Books for Women in the 15th and 16th Century

  Category: Medieval Europe

By Act of Oblivion, June 2006

In 1555, Louise Labe wrote, “if any woman becomes so proficient as to be able to write down her thoughts, let her do so, and not despise the honour but rather flaunt it instead of fine clothes, necklaces, and rings.” Labe may have been promoting the virtue of female education, but equally she demonstrates a desire for literary expositions from a female perspective. Printed works had been available in England from the fifteenth century, and although some texts written by women were published in the sixteenth century, it was not until the 1640’s onwards that female authorship experienced a significant increase in output. According to Elaine Hobby (1988), between 1649 and 1688 more than two hundred writings by women on ‘every conceivable topic’ were published. A relaxation of censorship laws during the English Civil Wars provided the opportunity for women writers to produce more literature aimed primarily towards a female audience. These more liberal measures produced an increase in the availability of literature for female readers, and therefore a comparative increase in the market for books. Nevertheless, it was possible for women to gain access to books and written material during the period 1480-1640. A number of printed texts published before the 1640’s indicate that a market already existed for books for women readers from the late fifteenth century to the onset of the Caroline monarchy’s political difficulties. Suzanne Hull (1982) has utilised a methodology of classification that provides four ‘groups’ of women’s books in the period 1475-1640; practical guides, recreational literature, devotional works and books debating the nature of women. Although Suzanne Hull has used a fairly discriminatory method in ascertaining the number of books directed to or printed for women readers in England, Hull estimates that between 1475 and 1640, there were at least 163 books specifically for women. At roughly an average of one book a year it initially appears that the market for books for women was limited. Hull as also observed that there is very little evidence to show that in the first one hundred years of English printing, books were being published with a female audience in mind. However, despite the various interpretations and debates concerning the categorisation of books for women, it is possible to identify a selection of printed and written material that was ‘specifically or generally’ available to female readers women during 1480 to 1640.

Books for women proved to be a contentious issue in an early modern English society that reflected male dominance through an institutionalised theory pertaining to patriarchal and hierarchical expectations. Despite the limitations and boundaries set around a woman’s place in society, it was possible for women to explore their property ‘rights’ in The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights: or The Lawes Provision for Woemen (1632). Equally, the first dictionaries printed in English all had provisions for female readers. Although Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall (1604) was condescending in tone, it was still presented with a ‘women’s need’s in mind.’ Books were claimed as a ‘man’s prerogative’ and many women writers remained conscious that they were intruding on ‘male territory.’ Some female authors found it necessary to provide justification for their works, and in doing so, their arguments not only provided an explanation about their texts for contemporary male sensibilities, they also delivered a rationale that appealed directly to female perceptions of themselves in a gender constructed society, and therefore made the book acceptable reading for women. Thus, Ann Dowrich explained in her preface to The French History (1589), that although her work “is most excellent and well worth reading…if you find anything that fits not your liking, remember I pray, that it is a Women’s doing.” Nevertheless, many male writers and booksellers of the period recognised the potential of expanding the reach of their work either by directing their books specifically to women, or choosing a subject matter or dedication ambiguous in nature, and therefore able to appeal to both male and female readers. The Monument of Matrones (1582) was compiled by Thomas Bentley and included worthy pious work “partly of men [and] partly of women,” but Bentley also designated his work “for the private use of women.” Although Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590) was not specifically a woman’s book, Spenser appears to have included ‘interest and tastes’ endearing to a female audience, most notably an acceptance in the Elizabethan court. In addition, many writers found support among female patrons. Not only was this an effective method of promoting an authors work, it also ensured that texts were received favourably by a relatively small, but influential female readership. It is arguable whether this practice constitutes a substantial ‘market’ for female readers, but nonetheless, the books were available to women if they so desired.

The market for literature concerning the ‘nature’ of women appears at first, to be one of contemporary debate and modern historical scepticism. Jane Anger, Joseph Swetnam, Rachel Speght, Esther Sowernam, and Constantia Munda all ‘wrote’ books concerning the ‘defence of women.’ However, the names could be pseudonyms that conceal the identities of male authors who involved themselves in the contemporary debate about the nature of women. In Redeeming Eve, Elaine Beilin (1987) appears to accept that the authors are indeed female and the pseudonyms reflect an ‘underlying anxiety’ about their books and the content. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that contemporary readers would have guessed the ‘nature’ of the authors, and as such, female readers would have acquired these texts in the understanding that the subject matter was one of contemporary concern. It is Margaret Ezell’s (1987) opinion that women writers no more concealed their true identities than did male authors of the period, and that pseudonyms may have been part of a long literary tradition. Despite the question mark over the authorship, the books would have composed part of the market for female readers, and possibly the dissident nature of the contents provoked a demand in excess of its comparative literary worth.

