Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

AEMILIA LANYER
(1569-1645)

Britain
Poet

Aemilia Lanyer was one of the first English women to argue in print and in her own name against the long-standing, widely held belief in women's inherent moral, physical, and intellectual inferiority to men. Her remarkable verse collection Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (Hail Lord, King of the Jews) makes a case for women's central role in Christian history and even for women's spiritual superiority to men.

Lanyer's social class position differed significantly from that of other notable women writers in early modern England, such as Mary Wroth, Elizabeth Cary, and Mary Sidney Herbert. They were members of the upper classes (the gentry or peerage), whereas Lanyer's family were middle-class professionals who made their living as artists or providers of entertainment. Lanyer's father was Baptist Bassano, a Jewish lute player from Venice; he was one of Queen Elizabeth's court musicians. Her mother, Margaret Johnson, was English. Her father died in 1576, when Lanyer was seven, and her mother died in 1587. Lanyer's older sister, Angela, was already married to Joseph Holland by the time of their father's death; nothing else is known about her. Lanyer inherited some goods from her mother and (at age twenty-one) £100 from her father, presumably for her marriage. Sometime before 1592, Lanyer became the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the Queen's Lord Chamberlain and a prominent figure at Elizabeth's court. Because Hunsdon was a patron of Shakespeare's acting company, one critic has argued that Lanyer is the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets, but there is little evidence to support this speculation. Lanyer may have met the queen during her time with Hunsdon, for she refers in one poem to having been "blessed" with the late queen's "favor" during her "youth." The popular astrologer Simon Foreman, whom many Londoners including Lanyer consulted for advice, mentions in his diaries that Lanyer was known at court and received favors from Elizabeth as well as money,

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