Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Guest Post by Anna: A Literary Canon of Women Writers, Part Seven: The Fourteenth Century to the Fifteenth Century

(Echidne's note: Earlier parts of this series can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 ,part 5 and part 6.)

Julian of Norwich (c. 8 November 1342 – c. 1416) was one of the most
important English mystics, venerated in the Anglican and Lutheran
churches. Little is known of her life apart from her writings. However,
it is known that at the age of 30, suffering from a severe illness and
believing she was on her deathbed, Julian had a series of intense
visions of Jesus Christ. She was at home during this time, and gives no
mention of her personal life up unto that point, so some scholars have
suggested that Julian was unmarried or possibly a widow who lost her
husband and children in the plague. In any case, Julian wrote down a
narration of the visions immediately following them, which is known as
The Short Text of the Revelation of Love. Twenty to thirty years later
she wrote a theological exploration of the meaning of the visions,
known as The Long Text of the Revelation of Love. These visions are
also the source of her major work, called Sixteen Revelations of Divine
Love (circa 1393). This is believed to be the first book written in the
English language by a woman. Julian's theology was optimistic, speaking
of God's love in terms of joy and compassion as opposed to law and
duty. For Julian, suffering was not a punishment that God inflicted, as
was then the common understanding. She believed that God loved and
wanted to save everyone. Similarly, Julian saw no wrath in God. She
believed wrath existed only in humans but that God forgives us for
this. Julian's theology was controversial in regard to her belief in
God as mother. In her fourteenth revelation, Julian writes of the
Trinity in domestic terms, comparing Jesus to a mother who is wise,
loving, and merciful. Julian's revelation revealed that God is our
mother as much as He is our father. Julian became well known throughout
England as a spiritual authority: the English mystic (and author of the
first known autobiography written in England) Margery Kempe mentions
going to Norwich to speak with her. Grace Warrack's 1901 version of
Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, with her sympathetic informed
introduction, introduced most early twentieth-century readers to
Julian. After this, Julian's name spread rapidly as she became a topic
in many lectures and writings. In 1979 an annotated edition of Julian's
work was published, and after this her book was widely sold and
discussed, at a time of renewed spiritual searching by many. Her books
are widely available in English.

Christine de Pizan (also seen as de Pisan) (1363 – c. 1430) was a
Venetian-born woman of the medieval era who strongly challenged
misogyny and stereotypes prevalent in the male-dominated medieval
culture. As a poet, she was well known and highly regarded in her own
day. In her The Tale of the Rose (1402) and Letters on the Debate of
the Romance of the Rose (1403), she attacked Jean de Meun’s writing for
its immoral, often vicious portrayals of women. She endured criticism
for being too pointedly on the defensive. By 1405, Christine de Pizan
had completed her most successful literary works, The Book of the City
of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, also called The Book
of the Three Virtues. The first of these shows the importance of
women’s past contributions to society, and the second strives to teach
women of all estates how to cultivate useful qualities in order to
counteract the growth of misogyny. The Book of the City of Ladies is
commonly held to be the first feminist text written by a Western woman.
Christine’s final work was a poem eulogizing Joan of Arc. Written in
1429, The Tale of Joan of Arc celebrates the appearance of a female
military leader who, according to Christine, vindicated and rewarded
all women’s efforts to defend their own sex. Besides its literary
qualities, this poem is important to historians because it is the only
record of Joan of Arc outside of the documents of her trial. After
completing this particular poem, it seems that Christine, at the age of
sixty-five, decided to end her literary career. The poem is available
in English and French at The
standard English translation of The Book of the City of Ladies is by
Earl Jeffrey Richards (1982). The first English translation of The
Treasure of the City of Ladies, also called The Book of the Three
Virtues is Sarah Lawson’s (1985). Some of Christine's writings about
Jean de Meun's writing are available in "Debate of the Romance of the
Rose (The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe)", translated by David F.

Margery Kempe (c. 1373 – after 1438) is known for writing The Book of
Margery Kempe, a work considered by some to be the first autobiography
in the English language. This book chronicles, to some extent, her
extensive pilgrimages to various holy sites in Europe and Asia, as well
as her mystical conversations with God. She is honoured in the Anglican
Communion. Her work is widely available in English.

