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How Women Wrote about Themselves: A Corpus-informed Comparison of Women Writers’ Defences in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth- century England

Author:

Beatrice Righetti

University of Padua, IT
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Abstract

Women’s written defences of their sex developed within the literary context of the querelle des femmes, a mainly male debate on female intellectual worth, which started in the Middle Ages and came to a peak during the Renaissance. This paper focuses on the discourse some women writers started to develop in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century England, when the growing number of misogynist attacks led some of them to respond in kind. The first works directly engaging the topics of the querelle are usually identified in Isabella Whitney’s poem The Copy of a Letter (1567) and Jane Anger’s Jane Anger Her Protection For Women (1589). These are coupled with three later pamphlets framed in the so-called Swetnam debate, from the name of the misogynist pamphleteer to whom these three women writers replied, namely A Muzell for Melastomus (1617) by Rachel Speght, Ester Hath Hang’d Haman (1617) by Ester Sowernam and The Worming of a Mad Dogge: or, A Soppe for Cerberus, a Redargution of the Bayter of Women (1617) by Constantia Munda. The qualitative reading of the texts reveals differences among them both in content and structure, which is supported by a corpus-informed quantitative comparison between the earlier and the later texts. The quantitative analysis also shows differences in the use of specific high and low frequency querelle-related lemmas, which signal a variation in the semantic fields related to the discourse on women. Such a mixed research method approach suggests that these variations could not be entirely ascribed to those literary works which had established the formal guidelines of the genre of the controversy, The Praise of Folly (1509) by Erasmus of Rotterdam and De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus (1529) by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim. To understand where these differences may come from, the English querelle texts are quantitatively compared with a small corpus of Italian defences of women, including Il merito delle donne (The Worth of Women, 1600) by Moderata Fonte and La nobilità, et l’eccellenza delle donne, co’diffetti, et mancamenti, de gli huomini (The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, 1600; 1621) by Lucrezia Marinella. This quantitative analysis shows that English and Italian women writers appear to share some structural and content-related characteristics which cannot be found in either Erasmus’ or Agrippa’s works or contemporary English writers dealing with the querelle. The hypothesis is thus advanced that there may have been literary contacts between England and Italy that indirectly influenced the development of the discourse on women within the context of the querelle des femmes.

How to Cite: Righetti, B., 2020. How Women Wrote about Themselves: A Corpus-informed Comparison of Women Writers’ Defences in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth- century England. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 19(2), pp.42–73.
Published on 04 Sep 2020.
Peer Reviewed

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