This is a guest post by Rachel S.—an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. She is currently conducting a research project surveying rare books from the Early Modern Period (1540-1640).
I read books like they are going out of style. I love being an English major because it gives me license to read constantly and call it work. In my classes, content knowledge and working toward an understanding of the work is always in the foreground, as it should be. But, I always find myself looking for more: what was the public’s reaction? What did the physical text look like? How was it put together? Was it a serial or a complete book? After taking a course in Renaissance book history (a relatively new field) I began to examine the book as an object, an artifact, and as something that works with the text in order to give the reader a certain experience while holding the book in hand.
The Renaissance was an explosive time for books: after the invention of the printing press, the circulation of manuscripts was not the only way to receive a text as printing increased the availability and output of news, literature, and religious works. Widespread availability provided new opportunities for traditionally marginalized groups (lower classes and women) to access the printed word. Though this was the case, the availability did not necessarily ensure the ability of these groups to even understand what they read, or to respond to it by writing on it.
In the book Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy by Heidi Brayman Hackel, this literacy continuum is examined—especially in relation to sex. Women (even in the upper classes) had a range of literacy skills varying from spelling, phonetic reading, to full literacy. But, this did not always mean readers could write. Writing was taught as a separate skill reserved for men with occupations directly invested in writing such as scribes.
Combined with this, women as readers and writers were often seen as unchaste or immodest; this caused them to either hide their abilities or to not learn at all. Brayman Hackel notes this attitude often in her book and shows how some of the most influential religious writers of the period discouraged female readership: “In his advice about women’s licentious reading, [Juan Luis] Vives focuses upon physical access to books: a woman’s excessive handling of them, her father’s forceful removal of them”. Women readers were not only restricted by their family but by national law. Henry VIII enacted the Act for the Advancement of True Religion (1543), which criminalized reading the Bible by women and yeoman. It is also important to note that specific classes of men are spoken of in the law, but women and the lowest class of men are grouped together and that the class of the woman did not matter. (The law was repealed by Edward IV but the damage had already been done.)
This “seen and not heard” attitude toward women’s education and readership continued into the 20th century. Heidi Brayman Hackel recounts Virginia Woolf’s unpleasant experience at a college library in the early 1900s. In her book A Room of One’s Own, Woolf remembers wanting to view a rare book and was turned away from Trinity Library at Cambridge because of her sex. This story bothers me because I almost daily view rare books as part of my research, and this restriction from literature and from education overall is horrendous. Although shocking and disturbing, this tale impels me to look for exceptions to the overall treatment of women in educational settings. I have found an especially wonderful one of which I would like to share from the Special Collections at the university.
Our 1679 Works by Edmund Spenser was owned by one Will Thomson who later gave the copy to his daughter Letitia Thomson. As you can see in this photo, our reader wrote, “Letitia The Faery Queene Thomson her book.” This is important because there is female ownership, a female writer, and a female reader. The importance of this work only increases as we can see Letitia write literary criticism; she spends her time writing notes attempting to determine the thick allegory of The Faery Queene. The front flyleaves of the book are covered in her handwriting of select sections of another work by Spenser, which also has two important female characters (Rosalind and Elisa) The Shepherds Calender.
Letitia Thomson had a strong knowledge of classical authors, citing Virgil and Horace. She knew Latin and Greek; and even more impressively can write in these languages.
Letitia Thomson most likely took interest in this work because Edmund Spenser was England’s first national poet. But she also had to have been drawn to the The Faery Queene and a female character as protagonist and ruler.
This book not only displays an intelligent female, but the most intelligent person I have come across in the collection during my six months of research. Letitia Thomson surpassed the low expectations for her sex and seems to be one of the more learned people of her time.
I, too, mark my books avidly with literary criticism and cross-references. I can only hope one day a future reader will pick up one of the books I owned in awe of my proliferation.
Even today, women struggle for recognition in education; when frustrated with this disparity, I look to the successful exceptions to the rule: Heidi Brayman Hackel, Virginia Woolf, and especially Letitia Thomson. Each in her own time overcame societal expectations to create room of her own in literature, learning, and society.
Brayman Hackel, Heidi. Reading Material in Early Modern England Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Pr, 2009. Print.