Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, July 31, 2015

Sibylla Schwarz: A German "Sappho"

Sibylla Schwarz (died 31 July 1638)

Born on 14 February 1621 in the German city of Greifswald, on the Baltic sea, the poet Sibylla Schwarz was just seventeen years old when she died. Her father, Christian, was the mayor of the city; her mother was named Regina. 

Sibylla Schwarz, from the
1650 edition of her work
Little is written about Sibylla Schwarz in English--and, I am sorry to say, I do not read German. Even with the help of Google Translate, there is just not much information to be had about her (at this time, at any rate). 

Her poetry, collected in a volume titled Deutsche Poëtische Gedichte (translated as German Poetic Verses), was published posthumously, in 1650, by a teacher. Included are sonnets about friendship and love, but her poetry also includes themes of war (she's writing during the Thirty Years War) and death. She also notes the jealousy of those who resent a woman writing poetry.

And, of course, like so many other women writers, she was compared to the poet Sappho, praised as the "German Sappho." 

The few works on Sibylla Schwarz are all in German. For the little I have included here, I'm relying on the now-classic Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature Throughout the World, published in 1992 and edited by Claire Buck. (Now out of print, but you can generally find a used copy. It's HUGE--there are more than 5,000 entries!)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Emily Brontë and Mothers of the Novel

Emily Brontë (born 30 July 1818)

Born on 30 July 1818, Emily Brontë published her only novel, Wuthering Heights, under the pen name of "Ellis Bell."
Emily Brontë, as painted by her

I've already posted about her elder sister, Charlotte, and her younger, Anne. Together the three novelists make a formidable grouping of "mothers of the novel," though they are much more familiar to contemporary readers than some of the other women novelists we have seen to this point in our year of daily postings on women's history.

Her earliest work was in creating the fictional world of Gondal with her sister, Anne. Wuthering Heights was published in London in 1847. Her publisher believed she had begun another novel; if so, it was never completed. Emily Brontë died on 19 December 1848. 

Update, 4 November 2017: If you're in the mood for a podcast, you will enjoy this episode of the BBC Radio 4 In Our Times--it's a discussion of Wuthering Heights. The episode was broadcast at the end of September--I'm a bit behind in listening!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Beatrice of Nazareth: "Absorbed in the Abyss of Love"

Beatrice of Nazareth (feast day, 29 July)

The woman who became known as Beatrice of Nazareth was born about the year 1200 in Tienen, a town near the Flemish city of Leuven, to a relatively wealthy father, Bartholomew, a man known for his piety. She was the youngest of six children, educated at first by her mother--and the young Beatrice was recognized as "a prodigy of learning."

Stained glass depiction of
Beatrice of Nazareth,
Cistercian Abbey of Brecht,
the "official continuation"
of the monastery of Nazareth
After her mother's death, when Beatrice was about aged seven, her father sent her to a community of beguines at Zoutleeuw so "that she might more freely make progress in virtue."* While there she also attended a town school, open to both boys and girls, where she was trained in the seven liberal arts.

Called home by her father about a year later, Beatrice asked to join a religious order, and so, about the year 1210, when she was ten years old, she became an oblate at the Cistercian convent at Bloemendaal. She became a novitiate when she was about fifteen years old, and soon thereafter she was professed as a nun.

In 1216, the abbess of Bloemendaal sent her to the Cistercian community of Rameya to learn how to write liturgical manuscripts. At Rameya she developed a close spiritual friendship with the visionary Ida of Nivelles.

In January of 1217, under Ida's direction, Beatrice experienced her first mystical vision; as it was described by her contemporary biographer, "Beatrice, with devout meditation, praise, thanksgiving and all humility followed the Son as he ascended right up to the Father's presence." This is a vision seen "not with bodily but with intellectual eyes, with eyes not of the flesh but of the mind." 

Shortly after this experience, she returned to Blomendaal, where her father, two brothers, and two sisters had become lay members of the community. When a daughter community was founded in 1221, her family moved to the new Maagendal house, and Beatrice eventually joined them there, perhaps in 1221, perhaps later. Whenever she moved to Maagendal, she remained there until 1236 when she transferred to the new Cistercian convent of Nazareth, which gave her her name, Beatrice of Nazareth. She was elected prioress and remained there until her death in 1268.

A fourteenth-century Brussels
ms. of Beatrice of Nazareth's
The Seven Manners of Loving
For twenty years, from about 1215 until 1235, Beatrice is known to have kept a spiritual journal, now lost. In Nazareth, a Vita Beatricis (life of Beatrice) was written, and this document preserves much of the detail of Beatrice's life.

In Nazareth she also composed her own text, The Seven Manners of Loving--which religious historian Bernard McGinn regards as "a powerful exploration" of the most important themes "of the women mystics of northern Europe in the thirteenth century."

Beatrice of Nazareth is venerated as the Blessed Beatrice, her feast day celebrated on 29 July.

There is an excellent discussion of Beatrice of Nazareth as a mystic in McGinn's The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism, 1200-1350, volume 3 of his History of Western Christian Mysticism. In addition, Fione Bowles's volume in the Spiritual Classics series, Beguine Spirituality: Mystical Writings of Mechthild of Magdeburg, Beatrice of Nazareth, and Hadewijch of Brabant, offers a good introduction to her work.

You can read Beatrice of Nazareth's Seven Manners of Loving by clicking here.

*As we have seen, the Beguines were a lay religious movement--Beguines like Marie of Oignies and Mechthild of Magdeburg were not associated with any religious order, nor did they live in any officially sanctioned community. They lived an ascetic, spiritual life, devoting themselves to poverty and chastity, working among the poor and ill and modeling their lives on the life of Jesus. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Margaret of Durazzo: Queen and Regent--and Mother of a Queen

Margaret of Durazzo, queen and regent of Naples (born 28 July 1347)

Margaret of Durazzo was daughter of Charles of Durazzo and Maria of Calabria--whose elder sister was Joanna I, queen regnant of Naples.

