Home > History > Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions)

Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe (Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions)

BRILL | 2007 | ISBN 9004163069 |340 pages

This collection of twelve new essays examines the role of women and of gender in a broad range of radical beliefs and practices in post-Reformation Europe. Included are German Anabaptists, English Quakers, prophetesses, and unorthodox Catholic nuns.

The idea for this essay collection originated with a workshop on “Radical Maternities: Spiritual Motherhood and Female Visionaries in France and England”, organized by myself, Cynthia J. Cupples, and Julie Hirst for the 2000 “Attending to Early Modern Women” Conference at the University of Maryland.

Since that workshop, the evolving project of a collection focussed on early modern women and radical religion has bene_ tted from the good ideas and helpfulness of many people. I wish particularly to acknowledge the late Sylvia Bowerbank, Cynthia Cupples, Andrew Gow, Alison Rowlands, and Kirilka Stavreva. Jennifer Bell, Lindsay Scott, Dorothy Woodman, and the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta all contributed to the editorial labour required to assemble the collection. Practical help was given by John Considine and Chris Considine (who shared her computer at a critical time). Boris van Gool and Hendrik van Leusen at Brill have been patient and humane publishers, and I thank them warmly.

The cartoon from the Quaker Tapestry is reproduced with the kind permission of the Quaker Tapestry Scheme. The cover image, Ferdinand Bol’s “Portrait of an Old Woman with a Book, 1651”, is reproduced with the permission of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. My most heartfelt acknowledgement comes last, and is reserved for Julie Hirst. Her friendship and support throughout the making of this book made it happen.

Etymologically speaking, radicalism seeks to return to the root, radix, to the essentials of a movement or belief. This is the view from the inside. From the outside, radicalism is seen as dangerously innovative and transgressive. Radicals are extremists, heretics, enthusiasts. Whether seen from the inside or the outside, however, radicalism opens possibilities for challenging and reimagining ways of knowing, acting, and believing. Religious radicalism is of urgent concern for the twenty-first century because of the global violence and divisiveness spawned by a range of groups claiming to return to the root, the fundamentals, of their traditions of belief. This alone suggests a timely need to analyse what we have historically labelled as ‘radical’ in religion and why.

This collection seeks to interrogate and expand the category of ‘radical’ by examining a narrowly focussed group and period within the tradition of Western Christianity: women whose beliefs, actions, and writings challenged the religious institutions and dominant modes of confessionalized thinking in early modern Europe. Within this specific historical and cultural context, the essays in the collection individually and together seek to make connections and comparisons—sometimes between groups and figures not usually considered together or not, in themselves, considered radical. Thus, the activism of English Quakers finds resonance with the proselytizing or dissidence of Catholic nuns on the Continent; ‘personal revelation’ is shown to authorize the writings and resistances of women across confessions; and marginal women and sects are found to have surprising points in common with the ‘mainstream’, and vice versa.

Although all the essays focus on identifiable historical women, most are also concerned with gender as a dynamic, fluid, and often contradictory discursive system, operating both to challenge and reinscribe orthodoxy. Were radical religious beliefs typically accompanied by radical gender thinking? Or, on the contrary, did radical recon_ gurations of religion sometimes depend on a reinscription of social norms? Some of the essays in this collection suggest that radical religion enables somethinglike proto-feminism, while others challenge the connection. Gender is shown, by a number of the essays, to be a key constitutive element for the theologies, identities, and experiences of religious radicals—both women and men. Becoming a martyr or becoming ‘nothing’ under the divine gaze were ineluctably gendered procedures; women and men, in turn, appropriated the gendered language of martyrdom or selfabnegation for their own individual or communal purposes.

The contributors to this volume come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, from literary and religious studies to sociology and history, but all of the essays arguably illustrate the pervasive presence and effects of theology in the pre-secular world of early modern Europe, whether as a fully articulated system or as an underlying set of assumptions. When a believer radically reimagines her relationship with the divine—giving God feminine attributes, for instance, or asserting unmediated access to divine wisdom—she necessarily reimagines her relationship with others and with the world. She occupies a potentially new place with respect to culture, authority, and history. Of course, such reimagining and repositioning is risky, and many of the essays chart the complex negotiations performed by religiously radical women between the demands of their faith and the deeply ingrained concern for order and fear of innovation that characterized early modern cultures. Many of the essays are therefore stories of survival as well as of resistance.


