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Biblical women in early modern literary culture, 1550–1700

Biblical women in early modern literary culture, 1550–1700

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Biblical women in early modern literary culture, 1550–1700

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May 16, 2016


At once pervasive and marginal, appealing and repellent, exemplary and atypical, the women of the Bible provoke an assortment of readings across early modern literature. Biblical women in early modern literary culture, 1550–1700 draws attention to the complex ways in which biblical women’s narratives could be reimagined for a variety of rhetorical and religious purposes.

Considering a confessionally diverse range of writers, working across a variety of genres, this volume reveals how women from the Old and New Testaments exhibit an ideological power that frequently exceeds, both in scope and substance, their associated scriptural records. The essays explore how the Bible’s women are fluidly negotiated and diversely redeployed to offer (conflicting) comment on issues including female authority, speech and sexuality, and in discussions of doctrine, confessional politics, exploration and grief. As it explores the rich ideological currency of the Bible’s women in early modern culture, this volume demonstrates that the Bible’s women are persistently difficult to evade.
May 16, 2016

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Biblical women in early modern literary culture, 1550–1700 - Manchester University Press



Introduction: Discovering biblical women in early modern literary culture, 1550–1700

Victoria Brownlee and Laura Gallagher

The essays collected in this volume consider how biblical women were read, appropriated and debated in a wide range of early modern texts. By ‘biblical women’ we mean those women whose stories appear in the Old and New Testaments, as well as archetypes of femininity, such as those described in Book of Proverbs or Book of Revelation.¹ The literature within which these biblical women are considered includes plays, poems, works of political theory, devotional prose, biblical commentaries and sermons, as well as conduct and life writings, and, as a result, a variety of writers are examined. Essays considering Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare and Aemilia Lanyer sit alongside those that explore the work of more unfamiliar names, such as Robert Cleaver, Thomas Nashe and Henry Constable, testifying to the multiplicity of biblical appropriation in England from 1550–1700. For as Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture demonstrates, mothers and poets, dramatists and politicians, as well as sermonisers and biblical commentators, read, applied and re-imagined the narratives of the Bible’s women, and often in markedly different ways.

Although many of us might struggle to place Puah, Peninnah or Priscilla within biblical history, an early modern reader was much less likely to do so. Instead, flitting between Old Testament and New, and shuffling across several biblical narratives within a handful of lines, early modern writers display nuanced familiarity with the scriptural figures they address, and anticipate a similarly sophisticated biblical knowledge among their readers. Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) is a case in point. This sequence of lyric poems exhibits a striking awareness of the Bible’s women, evident in the clever re-reading, and reframing, of the narratives of Eve and Mary in particular.² Yet, before the main Passion poem begins, Lanyer showcases her biblical knowledge in the dedicatory letter ‘To the Vertuous Reader’, and issues an emotive call to her audience to remember the Bible’s ‘wise and virtuous’ women who are used by God to ‘bring downe’ the ‘pride and arrogancie’ of men:

As was cruell Cesarus by the discreet counsell of noble Deborah, Iudge and Prophetesse of Israel: and resolution of Iael wife of Heber the Kenite: wicked Haman, by the di[v]ine prayers and prudent proceedings of beautifull Hester: blasphemous Holofernes, by the inuincible courage, rare wisdome, and confident carriage of Iudeth: & the vniust Indges, by the innocency of chast Susanna: with infinite others, which for breuitie sake I will omit. As also in respect it pleased our Lord and Sauiour Iesus Christ, without the assistance of man … to be begotten of a woman, borne of a woman, nourished of a woman, obedient to a woman; and that he healed woman, pardoned women, comforted women: yea, euen when he was in his greatest agonie and bloodie sweat, going to be crucified, and also in the last houre of his death, tooke care to dispose of a woman: after his resurrection, appeared first to a woman, sent a woman to declare his most glorious resurrection to the rest of his Disciples. Many other examples I could alleadge of diuers faithfull and virtuous women … All which is sufficient to inforce all good Christians and honourable minded men to speake reuerently of our sexe, and especially of all virtuous and good women (1611: F3v).

