Women, Religion, and the Atlantic World (1600-1800)

By Rhodes, Elizabeth | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Women, Religion, and the Atlantic World (1600-1800)


Rhodes, Elizabeth, The Catholic Historical Review


Women, Religion, and the Atlantic World (1600-1800). Edited by Daniella Kostroun and Lisa Vollendorf. [UCLA Center/Clark series, 12.] (Toronto: University of Toronto Press in association with the UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. 2009. Pp. xii, 354. $80.00. ISBN 978-0-802-09906-8.)

This collection of essays, the fruit of a colloquium, purports to treat what the title promises in terms of the Atlantic basin of Europe, the Americas, and Africa. The editors identify their primary goal as to "break down boundaries of nation-bound inquiry by placing women, gender, and religion at the centre of current dialogues about a shared Atlantic space" (p. 6). However, religion is not the focus of all of the essays, and six of them are defined precisely in terms of nation. Traditional paradigms die hard.

The volume's jewel is Barbara Diefendorf's review of women's roles in the Catholic Reformation, a broad-based study that puts years of experience on display. She summarizes and nuances what recent scholarship has revealed: Earlier work on women and the Catholic Church, largely based on feminists' antagonism to patriarchal institutions and reliant on prescriptive texts, laws, and decrees for evidence, has proven vastly imperfect in accuracy and scope. For example, the Council of Trent dictated cloister for religious women. How, if, and when that dictate was enforced has proven crucial, as have distinctions between passive and active cloister, as well as which members of a convent community could be cloistered and which could not. Moreover, the antagonism between women and the Catholic Church assumed by modern feminists is not borne out by archival work. The historical record, then, leaves us with what Diefendorf calls a continuum of feminine devotion that eschews extremes and absolutes.

Lisa Vollendorf's "Transatlantic Ties" provides a useful list of works by women writers from Spain (sixty-six authors) and Spanish colonies (thirty-six authors), by no means restricted to religious writing. Although one might wonder at assertions such as "women arguably were positioned as the group that posed the single most important threat to a homogenous Catholic state" (p. 80), this evidence of women's textual production is important. Amy Froide's "The Religious Lives of Singlewomen in the Anglo-Atlantic World" counterbalances the volume's focus on things Catholic. Pointing out that unwed female adults were 30 percent of the seventeenth-century English population, she traces the careers of Quaker missionaries as well as Protestant and covert Catholic nuns, all of which add to evidence of women's work in a wide variety of religious institutions. …

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