Women and the Bible in Early Modern England by Femke Molekamp

Lucy Wooding on how women’s reading of the Bible was central to their lives and inspired a wealth of literature

June 27, 2013

Towards the end of the 16th century, an Elizabethan noblewoman wrote on a blank page in the front of her Bible, “Susanna Beckwith my deare childe I leave this booke as the best jewell I have, Reade it with a zealous harte to understand truly…” Nothing was more important than the reading of the Bible, but such reading was not merely an encounter between a reader and a book: it required true religious devotion if it was to work properly. Femke Molekamp’s book looks at the interaction between early modern women and their Bibles. She discovers a relationship that was intimate and often passionate; which was frequently central to a religious network of friends and relations; and which inspired a wealth of women’s writing.

Molekamp starts by exploring the place of the English Bible in the household, and examines the way women digested the sacred text, annotating their Bibles with marginal notes such as “Mind this” or “Very Glorious”. Not all their notes were religious: they could include cures for whooping cough or children’s drawings, but Molekamp argues that this reinforces how central the Bible was to domestic life. Reading could be solitary, but was often communal. Networks of women read together, wrote and educated one another. They wrote prayers for mothers and daughters to say together; they wrote books of devotion when they were pregnant, fully aware that they might soon die in childbirth; they dedicated their books to other women. Their work was often characterised by “affective devotion”, the emotional piety that had been a central part of pre-Reformation devotion but was here replicated by post-Reformation women, producing some inspirational writing, and a quantity of pious weeping. Grace Mildmay, writing her autobiography around 1620, recalled how her mother “would withdraw herself alone and spend an hour in meditation and prayers…, with her face all blubbered with tears”. It is striking how these mostly Protestant women built on the meditative practices of their pre-Reformation sisters, and more than once we see female religiosity transcending confessional boundaries.

It remains questionable how characteristic this fascinating array of female readers and writers were of early modern women generally. The women discussed here were drawn largely from the higher ranks, and include a king’s mother, a lord chancellor’s daughter and several queens, with only a handful of more humble rank. There may also be a danger in applying some of these arguments so particularly to women. One of the key works here was a collaboration between a brother and a sister; the famous Cooke sisters were taught by both mother and father, who made their home into a “little university” for sons and daughters alike. Men wept just as copiously as women over their prayers and meditations. Yet it is clear that there were ways in which Bible reading shaped and was shaped by the particular experience of women. As one mother wrote to her daughters, “I knowe you have many better instructors than my selfe, yet you can have no true mother but me, who not only with great paine brought you into the world, but do now still travail in care for the new birth of your soules; to bring you to eternal life.” Molekamp concludes that we have come a long way from the view that early modern women remained “chaste, silent and obedient”, as much of the rhetoric of the time suggested. The women here were entirely dedicated to their faith, but far from silencing them, it gave them inspiration, and a literary voice.

Women and the Bible in Early Modern England: Religious Reading and Writing

By Femke Molekamp
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780199665402
Published 21 March 2013

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