According to Juan Luis Vives, a good Christian woman should only read such texts that pertain to the fear of God, recommending the gospels, the writings of the apostles, and the Old Testament. For Vives, books that have “none other matter but of war and love” are for the habits of idle folk, and in particular, “women should beware these books, likewise as of serpents or snakes.” Equally, Thomas Salter insisted that women avoid “lascivious books” and recommended only those texts that featured the lives of the godly and chaste. Still, women found a variety of ways to work around male expectations of female behaviour and acceptable literature. One method that women could use to overcome the problem of public speaking in a patriarchal society, was to set their thoughts and ideas down as poetry and verse. This gave the opportunity for female writers to express a morality and outlook unique to a woman’s perspective and therefore appealing to female readers. This area of the market included Ann Dowrich’s The French History (1589), Isabella Whitney’s poetry, and more prominently, Elizabeth Colville’s Ane Godlie Dreame, Compylit in Scottish Meter (1603). Colville’s poem was published in ten further editions between 1606 and 1737, reflecting the popularity of these particular writings and demonstrating a significant demand in the market for women’s books. Not least, this popularity was exemplified by the ‘language and persona’ contained in the prolific and distinguished works of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. The system of patriarchy ensured a certain degree of controversy about the role of women’s literature and the nature of books that should be available for female readers.

In 1541, Henry Bullinger, a popular Protestant author, wrote that maidens and daughters should not “read fables of fond and light love,” but should instead take only “the New Testament…and study it diligently.” Once again, Bullinger reflects male notions of social gender constructions concerning women of the period.  Nevertheless, although religious works were popular, there appears to be a market for romantic and fictional books aimed at female readership. Far from the contemporary male view that women were “feeble and need the aid of others,” it seems that women actively sought out books that appealed to the imaginative and adventurous literary minds. In the late 1500’s, there appears to have been an increase in the number of fiction books directed towards women, partly because many writers recognised that there was an audience of female readers inclined towards such texts, and partly because booksellers saw a potential market that could increase profits. George Pettie (1576), John Grange (1577), Stephen Gosson (1579) and John Lyly (1580) all began to direct their works of fiction towards women. However, the fiction market also included a number of female authors. Margaret Tyler translated from Spanish to English The Mirror of Princely Deeds and Knighthood, a romance first published in England in 1578. Tyler considered it was acceptable “for a women to pen a story as for a man to address his story to a women,” and therefore argued her translation was suitable for both men and women, crossing a social as well as a literary boundary. Clearly, male writers observed that there was market for their fictional texts, and it has been argued that the demand for fiction acted as a ‘catalyst’ for an expanding market for female literature in other subjects and categories. As representative of modern as well as early modern England, fiction seems to be a popular section of the book market directed towards female readers.

As popular as fiction was, it has been argued that religious writings were the most important area of publication for women, a category that included ‘guides to piety, prayers, mediations, godly advice, prophecies, admonitions and lamentations.’ It was possible for women to write about ‘devotional poetry, prophetic warnings, warnings to repent translated narratives and autobiographies,’ but it was not possible for female writers to approach ‘biblical commentaries or publish sermons.’ In the late fourteenth century, the female followers of John Wycliffe owned bibles and religious works and memorised bibles texts. The Bible was perhaps the only book that allowed a degree of freedom for female readers. Patriarchal ideas encouraged women to read biblical literature, indeed, the Bible was the primary source concerning gender construction in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, drawing parallels with the fall of Eve as a means to justify a woman’s inferiority. An act in 1543 by Henry VIII forbid the reading of the English Bible by women, but undoubtedly the Bible continued to be coveted by a female readership until the act was repealed in 1547. In addition, the market for religious literature counted female writers who realised that ‘works of piety’ gained a stable and acceptable audience among women readers. Given Henry Bullinger’s popular ideas on encouraging women to read religious texts, theology played an influential role in the market for books, whether for men or women. Aemilia Lanyer dedicated her poem of Christ’s life, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum to “all virtuous ladies and gentle women, ” and Jane Owen primarily addressed An Antidote Against Purgatory to “Catholic ladies…and gentle women.” The religious upheaval sparked by the Reformation helped motivate many authors to write in defence of Catholicism or Protestantism. Ann Bacon translated a defence of the Church of England in 1564, and an account of Ann Askew’s ‘martyrdom’ arguably provided Protestants, male or female, with a profound literary defence of their religion. Thomas Becon (1564) managed to combine both theological education and a ‘conduct book’ by outlining the duties of maids, unmarried women, and the duty of wives towards their husbands. The published writings of Catherine Parr, Jane Grey and Elizabeth I would have had particular interest for female readers. According to Elaine Beilin (1987), the majority of the religious prose and translations by women between 1545 and 1605 represent the “vital link between women’s traditional spirituality and their developing literary vocation.” Religion may have acted as an impetus for female writers, but undoubtedly, the market for works of ‘spirituality’ also found a popular clientele among female readers.

