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Teaching Early Modern Women’s Writing in the Era of COVID-19

Sara Read & Catie Gill
Loughborough University

“Women’s Writing in the Seventeenth Century” is a module which has been offered and taken up enthusiastically at Loughborough University since the early 1990s. Initially the module was planned around texts available in Her Own Life: Autobiographical Writings by Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen (1989), coedited by the module’s founder Professor Elaine Hobby, supplemented with photocopied examples of women’s manuscript and published works. Over time, the course has adapted and renewed itself to not only reflect the research expertise of the lecturers delivering it, but to embrace the possibilities opened up by the digital sphere. This article explores two of the ways in which the course marries together an ability to connect with matters presenting in this global pandemic with pedagogical techniques which work well in an online environment.

Early modern people lived with epidemic disease in many ways that are beyond modern comprehension. The scourge of smallpox was ever present, and no family went unvisited. In the sixteenth century the sweating sickness threatened rich and poor alike. Decades after the epidemic passed, England’s collective memory continued to express anxiety about the extinguishing of family lines. Given this context it is natural that one of the themes that has always threaded its way through the module is how early modern women described their spiritual and bodily health, since the two were inextricably linked for them. Hannah Allen experienced an episode of melancholy, which her autobiographical work, Satan, His Methods and Malice Baffled (1683), chronicles. Readers learn that she made several (rather bizarre) suicide attempts.1 Similarly, the class reads Elizabeth Clinton’s The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie (1622), a short treatise promoting maternal breastfeeding, for what it says about spiritual as well as bodily health.2 While our understandings of our embodied experiences are culturally determined to a large extent, the language of depression and anxiety speaks on a universal level which can bridge the gap between our modern life and one which is different and distant.3 Students are often both surprised and comforted to discover that the anxiety and low mood that some women, postpartum and at other times, experience are feelings that their foremothers also documented in a variety of contexts. As seminar leaders we can build on this moment to demonstrate that while our clothes and technology may be different, people in the past felt much the same as we do about looming pandemics in many ways.

Where the texts covered on this module particularly speak to the current pandemic is in the engagement with the plague, which recurred generationally. One of the texts which has been consistently taught on the module since the 1990s is Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book (1671).4 Plague appears in this treatise as an example of the way the populace was affected in nonuniform ways. Another text recently added to the module is Medicatrix: Or the Woman-Physician (1675).5 Mary Trye, the eponymous physician, wrote her text as a way of demonstrating she had fulfilled the filial duties occasioned by her father’s deathbed plea. Thomas O’Dowde, the chemical physician, begged his daughter Mary that she would not let his methods and medicines die out along with him. By the time they read Trye, students are cognizant of the power of deathbed entreaties in women’s writing, as seen for example in the short prose fiction “The Contract” (1656) by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.6 Like so many of her countrywoman, Trye lost both her father and mother in the Great Plague pandemic of 1665, so her treatise provides not only a description of her treatments and practice during the plague outbreak, but also an autobiographical witness account of a plague outbreak. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, analyzing these texts has offered new opportunities to connect the present with the past. Sharp’s text read in combination with other women’s accounts of physical and spiritual illness, illustrate how the recent disruption in face-to-face learning can help students read early modern women’s texts with a deeper empathy than before. To start this conversation with the next cohort on the module, we plan to go further with this theme in order to encourage reflection. Most of the group will have studied Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (1722) in their first year, so will have experience of analyzing the perspective on tragedy it offers by the time they take our class in the second year.7 After close reading set passages about the plague with us, the students will complete an exercise to engage their own feelings and emotional responses. They will write a short (fictional) diary entry that responds to pandemic either through a constructed modern or early modern persona. By working in this way, lockdown’s effect on individuals and on society can begin to be articulated. This, we believe, will initiate valuable conversations about modern versus premodern perspectives on health, communication, and community.

While the topics and texts covered connect with the current pandemic in various ways, so too does the module lend itself to successful and rewarding online teaching. An increasing number of scholarly or critical editions of women’s works have become available in recent years: Cavendish, Clinton, and Sharp have been published either in full or in part.8 Because close reading remains essential to our way of working, we draw on what is available in scholarly editions and encourage our students to reflect on material in the footnotes and textual introductions. Even so, we want their confidence as readers to grow, so we ask them to engage with unmediated texts. Early in the module, students are presented with a text and author to research. Knowing only the writer’s name, and provided with a short passage that lacks annotation, the class members identify allusions and references and then report back orally in class on what they have found. By the end of the session, the students have discovered the material that would form the basis of their own edition. This includes the writer’s biography, the legal and cultural contexts explaining the writer’s concerns, and textual allusions (many of which are biblical). The module repeats this focus on textual apparatus in the weeks that follow, so increasing the students’ understanding of editorial practice.

Six weeks into the course, for the first assessment, students are given the option to produce an edition for themselves. Elizabeth Poole’s advice to the Army Council, An Alarum of War (1649) is an ideal work for conducting research of this kind from online and hardcopy resources. While numerous scholars have made clear her importance in the months leading up to the trial of Charles I, her work is not yet available in an edited edition. For this assessment, the students can elect to write a more conventional essay; but if they choose editing then they must work on an author selected for them by the instructors, and it will be of the complexity to be found in Poole’s Alarum.

