Academic journal article Parergon

'My Poor Returns': Devotional Manuscripts by Seventeenth-Century Women

Academic journal article Parergon

'My Poor Returns': Devotional Manuscripts by Seventeenth-Century Women

Article excerpt

The devotional manuscripts of Elizabeth Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, Anne, Lady Halkett, and Alathea Bethell give us insight into how three conformist women used their religious reading and writing to enter into authorship. During the early modern period, devotional writing took many forms, from more recognizably literary genres, such as lyric verse, to genres of spiritual account keeping such as meditations, prayers, and journals. Writing was an important exercise for Protestants of all stripes. Nonconformists in particular were urged to search for signs of their election by writing a spiritual journal, but those who conformed (completely or partially) to the Church of England also saw devotional writing as an essential aspect of holy living. (1) Danielle Clarke has recently argued that reformist Protestant commentators and sermon writers urged women to undertake a specific kind of spiritual reading and writing, one that valued repetition, assimilation, reiteration, and meditation upon the Word. (2) This mode of composition had relevance for a wider spectrum of Protestants as well, and could generate an active engagement with texts, effectively allowing women participating in an exemplary devotional activity to construct new works. While there are significant differences between their manuscripts, each of the women discussed in this article negotiates her role as author by minimizing her own agency and figuring her writing as a necessary act of recompense for that which she owes to God for his favours.

In 1633, a scribe prepared at least four copies of the devotional writings of Elizabeth Hastings, which consist of prayers, biblical extracts, and short meditations. (3) These may have been prepared shortly after her death in the same year, perhaps as a kind of memorial. Generically, the manuscripts are all called 'Collections' on the first page, implying the use of others' divinely inspired words, be they scriptural or from the conformist but godly writers Hastings favoured. Anne Halkett's voluminous devotional writing (dating from 1651 to 1699) survives in fourteen manuscripts, plus an autobiography, and four works printed after her death. (4) Meditation was Halkett's preferred genre, but she also wrote prayers and mother's advice. While she makes reference to reading the work of other writers, Halkett presents her manuscripts consistently as 'meditations', indicating the devotional labour she has expended to create them. Alathea Bethell's manuscript collection of religious verse and devotional prose dates from about 1674, the date attached to a poem sent to her. (5) The first third of her manuscript consists of poetry (extracts from versified psalms, and poems and poetic extracts on Christmas day, Good Friday, and Easter day), while the rest is prose meditations (also called 'directions' and 'rules') without any located source. A number of poems in the manuscript may have been written by Bethell herself, including the first poem in the volume that is subscribed 'AB'. This poem appears to self-consciously reflect on the contents of the manuscript: when the speaker's heart is oppressed by the world 'This litle Book. Afoards me Ease & Rest'. She will give God her 'humble Praises' for his bounty, and though God expects 'A great Account' for his gifts, Bethell asks him to 'Pardon my Poor Returns. for soe much Love'. (6)

Generically, each of these groups of manuscripts is in some respects quite different from the other (Hastings's collections, Halkett's meditations, and Bethell's religious verse and prose rules for behaviour), but each can also be construed as the writer's attempt to give to God what is owed to Him in return for His blessings: her 'Poor Returns'. (7) Their contents have been shaped into volumes in a way that showcases how the compiler used writing to express her faith and also to constitute that faith. Collecting passages from the Bible and transcribing them (as both Hastings and Halkett did) in a certain order and under headings was not necessarily a rote activity; instead, it seems to have been a way for the Word to speak through the believer as these words, and prayers and meditations built upon them, were shaped into something else. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.