Women of the period were generally provided with a limited education that relied heavily on traditional religious teachings and restricted learning to the needs of domestic life. A lack of association with traditional academic education and ‘credible public schools and universities’ may have placed women writers at a disadvantage.  Many women were ignorant of Latin and their poor education restricted the number of subjects they could effectively write about, as such, published works for women were considered unusual or at best, necessary to provide guidance and information alluding to the patriarchal notions of the female role in society. Thus, practical guidebooks concerning female education and behaviour, housewifery, matrimony, cooking and sewing, and midwifery, all composed a significant market for female readers. Indeed, according to Suzanne Hull’s criteria, ‘how to do it’ books accounted for over half of the editions of books addressed to women form 1475-1640. Perhaps the most famous educational ‘guidebooks’ are Castiglione’s The Courtier (1561) and Juan Luis Vives’ Instruction of a Christian Woman (1540). Both these books were directed towards “gentlewomen abiding in court [and] palace,” nevertheless, practical guidebooks were probably the few books that courted a popular and elitist audience. As early as 1486, Dame Juliana Burners published the Book of Hawking and Hunting, a text that included a guide to cooking and serving fowl and meat. John Partridge published The Treasurie of Commodious Conceites, and Hidden Secrets (1573) probably the earliest recipe books directed especially at women readers. Earlier published cookbooks included This Is the Boke of Cokery (1500), and A Propre New Boke of Cokery (1545), however, these texts were not aimed primarily to women, but no doubt, the subject matter appealed to contemporary women and therefore part of the market for female readers. The new Protestant experience of marriage motivated some Puritan clerics to produce ‘matrimonial conduct books’ that described an ideal ‘model’ in family relationships and domestic life. Robert Cleaver and John Dod’s A Godly Form of Household Government (1598), William Whateley’s A Bride Bush (1616), and William Gouge’s Of Domestical Duties (1622) all attempted to describe a ‘scheme’ of gender relations that reinforced patriarchal ideas. Although these matrimonial conduct books aimed their ‘advice’ for the use of men, the content was invariably filtered through to wives and daughters, and arguably, read by women who either internalised the guidelines or found the subject a matter of inquisitiveness. Nevertheless, in 1618, Patrick Hannay published A Happy Husband, unusual it that the book could only have been addressed specifically to women by providing advice to prospective brides on how to choose a suitable husband.  Hannay’s book, and even the Puritan guides to marriage, appealed directly or indirectly to female readers either through a desire for self-education or natural curiosity. It has been suggested that Gouge’s Domestical Duties may have had an influence on the writing of Elizabeth Joscelin’s Legacy to her Unborn Child (1624). Perhaps one of the most important ‘advice’ books was Dorothy Leigh’s A Mothers Blessing (1616). Leigh’s book was a posthumous publication ‘left behind for her children’ and ran to twenty-three editions between 1616 and 1674; according to Sylvia brown (1999), A Mothers Blessing has good justification for being the best-selling book by women in the seventeenth century. The sheer number of editions suggests that demand could be equated with popularity, and therefore a significant market existed for such books.