In providing a truncated survey of women’s importance across biblical history, the dedicatory letter anticipates the interpretative project of the central poem which similarly traces a virtuous band of New Testament women who, unlike their male counterparts, are constant in their support of Jesus.

The Old Testament women that Lanyer cites in this portion of the dedication exert political, social and spiritual influence as they counter the evil of men: Deborah who worked to orchestrate Israel’s attack on the Canaanite army led by Sisera (Judges 4:4–17); Jael who, having offered the fleeing Sisera shelter in her tent, killed him by hammering a tent peg so deeply into his skull as he slept that she ‘fastened it to the ground’ (Judges 4:21); Queen Esther who petitioned the King to have the enemy of the Jews, Haman, hanged (Esther 5–7); Judith who saved her town from Nebuchadnezzar’s army by decapitating his general, Holofernes (Judith 8–13); and Susanna whose steadfastness in the face of accusations of promiscuity lead those who had given false witness against her to be sentenced to death (Daniel 13). The violence within these biblical narratives does not detract from Lanyer’s praise of the women mentioned as variously noble, discreet, resolute, prayerful, beautiful, courageous, wise, confident, innocent and chaste. Rather, details of the unsavoury actions that secure these women’s achievements are, unsurprisingly, excluded from Lanyer’s defence of women.

Such omissions are suggestive of the way in which biblical women’s narratives could be trimmed, reframed and appropriated in line with the agenda and purpose of individual writers. In Lanyer’s case, this series of abridged Old Testament narratives functions to assert the historic significance of women more generally; an objective that becomes clearer as she turns her attention to the women of the New Testament. Instead of focusing on their personal qualities, the women of the Gospels are honoured by cataloguing the privileged and affectionate encounters they shared with Jesus: Mary was his mother, Mary Magdalene was the chosen witness of his resurrection (Mark 16: 9–20), and the various women healed, pardoned and comforted by Jesus were the recipients of Messianic notice and time.³ In these lines, Lanyer emphasises the deliberate selection of women for important, spiritually significant tasks. The concise list of Jesus’ debts to his mother in particular, and her centrality in the subsequent Passion poem, becomes indicative of women’s spiritual relevance across sacred and secular history. The biblical women cited in this passage are understood to be participants in a larger sequence of female virtue (as opposed to male immorality) as they sit among ‘infinite others’ in the Bible, as well as the ‘faithfull and virtuous women … in all ages’, who are similarly constant in their devotion to Christ.

As it establishes a constellation of godly women across Christian history, this dedicatory passage alerts us to an exegetical methodology that was fundamental to the interpretation of the Bible’s contents in this period. Lanyer’s deft movement between both Testaments of Scripture and into the early modern present relies on biblical typology; a reading practice that, as many of the essays in this volume attest, regularly underpins the secular application of the Bible’s female figures. Understood typologically, Lanyer’s Old Testament women find their antitypes in New Testament female figures that, in turn, prefigure her patronesses and general audience of women. This passage importantly reminds us, then, that the Bible’s women were not wedged in a remote biblical past. Instead, their narratives, understood to be part of an ‘omnipresent history’ (Killeen, 2010: 493), had enduring relevance for the immediate circumstances of early modern readers.

While the Bible’s women had, as Lanyer’s work suggests, assumed resonance within the early modern present, this volume unravels how the process of reading their lives produced multiple, rather than uniform, interpretations. Subsumed within a range of social, political and cultural debates, the varied applications of biblical women illuminates how the Bible, as Christopher Hill explains, ‘could mean different things to different people at different times, in different circumstances’ (1993: 5). For writers like Lanyer, the Bible’s cast of virtuous women could be turned to extol feminine virtues and advocate equality; yet, in the hands of other early modern readers, its women, both faithful and disobedient, were deployed as markers to guide and circumscribe female behaviour. While some of the essays that follow consider the complex ways in which biblical women were positioned as both positive and negative exemplars, others trace the wider application of these narratives. For the invocation of the Bible’s women in discussions of female behaviour sits alongside their deployment in discourses on monarchy and doctrine, discussions of travel and grief and debates on England’s enemies and foreign policies. During a period when individuals and authorities were biblically motivated and informed, the Bible’s women were entangled with, and central to, an impressive array of (competing) ideologies.