In 1370, Margaret of Durazzo was married to her cousin, also named Charles of Durazzo (confusing, isn't it?). The Charles of Durazzo who was Margaret's husband had been held as a hostage for his father's good behavior by Joanna I. Although the queen opposed the marriage for her own political reasons, the two, who were first cousins, received a papal dispensation in order to marry.

Margaret of Durazzo
The conflict between Joanna I and Pope Urban VI, whom she had once supported, involved more than this question of marriage--in 1382, the pope dethroned Joanna and awarded her crown to Margaret of Durazzo's husband. Of course Joanna just didn't hand over Naples to him--he had to fight for the kingdom. And after he captured Joanna, he had her strangled. 

And thus Margaret of Durazzo became queen of Naples. The pope then became suspicious that Charles, now king of Naples, was plotting against him--so he excommunicated both King Charles and Queen Margaret, placing Naples under interdict in 1385. But as the conflict continued, Urban found himself imprisoned by Charles, although he ultimately managed to escape to Genoa.

Meanwhile, Charles of Durazzo, king of Naples, now claimed the throne of Hungary, deposing the country's ruling queen, Mary. He was successful--but only briefly. He was assassinated on 7 February 1386.

Back in Naples, Margaret of Durazzo, queen consort of Naples, now became regent of Naples for her nine-year-old son, Ladislaus. But Pope Urban refused to recognize him and called for a crusade against him. Overwhelmed by opposing forces, Margaret and her son were forced to retreat into the fortress of Gaeta. Fortunately for mother and son, Urban died in 1389 and was replaced by Boniface IX, who recognized Ladislaus's title. 

Margaret of Durazzo's tomb,
Cathedral of Salerno
Margaret's regency ended in 1400, and she retired to Salerno, where she became a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, a lay order whose members lived in community and dedicated their lives to prayer and service. She died on 6 August 1412. 

Margaret's son, Ladislaus "the Magnificent," king of Naples and titular king of Jerusalem, ruled Naples until his death in 1417. He was succeeded by a woman we have met before, his sister Joanna, who ruled Naples as Joanna II.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Jeanne Baret: Around the World

Jeanne Baret (born 27 July 1740)

Jeanne Baret is credited as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe--although she did have a seven-year layover on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. And she did the first part of the journey not as Jeanne, a woman, but as Jean, a man.
An imagined Jeanne Baret,
from an engraving made after her death

Born in 1740, Jeanne Baret and her early life are relatively undocumented--the names of her parents, Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard are known, her father a day laborer, and probably illiterate, though Jeanne herself could at least sign her name. Jeanne Baret also acquired a knowledge of medicinal plants. Her recent biographer, Glynis Ridley, identifies her as an "herb woman."

Between 1760 and 1764, Jeanne Baret met the nobleman Philibert Commerçon, a naturalist who had recently lost his wife in childbirth. Her practical knowledge was of use to him--Ridley says Baret served as a teacher, an assistant, and an "all around aide." She became his housekeeper and his lover. 

The two moved to Paris where, in 1764, Jeanne Baret gave birth to Commerçon's child. The boy was placed in a foundling hospital, then with a foster mother, but he died in 1765. (Meanwhile, Commerçon's legitimate child, also a son, had been put into the care of a brother-in-law--and Commerçon never saw him again.)

In 1765, Commerçon was asked to join the expedition of the French admiral and explorer Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville--the aim was to circumnavigate the globe. Commerçon accepted the invitation, and took Jeanne Baret with him as his "servant"--of course, since women were prohibited on French naval ships, Commerçon and Baret devised a plan. Jeanne became "Jean," and the two departed on the Bougainville expedition in December 1766.

Traveling as a man and as Commerçon's assistant, Jeanne Baret carried out the expedition's botanical work--as Jennie Cohen notes* in "First Woman to Circle the Globe Honored at Last," the two identified more than 6,000 plant specimens.

Baret's sex was undiscovered until 1768. Accounts of how Jeanne's true identity came to be known vary--according to some versions, the identification was made when the expedition was in Tahiti, but Ridley thinks the most likely is that, shortly after leaving the island, the crew (or other servants--details differ) stripped "him," and then gang-raped her on the island of New Ireland (now in Papua New Guinea). Whatever the circumstances, nine months later, Jeanne Baret gave birth to another baby.

When the ship reached the island of Mauritius (in the Indian Ocean), Commerçon and Baret remained, "guests" of the island's governor. The two resumed their lives, with Baret again acting as Commerçon's assistant and housekeeper. They also continued their botanical research--with trips to Madagascar and Bourbon Island (southwest of Mauritius). 

After Commerçon's death in 1773, with funds running low, Baret married Jean Dubernat. At some point in 1775 or 1776, she returned to France--thus becoming the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe. 

There were no crowds to cheer her upon her arrival back in France, but, as Ridley makes clear, Commerçon's family made sure the bequest he had left her was honored and the French Navy--which forbid women on its ships--awarded her a pension, recognizing her as an "extraordinary woman."

Baret died on 5 August 1807.

In her essay on Baret, Cohen noted that, while the expeditions most famous plant, bougainvillea, was named for the expedition's leader, nothing was named in honor of Baret:
Despite her extraordinary contributions to the field of botany, until recently nothing in the natural world was named for Baret. (By contrast, 70 plants, insects and mollusks bear the designation “commersonii.”) Commerson’s notes reveal that he wanted to name a shrub he observed with Baret in Madagascar after his partner, perhaps because the plant’s many-shaped leaves evoked her ambiguous and multifaceted nature. He died before making the designation official, and instead of Baretia the genus is now known as Turraea.
That has now been rectified. As Cohen reports, the biologist Eric Tepe heard Baret's biographer, Glynis Ridley, on an NPR interview in 2010. Ridley closed her interview by saying, "It would be wonderful if, as a result of the book, somebody wants to name something after Baret again," adding, "I think that would be a nice tribute."

