‘Necessary for all women’: Writing a Thesis on Female Reading, 1500-1650 – Door Jessie Pietens

As my research master Classical, Medieval and Early Modern Studies progressed, it became time to choose a subject for my thesis. As an avid reader myself, I wondered what reading was like in premodern times and how women may have been challenged or encouraged to read back then. I have therefore written my thesis on the discourse on and practice of female reading in England, Scotland and the Low Countries between 1500-1650, paying specific attention to the similarities in the discourse and practice within and between these countries, while also respecting and highlighting what makes each of them unique.

The history of early modern reading and research during COVID-19
Although the history of early modern reading has gained growing interest since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the history of female reading has often played second fiddle to that of men or to a more generalised perspective of ‘readers’. Yet, according to the early modern discourse, reading seems to have been a rather gendered issue. From the 1980’s onwards, there has been an increase in studies that focus on women’s reading cultures. This research has proven difficult to undertake, as women of the past and their actions are often hard to trace. Yet, as Priscilla Bawcutt – specialised in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Scottish poets and women’s reading cultures – aptly remarks ‘more [material] survives than is often realised.’1 Most of the research into female reading cultures focussed on England and often on specific (groups of) elite female readers. To contribute to the lacuna of knowledge on women below the status of gentry or outside of England, my thesis strives to give a cross-class, transnational perspective on the subject of female reading. It offers an insight into the particularities within the rich, diverse and dynamic discourse on and practice of female reading in each country

My research brought me solace by offering me an opportunity to mentally cross borders to some of my favourite places when the pandemic would not let me do so physically. While I foresaw great problems in obtaining relevant source material from the UK, I was surprised by how many sources were available digitally. Curiously enough, the sources that would prove most difficult to consult were those available in the Netherlands. I was able to see some of the Dutch source material in the Allard Pierson in Amsterdam, namely some Dutch translations of Desiderius Erasmus and Jacques Du Bosc. Additionally, the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp very kindly digitised their copy of the Dutch translation of one of Juan Luis Vives’ works for me.

The thesis
Erasmus Christiani matrimonii institutio (1526 ) and his colloquies Coniugium (1523) and Abbatis et eruditae (1524), together with Du Bosc’s L’Honnête femme (1632) and Vives’ De institutione feminae Chrisianae (1523) discuss the question of female reading in varying detail and formed the basis of my thesis. These texts were popular across Europe and heavily influenced other writings on the matter. While these texts have been subjected to research before, they are not often compared to each other through close reading. My thesis opens with a detailed overview of the similarities and differences between these texts to offer the debate on the early modern discourse on female reading more nuance. Additionally this chapter looks at the some of the early modern English and Dutch translations and compares them to each other and their Latin and French originals. Erasmus, Du Bosc, Vives and their translators generally agree that reading should play a role in every woman’s life and that she should read religious or edifying texts. Yet not all agree on how much a woman should read, who should be her guide and what other genres or particular texts they seem fit. Additionally, some of the early modern translators seem briefer on the subject of female reading. They are more cautious rather than encouraging. While Vives offers the reader a list of books to read and to avoid, his Dutch translator makes this list shorter and less specific. These small differences in the discourse show that – although we can speak of larger European tendencies – we should be mindful of minor details that differ between or within countries.

After having analysed these main texts, I compared this analysis to some early modern texts that were more local in character, as they had not been translated before 1650. The English scholars Thomas Salter and Richard Mulcaster are often cast on the far end of a (rather anachronistic) ‘mysoynist-feminist’ spectrum respectively.2 Yet from their meditations on female reading, we are able to deduct that their ideas are rather similar. Moreover, their stances fit in rather seamlessly with those of their contemporaries. Like Vives, Salter gives a list of authors and books to read and to avoid, although his list is not as extensive. His emphasis on the importance of histories and edifying work is – if not new – certainly more explicit. Mulcaster argues for the same, and adds to the discourse a unique connection between reading and physical health, while stating that reading was important in training ones memory. In the Low Countries, Gerard Goossens, Jacob Cats and Johan van Beverwijck concerned themselves with the discourse on female reading.3 While their texts were the largest analysed within this thesis, their reflections on the subject were very concise. Their emphasis on the dangers of lust and amorous books (sometimes directly taken from Erasmus or Vives) is evident and Goossens offers a small list of books to avoid. This meagre contribution could, for example, indicate that reading for women had become so common place in the Low Countries that debate felt less necessary. For Scotland, material on female reading is very scarce. Scotland had its own manuscript culture with edifying and moralising genres, from which I used William Dunbar’s poem The Tretis (which was printed from 1507/8 onwards).4 Dunbar’s poem has a similar educative function as Erasmus colloquies would have some fifteen years later. Nevertheless this material tells us little to nothing on a solely Scottish discourse on female reading. From The Tretis we can only gather that its focus on religious texts fits within a broader European tendency. This raises the question if and how women were encouraged or discouraged to read within Scottish society.

