Did women have a culture of their own? Few scholars of early modern culture have thought the subject worth investigating. Initially, historians defined a broad division between two cultures, élite and popular. Recent scholarship has offered a critique of this simple dichotomy, positing a cultural pluralism' in which regional variation as well as a tripartite class structure played a role in producing diverse subcultures.1 Yet despite the growing focus on a multiplicity of subgroups within the larger society, relatively little attention has been paid to fundamental differences between the cultures produced by women and by men.
Part of the problem stems from the models which have been employed to interpret popular culture. Male popular culture has been defined as the norm, with female culture consciously or unconsciously measured against it and found wanting. Although historians have increasingly acknowledged that women's role in popular culture is problematic,2 few scholars have tried to tease out gender differences, or to examine the question of women's relationship to popular culture.3 Nor have historians sought to construct a model that delineates an autonomous culture common to women which was not shared by men. One of the aims of this chapter is to demonstrate that such an independent female culture did in fact exist in early modern England.
By the term 'culture' we understand a system of shared meanings within which people lived their lives.4 Female culture can be analysed in both a vertical and horizontal sense. There were common elements to women's activities which cut across social barriers and helped to define the entire female sex in binary opposition to the male sex. And at a particular social____________________