Teaching Other Voices: Women and Religion in Early Modern Europe

By Margaret L. King; Albert Rabil Jr. | Go to book overview

JOHANNA ELEONORA PETERSEN
(1644–1724): PIETISM AND WOMEN'S
AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN
SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY GERMANY

Barbara Becker-Cantarino

Those of us who teach in the early modern period outside of English literature, history, and culture know how difficult it is to find suitable texts by women that engage today's student reader. Here is a personal narrative written by a Pietist German woman who insisted on speaking out and publishing on religious issues at a time when women were supposed to be silent in matters of the church. Johanna Eleonora Petersen, nee von und zu Merlau (1644–1724), wrote and published her autobiography as an explanation and defense of her turn to a religious life. It is the first autobiography written and published by a woman in German.1 Petersen's autobiography goes beyond a presentation of and reflection on the religious life, which was customary among Pietists and usually composed when facing death. Petersen defends her “other path,” her choice of joining the Pietists, a marriage outside her class, and the publication of her religious thoughts. She describes in relatively great detail her secular life: her rather desolate childhood in the wake of the Thirty Years' War, her service at court, her life as a Pietist in Frankfurt, and her marriage. Her religious visions conclude the volume as a climax of her inner biography, her destiny since childhood. At the same time she defends herself against accusations and lies of (unidentified) enemies and others, of whose worldly lifestyle she disapproves. Petersen ends her autobiography with mystic images of calling, reminiscent of the mystic Jacob Boehme and the English visionary Jane Lead.2

1. Johanna Eleonora Petersen von Merlau, The Life of Lady Johanna Eleonora Petersen as Told by
Herself, ed. and trans. Barbara Becker-Cantarino, The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

2. See below, note 22 and related text.

-193-

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