Tepe rectified the situation, naming a beautiful flowering- and fruit-bearing vine in her honor, the Solanum baretiae.

The Solanum baretiae, named after Jeanne Baret
by Eric Tepe

*Unfortunately, only a tag remains on the History website where this excellent essay was posted on 4 January 2012. I have left the quotations from Cohen here, to document her piece and original work. The page existed until at least 2020 before it was disappeared . . . Sigh.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Elena Cornaro Piscopia: "The Prodigy of Venice"

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (died 26 July 1684)

Born in Venice on 5 June 1646, Elena Cornaro Piscopia was the first woman known to have been awarded a doctoral degree by a university.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia
She was the daughter of Giovanni Battista Cornaro Piscopia, a member of the extraordinary Cornaro family--a family that produced doges (the chief magistrate of Venice), cardinals, soldiers, and a queen (Caterina Cornaro, the last queen of Cyprus).

Giovanni Battista Cornaro Piscopia himself was a procuratore di San Marco, a position second only to that of the doge of Venice. (A fourteenth-century king of Cyprus who stayed at the Cornaro palace, Palazzo Loredan, had given his hosts a Cypriot castle, Proscopia, which was added to the name of this branch of the Cornaro family.)

Elena's mother was Zaneta Giovanna Boni of Val di Sabia, variously described as "a peasant" or as a woman "of common origins"--and not married to Giovanni Battista at the time of Elena's birth, although she was the third child the couple had together. 

By the age of seven, Elena Cornaro Piscopia was being tutored by the family priest in philosophy, theology, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic, among other subjects. Whew!!

The young Elena Cornaro Piscopia was also devout--she secretly made a vow of chastity when she was eleven, and in 1665, at the age of nineteen, Elena Cornaro became a Benedictine oblate, a lay monastic--though her father would not allow her to become a nun, which is what she wanted to do. 

Instead, in 1672, he sent her to the University of Padua where she could continue her education. Having completed her studies in 1677,  Elena applied for a degree in theology, but that degree was refused--she was a woman, and Catholic authorities refused to award the title of doctor of theology to a woman. She was given a doctor of philosophy degree instead. 

Given the extraordinary interest in her, her defense was schedule at the Cathedral of Blessed Virgin, Padua, rather than at the university's hall, on 25 June 25 1678. She was thirty-two years old, the first woman known to have received a doctoral degree. 

She devoted the last seven years of her life to study, rigorous penance, and ministering to the poor. Her academic discourses, translations, and devotional work were published posthumously in Parma (1688--I've been unable to locate a title page or the volume itself).

The Encyclopedia of World Biography offers an excellent essay here. There is also a brief chapter on Elena Cornaro Piscopia in a 2009 European Union publication, Women in Science--it's an entire book you can access and read or download for free! There is also a new English translation of an Italian biography, written in 1978, by Francesco Maschietto, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684): The First Woman to Earn a University Degree. The original publication of Maschietto's book commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of Cornaro Piscopia's doctoral examination in Padua. 

A commemorative plaque in Venice,
noting the place of Elena Cornaro Piscopia's birth

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Josephine Tey: A Life in Crime

Elizabeth Mackintosh, "Josephine Tey" (born 25 July 1896)

Born Elizabeth MacKintosh, the writer who is best known for her detective novels chose the pseudonym Josephine Tey by combining her mother's first name (before her marriage, she was Josephine Horne) with the surname of an English grandmother (or great grandmother--accounts vary). 

Tey published a series of five mystery novels featuring a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Alan Grant. She also published three stand-alone mysteries, one of which (The Franchise Affair), interestingly, contains a number of references to Alan Grant.

In addition to her mysteries, she also wrote a series of successful plays under another pen name, Gordon Daviot. (Her first Alan Grant novel was also published under this pseudonym but was later republished under the name "Josephine Tey.")

Like "Josephine Tey," the name "Daviot" had personal connections, the name of a district, outside Inverness, where the Scottish MacKintosh family spent their holiday time. Gordon Daviot was also the name Elizabeth MacKintosh preferred to use in her personal life, among family and friends. Indeed, her death notice, published in The Times, reads, "DAVIOT--On Feb. 13, 1952, in London, GORDON DAVIOT, Playwright and Novelist. Cremation at the South London Crematorium, Rowan Road, Streatham Vale, S.W. 16, on Monday, Feb. 18, at 11 a.m. No flowers."

The first of Tey's mysteries, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929, the last, The Singing Sands, again featuring Alan Grant, published posthumously in 1952. Her dates, then, place her squarely inside the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction." Four of her contemporaries, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers, are sometimes described as the "Queens of Crime"--for my money, although she may be less well known to American readers, Tey equally deserves this royal treatment.

Tey ventured into historical territory in her novels and plays, which may make some of you particularly interested in her work. Her play Richard of Bordeaux is about Richard II, another, Dickon, about Richard III, and Queen of Scots, about, well, obviously, Mary, queen of Scots.

John Gielguld as Richard II
in the 1933 Richard of Bordeaux,
which ran for fourteen months,
472 performances
Her most "famous" work, though, is The Daughter of Time--in which Alan Grant, laid up in the hospital, "proves" that Richard III is not guilty of the death of the princes in the Tower. It's a tour de force, and if you only have time to sample one Tey novel (and you happen to love historical fiction!), this is the one to try!

There is an excellent biographical essay about the elusive Elizabeth Mackintosh/Gordon Daviot/Josephine Tey here. And since I am a huge fan of mystery-writer Val McDermid, I'm linking here to her recent piece on Josephine Tey, whom she describes as "pathologically private," in The Telegraph. 

