Studying early modern women.
First, however, it may be helpful to list my complaints. I get cross when scholars write about early modern women as if all of them are members of the gentry or aristocracy, knowable through their various literary products. I also get cross when scholars talk about women's lives entirely through the lens of those literary products. I get cross when scholars write about women in ways entirely consonant with the most traditional work in their disciplines. And perhaps more significantly, when reading these works, I often get bored. I mutter to myself (and to all those around me) about how hard it is read this material I ask the dreaded question, "So what"? This work is, I know, often useful; I just don't find it particularly interesting. Why? Is it just that I am becoming a curmudgeon fairly early in my middle age?
I came of age as a scholar along with the field of women's studies. One of the cliches of women's studies is that we became interdisciplinary because our fields lacked the methodological tools to study women. Twenty years later, most disciplines have shifted enough that there are ways to stay largely within a discipline and still study women: methodological tools have been appropriated into disciplines to make this possible. The knowledge obtained through such methods is not trivial, but it always feels somewhat constrained to me: it does not stretch our understandings or challenge our categories. Ironically, as the study of early modern women has become more acceptable, it often takes fewer risks and is less innovative.
The solution to this problem need not be, I hope, going back to the time when we struggled to establish the legitimacy of the study of women. What is needed rather is to become truly interdisciplinary, to truly learn from the questions and assumptions of other fields. The best way to do that, it seems to me, is not to think of the study of early modern women as a field, but to think of it as part of the field of women's studies--a field with its own body of theory and methodology, with a literature that has constantly dealt with crossing disciplinary lines, and that has constantly sought to stay connected to the possibilities of transformative scholarship. As we study early modern women, we can learn a great deal not just from those studying women in our period from other disciplinary perspectives, but from people studying women in different times and places from multiple perspectives.
Women's studies has another contribution to make to the study of early modern women: those of us who work in women's studies are constantly reminded of the need to make our scholarship relevant--not in a simplistic way, but by remaining aware of how knowledge of the past can help us transform the future. All my favorite works of scholarship carry in them a passion that comes from the sense that this issue, this question (whatever it might be) is not just significant for the subject of study, but in some way matters now to how we live and think about the world. Such works are always aware of a world outside the academy. And the women's movement that initiated the scholarly study of women started with changing that outside world. When scholarship on women loses its connection to the present, it also loses much of its passion.
Of course truly interdisciplinary work--the work demanded by women's studies--is not easy, and I by no means claim that I have figured out how to do it. I have been told by friends that literary scholars are just as likely to lament the way most historians deal with language as historians are to groan at the simplistic uses of history we so often see. But some scholars have managed to do what sometimes seems almost impossible: to write recognizably from the perspective of one discipline while fully incorporating the issues and concerns of another. After all, the critical differences between disciplines have to do with what questions we think are important, what we want to know about. The difficulty of interdisciplinary work lies both in developing a set of questions that can be approached with integrity from multiple perspectives and in gaining the courage to actually work from them. Since at this point most of us have been trained within one discipline, I am not surprised that we can usually tell where someone started; the questions and methods of one discipline tend to be paramount. But paramount doesn't mean exclusive, and that is the difference made by interdisciplinarity.
It might be useful to define what I see as the central differences between history and the studies of artistic products of particular periods. The simplest way to put it is that the studies of the artistic products--literary, visual, and musical--are primarily concerned with the process and nature of the art. In studying these, scholars can and often do pay attention to the historical contexts which shape the art, but that historical context supports the understanding of the process. How does language work? How is a work structured? What are the implications of that structure? What ideas or conflicts are expressed in it? Does patronage have an impact on content or form? What genres are used? By whom? Who gets to use it for what? How can we know who has written what? Such questions--and many related ones--are the central ones in literary scholarship. Historians, on the other hand, are usually more interested in what was: admitting the epistemological difficulties, historians want to know content. So while historians may well turn to artistic products in various genres to build their cases, our questions are more likely to be, what were the central political ideas? How did people act politically? Who has power, and why? What is the nature of social relations? What happened here? How did people understand the world they lived in? Why?
Between these sets of questions there is an area of overlap in the issues of meaning that emerge in both disciplines. Historians interested in the study of mentalites and culture in its broadest sense find their work overlapping with that of literary scholars interested in historicist and hermeneutic approaches to texts. The approaches are not identical, but they can be close, and the interplay between disciplinary approaches in this area is particularly fruitful. Of course, since this is what really interests me as a historian, I am likely to be attracted to such questions.
