Lorna Hudson, ed. Feminism and Renaissance Studies. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. ix + 467 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-878243-8.
Reviewed by Carole Collier Frick (Department of Historical Studies, Southern Illinois University)
Published on H-Women (June, 2000)
What a good idea! Even a casual perusal of the names of the seventeen feminist scholars included in this impressive collection will be enough to make those in the field take notice. Lucidly introduced by author Lorna Hudson, this volume collects together gemstones of some of the most influential (and often photocopied!) pieces of previously-published contemporary scholarship on the Renaissance, and will be a wonderfully useful resource for those who teach in the field.
The anthology widely casts its nets, and fittingly begins with Joan Kelly's germinal "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" (1977), and also includes such classics as Natalie Zemon Davis' early exploration of "unruly" women in "Women on Top" from her Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1965), Christiane Klapisch-Zuber's "The 'Cruel Mother'," from Women, Family and Ritual in Renaissance Italy (1985), and a portion of Ian Maclean's foundational The Renaissance Notion of Woman (1980), entitled "The Notion of Woman in Medicine, Anatomy, and Physiology."
Editor Hudson has usefully divided the book into four sections, each of which tackles a particularly thorny issue for Renaissance feminist scholars. Part I. Humanism after Feminism, besides Kelly's offering, includes an early piece on the education of female humanists by Lisa Jardine, "Women Humanists: Education for What?" from her From Humanism to the Humanists (1986) with Anthony Grafton, which here focuses on Isotta Nogarola, the female intellectual prodigy who languished behind private walls. Next, editor Lorna Hutson takes up an investigation of the classic texts which influenced Renaissance thinking on the "economics" of households, originally part of her 1994 The Usurer's Daughter. Completing this section is Stephanie Jed's 1994 "The Tenth Muse: Gender, Rationality, and the Marketing of Knowledge," which frames the reception of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz's poetry in London as a "New World" phenomenon. (They even have women poets there!) Each of these pieces, which range from late fourteenth-century Italy through seventeenth-century England, represents a feminist voice confronting and challenging preconceptions about Renaissance Humanism as old as Jacob Burckhardt himself. An instructor would be able to use this text in an upper-level undergraduate class to great effect to offset traditional Humanist readings -- Pico della Mirandola, for one, immediately springs to mind.
In "Part II. Historicizing Femininity," all four selections in some way engage the very definition of femininity in its various manifestations over time. Maclean's piece explores the basic theory of sexual difference adhered to in Renaissance medicine, while Davis takes on the transformational possibilities open to "Women on Top" for social change. Moving to cultural conceptions of the feminine married state, Klapisch's investigation of the double-bind in which married Florentine widows found themselves (to stay widowed and retain their children, or to re-marry and leave their children behind with their deceased husband's kin), concludes the impossibility of a widow being a "good mother." Lyndal Roper's "Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany," from her 1994 Oedipus and the Devil, uses psychoanalytic categories to explore the commonalties between the mentalite of seventeenth-century Augsburg and our own, in judging women accused of evil-doing in and around marriage.
Again, these range in time and place from fourteenth and fifteenth-century Italy, to early modern France and Germany. Collected together here, they are eloquent evidence of the sophisticated feminist scholarship which has been generated on topics central to the Renaissance period in the last thirty-five years.
"Part III. Gender and Genre," moves from the feminine in historical documents to the feminine in literature, with two pieces on female literary creations, and two on women writers themselves. Beginning with Nancy J. Vickers' early influential piece on Petrarch's Laura, entitled "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme" (1981), the disconcertingly fragmented manner in which Laura appears within Petrarch's poetry is explored. Following is Patricia Parker's "Literary Fat Ladies and the Generation of the Text," from her 1987 Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property, which confronts the link between textuality and female bodies in general, engaging texts from the Bible to James Joyce. One of the newer offerings included here is Victoria Kahn's 1997 "Margaret Cavendish and the Romance of Contract," which examines the relationship between romance and the contract in seventeenth-century English literature in the work of female author Cavendish.
Rounding out these texts is Ann Rosalind Jones' "Surprising Fame: Renaissance Gender Ideologies and Women's Lyric" (1986), where she highlights three female poets, two from France and one from Italy, to examine the often hostile milieu in which women writers had to work, after being thrust into the gender-specific masculine sphere of fame and eloquence.
Finally, "Part IV. Women's Agency," provides a fitting finale of five articles. The very title of Sharon Achinstein's opening piece from 1994, "Women on Top in the Pamphlet Literature of the English Revolution," nods its respects to Natalie Zemon Davis, even while it energetically broadens her initial inquiry of female agency to seventeenth-century English popular literature. Fredrika Jacobs' "La Donnesca Mano," from her recent Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the Language of Art History(1997), gives us our first and only visual images (13) contained within this book, as she carefully explores the meaning of the feminine in art by examining female artists working in Renaissance Italy in the male discourse of gender which surrounded their work.
Here too is the fruit of a new generation of feminist art historians enabled by earlier work such as Broude and Garrard's ground-breaking Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany from 1982. Also in this section is Merry Wiesner's important "Guild, Male Bonding and Women's Work in Early Modern Germany" (1989), in which this author examines the creation of "the old boys' club" mentality in medieval urban craft guilds in fifteenth through eighteenth-century Germany, and its subsequent effect on urban women, especially the widows of guildsmen. (In my opinion, this one offering would justify buying this volume, as it has been so crucial to our understanding of women in the world of work).
Rounding out this final Part IV is Laura Gowing's"'Language, Power, and the Law: Women's Slander Litigation in Early Modern London" (1994), where she patiently untangles the knots of the language of litigation as extracted from early seventeenth-century court records, to discover the processes by which women were able to stake claims to authority within English society. And finally, the last essay in this collection, and the only one which has NOT been previously published elsewhere, is Tim Carter's "Finding a Voice: Vittoria Archilei and the Florentine 'New Music'" (1999). Here, the new school of song and solo singing in late-sixteenth-century Florence, forms the setting for an investigation of the role of virtuoso soprano Vittoria Archilei at the Medici Court. Using personal correspondence and poetry which described her performances, Carter attempts to again give female voice to this most ephemeral of historical art forms. Carter's piece provides a fitting end to Part IV, which ranges from agency in popular literature, court records, and the world of work, to the rarefied realm of the arts.
My final answer: This fine new addition to the feminizing process in Renaissance Studies should be on every academic's office bookshelf, and in the classroom as well. Non-specialists in the field will also find it extremely accessible and engaging in its wide-ranging, energetic approach.
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Carole Collier Frick. Review of Hudson, Lorna, ed., Feminism and Renaissance Studies.
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