Definitions of radicalism, like definitions of heresy, are historically as well as positionally determined. History changes what counts as orthodox or heretical, radical or not, as the chapter on Mary Ward in this volume suggests. Pamela Ellis begins her essay on Ward by contrastingthe praise of a twentieth-century pope for this “incomparable woman”, founder of an unenclosed order concerned particularly with the education of girls, with the annihilating condemnation of a seventeenth-century pope who described the “Institutes” she founded as “poisonous growths”.

At a formative moment in the study of gender and religion, Rosemary Radford Ruether identified one of the ongoing tasks of feminist theology as the historical “quest” for “alternative traditions” that combat androcentric views of religion and God and affirm women’s “participation in prophecy, teaching, and leadership”. At about the same time that feminist literary historians were looking for Shakespeare’s silenced sisters, Ruether urged historians of religion to make the “marginalized and silenced visible and audible”. Sarah Apetrei’s essay on the little known, mysterious, but highly prolific exegete “M. Marsin” certainly takes up Ruether’s call, but Apetrei goes further by historicizing and thus questioning the categories of ‘marginal’ and ‘radical’ as they are applied to Marsin. Apetrei shows that, not only were Marsin’s esotericexegeses of the books of Daniel and Revelation owned by the libraries and clergy of the established Church, Marsin’s radical and chiliastic ideas about the preacherly vocation of women and women’s education had much in common with the writings and arguments of Mary Astell, a far more ‘mainstream’ figure both by her apologetics for the established Church of England as well as by her early inclusion in the canon of early modern women writers.

Apetrei analyses Marsin’s radicalism through the optic of her intellectual and writing milieu. Other contributors, like Stephen Kent and Sheila Wright, who both write on Quakers, also consider the extent—as well as the consequences—of their subjects’ radicalism by examining their milieux. Kent and Wright, however, focus on family and kinship ties. Kent’s essay is based on the analysis of the signatures of women appended to a printed anti-tithe petition presented to the Parliament of 1659: These several PAPERS . . . Being above seven thousand of the Names of the HAND-MAIDS AND DAUGHTERS OF THE LORD, And Such as feels the Oppression of Tithes. By collecting demographic information and corroborating evidence both for signatories’ participation in other acts of resistance as well as their clear membership in the Quaker movement (by being fined for attending Meeting, for instance), Kent is able to draw some surprising conclusions from the Cheshire and Lincoln petitions. Contrary to the current scholarly consensus, which assumes that all the signatories must be Quakers, Kent’s interpretation of his evidence suggests that at least half and probably more of the signatories were not Quakers when they signed (although some became Quakers later, suggesting that the act of signing the petition might have been a possible way into the movement). Kent _ nds evidence for shared opposition to tithes, however, among women within families, suggesting that “their shared experience of kinship and gender gave them a common basis for opposing tithes, possibly across denominational and sectarian lines”.

Taking its evidence from a later stage of Quakerism, Sheila Wright’s essay makes vivid some of the domestic costs of becoming a ‘Friend’. While Kent’s chapter suggests that Quaker activism ran in families and was supported by ties of kinship, Wright uses the spiritual journals of Quaker women ministers to show that it also often caused antagonism within families where Quakerism was not embraced by all. Wright shows that Quaker women ministers found it difficult to reconcile their call to preach and travel with their domestic duties and affections. The narratives which record their struggles to do it all, and sometimes even the physical abuse of relatives enforcing the demands of family duty over those of the ‘inner light’, tend, however, to end with family forgiveness and reconcilement. It is possible that the narratives themselves were fashioned to neutralize the irreducible tension between Quaker women’s radical preaching and their traditionally ordained domestic identities. Like Kent’s essay, Marion Kobelt-Groch’s chapter on the imprisonment (or not) of pregnant Anabaptist women closely examines existing archival records in order to question blanket assessments of this particular group’s radical identity and history. Narratives of ‘sufferings’, ultimately deriving from Christian martyrology, were as important to the Anabaptists on the Continent as they were to the Quakers of Britain.

Kobelt-Groch _ nds that gender, and in particular the condition of pregnancy, was used to add poignancy to stories of Anabaptists ‘rotting’ away in towers as the price paid for rejecting religious orthodoxy. However, upon looking further into the actual penal treatment of pregnant Anabaptist women, Kobelt-Groch arrives at a much more complicated picture than that presented by Balthasar Hubmaier or by the famous Martyrs’ Mirror. Clearly, as a class, pregnant Anabaptist women were not denied the traditional privileges afforded their condition, often being allowed to leave prison (if only temporarily) to give birth and even to spend the period of recovery allotted by “the childbed privilege”.