In working in this area of overlap and in seeking to expand its range, it is important that those who engage in interdisciplinary work have a general idea of where scholars fit in their own fields: familiar though we are with the contests of our own field, it is surprisingly difficult to pick up the contests in another. We all begin, of course, reaching for the material that supports what we think. But we should not end there, and serious engagement in interdisciplinary work should change how we think. I had a first-hand experience of the importance of this move in 1990 when the Shakespeare Association invited me, along with David Cressy and William Hunt, to speak on how historians viewed the work of Lawrence Stone and Michel Foucault--then the historians most used by literary scholars. Our combined admiration for and reservations about their works are obviously central to historians' reception of historicist literary scholarship. I think that session was one of the most nervous I have ever attended. I can't speak for the others, but I certainly felt like a Christian about to be fed to the lions: had the stage swallowed us up, I for one would not have been disappointed. I think it is the only paper I have ever given for which I had no way to anticipate the audience response; I didn't know when what I said was commonplace or controversial, or why. There was equal tension in the audience, and at points all our papers were met with somewhat nervous laughter. The tension on both sides had to do with our uncertainty about context. Where would what we said place us in another discussion? On both sides we moved into unfamiliar territory. Knowing what I know now about interdisciplinary work, I realize I could and should have done more to place myself in the literary discussion as well as the historical one. It would not have changed what I said, but it might have shifted its impact.
Of course, such knowledge of the internal discussions of another field is hard won. We can barely keep up with our own fields, without adding another one. The answer is, I think, to make friends in other fields--friends whose brains you can pick for understanding the layout of a field or for identifying key works. Such relationships can, of course, be reciprocal. But such ongoing, informal sharing and mutual teaching will keep many of us from embarrassing mistakes or moves when we use the work of other fields. They have the added advantage of being fun!
To make the possibilities of interdisciplinary work concrete, I'd like to talk briefly about two books which for me model the directions we should be taking. For this purpose I have chosen one work by a historian and one by a literary scholar: neither discipline has a lock on the effective engagement in interdisciplinary work. The books are Phyllis Mack's Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (1992), and Frances Dolan's Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700 (1994). In their titles, both books indicate their disciplinary base. Mack is interested in a particular phenomenon and a particular group of women. Dolan is interested in representations. Yet as they move forward, each moves in interesting ways to reframe the questions and issues.
Mack's study of the women prophets of the mid and late seventeenth century is a pathbreaking book. In the course of studying the prophets, she found it vital to pay attention to their use of language--to ask what might be seen as typical literary questions and to use literary methods. What metaphors are they using? What images? How does the use of language contribute to meaning? The exploration of such questions becomes a vehicle for exploring profound historical questions: How did people think about themselves as sexed individuals? What does prophecy mean? What is the interaction of gender with people's relationship to God, knowledge of God, or the ability to speak about God? How does language both reveal and reflect social institutions and values? The historical questions and methods are never abandoned, but they are never expected to be adequate for answering the central questions of the study. The result is a book that brilliantly illuminates the social dynamics of prophecy, the early history of the Quakers, and the nature of the self in early modern England.
Dolan's study of the representations of domestic crime makes a similar move from the opposite direction. Her central concern is with how domestic crime--spousal murder, infanticide, rebellion by servants, and witchcraft--is represented in the texts of early modern England. Her reading of a wide range of those texts--from the popular pamphlets to the canonical plays--is fascinating and provocative. But she never loses sight of her texts as representations which have a mutable and important relation to a world outside. As a result, she is always attentive to historical developments--whether in the trends in the persecution of witches, or the relative frequencies of husband-murder and wife-murder. By playing off historical knowledge of the events whose representations she is exploring, Dolan adds additional richness to her analysis.
Both Dolan and Mack are acutely aware of the complex social interactions of early modern society; they never mistake the piece that they are examining for the whole. They are also alive to the ways in which the questions they are exploring are connected to the present. Dolan's first line makes reference to domestic conflict in the present as well as the past. Mack almost as soon refers to the contemporary significance of women preachers: for understandings of women's language, what is needed for women to speak, and the implications of different concepts of identity. If Dolan's crimes are never just about texts in the past, Mack's prophets are always speaking to our world as well as their own.
