“I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul.” Erasmus, Paraclesis: or, an Exhortation (1516).
The Reformation brought a new freedom to Christians. With the proclamation of the priesthood of all believers, meaning that no person needed a priest as mediator for access to God, and with the push to translate the Bible into the vernacular so that all literate people could read and understand the Bible for themselves, an equalizing spirit swept through the Reformation. On a spiritual level at least, women were equal with men. The preface to the Great Bible written by Thomas Cranmer, Erasmus, and even Luther and Calvin praised women for their knowledge of Scripture, and encouraged them to read the Scriptures for themselves. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation pushed for universal education for both boys and girls so that they could learn to read Scripture for themselves. (There is debate as to the equality of the quality of the education given to girls compared to boys, but this is outside the scope of this series. Susan Karant-Nunn notes that the encouragement for women to read Scripture was to teach women their moral responsibility “to be submissive wives, responsible mothers and attentive, frugal housekeepers.”)
In light of this new egalitarian theology, women from a variety of backgrounds found a voice and entered into the action of proclaiming the Gospel and wrestling with the new theology of justification by faith. As Daniel Frankforter notes, at the advent of the Reformation, “many women comprehended immediately what it was about, embraced its faith, preached its message and encouraged its leaders.” Unfortunately, the response from the leaders of the Reformation to these women actively participating in preaching and teaching was not entirely positive. More often than not, the women who chose to write, preach and teach were met with invectives, attempts to expunge their writings, and silence.
This blog series will highlight just a few examples of the invectives that some of the women who were active in the Reformation experienced. The invectives examined here against women who preached and wrote occurred not because they preached heresy or were outside the tradition of the Reformation, but because of their gender. This is also true of John Knox’s invectives against women, for although they were originally written against the Catholic monarchy in England and Scotland, his refusal to recant his position when a Protestant Queen ascended the throne demonstrates that his invectives were directed at gender rather than at the theological convictions of the monarchy.
By way of introduction, a caveat must be given on some of the restrictions of this series. While some of the women’s writings have been translated into English, not all of the reactions to their writings have been. As such, the analysis of the different types of reactions to these women comes largely from the introductions and historical research that the editors of the English translations of the female authors’ writings have presented.
Part Two — Examples of Invectives
Part Three — Sexual Invectives and Posthumous Invectives
Part Four – Responses to the Invectives
Part Five — Evaluation
Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2009).
Susan Karant-Nunn, “Continuity and Change: Some Effects of the Reformation on the Women of Zwickau,” Sixteenth Century Journal XII (1982).
Daniel Frankforter, “Elizabeth Bowes and John Knox: A Woman and Reformation Theology,” Church History 56 (1987).