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Reviewed by:
  • Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe
  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks (bio)
Sylvia Brown , editor. Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe. Brill. 2007. xiv, 330. €101.00, US$138.00

This excellent collection of essays examines the actions, words, and publications of women who 'challenged the religious institutions and dominant modes of confessionalized thinking in early modern Europe.' Some of these women, including Anabaptists,Quakers, and visionary prophets such as Anna Trapnel and Jane Lead, were regarded by their contemporaries as 'radical' and continue to be labelled as such in discussions of the Reformation today. Other women who are the subjects of essays in this volume are usually not categorized in this way and are studied as part of other developments. Luisa de Carvajal and Mary Ward, for example, are usually discussed within the context of the Catholic Reformation, and Anna Maria von Schurman within the context of women's education. The collection demonstrates the value of taking a wider view of 'radical' and allows the reader to make connections and comparisons across denominational and geographic boundaries. Following the welcome trend in current scholarship, it also has a broad chronological scope, extending from the early sixteenth century to the very end of the seventeenth, thus allowing readers to make comparisons across time as well as place. The collection grew out of a session at the 'Attending to Early Modern Women' conference held every three years - a conference designed to promote interdisciplinary connections. That strength is evident in the range of authors,which includes scholars trained in theology, history, literature, and sociology.

The essays make very clear that radicalism of all types came at a price. The Catholic missionary Luisa de Carvajal and the Quaker convert Margaret Lucas suffered physical abuse from family members. The Quaker minister Mary Fisher, the Fifth Monarchist prophet Anna Trapnel, the Catholic reformer Mary Ward, and many Anabaptist women were all imprisoned; the last, in the vivid words of a contemporary, 'thrown miserably all at once into dark towers . . . that from now on they were to see neither sun nor moon all their life long, and all die, stink, and rot.' Anna Maria van Schurman was judged to have 'gone mad' when she accepted the 'reprehensible doctrines' of the French mystic Jean de Labadie by the very men who had earlier praised her.

Such fates were shared by male radicals, and many of the essays effectively note the ways in which women were embedded in and supported by mixed-gender groups. Many of the 7,000 women who signed the famous 1659 anti-tithe petition presented to Parliament came from [End Page 265] interrelated families, suggesting that opposition to titheswas shared within kin networks as well as denominations. Imprisoned - and executed - Anabaptists included men and women, a fact stressed by later martyrologists who emphasized the communal nature of suffering and heroism. Mary Fisher never travelled alone to spread the Quaker light, but always with at least one other companion, even when she met with the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV at Adrianople and sought to convert him.

Allegiance to radical ideas, and the consequences it brought, could thus transcend gender to some degree, but the fact that they were women mattered to every subject of these essays. Jane Lead, M. Marsin, Anna Trapnel, and others believed that their being called by God was a sign that the world was in its last days, for only then would God 'pour out His spirit on his handmaidens.' Lead described herself as Sophia, or God's wisdom, a feminine part of the Godhead, and she, Trapnel, and various Quakers viewed their female bodies as tools of divine power. They also noted God's presence in their minds, however, as did Anna Maria van Schurman and the English noblewoman Katherine Jones, Vicountess Ranelagh, who provided patronage for both scientists and religious reformers. The insistence of all of the women discussed in the collection that the experience of divine revelation was a matter not only of body and soul, but also of mind, was perhaps the most radical of their claims.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks

Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


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