Although the martyrological narrative of suffering unto death prescribes otherwise, Kobelt-Groch finds cases where women took the opportunity of childbirth respite to recant: like the Quaker women ministers whom Wright discusses, these women may have experienced an irreconcilable conflict between religious and domestic callings but may have found pragmatic solutions that do not lend themselves well to ideologizing narratives, whether of martyrdom or reconcilement.

The End of History: Millenarianism

M. Marsin believed she was one of the “two witnesses” of Revelation 11:3, who were to “prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days” at the end of history. Quakers and Anabaptists too were impelled to activism and de_ ance by a conviction that they were living in the last days.6 As well as interrogating what counts as ‘radical’, a number of the essays in this collection seek to track the theological and epistemological shifts that made it possible for women and men to think and act in ways that were signi_ cantly revisionary, stretching and testing what was possible.

Typically for the early modern period, new thinking regenerated old language and stories. “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . . on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18).

In the Old Testament book of Joel and again in connection with the story of Pentecost in Acts (which repeats the words of Joel 2:28–29), early modern millenarians would have found a way to understand the exceptional behaviour and speech of ‘inspired’ women. Using the frame of eschatology, such women would have been understood as themselves signifiers of the imminence, even the arrival, of the last days.

Those who were prepared to believe they were living in the last days were also prepared for wonders, for all sorts of exceptional happenings. Thus, millenarianism brought with it exceptional opportunities for women’sreligious leadership even within a patriarchal culture. Some radicals like Francis Lee thought that women had a special eschatological role. Lee said of Jeanne Guyon, Antoinette Bourignon, and Jane Lead that they were the “triune wonder of the world”. M. Marsin analogously used her feminine gender to mark her prophetic status; according to her, the traditional bar on women from interpreting and teaching scripture had actually protected them from the erroneous exegeses propagated by tradition. Now, in the last days, the preaching vocation would no longer belong to men, but to uncorrupted women.

In her essay on the Fifth-Monarchist prophetess Anna Trapnel, Naomi Baker argues that her “millenarian religious and political context was intrinsic to the construction and articulation of her subjectivity”. Scholars have largely discussed Trapnel’s fastings, trances, and aphasic utterances in terms of gender, but Baker shows that her self-representation, although certainly gendered, is bound up with the more general representational strategies of her sect and used by male Fifth Monarchists like John James as well as women like Trapnel. Both James andTrapnel understood themselves and were understood by the compilers of the texts associated with them as martyrs as well as prophets of the imminent return of ‘King Jesus’. For these two radical sectarians, the personal was the apocalyptic.

Linking women’s radical speaking and leadership to a millenarian timetable, however, led to inevitable problems. Such a link depended on the understanding that women’s interventions were exceptional.

So, as the millenarian moment faded, so too did the opportunities for women’s exceptional interventions. The Quaker movement has provided the best studied example of this. In the 1650s, Quaker women were testifying in the streets and ‘steeple houses’ of England and beyond, travelling as far as Newfoundland and the Ottoman Empire in order to bear witness to the ‘light’. My own essay in this collection discusses the writings and travels of Mary Fisher as performances which work through the implications of an end-of-days, inner-light theology. Only a couple of decades later, however, Quaker women had been domesticated by designated ‘women’s meetings’. Revolutionary and millenarian thinking may have remained a part of the internalized spiritual experience of Quakers; nonetheless, as Christine Trevett puts it, a “quieter Quakeress” undoubtedly emerged after 1660.

A second problem with the millenarian support for women’s religious agency is that it provides little basis for mainstream change. Thus, radical theologies or social theories that have the potential to transform received ideas about gender are current only in marginal or sectarian movements, and die out with these movements.10 Still, though radical ideas may emerge at moments of crisis, only to disappear and die, they also tend to be reborn and reinvented. From the feminine personification of ‘Wisdom’ in the Old Testament, the German theosophist Jacob Boehme, whose writings were transmitted to and translated in England from the mid-seventeenth century, developed ‘Sophia’ as an additional feminine ‘person’ in the masculine godhead. This radical revision of trinitarian theology and gender is elaborated even further, as Julie Hirstshows in her essay, by the leader of the late-seventeenth-century Philadelphian sect, Jane Lead. But it also adumbrates the feminine Divinity of contemporary feminist theology.

Voices, Bodies, Spaces: Women’s Spiritual Authority

Discussions of women’s actions, utterances, and interventions in the early modern period necessarily take up the gendered history of voice, body, and space. Diane Purkiss has proposed that the authority of women’s prophetic voices in this period depended on an erasure of the problematic female body. Phyllis Mack has argued, on the contrary, that spiritual experience was generally gendered feminine, and often figured as maternal, even for men.