McDarmid is especially good on the issues of gender and sexual ambiguity, identity, masks, and disguises which are found throughout Tey's work. McDarmid begins:
From time to time, audiences ask crime writers who we would choose if we could have a single new novel from a dead crime writer. The name that comes up most frequently is not Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler. It’s not even one of the more recently deceased such as Reginald Hill or Elmore Leonard. No, the writers’ choice is a reclusive Scottish spinster who wrote only a handful of crime novels: Josephine Tey.
Partly that’s because of the range and quality of her work. Reading Tey for the first time is a surprise and a delight; re-reading her provokes the same response.
McDermid also links Tey to Ruth Rendell--so there you go, triple play! (I am so not a baseball fan, but . . . )

First edition of The Daughter of Time,

Friday, July 24, 2015

Louise Labé: La Belle Cordière (the "Beautiful Rope Maker")

Louise Labé (dedicatory letter, 24 July 1555)

Louise Labé was born in Lyon, probably between 1520 and 1522, the daughter of a fairly well-to-do rope maker, Pierre Charly, and his second wife, Etiennette Roybet (since she died in 1523, that makes the latest possible date for Louise's birth). 

An engraving of Labé,
from her 1555 
Interestingly, the name Labé came from a property owned by a previous husband of Pierre Charly's first wife, Guillemette Humbert--after his marriage to her, Pierre Charly assumed the name Labé, a name Louise adopted and retained, even after her marriage.

Although Pierre Charly (Labé) was himself illiterate, he was also an up-and-coming bourgeois citizen of Lyon, "a city at the crossroads of the burgeoning cultural Renaissance," and so he made sure to provide his daughter with the same kind of humanist education he provided his sons--she learned both classical and modern languages in addition to acquiring "feminine" skills like music and needlework.

At some point between 1542 and 1545, she was married to a wealthy rope maker, a marriage negotiated by her father. Although her marriage to Ennemond Perrin provided her with financial security, it did not provide her with intellectual companionship, certainly--but neither did it prevent her from participating in the literary community of Lyon. By 1555, a literary collection, including a lengthy prose debate between "folly and love," three extended elegies, and twenty-four sonnets, was published as Œuvres ("works").

Significantly, in her sonnets Labé rewrites the Petrarchan model, with its longing male lover who addresses a distant and elusive female beloved, and approaches the relationship from the perspective of a female lover and speaker. Hers is an abbreviated sequence--just twenty-four sonnets--but in them she both uses and subverts the conventional motifs. 

I've read zillions of sonnets (well, okay, if not zillions, then lots) that anatomize the bodies of female beloveds, praising, top to toe, their body parts--hair, foreheads, eyes, eyebrows, cheeks, lips, breasts. In her second sonnet, Labé takes apart the body of her male beloved--praising his brown eyes, and his "forehead, hair, arm, hand, and finger." 

In her eighth, she employs the oxymoron first employed by Petrarch in his Rime, "Pace non trovo, et non ò da fa guerra" (sonnet 134, "I find no peace, and I make no war") and remade by Sir Thomas Wyatt as "I find no peace, and all my war is done." Here is Labé's version, in which she omits the war-making of the Petrarchan original but maintains the other opposites of the Italian original: "I live, I die: I burn and also drown. / I'm utterly hot and all I feel is cold."

And, then, I love her version of Catullus 5, the poem to Lesbia where he famously writes, "Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred, / then another thousand, then a second hundred, / then yet another thousand more, then another hundred." Here's the opening Labé's eighteenth sonnet: "Kiss me again, rekiss me, and then kiss / me again, with your richest, most succulent / kiss. . . ."

But Labé seemed to struggle against the roles women had been traditionally assigned, even as she seemed to accept them, a tension made clear in the dedicatory letter that prefaces her collection. Labé dedicates her work "To M. C. D. B. L.," Madame Clémence de Bourges, Lionnoize, whom she addresses as "mademoiselle."  In this preface, Labé expresses her thankfulness that "men’s harsh laws no longer prevent women from applying themselves to study and learning." Nevertheless, she writes, 
. . . I cannot carry out on my own the sincere wish I have for our sex, to see it surpass or equal men not only in physical beauty, but in knowledge and virtue. I can do no more than urge virtuous ladies to raise their minds a bit above their distaffs and spindles, and to dedicate themselves to making the world that understand that if we are not made to be in command, we nevertheless should not be scorned as partners, in domestic as in public affairs, by those who rule and demand obedience.
I've used the date for this dedicatory letter--24 July 1555--as the occasion for today's post. Labé died on 11 April 1566--but after 1555, we hear nothing from her again.

Kirk Read's excellent biography of Louise Labé is available at Oxford Bibliographies; you can access it by clicking here. Reid's essay is followed by a good bibliography if you are looking for more information.

For Labé's work, I recommend Deborah Lesko Baker and Annie Finch's Louise Labé: Complete Poetry and Prose, a Bilingual Edition. I've used their translations in all of the quotations from Labé in this post.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Birgitta of Sweden: Celestial Revelations

Birgitta of Sweden (died 23 July 1373)

The life of Birgitta Birgersdotter changed radically in 1344. Before that date, she lived a pious but conventional life as daughter, wife, and mother. After 1344, her life was utterly unconventional.

A late fifteenth-century depiction of
St. Birgitta of Sweden
Born about the year 1303, Birgitta was the daughter of Birger Persson, a wealthy landowner and member of a prominent family, who was also a governor and provincial judge in Uppland, a province on the eastern coast of Sweden. Her mother was Birger Perssons's second wife, Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, who had equally illustrious connections, both to the Swedish monarchy, and to Birger Magnusson of Bjälbo, the founder of the city of Stockholm.

Birgitta would later claim that she had begun experiencing mystical visions when she was seven and that she had wished to join a religious order. But her father did not want his daughter to enter a convent, and after Ingeborg Bengtsdotter's death, about 1314, Birger Persson decided to arrange a politically advantageous marriage for his daughter. So in 1316, Birgitta was married to Ulf Gudmarsson, lord of Närke, and she would spend much, though not all, of their twenty-eight-year marriage at his castle at Ulvâsa in Östergötland.

