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  • Early Modern Women in the Low Countries: Feminizing Sources and Interpretations of the Past by Susan Broomhall and Jennifer Spinks
  • Lesley Silvester
Broomhall, Susan and Jennifer Spinks, Early Modern Women in the Low Countries: Feminizing Sources and Interpretations of the Past, Farnham, Ashgate, 2011; hardback, pp. x, 247; 39 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £65.00, ISBN 9780754667421.

As its title suggests, the aim of the book is to feminize sources to contribute to a better interpretation of the experiences of early modern women in the Low Countries. However, authors Susan Broomhall and Jennifer Spinks travel beyond the usual sources and methods that define historical analysis and redefine the very concept of sources. Sources are not just textual or visual, but also exist as objects and locations.

The first chapter examines the use of ego-documents in the form of memoirs and letters produced by the women of the Burgundian and Habsburg Netherlands. The authors show how these documents can enhance visual and material interpretations of women whose portraits and images appear in museum exhibitions and art catalogues. Written texts have been neglected in museological settings due to the challenges of displaying such texts. More recently exhibitions have combined portraits with documents that relate to the paintings, giving identity to the documents and enriching the portrait's own identity.

Chapter 2 discusses the way in which visual sources are used to make realistic interpretations of women's working conditions, using the example of van Swanenburg's series of paintings The Old and New Trades (c. 1594-c. [End Page 210] 1612). Scholars have previously analysed these paintings as evidence of contemporary textile trade practice, and the images containing women have been used in some feminist texts. Broomhall and Spinks point out that the way in which the women of the paintings are portrayed 'remains unexamined and unintegrated in any substantial way'. They argue that the paintings are both realistic and symbolic, and show the extent of female workforce participation in early modern Leiden.

The focus of Chapter 3 is on the house of Orange-Nassau. The images and stories about men of the dynasty have eclipsed the contribution of the women. Although the women of Orange-Nassau have produced texts and objects that reveal their emotions and characters, these have not been used in tourist, heritage, or academic narratives as have those of the men. The use of objects such as dolls' houses as sources to investigate early modern women's identities is the topic of Chapter 4. Scholars have previously discussed these objects in terms of historical and social narratives but the authors show that they can also be considered in cultural and gender analysis. Real houses, as sources, are analysed in Chapter 5. Taking the houses of Rembrandt in Amsterdam and Rubens in Antwerp, Broomhall and Spinks examine the ways in which the women who were personally connected to these artists are portrayed. They found that women were encountered differently in each environment with the Rembrandt house offering a domestic experience whereas the Rubens house gave greater value to the role of his elite female patrons.

It was Chapter 6, 'Sources and Settings', that I found the most stimulating. The authors take us on a tour of locations and heritage sites as sources, and describe the ways in which women are included and presented to the public in these environments. There are specific cases where women are seen as being associated with locations, the most obvious being religious buildings. In other cases, almshouses and hospices are named after women as benefactresses. When one starts looking, women appear to be well represented, but there is little detailed information about these women provided for their tourist audience. At the conclusion of this chapter, Broomhall and Spinks call for more interaction between scholars, curators, and other stakeholders to develop a richer interpretation of the history of women.

The final chapter, 'Purchasing the Past: Gender and the Consumption of Heritage', in the words of the authors, is 'more speculative in mode' and 'thus seeks to further debate in this area'. The chapter begins with a discussion about the presentation of early modern women in the gift shop and what...


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pp. 210-212
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