Hirst’s essay on Lead shows how central both the experience and the imagery of maternity were to lead’s spiritual leadership and writing. But Lead’s mysticism transforms the signifi cations attached to gestation and maternity. As natural processes, these have limits: one can only be born once ‘naturally’ and one has only one ‘natural’ mother.

But spiritually or ‘supernaturally’, one may be born many times andhave many spiritual mothers. (Lead’s involuted visions can compass her own birth from maternal Wisdom, Sophia, while, at the same time, Wisdom is conceived and birthed within Lead herself.) Pushing the gendered language of motherhood this far arguably destabilizesgender altogether, by cutting loose the ‘experience’ of maternity from any sort of essentialist anchor in the body (which is itself destabilized by its co-extensive habitation of natural and supernatural worlds). Accordingly, Lead adopts the Behmenist idea of the androgynous Adam as the emblem of prelapsarian perfection. To achieve salvation is to recapture this perfection, which Lead expresses as returning to one’s “native country” as well as to a state of “virginity”. It is to be not gendered at all, or rather beyond gender.

As Baker suggests in her essay on Trapnel, religious radicals do not do away with the body or gender so much as they re_ gure and redeploy it “influid terms”. It is perhaps this willingness to resignify the body—whether at the prompting of divine motions or following the imperatives of the last days—that enables religious radicals to make such surprising, and often powerfully disruptive, interventions. KirilkaStavreva’s essay on the disruptive public speech acts and performances of early Quaker women considers how these women used both their bodies and their acoustic environments to challenge established power in its very own spaces. For Stavreva, it was the very unpredictability of the body, as well as these women’s willingness to resignify gender “as needed”, that gave them the power to challenge ministers in the pulpit and even King Charles II himself in Whitehall.

These loud Quaker women—who, as Stavreva memorably puts it, understood their prophesying as “releasing the Word into the world through their bodies”—might seem to have little in common with the esteemed and learned Anna Maria van Schurman, who was granted the unique privilege of attending lectures at the University of Utrecht—albeit screened from the view of the other students. Bo Karen Lee’s essay on van Schurman charts her transformation late in life from the darling of the res publica litterarum to the demonized follower of the sect founded by Jean de Labadie. Lee examines the theology of radical self-denial that van Schurman outlined in her late two-volumespiritual work, Eukleria. This theology develops itself through a series of paradoxes, so that wholeness, joy, and even pleasure are achieved only by a radical repudiation of the self that allows the “infinite ocean of divinity” to fill the self entirely. Once bent wholly on scholarly achievement, van Schurman’s late spiritual conversion and theological writings ultimately challenge the idea of spiritual progress. Radical repudiation of the self means one never becomes an expert at the spiritual life, and so the distinction between the novice and the master dissolves. One might imagine that van Schurman therefore became meek in old age, but, as Lee points out, her rhetoric shifts along with her theology. She ceases to be apologetic or to seek validation from male authorities: “the style, tone, and content of her writings reveal a new authority and con_ dence, rather than a truncated or weakened self ”. Although Lee is more concerned with the theology of the ungendered self than with the gendered body, Purkiss’ argument about the erasure of the problematic female body in order to produce the prophetic voice may indeed apply to both the rhetoric and the argument of the Eukleria. One might also apply Stavreva’s arguments about the possibilities of silence as resistance. Just as the young Quaker woman refused to engage with Charles II until he stopped talking bawdy and started talking theology (as recorded by Pepys), so van Schurman too refused to keep chattering in the republic of letters and was thereby freed from the dubious honour of being a “miraculum seu naturae monstrum”. Perhaps, as with the Quaker prophet in Whitehall, her renunciation suggests a willingness to resignify herself as needed in order to gain power—power, at least, to effect discursive shifts.

Spiritualism and Difference

What was the potential of religious radicalism to transcend confessional, national, ethnic, or sexual difference in the early modern period? Clearly, some sectarian identities depended on the violent reinscription of difference. The English Fifth Monarchist Mary Cary predicted as a matter of course the destruction of all who resisted the rule of the Saints. The Spanish nun and missionary Luisa de Carvajal, discussed by José González, explored resistant subjectivities in her poetry by taking on the subject position of Christ, for instance, or reimagining the relationship between humans and nature as one not of domination but of _ uid interpenetration. González argues for continuities between her ‘radical’ poetry and her bold mission to re-convert the English. (Interestingly, unlike Mary Ward, de Carvajal never seems to have run into any opposition to her ambitions from the church hierarchy.) Yet González also remarks that de Carvajal “appropriated the spirit of conquest of those who went abroad to acquire new territories for the Spanish crown”. Her mystic contemplation did not prevent her from loathing England and hating its weather.