Birgitta happily discovered her husband was as dedicated to his faith as she was. Over the course of the next three decades, Birgitta would live the life of a wife and mother--although one who was also devout and dedicated to performing works of charity. Despite some accounts of her life that focus on her avoidance of "marital pleasure," Birgitta gave birth to eight children, four sons and four daughters. She was also called to court of King Magnus Eriksson after his 1335 marriage to Blanche of Namur. 

Birgitta would enter the second phase of her life in 1344, after her husband's death. Now in her forties, a widow, and freed from childbearing and childrearing, she could devote herself to the religious life that had been denied her earlier. 

She became a practicing ascetic, like many of the religious women we have already seen, denying herself food and subjecting herself to a variety of penitential acts. Her visionary experiences returned; after her death, her confessor recorded some six hundred of her revelations in Latin as Revelationes coelestes ("celestial revelations").  

Not content to join an established religious order, Birgitta founded her own religious community, probably in the year 1346. Originally known as the Order of St. Saviour, it later became known as the the Brigittines, an order that included joint communities of both monks and nuns. Its chief monastery was at Vadstena, in Östergötland, a gift from Magnus of Sweden. 

A detail from a prayer book, c. 1500,
St. Birgitta of Sweden
In 1349, seeking approval for her new order, Birgitta traveled to Rome, accompanied by one of her sons and her daughter, Catherine, about whom I posted earlier this year. Although the order would not receive papal approval until August 1370, Birgitta decided to remain in Rome (though she did undertake occasional pilgrimages, including one to the Holy Land in 1372). She died in Rome on 23 July 1373.

After Birgitta's death, her daughter Catherine returned to Sweden with her mother's body. Birgitta was buried in the monastery she had founded in Vadstena. Catherine continued her mother's work in the monastery and with the Briggitine order, though she ultimately returned to Rome to work for Birgitta's canonization, which took place on 7 October 1391. (While in Rome, Catherine developed a close relationship with a woman we have met before, Catherine of Siena.) 

And as a further note: St. Birgitta of Sweden's daughter, Catherine, was herself canonized, in 1484, as St. Catherine of Sweden. Like her mother, Catherine had been married, but her husband died while she was in Rome with her mother. Birgitta's granddaughter Ingegerd, the child of Birgitta's daughter Margareta, became the first official abbess of Vadstena Abbey in 1388. (Unfortunately, she was accused of forgery, embezzlement, and breaking her vows of chastity and removed as abbess in 1403. Oops. But she remained a member of the community until her death in 1412, and in the end her sins were forgiven.)

For a short biography, I'll link you here to the online Encyclopedia Britannica entry. A longer biography, available here, via the Encyclopedia of World Biograhy, is also quite good. There are many editions of her Revelations and prayers available, but I like Classics of Western Spirituality text, Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Writings.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mary of Austria: "The Heart To Do Anything"

Mary of Austria, queen and regent of Hungary and Bohemia, regent of Hungary, and governor of the Netherlands (crowned queen of Hungary and Bohemia, 22 July 1515)

Born in 1505, Mary of Austria was the third daughter born to Juana of Castile and Philip of Austria--and thus a niece of the formidable Margaret of Austria, whom we have met before, on multiple occasions. Mary would find in her aunt a role model, but she would also experience the very real personal costs of following the model her aunt had set.*

Mary of Austria, c. 1519
When she was just six months old, on 17 March 1506, the infant Mary's grandfather, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian concluded an agreement for her marriage to an as-yet unborn heir to the throne of Hungary and Bohemia. In September, after the death of Philip of Austria, Mary and her siblings (including Isabel of Austria) were transferred to the care of her aunt. 

The marriage alliance was confirmed in 1507 after the birth of Louis of Hungary, and in 1514, when she was eight years old, Mary left Margaret of Austria's court at Mechelen and traveled to Maximilian's court in Vienna in preparation for the conclusion of his proposed alliance. 

To that end, in the summer of 1515, Mary of Austria was betrothed to Louis. Maximilian, who had proposed a double alliance, originally planned that one of his grandsons (that is, one of Mary of Austria's siblings)--either Charles or Ferdinand--would marry Louis' sister, Anne of Bohemia, but instead he decided to marry the twelve-year-old princess himself. 

After the formal betrothal ceremonies, the two "little queens" remained together in Vienna. In 1516 Maximilian changed his mind about Anne and secured a papal dispensation that would allow his grandson Ferdinand to marry her instead. On 24 July 1516 the fourteen-year-old Anne knelt next to Maximilian, renounced her title as "empress," and was married by proxy to Maximilan's grandson. Following this ceremony, the "little queens," now sisters-in-law, were sent to Innsbruck.

Mary of Austria's marriage to Louis of Hungary and Bohemia was celebrated on 11 December 1520, and the following May, not yet sixteen years old, she left for Hungary along with her sister-in-law Anne. By 1524, the strong wife of a weak man, the new queen had negotiated considerable influence and authority for herself, and by 1525, in a "spectacular coup," she gained even more when she assumed control of one powerful political faction and put down the threat, for the moment, of another. A friend wrote to the humanist scholar Erasmus expressing the hope and regret of many: "If she could only be changed into a king, our affairs would be in better shape." 

 The Venetian ambassador at the Hungary court recorded a description of Mary: 
The most serene queen is about twenty-two years old, of diminutive stature, long and narrow face, rather comely, very spare, with a slight color, black eyes, her under lip rather thick, lively, never quiet either at home or abroad. Rides admirably, and manages a horse with as much address as the best horseman. She is a good shot with the crossbow, is intellectual, and has the heart to do anything.
But her active and intellectual nature seemed to endanger her "natural" role as a woman, however: "It is generally supposed that by reason of her natural volatility and from too much exercise and motion she will have no posterity." And despite a "heart" which promised she could "do anything," Mary could not unite the country, and when the Turks invaded, Louis of Hungary was killed. 

