Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Victoria Brownlee and Laura Gallagher (eds), Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture 1550-1700 (Manchester University Press, 2015)

Victoria Brownlee and Laura Gallagher (eds), Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture 1550-1700 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015). ISBN 978-0-7190-9155-1, 252 pp., £70.00.

Reviewed by Robert F. W. Smith

RS[1] The importance of the Bible in early modern Europe is impossible to overstate, but, as a result of changes in the culture and pedagogical priorities of western societies, a generation of early modern scholars is now finding itself in the unfortunate position of knowing less about the Bible than any that came before it. Detailed books on the subject, therefore, are increasingly necessary. Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture 1550-1700 speaks to this need. It contains fourteen chapters which together constitute an impressive wealth of expertise on the topic of the Bible and its reception in early modern English society.

[2] Most early modernists will have encountered articulations of patriarchal ideology in the literature of the time, whether through dedicated instructional works, or when put into the mouths of characters in poetry and drama. This construction of femininity emphasised female weakness, fallibility and, not infrequently, the desirability of female silence. Often the authority of the Bible was appealed to by writers propagating this ideology. This book is a useful reminder, firstly, that such articulations were not unquestionable expressions of the facts of early modern life accepted by all, but could be contested; and secondly, that the Bible could be appealed to for this contrary purpose as well. Other strains of argument existed and biblical exemplars of ‘virtuous womanhood’ were central to them. As the editors remark, ‘the Bible’s women were entangled with, and central to, an impressive array of (competing) ideologies’ (p. 3).

[3] The book is divided into sections on the Old and New Testaments, each with an overview by the editors, Victoria Brownlee and Laura Gallagher. These wide-ranging yet concise overviews, along with the editors’ general introduction, are the book’s most impressive features. Chapters by other contributors focus on Eve, Michal and Zipporah, Esther, the ‘virtuous woman’ in Proverbs, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the Whore of Babylon, as well as some non-biblical women. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is Lisa Hopkins’s discussion of the pervasive influence of both Mary Magdalene and St Helena (the mother of Constantine) in All’s Well That Ends Well, which underlies the imaginative geography of the play and the characterisation of Shakespeare’s Helena.

[4] Another wide-ranging chapter is Beatrice Groves’s discussion of the social and literary context of Thomas Nashe’s Christ’s Tears Over Jerusalem. Key to this discussion is the character of Miriam – not the prophetess (the sister of Moses and Aaron), but an inhabitant of Jerusalem during its destruction in the First Jewish-Roman War, described in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum. There is an error in the index here; Josephus’s Miriam is conflated with the biblical Miriam, whereas they should have had separate entries. This error may have arisen because Miriam’s name is usually translated as ‘Mary’ in modern editions of Josephus, which would lead an indexer to automatically take any reference to ‘Miriam’ as being to the biblical prophetess. The first-century Miriam was famous for killing and eating her baby son whilst starving during the siege; Groves argues that this archetypal image of maternal cannibalism was used by Nashe to associate his Christ with a trope of ‘failed maternity’ that was also commonly applied to early modern cities during times of plague, when they acted both as the ‘mothers’ and the devourers of human communities.

[5] The other chapters in the volume are quite a diverse collection. The chapters by Danielle Clarke and Elizabeth Hodgson are good illustrations of the book’s main theme, the wide range of contemporary readings of biblical women. Hodgson shows how seventeenth-century writers such as John Evelyn focussed on Eve’s role as the gardener of paradise, a refreshing corrective to her better-known role as temptress and agent of mankind’s Fall. Clarke discusses how the description of the ‘virtuous woman’ of Proverbs 31 equipped male writers and preachers with a varied language of praise and exhortation with which they could address female patrons and parishioners, allowing women to be commended for their literacy and speech as well as their performance of traditional roles of nurture and obedience.

[6] Alison Thorne and Adrian Streete’s chapters illustrate the diversity of biblical approaches to female political power. Thorne shows that Esther (despite some exegetical attempts to reduce her to a marginal role in her own book of the Old Testament) became a model and inspiration to women petitioning parliament during the turbulent revolutionary phase of the English Civil Wars. Streete explains why political actions by women in the Old Testament could be both deprecated and extolled by sixteenth-century English and Scottish Protestant radicals such as John Knox and John Ponet. For these men, the rule of Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise was synonymous with Roman Catholicism and the denial of religious liberty; partly for this reason, their seminal contributions to resistance theory contain some intemperately patriarchal language and attack biblical ‘bad queens’ such as Jezebel. Aghast at the misogyny of writings which previous generations regarded as a ‘keystone of political radicalism’ (p. 62), Streete attempts to rescue them for today’s readers by showing that although they rejected female monarchy, these authors regarded women as capable of acting virtuously in the political sphere through acts of resistance to tyranny such as Judith’s murder of Holofernes.

[7] Michele Osherow’s chapter is interesting for its welcome focus on Michal and Zipporah, probably the two least well-known biblical women in this collection, but is undermined by some rather loose argument. In a mysterious episode in Exodus 4, Zipporah circumcises her son at a wayside inn, then speaks to her husband Moses, calling him a ‘bloody husband’. Early modern commentators explicitly criticised Zipporah both for performing a religious ritual which it was her husband’s privilege to perform and for talking disrespectfully to him afterwards. Osherow asserts that ‘surely it is [Zipporah’s] “physical intervention at the very locus of maleness” that early modern commentators find so unsettling’ (p. 78), but provides no evidence for this. Part of the reasoning seems to be that there are ‘ancient, early modern and contemporary texts’ which depict circumcision as ‘an act symbolic of castration’ (p. 78) but Osherow does not give examples of such texts or demonstrate that any early modern writers saw these two distinct practices as equivalent. The rest of the chapter is good, but for the sake of the non-expert reader, these points needed to be backed up.

[8] Although the title does not say so, this book is mainly concerned with specifically British literary culture. It would have been interesting to have had more consideration of the place of biblical women in continental literary culture, a topic that many British readers would probably like to be better informed about. This would also have allowed a broader view of Roman Catholic perspectives. Catholic writing is not totally overlooked in this volume, however, as Thomas Rist and Laura Gallagher’s chapters survey Marian themes in the works of English recusant authors, with discussions of Ben Jonson, Richard Verstegan and Thomas Lodge. From the anti-Catholic perspective, Victoria Brownlee explores how Protestant writers including Spenser and Dekker drew upon the depiction of the Whore of Babylon in Revelation 17 and the Protestant exegetical tradition which associated her spiritual and bodily corruption with Roman Catholicism.

[9] Through this volume, the editors hope to ‘foster greater awareness of, and stimulate interest in, biblical women’s nuanced specificity and applicability in the early modern period’ (p. 14). A broad yet focussed collection, containing enough material to offer something new to all readers, Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture 1550-1700 should certainly live up to its editors’ hope for it.

August 2015

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