Gertz, Genelle,Heresy Trials and English Women Writers, 1400-1670,Cambridge University Press, New York, 2012. £55, ISBN 978 1 107 01705 4 (hardback), pp. x + 258
Reviewed by: Nora King, October 2013
Genelle Gertz’sHeresy Trials and English Women Writers, 1400-1670charts the central role heresy trials played in the development of English women’s writing and in the history of women’s preaching. Gertz uncovers connections betweenwomen’s trial narratives across Catholic, Protestant and sectarian traditions from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. She further extends critical approaches to heresy trials by establishing the trial narrative as a distinct genre, and providing a comprehensive study of its generic features.
Chapter One establishes that addressing the experience of trial often entailed writing and that the trial narrative’s development is directly connected to the procedures of trial. Heresy court procedures and documents (such as articles, which listed the specific heretical beliefs under investigation, and abjurations, which entailed the ‘simultaneous confession and renunciation of heresy’) sought to enforce religious orthodoxy on ‘heretics’ (p.33). In response to trial, some non-conformists wrote alternative ‘belief papers’: documents which reframed heresy court genres to record ‘creeds of dissenting belief’ (p.16). Belief papers were often brief and formulaic, but nevertheless told dramatic stories of resistance, and played a ‘pivotal role in the generation of trial narratives’ (p.21). The subsequent chapters discuss further developments in the genre and highlight women’s contributions.
In Chapter Two, Gertz begins her examination of the relationship between trial and preaching. Illegal preaching was frequently one of the charges levelled against religious non-conformists, but women also had to address St. Paul’s proscription against female preaching. A key strand of Gertz’s argument is that while constraining women’s speech, in its function of interrogating belief, heresy trial paradoxically occasions preaching by women. Here, Gertz examines Margery Kempe’s frequent interrogations for both heresy and illegal preaching, featured in The Book of Margery Kempe. Under interrogation, Kempe denied preaching, reframing her public speech as ‘communications and good works’ (p.65). However, Gertz argues, the very act of engaging in theological debate with her accusers undermines her denial; and, more challengingly, Kempe adopts a homiletic voice by frequently alluding to biblical sermons.
Chapter Three explores the trial of the Henrician Protestant Anne Askew. Protestant women’s appropriation of the role of preacher was problematical for Catholic authorities and male co-religious alike. Similarly to Kempe, Askew denies the charge of preaching while simultaneously practising it. However, noted for her public proclamations of reformed theology, and portraying herself as equal to learned men in engaging in scriptural and theological debate at trial, Askew’s denials are more obviously ironic than Kempe’s. Gertz’s examination of parallels and contrasts between Kempe and Askew illustrates a shared opposition towards women’s spiritual authority across confessional divides, while underscoring the point that the women’s allegiances to different religious traditions shaped the nature of their resistance at trial.
These points are further developed in Chapter Four’s examination of the trials of the Marian Protestantwomen Alice Driver, Elizabeth Young, and Agnes Prest and the Elizabethan CatholicMargaret Clitherow. Investigating authorities attempted to undermine these (mostly) illiterate women’s authority by denigrating them on grounds of gender and class. Defying their Catholic persecutors, Driver, Young and Prest ‘battle . . . for their right to argue against the clerics examining them’ (p.111). Clitherowprovides an interesting contrast. Eschewing preaching, her (largely) silent resistance to Protestant authorities opposes the ‘vociferous Protestant women at trial’ and displays her acceptance of male/priestly authority; while at the same time she challenges the authority of her accusers by refusing to comply with their demands (p.128).
Gertz’s study of Kempe and Askew persuasively develops the argument, laid out in Chapter One, that the experience of trial prompts the writing of trial narratives. Most of the trial narratives discussed in Chapter Four, however, were compiled by martyrologists and biographers solely from court records and second hand accounts. All of the accounts of trial discussed in the book were subject to some degree of male editing. Throughout, Gertz attends to issues of authenticity that arise. However, it is debatable whether she fully negotiates the more complex questions about authorship that works in this chapter provoke. Consequently, her presentation of them as women’s texts is not entirely convincing. Nevertheless, Gertz’s argument that these biographical texts ‘can legitimately be understood as women’s “writing” provided that we account for the levels of mediation’ is intriguing, and will no doubt stimulate debate among scholars interested in the complexity and flexibility of authorship in the medieval and early modern periods (p.5).
Religious developments during the seventeenth century led to a greater acceptance of women as visionaries and preachers within some sectarian communities. There was, nevertheless, continued resistance to women assuming these roles by many male co-religious, as well as intense suspicion in the wider community. In Chapter Five, Gertz explores seventeenth-century attitudes to women’s spiritual authority in relation to the trial for heresy in Malta of Quaker women Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers. Evans and Cheevers provided a self-penned account of their trial, which Gertz compares with both the official court version of Catholic prosecutors in Malta and that of their male biographer. With women’s affirmation of belief and/or female spiritual authority in the face of death a central theme of the book, changes to sentencing in England appears to be an additional reason for Gertz’s focus on this trial in Malta. By this point in England religious non-conformity was no longer prosecuted under the terminology of heresy (but, for example, sedition), and death was no longer the outcome of a guilty verdict. However, in consequence of focusing solely on Evans and Cheevers, the final chapter largely loses its focus on English authorities’ attitudes to women’s preaching. An opportunity to retain this important element of her study appears to have been missed by Gertz when she fails to include a detailed exploration of the interrogation of the Fifth Monarchist Anna Trapnel (whose Report and Pleais mentioned intermittently) In addition, Trapnel would have provided a means to compare Catholic attitudes to radical Protestant women with those of English authorities. The English establishment tried to depict Trapnel as insane. Regarding the trial of Evans and Cheevers, records show that, rather than seeking a conviction of heresy, Catholic officials sought to portray these women as insane.
While Chapter Five is under-developed, as a whole, Heresy Trials and English Women Writers, 1400-1670 is a compelling account of heresy trials, and a valuable addition to current scholarship on trial narratives, the history of women’s preaching, women’s autobiographical writing and biographical writings of women. In addition, the work draws attention to similarities between the trial narrative and spiritual autobiography, a genre which is more commonly linked to the development of women’s writing, and which, like the trial narrative, emerges from an inquisitorial practice, confession. In Chapter One, extending understanding of the relationship between different inquisitorial practices, Gertz illustrates shared frameworks in the procedures of heretical inquisition and confession. The inclusion of Kempe’s Book also invites comparisons between spiritual autobiography and trial narratives. In her discussion of Kempe, Gertz further establishes a link between trial and confession. Kempe used confession to establish her exemplary piety and orthodoxy and to persuade high ranking clergy to accept her as a female visionary, and at times she adopted a similar strategy with regard to interrogations. While Gertz herself does not link the two genres, the fact that her book suggests a relationship is indicative of the depth and breadth of her study.