The second assessment gives freer range. For instance, the students this year were invited to produce an anthology of women’s romance writings sourced through the ProQuest database Early English Books Online (EEBO), which gives access to hundreds of women writers. This invaluable resource, in turn, provides more options for assessment. Over a number of teaching weeks, students are guided through slides, and real time examples, demonstrating the basic techniques required for working with EEBO, including more complex interrogations like proximity searches. This year’s teaching was affected only midway into the module, so the essential bits of training occurred face-to-face. Just as well, because delivering a demo via Adobe Connect or MS Teams in real time is not feasible and tests the technology too far. A method deployed towards the end of the module, during the pandemic, was to provide online instruction on searching databases in bitesize videos. Students wishing to follow up and test their findings were invited to submit their results to the tutor. Obviously, assessment could not be altered midcycle for the class of 2020, but an even better approach to monitoring the students’ skills set is to require they submit worksheets in which they complete research exercises, or, alternatively, for students to monitor their understanding through a learning diary. We have deployed these forms of assessment in previous years on our modules, and know their effectiveness in terms of building student confidence. The training offered is not limited to EEBO but also covers the Oxford Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online databases.

The relaunch of EEBO on its new platform has provided a timely reminder of the alienation and trepidation, as well as the sense of accomplishment, a new user can feel when presented with a digital humanities resource. Until the new ProQuest interface is as familiar to instructors as was the old Chadwyck Healey version, we will continue to have a similar experience as the students working with digital resources for the first time. Hence, while it is impossible to overstate the impact that digital resources have had on the teaching of early modern literature, we must remain aware that its use is a discrete skill. Ultimately, there is a very clear pedagogic reason for using digital resources—their usage enables the instructor and student to model research practice. We want our students to be critical readers, unafraid to challenge how meaning is constructed (in editions) and able to read texts from EEBO where they are without a guide. We also want them to know how to use huge databases like EEBO, because that way, they are empowered as researchers.

“Women’s Writing in the Seventeenth Century” is module that looks at very old texts in what, we hope, are new ways, by harnessing the potential of digital resources. With face-to-face teaching halted during the pandemic, online sources provided the only way of continuing the learning. Whether or not students fully know how at the forefront early modern scholars were in developing “Digital Humanities” pedagogies, they no doubt see how embedded online resources are to the practice of interpreting 350-year-old texts. This, we can only hope, may have made students’ transition to fully online teaching somewhat easier in these troubled times.

Dr. Sara Read is a lecturer in English in the School of Social Science and Humanities at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. Her research focuses on the literary and cultural representations of the female body, health, and medicine in early modern England. She teaches a range of modules reflecting her research expertise. Sara is also very actively engaged in disseminating her work beyond the academy and so writes for a range of popular media. Her debut novel, The Gossips’ Choice (2020) is similarly founded in her research area.

Dr. Catie Gill also works at Loughborough. Her research interests include early modern religion, women’s history and writing, and radicalism. Her most recent book, coedited with Michele Lise Tarter, is New Critical Studies on Early Quaker Women, 1650–1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). In addition to teaching courses on Early Modern Writing, she leads “How to Do Things with Digital Texts,” which is part of the Digital Humanities degree programme offered at Loughborough.

1 See “Hannah Allen from Satan, His Methods and Malice Baffled (1683),” in Her Own Life: Autobiographical Writings by Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen, ed. Elsbeth Graham, Hilary Hinds, Elaine Hobby, and Helen Wilcox (London: Routledge, 1989), 193–206; and Hannah Allen, “A Narrative of God’s Gracious Dealings with that Choice Christian Mrs. Hannah Allen (1683),” in Flesh and Spirit: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women’s Writing, ed. Rachel Adcock, Sara Read, and Anna Ziomek (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 236–55.

2 See “Elizabeth Clinton, [Dowager] Countess of Lincoln, The Countess of Lincolnes Nurserie (1622),” in Adcock, Read, and Ziomek, Flesh and Spirit, 105–22, which reproduces the whole treatise.

3 Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul (London: Penguin, 2005), 54.

4 Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book or, The Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (London: Simon Miller, 1671), 87. For a modern edition, see Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered, ed. Elaine Hobby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

5 Mary Trye, Medicatrix, or the Woman Physician (London, 1675). For a facsimile with introduction to the text see Lisa Forman Cody, ed., Writings on Medicine: Printed Writings 1641–1700: Series II, 1.4 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2002), 450–575.

6 Margaret Cavendish, “The Contract,” in The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. Kate Lilley (London: Penguin, 1992), 1–44.

7 Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, ed. Cynthia Wall (London: Penguin, 1966).

8 The scholarly apparatus they supply ensures that the text’s more particular allusions can be understood: midwife Jane Sharp’s claim that “a horrion is best” (281) turns out to point to a printer’s error for “hot iron,” for instance, Sharp, The Midwives Book, ed. Hobby, 211.

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