Bible Readers and Lay Writers in Early Modern England: Gender and Self-Definition in an Emergent Writing Culture

November 15, 2012

Last year was the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, with extravagant claims made about it being “the most important book written in the English language”. Such a description inevitably induced some scepticism: did it make such a difference, translating the Bible into English? Did anybody apart from the clergymen and scholars with a vested interest actually read the Bible?

Kate Narveson’s book gives a definite and exhilarating response to this question. She argues that not only did ordinary men and women read their English Bible, but they were truly transformed by it, arriving at a new realisation of their own identity and capabilities. Encountering the Bible turned people into skilled readers and, even more excitingly, into writers. In particular, it gave women a literary voice with new levels of authority and self-awareness. By the mid-17th century, the experience of Bible reading and the many forms of writing that it prompted had brought about a profound change in English culture.

All this came about because the Bible is, inconveniently, extremely hard to read and understand. As Narveson neatly illustrates, the religious reformers whose official line was that faith should be based on “scripture alone” were in fact deeply anxious about letting the uneducated loose on this vast and complex text. So they poured out instructions as to how it should be done. Over the period covered here, between about 1580 and 1660, their dutiful flocks learned to “digest” Scripture, through note-taking and the collating of texts, keeping of commonplace books and writing of miscellanies. They analysed, organised, summarised, and in the process almost inadvertently learned to compose, creating a “transitional landscape between a miscellany and a book of the author’s own conceiving”, where “biblical language was part of the cadences of daily life”.

This was particularly meaningful for women, because “devotion was a significant solvent of the period’s rigid gender inequalities”. The second part of the book focuses on the question of how women in particular learned to read the Bible, and from it acquired a writer’s voice. Narveson insists that gender is only one significant influence on how women read and wrote, to be considered alongside class, education, piety and genre; from this mixture, she traces the process by which Scripture imparted authority, with remarkable consequences, focused in several detailed case studies. Here the religious convictions that others have blindly assumed to have constrained women in their self-expression are demonstrated to have given new conduits for both emotion and reason, imparting the confidence to write, and to write with force and certainty.

Narveson’s book is an energetic blend of different disciplines, tackling literature, religious history, book history and gender studies all at once, with remarkable nerve and considerable subtlety. She takes issue firmly with a range of different academic debates, correcting those whose theology is shaky and those whose literary criticism is too blinkered by modernity. There is a delicate and illuminating account of women’s writing here; there is also new understanding of how early modern texts might be read. By comparing how people were instructed to read, their culturally conditioned reactions and their individual and original responses, a fascinating picture emerges of how text, reader and culture interacted and shaped one another. By the end, we find the clergy just as anxious as they were at the beginning but for slightly different reasons, concerned at the new voices they were hearing. However, by the end of the period, Narveson observes, we don’t think twice about the fact that Milton was a layman. This was a “quiet revolution” and one that was never intended, but it was a revolution nonetheless.

Bible Readers and Lay Writers in Early Modern England: Gender and Self-Definition in an Emergent Writing Culture

By Kate Narveson Ashgate, 246pp, £55.00. ISBN 9781409441670. Published 28 September 2012

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