Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

'More Women: More Weeping': The Communal Lamentation of Early Modern Women in the Works of Mary Sidney Herbert and Mary Wroth

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

'More Women: More Weeping': The Communal Lamentation of Early Modern Women in the Works of Mary Sidney Herbert and Mary Wroth

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

'More women: more weeping', Thomas Playfere reminded his congregation from the open pulpit outside St Mary's on Bishopsgate on the Tuesday of Easter week in 1595.1 It would have been a prestigious event; he preached from a newly refurbished podium to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London, who were gathered with their families in a recently constructed house, as well as to an assembled throng of teachers and pupils from St Christopher's dressed in their distinctive blue coats and red hats. The ceremony would hardly have unnerved Playfere, since he was an ambitious man who courted publicity and, through a combination of guile, ingratiating behaviour and populist sermons, would go on to win recognition at court and elevation at the University of Cambridge. Indeed, this particular sermon, which he later entitled The Meane of Mourning, was so successful that it was immediately released in two pirated editions, subsequently being published in an authorized collection of his most famous addresses. The text combines Playfere's usual populist tone and rhetorical flourishes in order to address the question of mourning and, in particular, to dwell upon women's communal and excessive grief. When Christ died on the cross, Playfere informed his listeners, it would have been certain,

both that more women wept then men, and that the women more wept then the men [since] the womens weeping came rather from weaknes in themselues ... Naturally (saith S. Peter) the woman is the weaker vessell, soone moued to weepe, and subiect to many, either affectionate passions, or else passionate affections.2

Playfere, in common with other English Protestant theologians, attacked 'womens weeping' because it represented what they considered to be the excessive lamentation of Catholic ritual, although by the 1590s such polarized spiritual discourses had already been modified to indicate a more general distinction between men and women. Therefore, while male expressions of grief were expected to be short, rational and contemplative, women's mourning was considered excessive, emotional and communal.

This essay sets out to explore the impact of this gendered division upon the mourning rituals of female communities, focusing on the writings of Mary Sidney Herbert and her niece, Mary Wroth. The subsequent argument is divided into three stages. The first examines how women's communal lamentation developed in both spiritual and social terms, in particular reflecting upon the ways in which female companionship was an integral aspect of these necessarily private communities. The second analyzes the way in which Sidney Herbert's writing demonstrates a conversance with accepted female mourning practices in A Discourse of Life and Death, Written in French by Ph. Mornay (1592) and The Triumph of death translated out of Italian by the Countesse of Pembrooke (transcribed 1600), while challenging convention in 'The Dolefull Lay' and The Tragedy of Antonie (1592). It looks at how Sidney Herbert reworked her own experience of a female community united in grief over the death of Philip Sidney, setting this against her evocation of intense personal loss. The third section comments upon Wroth's further exploration of female communal lamentation in her tragicomedy Love's Victory (c.1618) in which she valourises women's companionship and regard for one another. The essay, therefore, sets out to analyse and compare a range of female communities gathered together to mourn their loved ones, from the historical reality at Wilton, through Sidney Herbert's poetic rejection of female support in the characters of Clorinda and Cleopatra, to Wroth's proto-feminist embrace of the power of female networks to assuage grief.

II. Communal Female Lamentation in Early Modern England

The shiftfrom Catholic to Protestant practice had a significant impact upon the ways in which the dead were memorialized that is significant to the concept of communal mourning. …

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