The Bible in early modern English society and culture

It is difficult to overestimate the reach and importance of the Bible within early modern society. Biblical images, narratives and text were visible and audible in daily life and the Bible’s pages were widely available, in a variety of formats and languages, across Europe. More than 140 editions of the Geneva Bible were printed in England alone between 1575 and the 1640s which, alongside other translations, resulted in as many as one million copies of the vernacular scriptures in circulation by the mid-seventeenth century (Wright, 1943: 53; Molekamp, 2013: 14). From the earliest days of the Reformation, a healthy publishing industry grew up in support of biblical reading in the form of interpretative aids such as paraphrases, commentaries and religious pamphlets (Watt, 1991; Green, 2000). But access to biblical content was not restricted to those who could read. Weekly church services included Psalm singing, Bible readings and expository preaching, and many of the laity were compelled to attend catechising classes.⁴ Biblical knowledge was also developed in less regimented ways, through the popularity of public sermons, such as those delivered at St Paul’s Cross (see Morrissey, 2011; McCullough et al., 2011), and the circulation of didactic woodcuts and ballads in the period’s cheap print (Watt, 1991: 140–67). The narrative of Daniel 13, for example, forms the basis of a ballad entitled ‘The constancy of Susanna’, which, by re-telling Susanna’s story, anticipates that its readership will ‘learne thus to liue godly’ (An excellent ballad, 1640). Many such biblically derived ballads achieved long-lasting popularity and some, including ‘Sampson judge of Israell’ and ‘David and Berseba’, were circulated in broadside form for several decades.⁵ As the existence of these ballads suggests, traditional literary genres participated in the dissemination of biblical content, and the popularity of biblical poetry and drama in the sixteenth century is suggestive of the way in which the period’s literature was implicated in the legacy of the religious Reformation.

Poetic paraphrases of biblical texts were widely available from London’s booksellers and, for writers such as William Baldwin, this poetry offered readers a wholesome alternative to ‘baudy balades of lecherous love’ (1549: 4). While Baldwin bills his verse paraphrase of the Song of Songs as an alternative to the period’s love poetry, his work also seeks, like the majority of biblical paraphrases on this text, to guide the reader towards an appropriate interpretation of the Song’s meaning. Because the Song of Songs was, at face value, an erotic dialogue between two lovers, poetic translations offered a means of disseminating an alternative, spiritual reading of the book’s contents in a popular and accessible format.⁶ Among Protestant and Catholic commentators, Scripture’s most sustained expression of female desire was rendered into an account of divine devotion; as Francis Quarles explains in his poetic retelling of the Song, the lovers are ‘CHRIST, the Bridegroome; the CHVRCH, the Bride’ (1680: 3).⁷ While biblical poetry addressing the Song of Songs was commonly mobilised to reinforce dominant readings of the Bride’s body as the figurative body of the Church, in the case of other biblical women, the genre was used to advance divergent readings of their narratives. Edward Gosynhyll’s poetic retelling of the opening chapters of Genesis finds Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib evidence of her inferiority as well as her ‘euyull … styffe, and sturdye’ nature (1541: B4r); whereas, in Lanyer’s Salve Deus, Eve’s creation from Adam’s body logically makes him the source of her error (1611: D3v). Used to reinforce and debate exegetical positions, poetry addressing the Bible’s women could also have an important devotional function. The anonymous ballad ‘The Wracks of Walsingham’, for example, provides an outlet for lamenting the loss of England’s Catholic past by remembering the destruction of the country’s most famous Marian shrine during the reign of Henry VIII (Jones, 2002), and Robert Southwell’s Moeoniae (1595), written at a time when Marian devotion was prohibited, demonstrates that poetry continued to provide a space to reflect on the Virgin’s importance and intercessory powers. Such poems suggest that poetic reflections on the Bible’s women could be used to express religious sorrow, venerate the saints and bemoan the visible losses of the Reformation.