It has been suggested that the number of books produced in the late 1500’s that included dedications and introductions directed at women, provides a ‘strong indication’ of the growing number of female literary texts. Although Suzanne Hull (1982) describes her own set of criteria for establishing books that were meant for women, she excludes texts that are dedicated to three individual women or less on the grounds that they do not appeal widely to a female audience. Nevertheless, it is not realistic to assume that just because a text is not ‘specifically’ aimed towards a female audience that this is sufficient rationale to deny these books had appeal to women readers. Most notably in this period, a high percentage of books included dedications to Queen Elizabeth, Queen Anne, Henrietta Maria and Queen Mary, thus providing books that were, at the very least, attractive to a curious female reader. Arguably, such books were generally available to women and therefore constitute a section of the literary market open to female readers. Most unusual is a book published by Thomas Tusser entitled A Hundred Good Points of Housewifery (1557). Originally intended as a text on husbandry, the second edition included a whole section aimed primarily at female readership. In addition, the first midwife book published in England was a translation by Thomas Raynald of Eucharius Roesslin’s book entitled The Birth of Mankind, Otherwise Named the Woman’s Book (1540). Although an instructional manual, it contained a prologue directed at women readers and a popular audience. Republished thirteen times over a period of one hundred years, this books popularity suggests a successful readership of mothers and midwives. Indeed, books on motherhood and housewifery constituted a significant section of the market for women readers. Elizabeth Clinton published The Countess of Lincolns Nursery in 1622, and John Sadler’s text published in 1636 could have been useful to curious males, but was specifically directed to, and about ‘ailments peculiar to women.’

In addition to the more elitist nature of published books, there were a significant number of ‘small godly books, small merry books, double books and histories’ aimed at the popular end of the printing market, and designed to appeal to a very “wide cross-section of the urban and rural lower sections of society.” Thomas Deloney’s novels from 1597 included sections that were designed to appeal to rural inhabitants, and as Margaret Spufford (1981) observes, even to whores. Spufford has also noted that there was a range of ‘chapbooks’ of a bawdy nature intended for the enjoyment of women, and ‘compliment books’ were often written with women in mind. Along with a large dose of satire, favourite subjects for these ‘chapbooks’ included information about the nature and functions of herbal remedies and music, and they appear to have gained a popular readership among both men and women. It was Thomas Salter’s opinion that women should not indulge in “ballads, songs, sonnet’s, and ditties of dalliance.” Nonetheless, printed material on these subjects was available, and although there seems to be no music books that are directed especially towards female readers, it has been noted that contemporary literature and diaries display evidence that women used these texts. The large number of specialist publishers that dealt in this kind of material bears out that a large market existed at a popular level for ‘small books,’ and these tracts appear to have had a significant readership that included both men, and at times, especially for women.

Although a lax in censorship laws during the English Civil Wars enabled more women writers to publish more texts primarily aimed at a female audience, this does not mean that prior to 1640, a market did not exist for printed matter for female readers. Generally, women writers producing texts for publication was “not a socially approved activity.” Nonetheless, material written by both men and women was available to a female audience. Margaret Ezell has argued that though female writers constituted only a small proportion of the whole literary market, there were indeed a “respectable number of women openly engaged in authorship.” In conclusion, it seems that between 1480 and 1640, there were available to women, a large number of books whose content included religious matters, fictional accounts, poems, guides for behaviour as well as histories and biographies, all directed to female readers. In addition, there were a large number of printed works not specifically directed towards women, but nevertheless, indulged by a significant number of female readers. At a popular level, the ‘chapbooks’ served as entertainment and limited, but informative accounts received by a keen audience that included both sexes. Such works did not reflect the majority of the contemporary book market; all the same, these books were produced in large numbers and found a receptive audience in women readers. Although an increase in female literary levels should be seen as comparative to the rise in male literacy, the market for women’s books demonstrates a degree of evidence that the expanding market rose from a demand and recognition that women constituted a reasonable and profitable section of book buyers in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. In 1621, there was sufficient interest in Mary Wroth’s The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania that later in the same year, a ‘scandal’ concerning the text led to the book being withdrawn from sale. The fact that there was considerable outrage about Wroth’s publication suggests an influential market existed for her writings. By the 1580’s, booksellers appear to have recognised the demand for women’s books, and female literature became a more commercial market. If there was no demand for women’s literature then books would not have been published, however, it is difficult to ascertain whether books were actually read. The collecting of books may have been to promote an intellectual and social status. Nevertheless, a market for female directed literature did exist, and if there is a market for women’s books, it is plausible to assume that the majority of women are reading them.