Mary of Austria, queen of Hungary
and Bohemia, 1520
On 30 August 1526, the day after her husband's death, Mary wrote to her brother Ferdinand, notifying him of the Hungarian defeat and sending him a warning: "I fear the Turk will not stop at my lord brother's borders." Shortly thereafter, an urgent message was sent to the archduke, urging him to come immediately to Hungary's aid--until he could arrive, troops were requested to support Mary "so that the kingdom does not fall away from us entirely and Your Serene Highness can the better come into Hungary with her help."

But Ferdinand was concerned with what was going on in Bohemia, where he had been elected king, and instead of coming himself he named Mary as his regent of Hungary. Throughout 1526 she worked to secure her brother Ferdinand's election to the crown of Hungary.

On 14 February 1527 she asked him to allow her to resign from her regency, but he preferred her to remain. She continued until the summer of 1527 when Ferdinand finally arrived in Hungary. On 29 October he was crowned king. 

Relieved of the responsibility of her position, what followed were years "of aimless wandering, of financial worries, ill health, and loneliness." In 1528 she rejected her aunt's proposal for a marriage to James V of Scotland, writing to the regent and to her brother Ferdinand that, having loved her husband, she did not wish another marriage; in 1530 she rejected another proposed husband, Frederick of Bavaria. 

In 1528 she also rejected Ferdinand's request that she resume her regency in Hungary: "such affairs need a person wiser and older than I am," she wrote. Drawn into Ferdinand's affairs in 1529, she still demurred, noting that she did not wish to act "like those women who interfere in many things which are not demanded of them."

But in 1530, after her aunt Margaret of Austria's death, Mary received yet another letter from her brother: "I advise you that it has pleased God to take to himself madam, our aunt, the first day of this month, God rest her soul." He concluded on a rather ominous note of warning: "And I think this might perchance cause your affairs to take a different course." 

Ferdinand's letter was quickly followed by a letter dated 3 January 1531 from her brother Charles, now the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; the emperor requested that she assume the regency of the Netherlands. As her biographer Jane de Iongh states Mary's dilemma, on the one hand she could remain a queen "without a country, without a crown, without money," but with some measure of independence. On the other she could assume the regency of the Netherlands which offered action, responsibilities, and power--but no independence. 

In her response of 29 January, Mary agreed to take over the regency for Charles. In October she was invested with the power to uphold the law, to receive petitions, to supervise legislation and finances, to command the army, and to head the various governors of the provinces: "In short, she received the right to perform everything that could serve to maintain the sovereign's authority and the welfare of the country."

She was also to help the emperor in arranging the marriages of her nieces, for Charles, like his Habsburg grandfather, decided to follow the course of "happy Austria" in using marriage to effect in arranging political alliances. His sister Isabel's two daughters, Dorotea and Christina, had been at Margaret of Austria's court when the old regent died, and Mary, in turn, became their guardian. In 1532 an envoy from the duke of Milan arrived to arrange a marriage with Dorotea, but Charles tried again to form an alliance with James V of Scotland. Since his sister Mary had refused the king, Charles hoped James could be persuaded to accept his niece instead, but the king refused, preferring an alliance with France. 

The duke of Milan, meanwhile, changed his mind about Dorotea and proposed a marriage with the younger Christina, then eleven years old. Charles agreed not only to a marriage by proxy but to an immediate consummation once Christina could travel to Milan. At this, Mary of Austria responded, for once, as her biographer notes, abandoning "the humble attitude of modest pupil" which she had adopted with her brother and speaking with "a conviction and a confidence in her own judgment that cannot have escaped Charles despite the careful terms in which her letter was couched": 
I reply to Your Majesty . . . only to unburden my conscience . . . and to warn you of the difficulties I think I discern. . . . I am of the opinion that it contravenes the law of God and all reason to have her marry so young, before she is twelve years old. . . . I hold it not only contrary to God's command, but I am moreover convinced that you may endanger her life, should she become pregnant before she is altogether a woman. It has often happened that in such cases neither the mother nor the child has survived the birth.
Monseigneur, I am aware that I have said more about this matter, and that I express myself more clumsily, than is desirable. I beg you to forgive me, for my conscience and the love I bear the child compel me to it.
Charles refused to consider his sister's objections to the marriage, but Mary managed to delay. She put off the marriage by proxy first by telling the Milanese envoy that Christina was ill, and then by leaving for "serious affairs" in another part of the Netherlands. The ceremony was finally celebrated on 28 September 1532, but Mary postponed the girl's departure. In early 1533, after Christina's twelfth birthday, the regent could delay no longer, and she was forced to send her niece to Milan on 11 March. The regent immediately fell ill and requested that she be relieved of her position, but Charles refused. 

A more sober Mary of Austria,
minus a jaunty hat!
A little more than a year later, Dorotea was married to Elector Palatine Frederick and left her aunt, but Mary was not to remain alone for long. Within a few months, Christina, a widow at the age of fourteen, returned to her aunt. Henry VIII immediately sought her hand in marriage, but once again Mary objected to the proposed alliance.

This time her delaying tactics were more effective; although her brother urged her to negotiate with the English king, by 1539 Henry had been excommunicated, ending any chance that Christina of Denmark would become Henry VIII's fourth wife.

Until 1555 Mary of Austria served her brother Charles as regent, determined "to centralize the government of the provinces," and she succeeded in achieving among them a greater internal unity and for them some measure of independence from France and the empire. 

Throughout her tenure she also struggled "with the military threats and financial burdens laid on the Netherlands by the European politics of Charles V." In 1535 she and her sister Eleanor, who had been married to Francis I of France, attempted another "ladies' peace" of the sort negotiated by their aunt and Francis's mother, Louise of Savoy, in 1529. To end the on-going war between their brother and Eleanor's husband, they met at Cambrai, but unlike their predecessors, they could find no solutions. 