In the biblically infused culture of early modern England, drama was also, as Paul Whitfield White has shown, ‘an effective disseminator of religious ideas and cultural practices’ (2008: 211). Of course, this usage was not new. Throughout the medieval period religious plays and pageants were popularly used by the Church to commemorate events in the Christian calendar. Biblical narratives, such as the accounts of Creation and the Passion, were central to these performances, and recent scholarship has demonstrated that traces of this tradition remain visible in the work of rural touring companies and commercial theatres in Elizabethan England (see O’Connell, 2000; White, 2008; Streete, 2011).⁸ Certainly, biblically orientated drama continued to be written and performed throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, as the large number of dramas claiming biblical sources in their titles suggests. Many of these plays are devoted to the lives of biblical men, such as Theodore de Bèze’s A tragedie of Abrahams sacrifice (1577) and Robert Greene’s lost play Job (c.1586), but evidence suggests that the narratives of the Bible’s women were also regularly translated into drama throughout the Tudor period. The life of Mary Magdalene, who held a central role in medieval cycles addressing the Passion (see Coletti, 2004), was the subject of John Burgess’ St Mary Magdalene (1507; see Harbage, 1988) and Lewis Wager’s play A new enterlude … entreating of the life and repentance of Marie Magdalene (1566), while the story of the Old Testament’s Queen Esther was retold in A new enterlude of Godly Queene Hester (c.1527–30, published 1561; Greg, 1904). Records also testify to a number of plays addressing, or affording considerable space to, Eve, Susanna, Bathsheba, Salome and the Whore of Babylon.⁹ Many of these biblical plays, much like medieval mystery cycles, sought to familiarise audiences with scriptural narratives and were used for didactic purposes. Yet, Scripture’s female figures could also be excavated from the broader biblical narratives they inhabit and redeployed to tell alternative stories. The Whore of Babylon is a case in point. She appears in Thomas Dekker’s 1607 play, The Whore of Babylon, in a tale warning of the religious and political threat England faced from Catholicism and its southern-European allies, a relocation that, as Victoria Brownlee’s essay (Chapter 13) suggests, proliferated in reformed exegesis and poetry as well as plays.

While the Bible’s women appeared in dramatic re-readings as well as re-tellings of their scriptural narratives, they were also reimagined more abstractly on the early modern stage. In a biblically saturated culture, as Beatrice Groves reminds, even a fleeting scriptural reference or allusion ‘could open up a fund of associations, ambiguities and analogies’ (2007: 25).¹⁰ Scripture’s ideological currency means, then, that a lack of visibility does not assume a lack of presence when it comes to biblical women in drama. The Bible’s women may be discerned at the level of topical reference and linguistic implication. For example, the Virgin Mary is evoked in Cassio’s praise of Desdemona’s beauty and virtue in Othello (Maillet, 2007); Shakespeare’s famous description of Cleopatra’s barge recalls the description of the Whore of Babylon in Rev. 17:1–10 (Barroll, 1958; see too: Davidson, 2002; Hamlin, 2013: 219–20); and, as Lisa Hopkins’ essay in this volume (Chapter 12) suggests, it is possible to read Helena’s pilgrimage to Compostela in All’s Well That Ends Well in light of Mary Magdalene’s common association with narratives of exploration.

The oblique influence of biblical women’s narratives on early modern drama testifies to the broader force of these stories in early modern literary culture. Much more than a source of literary inspiration, their narratives operated as filters through which personal and political circumstances were conceived, and provided imagery and discourse that could be mobilised to comment on any issue. The ideological resonance of the Bible’s women in this period is suggested by the fact that they appear as glancing references, as well as literary subjects, across a broad spectrum of the period’s writing. Their names are regularly invoked, often without explanation, in political discourse. For example, in a treatise on female monarchy, the Scottish reformer John Knox refers to Queen Mary I as that ‘cursed Iesabel of England’ (1558: 55). Replacing Mary’s name with Jezebel’s, Knox’s biblical reference advances a political comment by connecting the legacy of a notoriously idolatrous Old Testament queen with that of a current monarch. Such shorthand use of the Bible’s women proliferates in early modern political writings including, as Adrian Streete’s essay (Chapter 4) explores, in the radical political theories of the 1550s; in these tracts, figures such as Deborah, Jezebel, Athalia, Judith and Jael are frequently drawn into discussions of Christian liberty.¹¹ The pointed citation of biblical women’s names by Knox and his contemporaries illuminates how even the briefest scriptural reference could elicit a wealth of associated meanings and significances. Yet, the reverse is also true. While writers undoubtedly harness the symbolic attachments of the Bible’s female figures, in doing so, they also participate in the ideological inscription of biblical women’s narratives by redeploying them within particular debates and contexts.

