ISSN: 1086-6523


Kate Aughterson, ed. Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook. Constructions of Femininity in England. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. xv, [8] p. of plates, 316 p. $59.95 hardcover; $16.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Janis Butler Holm,
July 12, 1996

    Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook, subtitled Constructions of Femininity in England, Kate Aughterson has assembled extracts from 107 documents addressing the nature and roles of early modern womanhood. Thematically organized, the selections are grouped into nine chapters reflecting contemporary institutional discourses and counter-discourses: "Theology," "Physiology," "Conduct," "Sexuality and Motherhood," "Politics and Law," "Education," "Work," "Writing and Speaking," and "Proto-Feminisms." The book opens with a thoughtfully qualifying general introduction (justifying the use of the term "Renaissance," for example), and Aughterson has prefaced each chapter with a brief essay that helps to contextualize and to elucidate the disparate and sometimes contradictory materials that follow. Bibliographical notes precede the extracts, and succinct annotations offer guidance to the general reader.

    would like to be able to recommend this well-intentioned book, which aims to provide a representative sample of early modern textual battles on the discursive field of Woman. I admire its scope, its selection, and its arrangement; a book of this kind could indeed, as its prefatory abstract promises, "be an essential sourcebook for students and teachers of [E]nglish, cultural history and women's studies" (i). Additionally, it could provide a good quick fix for scholars of sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, its breadth and variety a clear reminder of the complexity of gender categories and of the forces that attempt to delimit them. With these 107 abstracts before us, we find it more difficult to think of Milton's Eve as Milton's Eve; her articulation as a literary character becomes a moment in the recursive cultural struggle to define and to inform feminine experience and identity.

    perplexing textual deviations cause this anthology, at least in its first edition, to be less than it could be. In too many places, extracts fail to follow the language of their sources. Because the pattern of deviation appears random--some inaccessible phrases are transmitted verbatim while some simple phrases are inexplicably reworded--and because the editor's note makes no mention of paraphrase but suggests that selections have been revised chiefly in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and layout, I assume these rewordings to be mistakes. While most of them do not alter their sources in substantial ways, some do.

    example, turning to the first page of an extract from Thomas Salter's The Mirror of Modesty (p. 177), I find eight changes in wording that do not appear to be simply a matter of modernization: "will soon" for "shall presently"; "of her fear" for "of fear"; "would I" for "I would"; "it be necessary" for "it is necessary"; "opened up to them" for "opened unto them"; "I should" for "if I should"; "be cause of" for "been cause of"; "Greece" for "all Greece." Seven of these changes do not significantly affect meaning, but one of them, "I should" for "if I should," has led to some syntactical confusion. Correctly rendered, the passage in question should read
    to which, or against which, if I should flatly answer that the evil use of learning hath more oftentimes been cause of discommodity and domage than the right and laudable use of it hath been of profit and benefit, I should peradventure be suspected of some for such a one as did the same to the derogation, slander, and reproof of learning, which thing I utterly deny.... [emphasis mine]
    instead of
    to which or against which I should flatly answer, that the evil use of learning hath more oftentimes be cause of discommodity and domage, than the right and laudable use of it hath been of profit and benefit. I should peradventure be suspected of some for such a one as did the same to the derogation, slander and reproof of learning, which thing I utterly deny.... [emphasis mine].
    Thomas Salter is not the most eloquent of early modern writers; his phrasing is convoluted and awkward, and his sentences outlast the most patient reader's patience. But torturous complication should pressure an editor to attend all the more closely to its detail. To add a layer of error to this already difficult prose is to make the Mirror less accessible, not more so.

    it is troubling that, although Salter's text is for the most part a close translation of Giovanni Bruto's La institutione di una fanciulla nata nobilmente (Antwerp, 1555), this collection presents the Mirror as Salter's own. Additionally, the publication date is given as 1578 although the revised Short-Title Catalogue estimates 1579. (The Stationers' Register entry is dated 7 April 1579.) Since helpful information about The Mirror of Modesty is available not only in the STC but also in several books and articles, and in a critical edition of Salter's text, these kinds of errors are surprising.

    Other texts in Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook are also faultily rendered, and even those excerpts taken from modern editions are not without their problems. Passages from the Loeb edition of Aristotle's The Generation of Animals contain multiple transcription errors, and their page references are incomplete. In an extract from Margaret Tallmadge May's translation of Galen's On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, an entire line of text has been inadvertently dropped from the first sentence. Given the preponderance of problems in this anthology, one begins to wonder whether a number of them might have been introduced at the typesetting stage of its publication. (In the title as printed on the book's cover and spine, "Femininity" is spelled "Feminity," a conspicuous mistake that cannot be attributed to the editor.)

    its potential service to a number of academic disciplines, I would very much like to see a revised edition of this collection, carefully researched and scrupulously proofread. A more faithful representation of the original documents would give us a clearer sense of how Renaissance women were scripted and how men and women contended with received scripts, of how early modern language worked (or did not work) in the formation of gender and its discontents. Aughterson has assembled an important group of historical materials; with corrections, this anthology would prove a welcome textbook and a valued addition to the scholar's shelf.

    Janis Butler Holm
    Ohio University

Library of Congress Information

Title:         Renaissance woman : a sourcebook : constructions of
                  femininity in England / edited by Kate Aughterson.
Published:     New York : Routledge, 1996.
Description:   p. cm.
LC Call No.:   HQ1149.G7 R46 1996
Dewey No.:     305.4/0942 20
ISBN:          0415120545
Notes:         Includes bibliographical references and index.
Subjects:      Women -- England -- History -- Renaissance, 1450-1600
                  -- Sources.
               Femininity (Psychology) -- History -- Sources.
               Renaissance -- England -- Sources.
Other authors: Aughterson, Kate, 1961-
Control No.:   95009518