My comments about these two works do, however, illuminate an additional issue. How we borrow and what we borrow tend to differ by discipline. When literary scholars borrow from historians, they tend to focus on information, a sense of the world of early modern England. What was it like? What was at stake? They borrow, in other words, primarily from the findings of historians. When historians borrow from literary scholars, they are much less likely to borrow a reading of a particular text. They are much more likely to borrow methods: How do you approach a text? What should we pay attention to? and so on. This difference is the source of some tension. Once at a post-lecture dinner, a literary colleague complained that historians didn't use her work or that of other literary scholars as much as she did that of historians. Lisa Jardine--an interdisciplinary scholar par excellence--reminded her that what literary critics had to offer historians is ways of reading; and, she noted wryly, historians are notoriously bad readers!
If the move toward truly interdisciplinary scholarship is desirable, as I think it is, there are at least two further questions. First, what is the status of more traditional work within the disciplines? I think we all know that the bulk of scholarship at any time is not pathbreaking and cutting edge, but good, solid, useful work. It is work that contributes to the slow accumulation of knowledge and thinking about a subject; it will be recognized by those whose areas it touches for how it helps them understand one piece or another of their subject. Such work will continue to be done; it probably needs to be done. But even this work can be enriched in small ways by attention to interdisciplinary issues and methods. Any historian (to use the example I am most comfortable with) can learn a great deal not just about methods of reading, but about attention to the conventions of genre or even to postmodern thinking about the instability of texts. Historical sources represent, after all, genres with their own conventions. I suspect equally that what may seem narrow questions of authorship and attribution may be more easily worked through with a knowledge and understanding of a historical conception of gender and social order. It is even possible that studies of such obscure issues (to me) as meter and rhyme schemes are open to historical analysis, since I know that studies of arcane administrative actions are in dire need of greater literary sensitivity.
A second question has to do with the implications of this perspective for how we train the next generation of scholars. Those of us practicing in the field have mostly been trained, after all, in the traditional disciplines. We know how to ask the questions of our disciplines; our disciplines provide the patterns of thought into which we fall at a moments notice: we may have even chosen our discipline because the questions themselves fill some psychic need. To the extent that any of us have become interdisciplinary, we've mostly done the work ourselves, and it has been work. Even those trained in programs like Renaissance studies at Yale--one of the few conventional doctoral programs to be interdisciplinary--are usually clearly rooted in a particular discipline, though they have much deeper training in other disciplines than is usual, and are frequently able to use truly interdisciplinary perspectives in their work.
What of the future? How do we train scholars equipped for interdisciplinary work? Do we just add a concentration on women to Renaissance studies? Insofar as we retain the current structure of disciplines, it does, after all, emphasize from the start the need to pay attention to the methods and findings of multiple disciplines, and it teaches students how to use those disciplines with integrity: the last thing we need is more scholars who quickly ransack works in another field to find the citation that supports their theory. The Renaissance studies model is possible. But I resist it--and not just because of my difficulties with the term "Renaissance." Rather, my hesitation comes because Renaissance studies, while admirably interdisciplinary, once more makes women the add-on. Women would be subordinated to the Renaissance. It works, but it is not ideal.
So I offer my dream, in which we reverse the relationship and study the Renaissance in the context of women's studies. This is a more radical alternative, but I think a better one. This approach would enable students to engage with both a theoretical literature and conceptual frames that provide interdisciplinary ways of understanding women and women's lives. The bodies of knowledge of literature and history of the early modern period would provide a content focus. Such an approach would offer students unexpected connections to other fields and other approaches. It would also help them place the issues confronted in studying early modern women--from evidence to interpretation--in a broader intellectual context. It would connect their work on the past with the present. In my work with doctoral students at The Union Institute, I often suggest that they try to define the question or problem that is the center of their interest; that enables them to identify the multiple approaches which can help illuminate that question. They then go learn the methods of the relevant fields. Such an approach, which centers study on questions rather than fields, also helps students identify areas from which comparative information might be gleaned.
This is, I recognize, a utopian vision. It depends on not only the personal transformations through which we become interdisciplinary scholars, but political and institutional ones. It doesn't deal with the reality of jobs in the present academic economy. Given how hard I sometimes find it to be interdisciplinary, it asks a great deal not only of us, but our students. But reality aside, it is important to dream, and my dream represents the direction I think is needed for scholarship on early modern women. It is a direction that will lead us to greater understanding of their lives and works; even more importantly, it will help us find ways to bring our knowledge and work to bear on the lives of women today.
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|Title Annotation:||Forum: Studying Early Modern Women|
|Author:||Amussen, Susan Dwyer|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1997|
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