Moving a biblical woman from the pages of Scripture into a new polemical context or genre is, then, an act of translation rather than a transferal. It necessitates some form of interpretation on the part of author and reader. Whether biblical women are used at length or in brief, recalled directly or indirectly, their relocation will always involve an element of revision. This revision may range from a subtle shift in emphasis to an imaginative embellishment, or involve the exclusion or magnification of particular aspects of the biblical narrative. Whatever the case, ideological forces exert influence on the interpretative process ensuring that biblical readings can neither be neutral nor, as the reformers claimed, merely literal.

Reading and applying the Bible in early modern England

The very process of reading and interpreting the Bible was loaded with significance and, as such, an appreciation of biblical reading practices is essential for assessing the shared and varied applications of the Bible’s women in the period. From the second half of the fourteenth century, the Bible held a fundamental position for those seeking to reform the Church and, for magisterial reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, only Scripture’s pages could prescribe the principles of faith.¹² Across Europe, the doctrine of sola scriptura was widely accepted by individuals and authorities that embraced religious reform and, in England, the newly established Church likewise preserved the authority of the Bible alone. Article six of the Thirty-nine Articles clearly states that ‘Holye Scripture conteyneth all thinges necessarie to saluation: so that whatsoeuer is not read therein, nor may be proued therby, is not to be required of anye man … or be thought requisite necessarie to saluation’ (Church of England, 1571: 5). Disavowing the edicts of Popes, councils and centuries of tradition, the doctrine of sola scriptura was conceived as a response to the hermeneutic principles of the late medieval Church.¹³

During the medieval period, the Vulgate Bible, written in Latin, was the preserve of scholars rather than individuals. This scholarly engagement with Scripture was, however, extremely complex due to a tendency to approach the biblical text via the Glossa Ordinaria.¹⁴ Within the Glossa, the words of the Old and New Testaments were surrounded by an expansive compilation of exegesis written by several authors over a number of centuries. The result of this tradition of biblical reading was, according to Alister McGrath, that the ‘direct’ influence of the Bible ‘diminished considerably’ between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries (1987: 123). His point here is not that the Bible ceased to be important but rather that its influence was felt in a more indirect way. Certainly, as the developed pattern of reading Scripture according to a number of higher (that is non-literal) senses suggests, biblical exegesis remained an important part of theological discussion throughout the medieval period.

Medieval exegetes, and Catholic commentators who followed in this tradition, commonly understood Scripture according to a four-fold methodology referred to as the Quadriga. According to this system, once the literal sense of a passage had been established, three further senses could be discerned: that is, the allegorical, moral (sometimes termed tropological) and anagogical.¹⁵ From the earliest days of the Reformation, reformers ridiculed this highly theorised methodology on the basis that it distorted Scripture’s meaning (see Luther, 1830: 402). Instead of four senses, they asserted that ‘Scripture hath but one sense, which is the literall sence. And that literall sence is the rote and ground of all’ (Tyndale, 1528: R2v). The reformers’ claims for the literal were bound up with the accusation that Catholicism had abandoned this manner of reading Scripture; William Tyndale argued that, within the Roman Catholic Church, ‘the literall sence is become nothi[n]ge at all. For the pope hath take[n] it cleane awaye’ (1528: R1r–2v). Self-proclaimed champions of literalism, the reformers exuded particular venom for allegory, a reading practice that, in keeping with its association with Catholicism, Luther terms a ‘beautiful harlot who fondles men’ (1968: 347).¹⁶