Like her aunt, Mary of Austria sought peace for the Netherlands, but, in de Iongh's words, as "representative of the Emperor, who paid scarcely any attention to her problems," as "regent versus her subjects, who refused to keep the treasury filled and instead threatened revolt," and as "a woman versus her generals, who did not wish to take notice of her commands," she struggled, forced into war in 1537 against the French and from 1538 to 1540 facing a revolt in Ghent. On 14 October 1540, after he subdued the rebellion, Charles renewed Mary's appointment as his regent. 

In 1543, war with France began again, with further recurrences in 1551, 1552, and 1553. Mary was also forced to mediate between her brothers when Ferdinand objected to Charles's intention to resign as emperor and place the government of the Netherlands in the hands of his son Philip II. When she learned of her brother's intentions, Mary let him know that she, too, would resign her role, sending him a thoughtful analysis of her reasons for her decision and, more generally, of the difficulties faced by women in power: 
I . . . have sufficient experience (beside the fact that the books, Holy Scripture as well as others, are full of it) to know that it is impossible for a woman in peacetime, and even more in time of war, to do her duty as regent towards God, her sovereign, and her own sense of honor. For in peacetime it is unavoidable, in addition to all the meetings and cares of daily affairs which any government brings with it, that whoever guides the government of these provinces must mix with as many people as possible, in order to win the sympathy of both nobility and middle classes. . . . For a woman, especially if she is a widow, it is not feasible to mix thus freely with people. Of necessity I myself have had to do more in this respect than I really wanted. Moreover, a woman is never so much respected and feared as a man, whatever her position.

If one is conducting the government of these countries in time of war, and one cannot in person enter the battle, one is faced with an insoluble problem. One receives all the blows and is blamed for all mistakes made by others, and is reproached if one does not carry out what everyone thinks he can demand. All the complainants can be heard throughout the entire country. But the accused stands alone and cannot answer for herself everywhere at once. And if things then do not go as expected, it is not difficult to make the people believe that the woman who heads the government is to blame for everything, and for this reason she is hated and held in contempt by the people.
But the emperor and his son both urged her to continue as regent despite her determined and well-considered decision. Once more she wrote about her role as a woman in power. "I regard my release . . . as an unalterable fact," she began, continuing: 
My conscience is troubled by carrying on this function without satisfying all its demands. The more experience I have of it, the more I have realized that I am unable to accomplish my task properly

I am of the opinion that whoever acts as regent for a ruler must have more understanding of affairs than the person who governs on his own account and is therefore only responsible to God. If he does whatever lies within his power, he has done his duty. But a regent has to account not only to God, but also to his sovereign and his sovereign's subjects.

And even if I possessed all the aptitudes necessary to govern well, and I am far from doing so, experience has taught me that a woman is not suited to the purpose, neither in peacetime nor in time of war. . . . I have often done more than was fitting for my position and vocation as a woman, out of eagerness to serve you and accomplish my task as well as possible. Your Majesty also knows what insurmountable difficulties we would have met with if you had not been in the country yourself during the last war. Difficulties which I could not have removed, because as a woman I was compelled to leave the conduct of war to others.
Beyond the difficulties and uncertainties, Mary also appealed to her age. She loved her nephew Philip, she wrote, but would hate to start over by trying to serve a new "master"; "it is difficult for someone like me, who has served you till the end, to have to think in my old age of learning my ABC all over again." She continued, "It is suitable that a woman of fifty who has served for at least twenty-four years," should be "content" with having served "one God and one master." She couldn't face the prospect of "a young generation" to whose "ways I cannot and would not wish to accommodate myself."

Continuing, she appealed to her brother for permission "to arrange my life as a private person." Her sister Eleanor, the queen of France, had again been widowed, and Mary wanted to retire with her to Spain, near her brother, where she would be able to "withdraw from all affairs of government"--if she stayed in the Netherlands, she feared she would be once more "drawn into" politics "more than I wish."

She expressed fear about leaving the Low Countries, however; although she was the daughter of Juana of Castile, who had just died at Tordesillas, Mary had never lived in Spain. If her Eleanor were to die, she wrote, "I would be all alone in a country where I know nobody, where the way of life is different from what I am used to, and where I might feel a stranger." Nevertheless, "the advantages are greater than the drawbacks," and in the event that she could not adjust to the country "and its ways," she would still "have the time . . . to be able to go back to the Netherlands."

Charles V finally agreed to his sister's resignation of the post she had held so long. She announced her decision on 24 September 1555, dismissing her household on 1 October. On 25 October, authority was transferred to her nephew Philip. Her departure for Spain finally took place a nearly a year later; with Charles and her sister Eleanor, she sailed from Ghent on 15 September 1556. 

Her happy retirement did not last long. Her sister Eleanor died early in 1558. Mary was "so much affected," wrote one observer, "that it is a heart-rending sight." In her grief she travelled to her brother Charles, apparently to ask his advice about how she should arrange her life after her sister's death. Charles had one answer: he wanted her to return to the Netherlands to resume her role as regent. He promised her a home and a sizable income, but she refused. From the Netherlands, her nephew Philip sent a memorandum to an advisor urging him to convince his aunt to return: "Explain to her how great the necessity is. Remind her of the love and devotion she has always shown. . . . Explain to her what a support her presence will mean. . . ." 

And the bottom line: "Finally offer her a large income and great authority and give her hope that there will be peace and that this will last a long time, as the rulers are all exhausted." Her brother added his urging to his son's request and, when he became ill in August, she finally relented. She would assume the regency once more.

But Charles died on 21 September. His death affected Mary profoundly. She died within a few weeks, on 18 October 1555. 

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Jane Sharp: Midwife

Jane Sharp (21 July 1637)

A bit of explanation for why I'm posting about Jane Sharp today. We know very little about Sharp (well, okay, we know almost nothing, really), except that she wrote and published The Midwives Book: or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered.

