Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England

Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England

Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England

Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England


The Renaissance woman, whether privileged or of the artisan or the middle class, was trained in the expressive arts of needlework and painting, which were often given precedence over writing. Pens and Needles is the first book to examine all these forms as interrelated products of self-fashioning and communication.

Because early modern people saw verbal and visual texts as closely related, Susan Frye discusses the connections between the many forms of women's textualities, including notes in samplers, alphabets both stitched and penned, initials, ciphers, and extensive texts like needlework pictures, self-portraits, poetry, and pamphlets, as well as commissioned artwork, architecture, and interior design. She examines works on paper and cloth by such famous figures as Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bess of Hardwick, as well as the output of journeywomen needleworkers and miniaturists Levina Teerlinc and Esther Inglis, and their lesser-known sisters in the English colonies of the New World. Frye shows how traditional women's work was a way for women to communicate with one another and to shape their own identities within familial, intellectual, religious, and historical traditions. Pens and Needles offers insights into women's lives and into such literary texts as Shakespeare's Othello and Cymbeline and Mary Sidney Wroth's Urania.


Decades of scholarly work on early modern English women have expanded our sense of their lives and of the media that they used to express those lives, media that I call women’s textualities. Early modern modes of perception made women’s verbal and visual textualities seem closely related, even versions of one another. As a result, this book considers women’s writing alongside their paintings and embroidery. Through their multiple textualities, I argue, women from about 1540 to 1700 expressed themselves in several media that also record the ongoing redefinition of the feminine.

Women’s textualities took many forms in early modern England. As activities, they may be placed along a continuum, from those that provide very little information about their producers to those that provide a great deal of information. Surviving forms of women’s textualities include notes in samplers, alphabets both stitched and penned, initials, ciphers, wise sayings, and embroidery patterns, all of which offer glimpses of women’s activities and perceptions. Still other textualities, including calligraphic manuscripts with embroidered covers and needlework pictures, pamphlets, as well as the texts now classified as literature, offer more substantive information about the connections that women saw between themselves and their texts. Whether providing only traces or whole treatises of information, women’s textualities materialize their creators’ identities as situated within familial, intellectual, religious, and historical traditions, even as they used those traditions to redefine themselves.

To some producers of early modern texts we can attach names, including privileged women like Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Stuart, Bess of Hardwick, Anne Clifford, Margaret Hoby, Mary Sidney Herbert, and Mary Sidney Wroth. Other women who wrote, painted, or worked textiles include those more at the periphery of power, like Levina Teerlinc, Jane Segar, Esther Inglis, and Amelia Lanyer. Still other women’s names are largely unknown, their existence registered only by the needlework that they left behind and by their choice of narratives. Both the nameable and the anonymous women who produced a variety of . . .

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