Despite the verbal claims of the reformers, the Reformation did not rescue the literal, or the Bible for that matter, from a medieval Church that had simply forgotten it.¹⁷ In accordance with the schema of the Quadriga, the literal sense remained important to medieval as well as Catholic commentators and, as the publication of an English translation of the Latin Vulgate suggests, biblical reading was not the preserve of Protestants alone.¹⁸ One must be cautious too about taking at face value the reformers’ renunciation of figurative readings. The reformers’ brand of ‘literalism’ accommodated the use of allegory in interpretation of certain biblical texts, such as the Song of Songs and the Book of Revelation, and permitted the use of typology. Indeed, in spite of the reformers’ vocal attempt to distinguish their exegetical practices from the institutionalised readings of the late medieval Church, a distinctive pre- and post-Reformation hermeneutic is, ultimately, difficult to identify.¹⁹ Instead, the reformers’ continued use of interpretative methodologies such as typology illuminates the contested nature of reformed literalism and suggests that figurative modes of reading continued to hold considerable sway within their exegesis. This mixed exegetical mode, so to speak, is reflected in the essays that follow.

Biblical typology was among the most influential, and common, reading practices of the early modern period and, as suggested earlier, was fundamental to the application of Scripture to the secular present.²⁰ At its heart, typology was as a means of establishing the hermeneutic unity of the Old and New Testaments and was predominately Christological in focus. Understood typologically, Old Testament figures and events had resonance beyond their historic moment and foreshadowed Christ’s birth, life and death. For example, the High Priest in Exodus, acting as an intercessor for the people with God, might be seen, as William Perkins explains, as ‘a type of Christ’ (1609: 67). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, this exegetical methodology was expanded outwards to include secular history within a continuing process of typological fulfilment; a shift that was no doubt motivated by the reformed insistence on the application of Scripture to the self.²¹ Within this enlarged application, a biblical type could, as Lanyer’s work suggested, find its antitype, or fulfilment, in the early modern present as well as within the pages of Scripture. A typological reading of the Bible marked Scripture’s contents with living relevance and, although this reading practice is not always visible, its applicatory principles underpin the flexible readings of the Bible’s women considered in many of this volume’s essays.

Commenting on the fluidity of biblical readings in this period, Debora Kuller Shuger reminds that biblical narratives have ‘a sort of extradogmatic surplus of undetermined meaning – or rather meaning capable of being determined in various ways’ (1994: 5). Thus, Mary’s virginity might be reminiscent of England’s Virgin Queen Elizabeth; praise of her might, as Thomas Rist’s essay (Chapter 10) discusses, slide into admiration of Henrietta Maria, and consideration of her could, as Laura Gallagher’s essay (Chapter 11) suggests, provide a tool for meditation and affective piety. These alternative determinations of Mary’s relevance are bound up with questions of female power and authority and demonstrate that biblical readings ‘cannot and should not be reduced to theological positioning (although they have theological implications)’ as they ‘take shape at the intersection between the biblical text and other cultural materials’ (Shuger, 1994: 5).

The essays that follow seek to investigate this ‘intersection’ by unravelling the rhetorical potential of the Bible’s women across political, cultural, gendered and theological discourses. In doing so, the volume as a whole addresses a series of pertinent questions. It begins with a central question: which biblical women are appropriated in the period and to what ends? The volume then diverges into a series of interlinking queries: how do reading practices embellish, alter and shape contemporary applications of the Bible’s women? In what ways does a typological understanding of Scripture enrich the perceived significances of the Bible’s women? Does genre influence the ways in which these women were understood? Or, what responses do particular genres invite? To what extent is the reception of biblical women influenced by confessional identity? How is female rule or, more broadly, female power understood when refracted through biblical women? To what extent do biblical women provide a model for female speech and self-expression? To what degree do archetypes of biblical femininity operate as both positive and negative exemplars for early modern women? Are the Bible’s women sexualised in contemporary exegesis and, if so, what effect does this have on their appropriation and appreciation? The essays collected here by no means provide exhaustive answers to these questions but, in attending to these broader issues, they hope to illuminate the pervasive impact of biblical women on early modern culture and stimulate their further discussion within scholarship.

