Sunday, September 27, 2009

Question from Kirsty - Primary sources for representations of 16th c. aristocratic women

Hello there,
I am about to start back at uni in my final year and I am thinking of doing my dissertation on: Representations of aristocratic women from the 16th century.
As it is a dissertation it must use primary sources and it is here where I have been struggling.
I have only really found one which would be of use which is the The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women by John Knox.
I want to talk about how this period although being male dominated witnessed the coronation of two queens and a few women holding significant power/influence and being at the forefront of society.
Therefore I would really appreciate any ideas about other primary sources that may relate to the topic and any books would be great too!

Thank you very much.


kb said...

Kirsty -

There are tons of sources if you think outside traditional historical approaches.

The First Blast is very problematic once you start working with it. If you do, also look at Alymer's writings.

Let me ask - are you interested in representation or in aristocratic women?

If representation you just need men writing about women, ballads, paintings (not by Livinia Treelinc if taking the 'how men looked at women' approach) broadsides, sermons, letters by men about women (for example references to Mary Queen of Scots's women in the state papers once she was prisoner in England), etc.

If women themselves then look at letters by and to women as well as day books, diaries, etc. For example, Ann Clifford's diary - published in multiple editions - late 16th century. You could also look in the index to the Calendar of papers at Hatfield House which may be on the shelf at your uni.Start int he index looking under women and their names.

There are several secondary sources for the 2 English queens-regnant. Look in their bibliographies for their primary sources.

I finished my doctoral research on some of the elite women in Elizabeth's court. If interested I will send you the link to download the PDF and you can look in my bibliography for secondary and primary sources.

Let us know how you decide to proceed. I am sure there are plenty of people with ideas to help you.

PhD Historian said...

KB has offered an excellent start, and she brings up a very important point: aristocratic women vs representation. I might expand on that and suggest that aristocratic women's self-representation might make a very interesting topic, one that is narrower and more manageable.

In any event, I recommend first reading Barbara Harris's English Aristocratic Women, if you have not already done so. Her bibliography will offer an excellent list of primary sources related, in a general way, to aristocratic women.

I agree completely with KB that Knox's First Blast is extremely problematic, largely because it was written as a criticism of two specific women, not women in general. You should do some background reading on that work and how it fits into the political polemics of the 16th century. And definitely read John Aylmer's later response, An Harbour For Faithful and True Subjects.

Other works might include Robert Cleaver's A godlie forme of householde government, Thomas Elyot's A Defence of Good Women, John Foxe's Actes and Monuments (also known as The Book of Martyrs, available online at, and even Juan Luis Vives's books on the education of women. All of these apply to aristocratic women, though some do more so than others.

Most of the above are available online via Early English Books Online (EEBO), if your university subscribes to that non-public database. Some are also available in modern reprints.

If you looked at self-representation, you could use the diaries of Grace Mildmay and Margaret Hoby, the letters of Arbella Stuart (you should read the work of James Daybell on how women represented themselves in letters), and even the letters of Elizabeth I. I do not know where you are, though it sounds like you are in the UK (American universities seldom require senior theses!). If so, you have access to literally thousands of primary source documents in a wide variety of archives, from the British Library to the National Archives to the collections of local universities and record offices.

In a more tangential way, you might also be able to use the many texts contained in the modern reprint collection The Early Modern Englishwoman: A Facsimile Library of Essential Works, edited by Betty Travitsky. Those works would reveal the ways in which women sought to express and "represent" themselves, i.e., in writing about religion and other topics.

I'd be happy to offer more, if you need it. Lara can give you my direct email address.

Kirst1303 said...

Wow, thank you kb and PhD Historian for your detailed replies. I am very grateful and did not expect so much advice!

kb your doctoral research on some of the elite women in Elizabeth's court sounds fantastic!

I was thinking of doing it on the representation of 16th century aristocratic women. I did a proposal for my dissertation as part of a module last year and fancied doing it on Bess of Hardwick as I found her fascinating. My original title was:
Heritage as a social responsibility - representations of aristocratic women of the 16th century.

However my reading over the summer left me more and more interested in the position of women during this period and how this was affected by having two queens take to the throne and by an increasing number of successful and powerful aristocratic women. I was going to look at how we learn about such women today and if the heritage industry provides an accurate view as I know from going to Hardwick Hall there was a lot of information on the tapestries Bess made and the china collections etc, but not much on her personal life and how she was able to hold quite a significant standing in the region.

I am located in Sheffield and have checked out local archives without much luck as unfortunately Chatsworth is not open to undergraduates. However the calendar of papers at Hatfield House sounds promising and I will look into this.

You have both given me lots of sources to get me started as the idea of 14, 000 words has left me suffering a little writers block.

I have had my first morning back at university today which is just what I needed to get me back into the swing of things.

Thanks again for your time and help.


PhD Historian said...

Kirsty, it appears as though you are working on something quite different from what I originally understood. It appears that you are working on modern representations of sixteenth-century aristocratic women, specifically representations generated by the modern curators of surviving historical sites ... representations designed for presentation to the general modern "tourist" public. That seems to me like a much more complex project, since it would seem to involve a comparison of the scholarly historiographic interpretation of a given woman to the interpretation presented in a site-specific manner for a very broad tourist-oriented public audience.

kb said...

I concur with PhD Historian that your original proposal is different than what I was thinking. I would say that it is a really interesting idea for a senior thesis.

I rant and rail all the time about how the traditional historiography has shunted elite early-modern women off the political stage and I suspect there is a huge opening to have the same debate with regards to the heritage industry.

You could contact different heritage properties and ask for the curators or house stewards and then ask them how many female actors vs. male actors they have during recreation events, how many artifacts specifically identified with women they have on display (the tapestries you saw, or jewelry or letters), stuff like that.

Let us know which route you decide to go...

By the way, check with the uni's humanities research librarian about which digital resources you have access too - I'm pretty sure Sheffield has a subscription to EEBO (Early English Books Online) which has a trove of primary sources you can search through. there are probably several others you can access from on campus or via Athens Login.

Kirst1303 said...

Thanks for you replies.

PhD Historian you are right, I was working on modern representations of sixteenth-century aristocratic women, specifically representations generated by the modern curators of surviving historical sites which are designed for presentation to the general modern "tourist" public.

However over the summer I realised this would be very difficult and as I also have other modules to complete through the year I have decided to change the topic even though I think it would be interesting.

kb I agree with you completely regarding how the traditional historiography has shunted elite early-modern women off the political stage and I also think the heritage industry has played a part in how they represent women to the general public.

I will check out the research librarian, thanks for that!

I am edging more towards representation of aristocratic women in the period, maybe representations before England had her first queen and then after and during the reign of Elizabeth I to see if there are any changes.

What do you guys think?

Thank you again for your help.