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Reviewed by:
  • Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe
  • Teresa Feroli
Sylvia M. Brown , ed. Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions 129. Leiden: Brill, 2007. xiv + 320 pp. index. append. illus. tbls. bibl. $129. ISBN: 978-90-04-16306-5.

While this volume does not provide the broad overview the title suggests, it presents three strong clusters of essays on the writings and activism of seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century Quaker Englishwomen, the influence of mysticism on three late seventeenth-century women writers, and the writings and activism of two women dedicated to restoring early seventeenth-century England to Catholicism. The overwhelming emphasis in the collection is on the activism and writing of Englishwomen: only three of the collection's twelve essays address the work and lives of women from the Continent (although even one of these women spends her active adult years in England). Adding to the lopsided quality of the volume is the organizing framework that the editor Sylvia Brown employs. The collection opens with a coherent group of four essays on Quaker women. The subsequent two sections (of four essays each) do not, however, explore the writings and activism of women from one particular sect or even nationality; rather, Brown groups them under the disparate headings "Prophetesses: Radical Revisions of Knowledge, Gender, Body, Self" and "Women and Radicalism across Europe, Across Confessions." These categories cross the terms of religious experience with the language of feminist criticism in a way that renders them vague. This is unfortunate because these essays as a group speak eloquently to the intensely felt nature of religious experience in the early modern period. As Brown notes, female adherents to the full range of Christian religious sects in this age invoked "personal revelation or unmediated experience of the divine, with the result that spiritual authority becomes invested in them: not in priestly mediators, guides, or teachers, [End Page 1387] but in their own selves, bodies, voices, and writings" (11). The essays in this volume go a long way toward demonstrating how women put into action their personal relationships with the divine. An organizing framework that emerged from this singular feature of the period would have made the volume more coherent.

On the level of individual essays, this volume opens windows onto specific areas of early modern women's religious activism and spirituality. The four essays on Quaker women explore the "injurious speech" of Mary Howgill, Elizabeth Stirredge, and Elizabeth Hooton leveled directly at and in the presence of alternately Oliver Cromwell and Charles II; Mary Fisher's meeting in 1658 with Sultan Mehmed IV, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire; anti-tithe petitions; and the strategies women employed to "deal with the dual demands of serving God and the family" (19, 100). The most compelling of these is Brown's essay that demonstrates how Fisher uses the theology of the inner light to find common ground between herself and the Turkish ruler while at the same time appealing to the very same theology to underscore the failure of non-Quaker English Protestants to acknowledge the "seed" of God in them (54). The volume's second area of strength are the essays on M. Marsin, Jane Lead, and Anna Maria Van Schurman that present a substantial contribution to the understanding of mysticism in the work of these late seventeenth-century writers. Sarah Apetrei summarizes a key conundrum that the authors of these essays skillfully navigate: "While it is important to avoid the banal identification of mysticism and femininity, this coincidence seems to be central to approaches to women's religious writing of the period" (156). These are the volume's most magisterial and considered works of scholarship. A final area of concentration are the two essays on the English Mary Ward and the Spanish Luisa de Carvajal, who each sought to restore the Catholic faith in early seventeenth-century England. These are both strong essays and importantly nuance the definition of radical religious practice in this period. The remaining essays that fall outside of the volume's three focal points address the prophetic self-fashioning of Anna Trapnel, the status of pregnant German Anabaptist...


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pp. 1387-1388
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Archived 2009
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