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Level 6

6AAH3009/10 Women & Gender in Early Modern England

Credit value: 60 credits (or optional 30 credits for combined honours students)
Module convenor/tutor: Professor Laura Gowing
Teaching pattern: 20 x 2 hour seminars (weekly)
Availability: Please see module list
Assessment: 1 x 3 hour examination (30 credits), 1 x 10,000 word dissertation* (*30 credits - optional for  combined honours students)

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand: there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

This module examines the roles and relations of women and men in a period of great cultural, political, economic, social, and religious change (c.1530-1700). The law, religion, and popular culture of sixteenth and seventeenth-century England represented gender relations as rigidly hierarchical: women were to be chaste, silent and obedient to men. Daily life was much more complex and there is increasingly good evidence from, for example, lawsuits and letters that women and men actively negotiated gender roles; that women were not only limited by ideas of modesty and humility, but made them a strength on which they could claim political and religious authority, speak in public, and publish. Nor was gender a stable system. Economic exigencies, social change and political and religious change altered views and experiences of women and men. This module is based, like all Group 3 courses, on a large body of primary material, provided for you. Very few women and a minority of men were able to leave any written records in this period, so part of our project will be to consider methodologies for writing the history of the illiterate. We will look at a wide range of sources. Solemn sermons and legal statutes are read alongside cheap pamphlets and humourous ballads. Legal testimonies record stories of marital breakdown, petty crime, protest and neighbourhood disputes. Letters, diaries and early autobiographies range from marital relations to political concerns. The module focuses both on writing women into the social, political and cultural histories of the period, and on using gender as a point of historical analysis for particular themes and events. Particular consideration will be given to sex, gender and sexuality; the household economy; masculinity; marriage; women's legal status in theory and practice; property rights; Protestantism; Puritanism; gender issues in the Civil War; Quakerism and women prophets; women's political participation; poverty; infanticide; honour and reputation; gender debates; and witchcraft.

The course aims to:

  • introduce students to the historiography of gender in early modern England
  • examine and analyse selected primary sources in their context, using a variety of approaches 

By the end of the course students should be:

  • familiar with the historiography of gender in early modern England
  • able to identify and critically analyse appropriate primary sources to answer historical questions
  • able to offer original analyses of the history of women and gender in this period
  • prepared to relate the history of gender to the broader history of society, culture and politics in this period

Provisional seminar plan* 

  1. How to be married: household advice 
  2. Early feminism? Jane Anger and Rachel Speght
  3. A feme covert: the law on women
  4. Marriage: making and breaking it
  5. Ballads: popular literature and gender inversion
  6. Letters between husbands and wives: the evidence of intimacy
  7. Defamation: whores and cuckolds
  8. Gender in the Reformation: Rose Hickman, Anne Askew & John Foxe
  9. Order and disorder, space and place
  10. Cheap print: murder stories and monstrous births 
  11. The first women's autobiographies: Anne Clifford & Alice Thornton 
  12. Jane Sharp's Midwives Book
  13. Illicit sex  
  14. Gender and Revolution: Petitions and protest
  15. Gender and Revolution: Female prophets and the sects
  16. Work and Skill (Hannah Woolley, Bathsua Makin, Katherine Austen, Advice to the Maidens)
  17. Witchcraft
  18. Mary Astell: feminism in the 1690s
  19. Dissertation Workshop 
  20. Themes
(*indicative: use Keats for the actual course)

Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these books is not mandatory

For a textbook, I recommend Sara Mendelson & Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England  (OUP 1998) and/or Laura Gowing Gender Relations in early modern England (Longman 2013).  Also recommended is Ann Hughes’s Gender and the English Revolution. A full summer reading list is provided at the pre-course meeting in May. 

Additional costs

  • Two copies of a printed and bound dissertation
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