The Quaker Mary Fisher, however, was “moved of the Lord to go and deliver his Word to the Great Turk”, travelling across the globe in order to meet a man who was arguably the most hated and feared ruler of the early modern world. (His only rival, at least in Protestant Europe, was the pope.) My essay asks what enabled a thirty-year-old, uneducated servingwoman from the north of England to dare imagine that she could speak on equal terms, and perhaps find something in common, with the most powerful leader of the Islamic world. The answer lies in the early Quaker commitment to belief in the ‘universal light’, the spark of the divine present in all women and men, in all peoples of the world. This light is not shared out but is the same light in all, which allowed some early Quakers to declare with perfect sincerity that they were Isaiah or that they were Christ. It also allowed for the possibility of intimate communion with the ‘Other’. As Fisher put it in a letter alluding to her meeting with the court of the Great Turk, “there is a love begot in me towards them which is endlesse”.

In transferring authority from externals like scripture to the inner light, English Quakers followed in the spiritualist tradition of the radical reformation which likewise privileged the inner experience of direct revelation. Yet it is striking that not only the direct heirs of the spiritualist tradition—the Anabaptists, Quakers, and Behmenists discussed in this collection—but also women from Calvinist, Anglican, and Catholic formations are shown to invoke personal revelation or unmediated experience of the divine, with the result that spiritual authority becomes invested in them: not in priestly mediators, guides, or teachers, but in their own selves, bodies, voices, and writings. For the formerly orthodox Calvinist Anna Maria van Schurman, it was experiential religion, “the gaze of divine Mercy” looking at her, that resolved paradoxes. The Catholic Mary Ward founded her Institutes, and nourished her persistence, from a series of “revelations”—although she was careful, as Ellis points out, to characterize them as “intellectual insights” rather than “visions”. M. Marsin, too, combined a thoroughly rationalized method for biblical exegesis with personal revelation.

Thoroughly internalized religious experience could provide the resources, it seemed, for the audacious breaking of boundaries. It may also have had the potential to reach across the religious divisions of early modern Europe. Antoinette Bourignon’s most dedicated followerswere in Scotland. Bo Karen Lee has made the point—in work beyond the scope of her essay in this volume—that Anna Maria van Schurman, a Calvinist, and Jeanne Guyon, a Catholic, were both able to bridge the hardened confessional differences that de_ ned, often with deadly consequences, the Europe in which they lived. Guyon, for instance, was attended by loyal Protestants on her deathbed, while van Schurman’sreformed background was reshaped by her encounter with Jean de Labadie, a former Jesuit turned Calvinist, and her later writings were shot through with themes borrowed from Catholic mysticism.

The final essay by Ruth Connolly takes on the question of European ecumenism directly. But Connolly’s subject, Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh, in her participation in and patronage of the energetically reformative Hartlib-Dury circle, had more sober, limited, and rationalaspirations than some of the women discussed in this volume. Her concern, and the concern of many of the figures associated with her, was the reconcilement of the Protestant factions of Europe against Catholicism.

Although her vision of toleration was a radical one for her time and place—she openly consorted with Quakers and other Nonconformists at a time in England when simply holding a private religious gathering was punishable by fine, prison, or, if persistent, transportation—it looks less radical to us simply because her vision won. As Connolly points out, Ranelagh was not a marginal woman. She had power and influence in a group that itself had political power and influence, and her advocacy of liberty of conscience with checks against antinomianism (and with exceptions remaining for Roman Catholicism) was eventually adopted by the religious-political culture that emerged in Britain after the Glorious Revolution.

In some ways, Ranelagh was the future. Yet Ranelagh’s insistence that godly individuals should be guided by the ‘inner light’ of natural reason and her millenarian interest in the ‘deliverance’ of the Jews should remind us that what might look superficially modern, rational, and liberal often has its feet planted in wilder soil. As a whole, this collectionseeks to elicit comparisons and connections where they might not usually be made, including the indeterminate region between rational, secular modernity and its radical, sacral underside. Taken together and in themselves, the studies in this volume help us to understand thelimits, complexity, and contingency of the radical religious beliefs and practices of early modern women. It is also hoped that they will enable what Rosemary Ruether hoped feminist theology would do: not only tell forgotten stories of women and religion, but also recover radical possibilities and understand what made them imaginable.

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