One of the sources Sharp used in her book was Practical Physick, Nicholas Culpeper's English translation of the German physician Daniel Sennert's Practicae medicinae, a Latin work in six books published between 1628 and 1636. While we know nothing about Jane Sharp--not even the most basic information, such as when or where she was born, or when she died--Sennert died on 21 July 1637. And that's why I'm posting about Jane Sharp today.

All that said, Sharp's book was published in London in 1671. In the preface to her book, Sharp also indicates that she has been a "practitioner in the art of midwifery above thirty years"--which may suggest she started her career by about 1640. 

Since Sharp's book was published in London, we might also conclude that her work was London-based, though in her entry on Sharp in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Ornella Moscucci notes that some of Sharp's "west-country" phrases "suggest that Sharp may not have been from London at all," and may instead have been from Shropshire or Gloucestershire.

Moscucci also notes that Sharp dedicated her book to Lady Eleanor Talbot, about whom nothing is known except that she was the daughter of John Talbot and Eleanor Baskerville and the sister of John Talbot, the tenth earl of Shrewbury. If this is the woman to whom Sharp dedicated her book, she would have been in her sixties or seventies in 1671 (and unmarried).

One final bit of biographical information that Sharp provides is in the book's opening letter addressed "to the midwives of England," where she says that she has "been at great cost in translations for all books, either French, Dutch, or Italian" on the subject of midwifery.

Sharp divides The Midwives Book into six sections: the first, a "brief description of the generative parts in both sexes"; the second, on conception; the third on "hindrances to conception" and "the great pain and difficulty of child-bearing, with the signs, cause, and cure"; the fourth on labor, delivery, and miscarriage, with a focus on "how to order the child when born"; the fifth on how "to order women in childbirth," as well as how to treat the symptoms they suffer during pregnancy and illnesses they may suffer after delivery; and the sixth, with more on the diseases women may suffer after conception in addition to information about the "choice of a nurse" and her duties and, finally, "proper cures for all diseases incident to young children."

Sharp's illustration, "a dissection of the womb,
with the usual manner how the child
lies herein near the time of its birth
What's most intriguing to me in all of this is Sharp's motivations for writing, which are made clear in her introduction. She begins with a statement of the importance of her profession: "the art of midwifery is doubtless one of the most useful and necessary of all arts for the being and well-being of mankind." 

Midwives' knowledge must be "twofold," both "speculative," or theoretical, and practical. "Some perhaps may think," she asserts, that "it is not proper for women to be of this profession" since they lack the kinds of theoretical knowledge of those--men--"who are bred up in universities, schools of learning, or apprentice-ships" where they can attend "anatomy lectures." While Sharp commends such knowledge--"it is commendable for men to employ their spare time in some things of deeper speculation"--she is very clear that "the art of midwifery chiefly concerns us."

In addition to Moscucci's ODNB essay (you may not have access to this resource), there is an excellent piece by Anna Bosanquet from the journal The Practical Midwife, available by clicking here. And you may be interested in Elaine Hobby's excellent edition, a volume in the Women Writers in English, 1350-1850 series, published by Oxford University Press. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Seneca Falls Convention: Day Two

Seneca Falls Convention (second day, 20 July 1848)

The second day of the Seneca Falls convention saw the unanimous approval of the Declaration of Sentiments, introduced to the convention the day before, on the first day of the proceedings. Before the vote, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke, as did other men, particularly to the question of women's property rights.

One of the interesting questions raised was whether men's signatures should be included--ultimately it was decided that their names should be included, but that there would be two sections, with women's signatures listed first.

The resolutions were again read and discussed, with the ninth--the one about women's voting rights--being regarded by some as the most problematic. Douglass argued that he, as a black man, would not accept the vote if women could not vote. 

For the rest of today's post, I'll include the text of the resolutions (I've set in boldface the controversial resolution on women's suffrage: 
WHEREAS, The great precept of nature is conceded to be, that "man shall pursue his own true and substantial happiness." [Sir William] Blackstone in his Commentaries [on the Laws of England] remarks, that this law of Nature being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this, and such of them as are valid, derive all their force, and all their validity, and all their authority, mediately and immediately, from this original; therefore,
Resolved, That such laws as conflict, in any way, with the true and substantial happiness of woman, are contrary to the great precept of Nature and of no validity, for this is "superior in obligation to any other."
Resolved, That all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of Nature, and therefore of no force or authority.
Resolved, That woman is man's equal—was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.
Resolved, That the women of this country ought to be enlightened in regard to the laws under which they live, that they may no longer publish their degradation by declaring themselves satisfied with their present position, nor their ignorance, by asserting that they have all the rights they want.
Resolved, That inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to woman moral superiority, it is pre-eminently his duty to encourage her to speak and teach as she has opportunity, in all religious assemblies.
Resolved, That the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior that is required of woman in the social state, should also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.
Resolved, That the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill-grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in feats of the circus.
Resolved, That woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.
Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.
Resolved, That the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities.
Resolved, therefore, That, being invested by the Creator with the same capabilities, and the same consciousness of responsibility for their exercise, it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held; and this being a self-evident truth growing out of the divinely implanted principles of human nature, any custom or authority adverse to it, whether modern or wearing the hoary sanction of antiquity, is to be regarded as a self-evident falsehood, and at war with mankind.

As Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper would write in their four-volume History of Woman Suffrage, published in 1881:
The only resolution that was not unanimously adopted was the ninth, urging the women of the country to secure to themselves the elective franchise. Those who took part in the debate feared a demand for the right to vote would defeat others they deemed more rational, and make the whole movement ridiculous.
But Mrs. Stanton and Frederick Douglass seeing that the power to choose rulers and make laws, was the right by which all others could be secured, persistently advocated the resolution, and at last carried it by a small majority.

If you're looking for an overview on the Seneca Falls Convention, I recommend the excellent entry in West's Encyclopedia of American Law, available by clicking here.