Teresa de Cartagena (b. c. 1425) was a Spanish author and nun who fell
deaf between 1453–1459, which influenced her two known works Arboleda
de los enfermos (Grove of the Infirm) and Admiraçión operum Dey (Wonder
at the Works of God). The latter work represents what many critics
consider as the first feminist tract written by a Spanish woman. Both
Arboleda and Admiraçión are semi-autobiographical works that provide an
authentic written voice of the Medieval female, a true rarity among
works of the Middle Ages. Teresa’s first essay, Grove of the Infirm,
examines the effect of her deafness on her life and its spiritual
development. After being devastated by the initial onset of the
illness, Teresa meditates in the silent prison of her deafness and
ultimately concludes that God has afflicted her in order to separate
her from the distractions of everyday noise. After much reflection in
the prison of echoing sounds within the cloisters of her ears, Teresa
reasons that her soul would have been purer if she had never been
exposed to speech at all, which makes one turn to the outside material
world and forget the inner spiritual world. The copyist, Pero López,
indicates that her work was addressed to Juana de Mendoza, wife of
Gómez Manrique, a poet and prominent political figure of the time, but
within Arboleda, she addresses a “virtuosa señora” (virtuous lady) who
may be Juana de Mendoza and suggests a female audience at large.
Despite her strategies to disarm the male reader in Arboleda, men still
rejected Teresa’s work as plagiarized. In response to this male
criticism, she composed Admiraçión operum Dey, making the argument that
if God created men who could write, then he could just as well have
created women who could write, and while men have been writing for
centuries, it does not make it any more natural for them to write, but
rather it seems natural because men have been writing for such a long
time. In addition, simply because women have not traditionally written
like men, it does not mean that female writing is any less natural.
Cleverly, Teresa argues that if God bestows a gift upon men then he can
just as well bestow the same gift upon women, thus concluding that the
criticisms of her opponents call into question God’s authority to
distribute gifts and consequently offend him. The “virtuosa señora”
addressed in the second work as in the first acts as the female
listener who sympathizes with Teresa’s concerns. To further illustrate
her point, the author makes use of various imagery and references,
alluding to the Bible story of the powerful Judith who kills Holofernes
after a whole army of men could not perform the task. She also expounds
upon the virtue of the interior life of the housewife. Her writings are
available in English as "The Writings of Teresa de Cartagena:
Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Interpretive Essay.",
translated by Dayle Seidenspinner-Núñez.

Gwerful Mechain (1462-1500), who lived in Mechain in Powys, is perhaps
the most famous female Welsh-language poet. Little is known of her life.
Her work, composed in the traditional strict Welsh poetic meters, is
often a celebration of religion and sex, sometimes within the same
poem. Probably the most famous part of her work today is her erotic
poetry, especially Cywydd y Cedor ("Ode to the Pubic Hair"), a poem
praising the vulva. It is a work in which she criticizes male poets for
celebrating so many parts of a woman's body, but not their genitals.
"Let songs to the quim circulate," she declares. As for the pubic hair:
"Lovely bush, God save it." This poem is available in English. Unfortunately there does not appear to be an English translation of a
collection of her poems at this time. If you know of one please mention
it in the comments.

Laura Cereta (1469–1499) was a Renaissance humanist and feminist. Most
of her writing was in the form of letters to other intellectuals. After
the death of her husband she concentrated on scholarly pursuits,
publishing a volume of her letters in 1488, called Epistolae
familiares. She was highly criticized for publishing her own work. Her
father died six months after she published her letters, and she no
longer felt inspired to write because of her father's death and the
large amount of criticism from both men and women of her time. Cereta
died unexpectedly in 1499 at the age of 30. No writings from her last
years of life survived. In her letters, Cereta defended women's right
to education and fought the oppression of married women. Her letters
circulated widely in Italy during the Early Modern Period, and laid the
groundwork for the feminism of the Enlightenment. Cereta's letters also
discussed war, death, fate, chance, and malice. Her letter to Bibolo
Semproni has one of the few medieval references to the 1st century BC
woman poet, Cornificia. Unlike most women of her time, Cereta was able
to partake in letter writing because she had the social contacts to
participate. Laura Cereta's complete letters are available in English
as "Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist (The Other Voice in
Early Modern Europe)", translated by Diana Robin.