The Prodigious Muse. Women's Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy

By Carinci, Eleonora | The Catholic Historical Review, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Prodigious Muse. Women's Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy


Carinci, Eleonora, The Catholic Historical Review


The Prodigious Muse. Womens Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy. By Virginia Cox. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press., 2011. Pp. xxvi, 440. $60.00. ISBN 978-1-4214-0032-7.)

After the acclaimed Women's Writing in Italy 1450-1650 (Baltimore, 2008), in which Virginia Cox offered a crucial critical overview of the phenomenon of Renaissance women writers, she now develops the most critically innovative section of her previous work with this important, intriguing, impressive, beautifully written, and comprehensive new book. The work under review concerns the way in which the Counter-Reformation, traditionally considered repressive for women, affected the literary production of post-Tridentine women. Cox notices an incredible proliferation, originality, and variety of women's writings produced between 1580 and 1635 and convincingly argues that this occurred thanks to-and not in spite ofCounter-Reformation politics. According to Cox, by promoting women-friendly religious and decorous literature, Counter-Reformation politics encouraged women's literary activity. Thus, within the general post-Tridentine tendency to convert secular literature into sacred or at least into decorous and acceptable literature, both laywomen and nuns with literary ambition-the principal addressees of this kind of "safe" literature-had more possibilities to publish their works and to experiment with different acceptable literary genres, approaching both sacred and secular subject matter often in very original ways.

In the first chapter, Cox defines the chronological boundaries of her study, analyzes the cultural context, and offers a general survey of women's writings of the period. She then considers and discusses the works written by women in the period, both printed and in manuscript, dividing them by literary genres and themes treated but taking into account the specificities of individual works and the possible contamination between genres. Cox examines women's lyric production, which, after the Council of Trent, tended to become mostly sacred, but she offers some interesting secular examples (chapter 2). Drama, formerly a genre almost unexplored by women, became particularly popular in the period among female authors, especially in its pastoral form (chapter 3). Sacred narrative-mainly represented by hagiographies in ottava rima, one of the most popular and underinvestigated genres of the period-offered to several women (such as Lucrezia Marinella) the opportusuch nity to write a number of works and to convert the previous epic-chivalric tradition into something more suitable to the time (chapter 4). …

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