After having gained insight into the early modern discourse of female reading, I wanted to compare this to the texts that were actually available to early modern women. Instances where early modern readers show themselves or their reading habits to us are a rarity and this is even more the case for early modern women. By gaining insight into what was available to them and the popularity of some of these texts, we can gather if the books praised or condemned by the early modern scholars were popular and well known. By using the Universal Short Title Catalogue and the National Library of Scotland’s online database of books printed on or for the Scottish market between 1505-1700 as well as several works on early modern reading cultures, I gathered a general overview of some of the books available in England, Scotland and the Low Countries between 1500-1650. While this was certainly not a complete overview, it served its purposes to show – for example – that all three countries imported texts, though England and the Low Countries were more likely to translate from French or Latin, while Scotland’s imported texts were mainly in Latin. There were shared texts between each of the three countries, especially in the romance genre. We can speak of a similarity in reading cultures when it comes to available genres (romance, edifying, religious) and the seeming popularity of those genres. Although the countries shared common texts, these may have looked different between or within countries due to translation and editing. A prime example of this is the romance of Floris and Blanchefleur (a story much warned against by Vives!) which was reprinted – and rewritten – often, for example to make it appropriate for use in schools. It was also often worked into compilations of sagas, legends and histories.5

My conclusions
Though most of the discourse was congruent, there was some advice that was rather less compatible. This, in combination with confusing marketing , may have left women more uncertain of what to read.6 Devotional or religious material seems to have had the overtone within the reading cultures in all three countries. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether this is due to the influence of the early modern scholars from the previous chapters or other social or cultural authorities. Women were unanimously encouraged by early modern scholars to read religious and edifying texts, yet the reality of the market seems to have been much more deviant, diverse and dynamic. While the texts by Erasmus, Vives and Du Bosc are deemed highly influential by scholars, we might re-evaluate if they had such a strong influence on women’s reading habits. While my thesis does not mean to downplay the influence of these texts, the disregard for the advice on female reading begs the question what other advice may have been disregarded. There may have been other institutions and cultural practices influencing women’s (reading) habits. Moreover the position of women in each country is often thought to have played a role in their reading habits. While reading was certainly gendered in the scholarly discourse on the subject, the question is whether this was a lived reality. Future research must focus more on those works that may not be as clearly linked to a woman’s historical province, but that may still have influenced women’s reading cultures (e.g. ars moriendi, consolation literature, poetry, leaflets, newssheets and broadside ballads). It is likely that women’s reading practices were just as deviant and unruly as the cultures and period in which they were embedded. Future research would do well to devote more time to female reading, as it was – according to Du Bosc– ‘necessary for all women’.

About Jessie
In January of 2021, Jessie Pietens graduated cum laude from her research master in Classical, Medieval and Early Modern studies at the University of Groningen. Her thesis was titled ‘Necessary for all women’: The Discourse on and Practice of Female Reading in England, Scotland and the Low Countries, 1500-1650. Over the course of her studies, she specialised in the late medieval and early modern cultural, social and political history and literature of England, Scotland and the Low Countries, with a particular interest for subjects such as gender, monarchy, diplomacy, the history of emotions, authority and conflict, intellectual and medical history, (lay)devotion, palaeography, marginalised groups and – as an avid reader herself – she takes great pleasure in exploring the history of literature, books and reading.

Further reading
Bowden, Caroline. “Female Education in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries in England and Wales: A Study of Attitudes and Practice.” PhD. Diss., University of London, 1996.

Fox, Adam. The Press and the People: Cheap Print and Society in Scotland, 1500-1785. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Hoftijzer, P.G. “Boekbezit van vrouwen in Leiden gedurende de Gouden Eeuw.” Jaarboek voor de Nederlandse           Boekgeschiedenis 12 (2005): 29-45.

Hull, Suzanne. Chaste, Silent & Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1982.

Porteman, Karel, and Mieke B. Smits-Veldt. Een nieuw vaderland voor de muzen. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse       literatuur 1560-1700. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2016.

Stevenson, Jane. “Reading, Writing and Gender in Early Modern Scotland.” Seventeenth Century 27, 3 (2012): 335-374.

  1. Priscilla Bawcutt, “‘My bright buke,’: Women and their Books in Medieval and Renaissance Scotland,” in Medieval Women – Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain: Essays for Felicity Riddy, eds. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Rosalynn Voaden, Arlyn Diamond, Ann Hutchison, Carol Meale and Lesley Johnson (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000), 19.
  2. Thomas Salter, A Mirrhor mete for all mothers, matrons, and maidens, intituled the Mirrhor of Modestie no lesse profitable and pleasant, then necessarie to bee read and practiced (London: [J. Kingston] for Edward White, 1579); Richard Mulcaster, Positions vvherin those primitiue circumstances be examined, which are necessarie for the training vp of children, either for skill in their booke, or health in their bodie. VVritten by Richard Mulcaster master of the schoole erected in London anno 1561. In the parish of Sainct Laurence Povvntneie, by the vvorshipfull companie of the merchaunt tailers of the said citie (London: thomas Vautrollier for Thomas Chare [i.e. Chard], 1581).
  3. Gerard Goossens, Het Cieraet der vrouwen, ed. K.J.S. Bostoen and G. Kettenis (Deventer: Uitgeverij Sub Rosa, 1983); Jacob Cats, Houwelyck, dat is De gansche gelegentheyt des Echten staets, (Middelburg: Jan Pieters[zoon] van de Venne, 1625); Johan van Beverwijck, Joh. Van Bevervvyck van de wtnementheyt des vrovwelicken geslachts (Dordrecht: Jasper Gorissz., 1639).
  4. William Dunbar, “The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo,” in The Complete Works, ed. John Conlee (Michigan: Western Michigan University, 2004).
  5. G.D.J. Schotel, Vaderlandsche volksboeken en volkssprookjes van de vroegste tijden tot het einde der 18e eeuw, tweede deel (Arnhem: Gybers & Van Loon, 1975), 34.
  6. Disguising romances as histories, to name an example.