wives to obey, and if their wives rebel, Southwell’s poem suggests, it is the husbands’ own fault.

Southwell’s poem is effective because it weaves a critique of the gender relations in Christian marriage into a statement about a universal Christian principle: men who abuse their wives are so foolish that they miss the greatest mystery of all, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Her poem neatly demonstrates that gendered morals – what it means to be a good wife or a good husband – can only be understood within the context of the underlying truths of Christianity that apply to both men and women, particularly the saving capacity of sacrificial love. Any husband who misconstrues this principle will not be able to put his own privilege of headship in the right context. To his sleepy brain, the mystery is simply too deep.

But what is the ‘misterie’ in this poem? That the relationship between God and his people was like a marriage was an idea older than Christianity, and by the early modern period it had come to be known as ‘mystical marriage’. It is the strange process by which the divine Christ and the sinful human soul, made clean through his sacrifice, ‘doe meet and make a mariage’, as John Donne preached in one of his nuptial sermons. Mystical marriage is not, in fact, a straightforward metaphor – if any metaphor ever is straightforward – but rather a cluster of Biblical descriptions of love drawn from Hosea, the Psalms, Ezekiel, I Corinthians 7, Revelation 22 and especially the Song of Songs. These were all read through the lens of Ephesians chapter 5, which likens the love of Christ for the Church to the love of a man for his wife and provided a loose framework under which to unite these variant texts. The Song of Songs, for example, is a collection of erotic love lyrics with only one oblique reference to God, but early modern commentators took it as read that the male speaker represented the voice of divine love and the female speaker the voice of sinful humanity.

Beyond the identification of who was divine and who was human, however, it was difficult to say exactly who the players in this romance were. In post-Reformation English commentaries the speakers of the Song are variously identified as the historical King Solomon and his bride, Christ and all individual Christians, Christ and his bride the Church, Christ and the soul (always female), or even Christ and the ‘Christian Man’, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears. The multiplicity of allegorical players opened the way for mystical marriage in general, and the Song of Songs in particular, to be used to talk about a wide array of issues. Male theologians, particularly Puritan male theologians, most often focused on the relationship between Christ and the Church, because mystical marriage provided them with a way to promote their particular ecclesiology as the true bride of Christ, all the while damning other systems, Roman, Laudian or radical Protestant, as merely whorish impostors. Following the passage in Ephesians, these writers imagined the Church as a woman, the bride of Christ, but they had no qualms about the fact that this female institution was in fact made up of both male and female believers, and controlled almost entirely by powerful men. Christ’s love effectively transcended gender and blurred the distinction between the individual and the community: ‘And that Iesus Christ is he,’ George Wither asserted, ‘who in this Song professeth an intire affection, not onely to the whole Mysticall body of the faithfull, but euen to euery member of it in particular.’

The confusions between male and female, the believer and the Church, open up possibilities for early modern writers to negotiate gendered power relations, whether real or metaphorical. For generations of men, this meant the chance to use the feminine gender, and human marriage, as a convenient shorthand. The first chapter of this book considers the theological heritage of mystical marriage, demonstrating how Puritan male writers of the seventeenth century exploited the femaleness of the ‘Bride’ to invoke a traditional principle of women’s utter submission to men: the Church and the soul were completely inferior to Christ, and therefore must obey him. Although this was one way, metaphorically, of imagining women’s role, it was not one that had kept pace with the prevailing views on human marriage in the early modern period. These writers were in fact far more concerned with evoking the mystery than with defining marriage, and their statements about the Bride of Christ cannot be read as indicative of their standards for the brides of men.

For women writer’s mystical marriage offered the opportunity to do precisely what the men did not: to rewrite the human aspects of the metaphor, particularly what it meant to be a devout Christian woman. Southwell’s poem demonstrates the special facility that the metaphor offered to women who had to craft a position between the conflicting gender roles of human relationships and the ultimately ungendered truths of divine love. This study is an exploration of howwomen writers like Southwell seized upon the fluidity of gender in mystical marriage scriptures in order to claim authority for their own religious writing. For some women, like Southwell and Aemilia Lanyer (1568–1645), mystical marriage enabled them to conceive a moral standard that was beyond gender, a Christ in whom there truly was no male or female (Galatians 3:28). For others, mystical marriage was the primary legitimiser of their speech: both Anna Trapnel (b. 1620) and theanonymous author of Eliza’s babes (1652) use their metaphorical identity as the bride of Christ to justify their politically and socially subversive speech.

Finally, some women use mystical marriage in much the same way as men, as a means of talking not about human marriage but about divine providence in human institutions; LucyHutchinson (1619/20–81), the subject of the final chapter, is the prime example, as she uses notions of divine union to talk about the new English Republic that both she and her husband had longed to inaugurate.

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