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MEDIEVAL AND EARLY MODERN WOMEN

Part 1: Manuscripts from the British Library, London

Brief Biographies of Featured Authors

Christine de Pisan

Born in Venice in 1363 or 1364, Christine spent most of her life in Paris, where she married (c. 1379) Etienne de Castel, secretary to Charles V and Charles VI. When he died c. 1389, she was left impoverished with three young children, as well as other family members, to support. From c. 1393, she made her living by writing and working as a scribe.


Christine’s son lived in England in the early fifteenth century, where she corresponded with John Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. Her reputation was soon established in this country, as it was in France, where many lords and ladies were her patrons. Two of the manuscripts presented here have a royal provenance: Harleian 4431, prepared under Christine’s supervision, was presented to Isabeau de Bavière, Queen of France, in 1410/11, while Royal 15 E vi was a present to Margaret of Anjou when she married Henry VI of England (Isabeau’s grandson) in 1445. Christine wrote love poems from a woman’s perspective, and prose works defending women against typical masculine attitudes of courtly love. She also engaged in heated academic debates on the position of women with male scholars of the age, denouncing the way in which women were portrayed in literature such as the Roman de la Rose. Christine’s extraordinarily successful and prolific career came to an end in c. 1429, when she died.

Marie de France

The earliest known female poet writing in French, Marie’s identity remains obscure. All that is known for certain is that she lived in England in the twelfth century, was evidently acquainted with royalty, knew English and Latin but wrote in French. Some scholars have identified her with the Marie who became Abbess of Shaftesbury in 1181.


She wrote, before 1189, 12 Lais (short narrative poems of love) dedicated to ‘the king’, presumably Henry II of England, and a collection of 102 Aesopic fables. She was greatly admired by English writers from the twelfth century onwards.

Julian of Norwich

Born c. 1343, Julian was an anchoress attached to the church of St. Julian and St. Edward in Norwich, and may also have been a nun for a time. Few biographical details exist for Julian, but she probably knew Latin and was extremely well-educated for a woman of her time - although she refers to herself as unlearned.

In May 1373, at the height of a serious illness, Julian experienced a series of sixteen mystical ‘showings’ which she used to write her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. The so-called ‘short’ version simply records the facts, while the longer version sets her visions into the context of her reclusive and spiritual life. Julian’s reputation spread quickly, both in England and abroad. She died after 1413.


Bridget of Sweden

Born in 1302, Bridget died in 1372 and was canonised in 1391. Married with numerous children, after a divine revelation she took a vow of chastity and received a Rule of religious life. The Pope allowed her to found two monasteries as long as they followed the Rule of St. Augustine, and not her own. (In 1378, however, the Bridgettine Rule was confirmed by the new Pope). Four male secretaries wrote down her Liber celestis revelationum, and translated it from the vernacular into Latin. Bridget was an incredibly influential visionary of the Middle Ages whose Rule led to the creation of the order of Bridgettine nuns, firmly established in England in the 1420’s. She had an enormous influence on lay devotion in fifteenth-century England.

Jane/Joan Lumley

Born c. 1537, Jane/Joan (there is evidence for both) was a member of a very well-connected family. Her father was Henry Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel (owner of the finest library in England), her sister Mary was Duchess of Norfolk, and her cousin was Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England 1553. She married Baron Lumley in 1550, aged about thirteen, and produced soon afterwards the earliest surviving English translation of a Greek tragedy: Euripides’ Iphigenia. She died in 1576.

Margaret Hoby

Born 1571 and married three times, once to the brother of the Earl of Essex, once to Thomas Sidney and once to Thomas Hoby, Margaret wrote the earliest extant English diary, in Yorkshire, between 1599 and 1605. It began as a strictly Puritan exercise to catch herself out failing to pray, or committing sins: as time went on, however, it became a record of her life and filled with less spiritual concerns. As the supervisor of her third husband’s estates, the days she describes were busy indeed. The diary stops abruptly in 1605, and Margery died in 1633.

Margery Kempe

In contrast with Margaret Hoby, Margery was illiterate and could not write her own Boke - famous as the first autobiography in English. Born c. 1373 in Norfolk, Margery’s background was similar to St. Bridget’s, in that she was married with numerous children, and also took a vow of chastity. Never well-educated, and from a fairly privileged background, she nevertheless set out on pilgrimages around England (including a visit to Julian of Norwich), and to the Holy Land, Compostella, Italy and Germany. She became notorious for excessive religious fervour, often shrieking and crying, and was extremely unpopular with her fellow travellers, who took to cutting up her clothes and doing their best to escape from her. She was questioned several times on suspicion of Lollardy, but was found completely orthodox, although her former parish priest was burned alive for heresy. Then as now, Margery had - and still has - her critics, but she was unquestionably holy, and her Boke stands as a unique social record by an irrepressible early female traveller. Margery died after 1439.

Rose Throckmorton (née Locke)

To continue a religious theme, in the life of Rose Throckmorton we find a continuation of the religious intolerance which touched even Margery Kempe. Born c. 1527, daughter of a London merchant, Rose was educated as Protestant, ‘very privately for feare of troble’. The mid-sixteenth century, as the early fifteenth, was not a good time to shout about differences of religious opinion, and Rose and her first husband Anthony Hickman (m. 1543) were persecuted by Queen Mary (Tudor) for harbouring clergy. Eventually they fled to Antwerp, only returning to England in 1558 after Queen Elizabeth had succeeded and it was safe to be Protestant. Rose married Simon Throckmorton after she was widowed, and wrote brief reminiscences for her children in 1610. She died in 1613.

