Allyson M. Poska, Jane Couchman and Katharine A. McIver (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT, 2013.

Allyson M. Poska, Jane Couchman and Katharine A. McIver (eds.), The Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, Ashgate, Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4094-1817-7 (hardback) £90.00 978-1-4094-1818-4 (ebook), pp. 16 + 554


Reviewed by: Amy Louise Erickson, Lecturer in History, Cambridge University, October 2013

Given the sheer number of publications arising in women’s and gender history across early modern Europe, perhaps we need a new survey every five years or so. In 1988, the first volume of Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser’s A History of Their Own covered pre-history to 1700. Merry Wiesner’s Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (1993) was updated in 2000 and again in 2008. Cissie Fairchilds’ Women in Early Modern Europe 1500-1700 appeared in 2007. And now we have the Ashgate Research Companion, which is on an altogether larger scale, bringing together 25 review essays on the literature of the past 30 years. The contributors are literary scholars, art historians and musicologists, as well as historians.

Like its predecessors, the Research Companion is organised thematically. Unlike them, the first section here is on ‘Religion’. The second is called ‘Embodied Lives’ and the third is ‘Cultural Reproduction’.  The editors claim that ‘Study of early modern women had its roots in the study of religious history’ (3), although this point is not followed up. The interdisciplinary nature of the collection is most evident in the section on Religion. Chapters on visual arts in the convent, including textiles and books, as well as painting (Marilyn Dunn), music in the convent (Kimberlyn Montford), literature by women religious (Alison Weber) and by protestant literature (Jane Couchman), and lay patronage of religious art (Catherine King) augment the more traditional historical sources used in essays on the permeable cloister (Elizabeth Lehfeldt), religious communities outside the convent (Susan Dinan) and protestant movements (Merry Wiesner-Hanks).

This is the most extensive survey anywhere of early modern religion in relation to women and gender. As such, it will be extremely useful for teaching at a more advanced level than Wiesner’s and Fairchilds’ slimmer volumes.

The authors are inevitably specialists in one country or another, so the brief to cover all of Europe is challenging. The physical peripheries of Ireland, Scandinavia and eastern Europe get only the occasional mention. Even in the Mediterranean, reference to the muslim and jewish minorities is absent in the section on religion. Some of this may be due to a paucity of studies to date, whether or not arising from a paucity of sources. Of course it is impossible to list all works. There is, however, a distinctly North American flavour to this survey, and all but one of the authors are based in North America.

The second section on Embodied Lives covers maternity (Lianne McTavish), patriarchy and family (Allyson Poska), the economics of marriage (Jutta Gisela Sperling), the law courts (Lyndan Warner), sexuality (Katherine Crawford), work (Janine Lanza), old age (Lynn Botelho) and political power (Carole Levin and Alicia Meyer). In a differently organised collection, Elizabeth Cohen’s essay on women on the margins — including minorities like jews, muslims, witches, and warriors, but also marginalised majorities like the poor and girls — could have formed many separate chapters. Sperling and Warner both address the distinct Islamic legal culture in southern Europe, as did Margaret Hunt’s survey with a slightly later focus, Women in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2009). Warner’s wonderfully useful religious map of Europe on p. 236 should have appeared as a frontispiece for reference while reading the rest of the book: turn there first!

The final section, Cultural Production, covers the querelle des femmes (Julie Campbell), intellectual women (Diana Robin), science and medicine (Alisha Rankin), artists (Sheila ffolliott), secular art patrons (Sheryl Reiss), material culture (Katherine McIver), images of women (Andrea Pearson), and music (Linda Phyllis Austern).

Inevitably, this book focuses more on the tiny minority of elite urban women and their cultural production than on the majority of poorer rural women and their social history (editors, 7-8). It is nonetheless fascinating, because no matter how well we know our own specialisations within women’s or gender history, there is so much more to learn. This is where several authors’ suggestion of shifting the focus, using women as the social model rather than men, points the way forward to understanding institutions and relationships more broadly. We may call that putting women ‘at the centre’ (Poska, 195), seeing women as the model, rather than as peripheral (Lehfeldt, 23), or starting from the premise that marriage was an ’embattled institution’ (Sperling, 213). Once women are the central characters, we can move beyond polarising arguments because it is no longer possible to apply the ‘Glinda test’ (Merry Wiesner-Hanks, 130) — asking whether any particular historical shift was ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ for women. Instead, questions on a wide range of issues open up: for example, on plural feminisms (Weber, 45) and on vunerability, authority, well-being and access to resources (Warner, 250).

Access to resources is the least covered issue in the volume, despite numerous references in the chapters on convents to the need to make a living. The essay on work is essentially cultural and the discussions of property transmission are primarily legal. In addition to musicologists and art historians, an economist would have been useful. To date, the fields of feminist economics and early modern history have had little to do with each other in North America. Arguably, the need to survive — at all social levels — is prior to expressions of sexuality, religion, maternity and cultural production.  The organisation of labour and the distribution of assets among different social groups is an area that clearly needs a great deal more historical attention.

The discography of convent music is a wonderful reference tool. Perhaps a ‘sitography’ might also have been useful. Both Who were the Nuns? (15) and the Singleness Studies Bibliography (197) are mentioned in the text but a full list of web resources would be a fantastically useful (online) service. For a book that is supposed to review the literature, the most exasperating aspect is its references. Bibliographies are separate for each chapter. While shorter thematic bibliographies are appealing, in many cases (and especially in the Religion section), this involves considerable repetition. Individual essays in collections are not given titles, so for example we learn (415) that Tessa Storey wrote an article on the Roman healer called Maddalena the Weaver, but the footnote merely cites Leong and Rankins (eds), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science.  Here I should say that full essay titles for this volume are on Ashgate’s website. The Index includes individual names of people mentioned once, but lacking entries on, say, ‘education’ or ‘foundling hospitals’, there is no way to trace these themes, both of which have strong connections with religious institutions and with art and music, across the collection. Never mind — this book is an unprecedented achievement that we can all put to work immediately in teaching and in research.