Women's Voices, the Early Modern, and the Civilization of the West

By King, Margaret L. | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

Women's Voices, the Early Modern, and the Civilization of the West


King, Margaret L., Shakespeare Studies


Is there such a field as "Early Modern Women"? Absolutely. It is an interdisciplinary field of study comparable to that of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, or the Enlightenment. All of these are interdisciplinary fields, involving professionals from traditional history, literature, arts, philosophy, religious disciplines (defined by methodology), or departments (defined by institution). In each case, some kind of movement or phenomenon is the object of everyone's interest: the impact of the classical tradition, or of the creation of new churches, or the reconceptualization of the cosmos, or the realignment of intellectual culture according to secular norms and concerns. In the case of the study of early modern women (my dating is 1350-1750), the phenomenon that is studied from an array of disciplinary perspectives is the clear articulation, for the first time in history and anywhere on the globe, of women's voices, the female voice.

I hear the objections already. Surely there were women who spoke up before: medieval mystics, Jewish prophets, Egyptian queens, not to mention Japanese, Chinese, and Indian poets and novelists. And what about women who asserted themselves by doing, even if they had no literary voice? All of this is granted. But the early modern phenomenon is a movement, something tangible. In this period, many women in many languages and from many social vantage points claim that women, generally, may participate in the mainstream, male-dominated, intellectual culture of the age. They not only speak, but they assert their right to speak and define themselves by speaking. It is the age of the emergence of the female voice--previously unheard, and not since, as some lament, silenced.

It is not, on the other hand, the age of the liberation of women from traditional social roles. The definitions of women's roles were remarkably tenacious and held most women in bondage through 1800 and beyond. In many arenas, women of early modern Europe could be said to lose ground--in religious organizations, in the realm of work, within the family. Where they make unique progress is on the ideological plane. The early modern phenomenon of the emergence of the female voice, of women's claim to participation in culture, is not just a transitional stage in the movement from medieval to modern Europe. It is a thing in itself.

Is there a discipline specific to the study of early modern women? No, I think not. Women's presence and absence on the early modern stage can be studied using the same tools used to study the texts, documents, and objects that enable us to understand the experience of early modern men, or war, or theology, or physics.

Some adjustments must be made, of course. The documents may be harder to find because the documentary record is suited to a male-dominated world, recording mercantile contracts, or judicial investigations, or guild constitutions, that pertain mostly to male lifestyles. But scholars have learned to read the documents from a different perspective, to elicit from them what is said--sometimes because nothing at all is said--about women.

The objects, too, are different. The scholar must turn away from the grand monuments: the palaces, cathedrals, fortifications, and most of the painted and sculpted works of art. To understand women, it is necessary to look at the objects most associated with them: textiles, above all, spun, woven, sewn, embroidered by female hands; their boxes, books, and toys; the beds, chairs, stools, and buckets associated with cooking, laundering, and giving birth; the rooms in which they sat to spin, sew, weave, embroider, cook, and talk.

The texts--the consciously composed literary texts by and about women--are suddenly rich in the early modern period. They are written in the same languages and, generally speaking, according to the same formats that works by men are written, and can be read by persons equipped with the same skills. …

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