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Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority, from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century.

Jane Stevenson. Women Latin Poets: Language, Gender, and Authority, from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 680 pp. bibl. $165. ISBN: 0-19-818502-2.

This erudite book which, not surprisingly given its scope, took ten years to prepare, presents over three hundred women Latinists together with examples of some of their poetry, both in the original and in carefully wrought English translations. Were this rescue from oblivion or near-oblivion not sufficiently groundbreaking in itself, the work also, in a nuanced but strongly argued prologue, introduction, and conclusion, turns on its head the enduring opinion that virtually no women knew Latin in the post-classical world and were therefore marginalized and disempowered both in public life and the republic of letters for as long as Latin remained the mark of the educated elite. It speaks to all scholars of women's studies, regardless of particular discipline, country, or period, within an 1,800-year span, as well as to classicists, medievalists, and specialists of the early modern period, both literary and non-literary, for it sets these learned women within their historical and cultural contexts.

The fundamental question that Stevenson addresses is the extent to which premodern European women belonged within the private sphere (Habermas's oikos) and what, if anything, allowed them to move into the public one (his polis). She duly notes the difficulty of defining those terms in the periods she covers. She also correctly underlines the importance of the relation between gender, authority, and linguistic competence, suggested in the book's subtitle, and asks whether, since the last concerned Latin, women ever did occupy any space in the public realm of activities, be it political or literary. Women's approach to the question of linguistic authority was of course complicated by Latin's being a gendered language. Moreover, an acquired rather than a native language, it was associated with class, education, and maleness. A further complication arises from the associations of authority and authorship with masculinity, surely an impediment for the aspiring premodern woman writer.

Yet despite the difficulties inherent in studying the role of the female Latin poet and the relationship between learned women (the very term itself poses problems) and the societies in which they lived, Stevenson draws some surprising but convincing conclusions. At a variety of places and times, men have allowed daughters and wives to acquire a knowledge of Latin; after the Renaissance, learned women were increasingly admired and praised in print; their writings survive in no regular fashion as their preservation is culture-specific; women writers were often sustained and encouraged by networks of likeminded females but also learned men; learned women were not exclusively perceived as hermaphrodites or monsters and the majority in Stevenson's book were in fact married; the belief that Protestantism fostered the education of women more than Catholicism is erroneous, for Catholic poets outnumber Protestant in this corpus by two to one (but Stevenson perhaps overlooks the possibility that the same ratio might not hold if the term educated were extended to writings in and translations out of vernacular languages); and last, Latin was actually useful to women in fields as diverse as editing, printing, and pharmacy, as well as attracting companionable husbands and being empowered to write in the vernacular.

Stevenson divides her book into four main sections: antiquity and late antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early modern period. The Renaissance covers fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, France up to the 1620's, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain, sixteenth-century England and Portugal, and Germany, the Low Countries, Bohemia, and Poland from 1500 to 1620. By early modern is meant sixteenth-century Italy, the French Grand Siecle, the years 1600-1800 in England, Germany, the Low Countries, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Poland, and the years 1540-1800 in the New World. An immensely useful appendix provides a checklist of 359 poets and their works with bibliographical information but also locations, which will facilitate further research.

The search for Latin female-authored works, described by Stevenson in an article in the British newspaper the Observer (23 July 2005), seems to have been sleuthlike, for she includes not only printed and manuscript poems available in great libraries but also those interred in obscure municipal libraries or academies, as well as inscriptions on tombs and in churches. The immense scope of her research is reflected in the number of authors and works she documents.

Although the book's title suggests Stevenson is dealing only with poets, in fact she casts her net wider to include all Latin-literate women--poets, prose writers, translators, and students of Latin--as some of the chapter headings suggest: for example, "Women and Latin in Renaissance France," "Italy: Renaissance Women Scholars." While this has made for a far richer work, one could be forgiven for finding the title a little misleading, especially when three or four pages are sometimes devoted to a woman who wrote no poetry but was competent in other areas of literary endeavor, or was simply learned because she read Latin and other languages.

A work of this nature, however inclusive, cannot be exhaustive and, however erudite, completely error-free. In the chapter on the learned ladies of sixteenth-century England, for example, we find both omissions and inaccuracies. Margaret Beaufort's translation of the Speculum aureum by Jacob de Gruitroede (and not Denys the Carthusian) rates a mention but not her rendering of book 4 of Thomas a Kempis's Imitatio Christi; nor is it made clear that both were made from French translations, not the Latin originals. Queen Elizabeth's translations from the classics are mentioned, but not her girlhood Latin renderings of an Ochino sermon and Katherine Parr's Prayers or meditacions. More serious are the omission of her own Latin prayers and the attribution of the Latin poem "Genus infoelix vitae" to her. In fact, she composed the English version but it was translated into Latin by a German visitor for his continental readers. Finally, the "M. C." of the dedicatory epistle to Anne Bacon's translation of John Jewel's Apologia ecclesiae anglicanae is not Mildred Cecil as tentatively suggested but M[atthew] C[antuarensis], or Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was responsible for printing the work.

Yet Women Latin Poets is an eloquent and cogent testimony to Stevenson's scholarship, and constitutes an essential milestone on the road to understanding the place of women writers in premodern society. In particular, it challenges all we ever thought we knew about women and Latin in the period under discussion and offers exciting opportunities for further scholarship.


Universite de Montreal/University of Warwick
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Author:Hosington, Brenda M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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