Women and the Bible in Early Modern England: Religious Reading and Writing: Books

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Women and the Bible in Early Modern England: Religious Reading and Writing, By Femke Molekamp, Oxford University Press, 288pp, Pounds 55.00, ISBN 9780199665402, Published 21 March 2013

Towards the end of the 16th century, an Elizabethan noblewoman wrote on a blank page in the front of her Bible, "Susanna Beckwith my deare childe I leave this booke as the best jewell I have, Reade it with a zealous harte to understand truly ..." Nothing was more important than the reading of the Bible, but such reading was not merely an encounter between a reader and a book: it required true religious devotion if it was to work properly. Femke Molekamp's book looks at the interaction between early modern women and their Bibles. She discovers a relationship that was intimate and often passionate; which was frequently central to a religious network of friends and relations; and which inspired a wealth of women's writing.

Molekamp starts by exploring the place of the English Bible in the household, and examines the way women digested the sacred text, annotating their Bibles with marginal notes such as "Mind this" or "Very Glorious". Not all their notes were religious: they could include cures for whooping cough or children's drawings, but Molekamp argues that this reinforces how central the Bible was to domestic life. Reading could be solitary, but was often communal. Networks of women read together, wrote and educated one another. They wrote prayers for mothers and daughters to say together; they wrote books of devotion when they were pregnant, fully aware that they might soon die in childbirth; they dedicated their books to other women. Their work was often characterised by "affective devotion", the emotional piety that had been a central part of pre-Reformation devotion but was here replicated by post-Reformation women, producing some inspirational writing, and a quantity of pious weeping. Grace Mildmay, writing her autobiography around 1620, recalled how her mother "would withdraw herself alone and spend an hour in meditation and prayers . …