- Strong Women: Life, Text and Territory, 1347–1645 by David Wallace
David Wallace’s book presents textual portraits of four strong and rare women whose strength lay in their opposition to accepted norms for female behaviour in premodern times. The book’s title comes from the mulier fortis of Proverbs 31. 10. The paucity of historical records makes this a valuable contribution to scholarship on the lives of women in premodern Europe. Indeed, so much research has been compressed into this book, that the attention to detail sometimes distracts from the lives and lives of the four women: Dorothea of Montau (1347–1394); Margery Kempe of Lynne (c. 1373–c. 1440); Mary Ward of Yorkshire (1585–1645) and Elizabeth Cary of Drury Lane (c. 1585–1639). All were Catholics, in whose lives religion played a significant role. They lived in society and were not enclosed, a factor Wallace identifies as part of their strength. The book is divided into four chapters dedicated to each woman. Each chapter includes biographical background and discussion of how each woman’s ‘life’ was recorded. Wallace [End Page 292] then goes on to discuss the existence, beyond the subject and writer, of the records.
The chapter on Dorothea of Montau (subtitled ‘Borderline Sanctity’) demonstrates the breadth of Wallace’s research. Not only does he provide a biography, he considers how it came to be written in two different languages (and the significance of this fact), and also the various political, social, and literary uses to which this text has been put over the following centuries. Dorothea travelled throughout her life but eventually settled and was enclosed on the eastern reaches of Europe. The Dominican Johannes Marienwerder’s description of her life written in Latin first, and later in German (thus removing any trace of what might have been considered Dorothea’s own words), became the basis for various social and political causes at the borders of conflicting interests and contested territories such as the colonizing arm of the Teutonic Order in Prussia. The final part of this chapter deals with the way German Lutherans and Polish Catholics each adopted her as their own and her reintegration into German culture with the push for her canonization by men like Joseph Ratzinger.
Wallace’s approach to Margery Kempe (‘Anchoritic Damsel’) is quite different, commencing with the discovery of the single copy of the manuscript of her book in England in the 1930s. He explores the way women in literary studies (Hope Emily Allen, Sonia Brownell, and Ruth Meech) have been written out of the texts despite their foundational work. While fascinating background to the scholarship on Margery Kempe, its purpose within the parameters of the book (1347–1647) was not clear. There were other unnecessary digressions in this chapter: the section called ‘Margery in Dansk’ takes up several pages to describe the city’s history, its similarities to England, and Margery’s difficulties there. While Wallace contends that the trip to Dansk was pivotal to Margery’s confidence as a married woman to ‘merit textual memorialization’ (p. 119), the realization occurs on her return to London.
Mary Ward (‘Holy Amazon’) was the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary otherwise known as the Congregation of Jesus. Hers was a life of intrigue, coded letters, and a vision of teaching that has survived the centuries, often without her name being known. She was described as mulier fortis in two different versions of her ‘life’ and Wallace’s treatment of her here is largely an analysis of the way different social contexts have influenced the various representations of her life.
The final chapter is about Elizabeth Cary, described as the ‘Vice Queen of Ireland’. Born Elizabeth Tanfield, she was the sole daughter of a baron and heir to a comfortable fortune. Her conversion, along with several of her [End Page 293] children, to Catholicism caused distress to her husband and family but did not deter her. Her life was recorded by three of her...