Queen Mary Psalter

Two points of great interest arise from this stunning piece of medieval illumination. Firstly, that it belonged to Queen Mary Tudor (see also above), and is therefore the third of the manuscripts presented here to have belonged to a Queen (along with Harleian 4431 and Royal 15 E vi). Secondly, that the illumination, unusually for its time (1310-1320), attaches a great deal of importance to women and their actions. Medieval art is hardly known for its interest in strong female characters, but the Psalter is a notable exception. Its provenance is unknown - and probably unknowable - but some scholars have focused on Isabella, Queen of Edward II (1307-1327) as a possible patron. The reasons are too complex to go into here, but there is much in the Psalter to assume a royal patronage (not least the sheer expense of it), the dates are correct, and Isabella (the ‘She-Wolf of France’ and sometime Regent of England for her son Edward III) would no doubt have found much to admire in the portrayal of so many strong, powerful women becoming greater still through motherhood.

Katherine Aston

Born c. 1619, Katherine is mainly known through her family correspondence, in particular a letter in which she debates the nature of love. She died in 1658 after the birth of her tenth child; her husband wrote an affecting account of her death. He collected copies of poems, many by women and some by Katherine herself, and wrote his own poetry, which unfortunately does not survive.

Katherine Austen

Born in 1628, Katherine appears to have been the daughter of Robert Wilson of Highbury. When her husband died in 1658, she was left very well-off. She wrote poems, essays, complaints and debates, as well as notes on sermons, her dreams and supernatural occurrences. She never re-married (the subject of one of her debates with herself), and died in 1683.


Jane Barker

Born 1652 in Lincolnshire, Jane began writing poetry in c. 1674 and wrote Political Recreations in 1688, as well as other political poems, under the name ‘Fidelia’. In 1718 she was employed as a Jacobite spy. She also wrote prose works, such as A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies, 1723, and The Lining of the Patch-Work Screen, 1726. She died c. 1727.

Devonshire Manuscript

Three of the hands identified on this varied sixteenth-century manuscript are those of Mary Shelton, Mary Fitzroy and Margaret Douglas, all well-born women at the court of Henry VIII, and all connected with the household of Anne Boleyn, Queen of England from 1533 until her execution in 1536. Mary Fitzroy, née Howard, was married to Henry VIII’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, and Margaret Douglas, future Countess of Lennox, was the mother of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Margaret’s correspondence with Lord Thomas Howard, found in this manuscript, points to their affair, which led eventually to their imprisonment. As many as twenty-three people contributed to this manuscript, although Shelton, Fitzroy and Douglas were the principal contributors, and it seems to have circulated around all the group before being given to the Fitzroys as a wedding present. While none of the c. 184 poems or fragments in the manuscript is considered to be of great significance, Mary Shelton’s importance to the Tudor literary world has generally been seriously undervalued, and it is extremely interesting to catch a glimpse of sixteenth-century women’s lives as revealed by this informal, entertaining manuscript.

Lettice Cary

Very few biographical details are available about Lettice. She was married to Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland, who was killed at the battle of Newbury in 1643. Lettice herself died in 1647. Her domestic chaplain, John Duncon, wrote an account of her life and death in a letter to her mother Lady Morison.

Grace Cary

Even less is known about Grace Cary. She lived in Bristol in the seventeenth century and had visions ‘concerning these tragicall times’, that is, the Civil War, in 1644.

Elizabeth Jocelyn

Born c. 1595, she married Tourell Jocelyn in c. 1615. Jocelyn’s grandfather was Master of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and taught her religion, languages and history. She died nine days after giving birth to her only child Theodora, in 1622. Her unfinished Mother’s Legacie to Her Unborne Childe was written throughout her pregnancy and ends in a very shaky hand. It was published two years after her death and included a moving letter to her husband. Jocelyn believed that an education such as the one she herself received was unsuitable for a girl, and that housewifery and Bible study should suffice.

Mary Clarcke

Born c. 1522, she translated Greek works into English and dedicated them to Lady Mary Tudor, afterwards Queen Mary (see also above for other works presented here which relate to Mary). She died in 1572.

Katherine Parr

Born in 1512, she was married four times, including to Henry VIII as his sixth and final wife. One of only eight Englishwomen published between 1486 and 1548, she was strongly interested in Protestantism, which interest she passed on to two future Queens of England, Lady Jane Grey and her stepdaughter Elizabeth. She also strongly encouraged Elizabeth’s own writing during the period she oversaw her education. Katherine often held religious debate with Henry VIII, and her religious beliefs brought her close to execution, especially as she was closely associated with Anne Askew, a young woman burned alive for heresy in 1546. Anne was tortured illegally in the hope that she would implicate Queen Katherine, but she did not. With a good knowledge of Latin and Greek, Katherine published a collection of Prayers and Medytacions in 1545, which went into fifteen editions by 1608, and Lamentacion of a Sinner in 1547, the year of Henry VIII’s death. She died in childbirth in 1548, during her fourth marriage to Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry’s third wife Jane and Edward Seymour, Regent of England for Katherine’s stepson Edward VI.

Margaret Roper (née More)

Born in 1505, Margaret was the eldest child of Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England, statesman, churchman and author, who firmly believed in the education of women and taught his daughters the full syllabus. Margaret wrote, mostly in Latin, works that are now lost, also translating Erasmus’ Precatio dominica. She wrote fluent, expressive and learned letters in English to her father during his imprisonment in the Tower, 1534-5. Margaret married William Roper, and died in 1544.

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