Biblical women in early modern literary culture: the essays

Over the last decade, early modern scholarship has familiarised us with the significance of male biblical leaders, such as Moses and David, within contemporary debates on kingship and authority.²² More recently, important discussions of how the Old Testament judge Deborah operated as an antecedent for Queen Elizabeth, and considerations of the Virgin Mary’s presence in post-Reformation England have reminded that the Bible’s women, as well as men, had significant, and diverse, ideological resonance.²³ The essays within this volume seek to build on this developing corpus of work by locating the Bible’s more familiar women, such as Eve, Mary and Mary Magdalene, alongside their less familiar (by modern standards), but nonetheless significant, counterparts such as Zipporah, Michal and Esther.²⁴ In doing so, the essays, each of which addresses a particular biblical woman or archetype of femininity, offer a purview of the diverse ways in which the women of the Old and New Testaments were read and represented in early modern England.²⁵

The essays that follow traverse a range of genres and examine literature written by a variety of confessionally diverse writers. By considering literature intended for assorted audiences, Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture showcases the diverse contexts in which the Bible’s women were deployed, and illuminates the transferability of biblical appreciation across apparent religious divisions. The volume has been split into two sections: Part One considers women and feminine archetypes of the Old Testament and the essays gathered in Part Two address the New Testament. This structure reflects the division of Scripture in early modern Bibles and speaks to the contemporary method of reading the Bible from the Old Testament to the New. Nevertheless, in spite of this division, the essays regularly make cross references between the two Testaments highlighting how, in line with the conventions of early modern exegesis, they were understood to exist in a reciprocal relationship. Within each section, the essays are broadly organised according to the sequential appearance of the women/feminine archetypes in the Bible. The biblical women studied extend from Eve in Genesis to the Whore of Babylon in Revelation, and the essays vary between those that examine dominant trends in appropriation to those that consider appropriations of a particular interest group or individual. Mindful that the Bible contains many women beyond those that are addressed in the essays, each section opens with an overview surveying how the women of the Old and New Testaments were understood in the period. These overviews work to situate the discussions that follow within a broader context of biblical reading.

Unsurprisingly, the volume’s opening essay considers the Bible’s first woman, Eve, and traces changes in her representation across the seventeenth century. Although Eve’s temptation was routinely appropriated as part of the formal querelle des femmes controversies in the early part of the century, Elizabeth Hodgson explores how Eve is rendered a more sympathetic figure through her elision with Eden in the work of Aemelia Lanyer and Ester Sowernam. The mid-century writings of Royal Society horticulturalists, such as Abraham Cowley and John Evelyn, similarly appropriate Eve, but particularly her beautiful garden, as nostalgic propaganda for a particular pre-lapsarian mode of living. However, in these writings, the subtleties of Eve’s guilt are subsumed and glossed over through emphasising the delights of the garden landscape. This shifting understanding of Eve across the period re-emerges and is re-appropriated inconsistently in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674): his Eve, as in the early century, is the paradigmatic first woman and is also, like later writings addressing the Fall, defined according to perceptions of Eden. Eve’s shifting significances across the century pinpoint how this biblical woman was ideologically permeable and readily ‘redeployable even within her own habitat’ of the garden.

The ideological flexibility of the Bible’s women is further revealed in Adrian Streete’s examination of radical political theories written during the 1550s by Protestant political theologians such as John Knox, Christopher Goodman and John Ponet. The subject of Christian liberty and the rights of subjects in these tracts is infused with a profound misogyny, and a deprecation of female rule, but Streete draws attention to how this outlook contradicts dominant readings of Old Testament female leaders including Deborah, Jezebel, Athalia, Judith and Jael. The appropriation of these female figures in resistance theory reveals a crucial tension. While on the one hand, ‘wicked’ biblical women are invoked to condemn female rule; on the other hand, ‘good’ biblical women are marked out as exemplars of godly resistance to tyranny. Moreover, the very fact that God allows female monarchs to rule at all obliges such writers, if not exactly to rethink, then certainly to confront a number of biblically endorsed patriarchal dicta concerning women’s political and social subordination to men. As such, the essay demonstrates how the fraught ideological landscape of the 1550s encouraged, almost inadvertently, a reconsideration of the political uses of biblical women as a way of reconceptualising the lived reality of female monarchical rule.

