- Women's Prophetic Writings in Seventeenth-Century Britainby Carme Font
Carme Font joins a cohort of scholars who have discovered creativity, intellect, and beauty in the prophetic discourse of seventeenth-century women. Despite the bodily suffering and self-abnegating authorial strategies often associated with this genre, Font's study helps to celebrate the highly personalized and empowering nature of early modern prophecy. In Women's Prophetic Writings in Seventeenth-Century Britain, Font illuminates the ways in which women became leaders of communities and activists for political and social change through their prophetic writing.
Font demonstrates the empowering and personalized nature of seventeenth-century prophecy through the example of the Baptist Anne Wentworth (1629/30-1693?). In Wentworth's prophetic writing, her biblical imagery and doom-laden predictions also reference and condemn her own violent and abusive husband. Font observes that for women such as Wentworth the prophetic mode facilitated "the articulation of personal convictions as spiritual beliefs" (p. 214). This form of discourse allowed [End Page 199]women to produce authoritative texts that were shaped by their own experiences and that often "transformed their personal circumstances" (p. 214).
Font also argues that seventeenth-century women used their prophetic voices to intervene and influence the politics and society around them. In another compelling case study, Font discusses the Baptist Elizabeth Poole (bap. 1622?-1688?), who was invited to deliver her prophecies to the army council in December 1648. Poole's speech was printed under the title A Visionin 1649. Addressing the heart of power, Poole reported a divine vision of "a man" (signifying the army) assisting " a woman crooked, sick, weak and imperfect in body" (signifying the nation) (qtd. p. 65). Poole explained that this vision was an expression of God's specific desire that the army should aid the ailing nation by preserving the body of King Charles I after his trial. With her anti-regicidal interpretation, Poole clearly endeavoured to intervene in the pressing political matters of the day with her prophetic discourse. In her analysis of Poole's writing, Font goes so far as to suggest that "the main motivation" for Poole's text was in fact "political," and that Poole's references to prophetic visions stemmed from a need to "build a public personafit for the occasion" (pp. 76, 86). As such, Font argues that Poole's passionate political discourse predominates her visionary material, which the critic describes as "brief, almost subdued" (p. 86).
As illustrated by her discussion of Poole, Font is often less invested in examing the spiritual and theological arguments within women's prophetic discourse. Instead, Font's analyses frequently favor emphasizing the personal and political motivations of women adopting a prophetic mode. While duly acknowledging that religious and political matters were closely intertwined during this period, Font also argues that seventeenth-century prophecy could work as "a form of activism because social or political regeneration, and not religious conversion, was the primary concern of prophetesses" (p. 42). Indeed, what Font is often most interested in celebrating in her work is the way in which "women's prophetic narrative created an authorial center capable of confronting political adversaries, subverting institutional control, or dignifying the social status of women" (p. 217). Thus, according to Font, "to read prophecy as an adjunct of a religious discourse only is to deny its full discursive capability" (p. 217).
One of the greatest contributions Women's Prophetic Writingsmakes to the study of early modern women's writing is the careful way in which Font nuances our understanding of the term "prophetic." As this volume's abundant source material illustrates, not all seventeenth-century prophecy resembled an inspired trance. As Font states, "women's prophetic speech in seventeenth-century Britain displayed a combination of ecstatic, exegetic, and autobiographical elements" that "could vary according to the prophetic personality of the individual" (p. 97). Accordingly, Font glosses a [End Page 200]broad spectrum of works in which women might be described as adopting a...