Sunday, 1 October 2017


       If God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by his
      holy scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write?
                                                                      -  Marie Dentière

It would be difficult to overemphasize the transformative impact of the Bible on sixteenth century European society and, in particular, on the place of women in that society. Invention became the mother of necessity. The movable-type printing press was a conveyor belt rolling out books by the wagon load. Books made reading, once a skill learned by the privileged few, available to the many. Demand encouraged the development of standardised vernacular languages. Men could see in print the words they were accustomed to speaking. It seemed like magic. But even more wondrous were the worlds now opened up to the imagination - romantic legends, tales of chivalry, chronicles, theological treatises, descriptions of newly-visited lands, bestiaries, almanacs, guides to practical husbandry, but, above all, the Bible. Incidents and personalities that had hitherto only been available to most people through occasional sermons, the visits of strolling players and the polychromed images in paint or glass in their churches now became parts of a connected and magnificent narrative - a world-changing narrative. One of the challenges the Bible presented was that of reconsidering the position of women in society. As newly-educated wives and mothers explored the Church's foundation document for themselves they encountered Ruth and Esther and Mary Magdalene. They discovered the important roles played in the Gospel story by members of their own sex. They read the words of St Paul: 'There is now neither male nor female but all are one in Christ Jesus.' And they questioned why a male-dominated hierarchy had kept this information from them. Some of them flouted convention by taking on new roles. I'll be telling the stories of some of these pioneers in the next few posts.

1.  The Writers

                            Fools that we are! to fear the civil law,
                           Popes and kings and city councils,
                           Torture, gibbets and prison fetters.
                           Through such fear we really commit treason.
                           Let us raise our eyes to our (divine) election.
                           We will no longer fear the condemnation
                           That man can pronounce against us ...
                           Believing that man has no power
                           Save that which is allotted him by (God's) will.

This is one of many poems to come from one of the most original minds of the sixteenth century. It's remarkable for several reasons. It was written by a queen. It expressed opinions officially condemned as heretical. And it was published. That last point is the most mould-breaking of all. Women did not presume to have books printed and circulated in their own name. They lacked the wisdom, the scholarship, the imagination for their works to appear beside men's on the bookstalls - everyone knew that. Well, not quite everyone. Certainly not Margaret of Angoulême (1492-1549), sister to Francis I of France and wife to Henry II of Navarre. She presided over the most cultured salon in Renaissance Europe north of the Alps. She gathered around her several of the finest writers and thinkers of the day including François Rabelais, the poet Clément Marot and the Bible translator Jacques Lefêvre d’Étaples. Margaret's own literary output was varied. As well as numerous poems, she wrote a book of risqué stories in the style of the Decameron and a spiritual autobiography The Mirror of the Sinful Soul. Margaret would not have got away with such audacity if she had not been the sister of one of the most powerful men in Europe.

Her initiative opened the way for other women who believed they had something to share with the world. In England Catherine Parr (1513-1548), sixth wife of Henry VIII, not renowned for allowing his womenfolk a meaningful degree of independence, read Margaret's moving apologia and ventured into print herself.  Her published works were the first by an English woman writing under her own name. She wrote psalm commentaries and collections of prayers before she, too, issued a personal confessional - Lamentations of a Sinner

It would be an exaggeration to say that these royal ladies opened the floodgates for female literary endeavour but they certainly encouraged other pioneers. The contemporary Italian noblewoman, and friend of Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547) did not hesitate to lambaste male leaders of church and state in her poems:

                  When the breath of God that moves above the tide
                  Fans the embers of my smouldering state
                  And the winds of God begin to dissipate
                  The foetid stench of the church, his bride,
                  Then the swaggering knight prepares to ride.
                  The war begins.

Of more humble origin was Marie Dentière (c.1495-c.1561) who came from humbler origins. Two facts make her of special interest: she enjoyed the patronage of Margaret of Navarre and she was a follower of the teaching of John Calvin, whom we do not normally think of as pro-feminist. Marie ventured fearlessly into the realm of political religious controversy. In pamphlets defending Calvin and his origination of the church in Geneva she argued, en passant, for her right to air her opinions and to claim for this right some impressive forebears: 

            What preacheress has done more than the Samaritan woman, 
            who was not ashamed to present Jesus and his word, confessing
            it openly before the world ... Or is anyone other than Mary 
            Magdalene ...  able to boast of having had the first revelation
            of the great mystery of Jesus' resurrection.

And was it a man or woman, she demanded, who had betrayed Jesus to the Jewish authorities? Fighting talk.

Next time:                          Women in Power

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