Consideration of the way in which female power was perceived and understood through biblical women is extended in Michele Osherow’s essay. Drawing attention to the popularity and esteem of Moses and King David in the early modern period, Osherow identifies how their wives, Zipporah and Michal respectively, suffered intense criticism at the hands of early modern exegetes. Although the Bible recounts how each woman single-handedly saved the life of her husband, their decisive behaviour was understood by some readers, particularly male sermon writers, as highly unorthodox and, although unpunished on earth, worthy of divine retribution. The disapproval in early modern readings of both women centres on their fearless engagement with the locus of maleness. Both wives’ stories are steeped in images of castration: Zipporah circumcises her son and casts the foreskin at Moses’ feet, and, at the start of her narrative, Michal’s value is set at 200 Philistine foreskins and once married, she will disobey her father and later mock her spouse. The essay thus reveals how early modern commentary grappled with, and censored, the wives’ critique and emasculation of their husbands.

Echoing Osherow’s attentiveness to political context and powerful femininity, Alison Thorne examines how the story of persecution, supplication and redemption in the Book of Esther was understood and applied by early modern readers. Opening with a study of the multiple reversals of fortune in the Esther narrative, and considering how this reflects Esther’s supplication, Thorne then indicates how interpretation of this biblical text was conditioned by the socio-political, religious and aesthetic values prescribed by genre, focusing on biblical exposition in conduct literature. The specific context of the political instability of the 1640s and 1650s reveals Esther’s relevance as a model to women petitioners of the civil war. Esther’s image was, as Thorne explains, ‘firmly associated with the interlocking themes of piety, self-sacrifice and concern for welfare of the body politic’ and, as such, provided an inspirational model for women to vocalise their opinions on the contemporary upheavals.

Danielle Clarke’s contribution also focuses on the relevancy of biblical women to issues surrounding female speech by considering the reception, use and circulation of the Book of Proverbs in conduct literature. For female readers, this biblical book expounded various negative assessments of the effect and status of the speaking woman; yet, in Proverbs 31, the ideal is articulated. Through examining the interpretation and application of feminine precursors found in the Book of Proverbs, Clarke considers how these biblical women became standards by which contemporary women might be judged. The essay explores how Proverbs 31 in particular was frequently adopted as a means to praise exemplary women, particularly in printed funeral sermons and life writings such as maternal advice manuals and diaries. Addressing these diverse genres, this essay is highly attuned to how the circulation, delivery and tone of genre inflected understanding of female biblical models.

Appropriately, the first essay in the New Testament section is attentive to the relationship between Scripture’s two Testaments. Beatrice Groves illuminates how readings of the 70 AD fall of Jerusalem in early modern literature, particularly in Thomas Nashe’s Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem and Thomas Dekker’s plague pamphlets, were influenced by the stress on femininity, and especially maternity, found in the biblical prophecies of that event. Groves argues that these early modern writers synthesize the weeping mothers found in Lamentations and Luke with Miriam, the violent mother of Josephus’s Jewish War, to create a maternal figure who wept lovingly over her child before killing him. Miriam’s story embodies the scriptural tropes of failed maternity which congregate at the site of the fall of Jerusalem: the weeping, widowed city and cannibalistic mothers of Lamentations; the daughters of Jerusalem in Luke who will desire not to have borne children or given suck; and the Lucan Christ, who is figured as a mother-hen whose wings cannot gather in her offspring. Groves suggests that this description of Christ figures him in both ‘a feminine, and a disturbingly predatory position’, a construction that in many senses resonates with contemporary understandings of the vengeance of a loving God.

The focus shifts again with Thomas Rist’s essay on the appropriation of the Virgin Mary in Catholic poetry of the early seventeenth century, but the discussion continues to press the impact of religious-politics, genre and typology on perceptions of this emotive biblical woman. Opening with Ben Jonson’s poetic comparison of the Virgin Mary and Henrietta Maria, the essay finds evidence of Mary’s survival in the recusant poetry of Henry Constable and Richard Verstagen. Within the work of these

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