Blog Post

April 2019 – Axes of Uncertainty and Recovering Women’s Voices in Early Modern Miscellanies.

Eric McCarthy for the SSEMWG Blog 

I am delighted to contribute a blog post on the theme of “Power, Authority, and Women’s Voices in Early Modern Texts, Criticism, and the Academy Today,” not least because it relates to the work I’ve been doing for the ERC-funded project “RECIRC: The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550–1700″ over the last few years. I began with what seemed like a straightforward question: which female-authored works were transcribed most often in manuscript miscellanies? It was easy enough to produce a ranked list of the works in the miscellanies we had consulted, but a problem quickly became apparent: the attributions of several of the most frequently transcribed poems are questionable at best and demonstrably false at worst. Four—“An Epitaph upon the death of the Duke of Buckingham,” “Death be not proud, thy hand gave not this blow,” “’Twas Christ the Word,” and “Though I seem strange”—cannot be firmly linked to the historical woman to whom they are usually attributed. (I discuss the problems surrounding these attributions at length in my monograph-in-progress with Marie-Louise Coolahan and Sajed Chowdhury.) Another, “Thou one-eyed boy of thy blind mother,” is anonymous and is probably a male-authored prosopopoeia. Only Lady Dorothy Shirley’s claim to “Of Unconstancy” seems secure, largely because one of the two surviving manuscripts that ascribes it to Shirley was compiled by her friend Constance Aston Fowler. The problem seems to be unique to poetry: the most-transcribed prose works, including Elizabeth’s “Golden Speech” and Penelope Rich’s letter defending her brother, the earl of Essex, are consistently and accurately ascribed, but the poems are problematic.

This startling finding led me to consider how ascriptions, evidence of attribution written in documents, lead to attributions, assignments of authorship that may or may not be correct and for which there may be no material evidence, and what both tell us about early modern women’s authorship.[1] The two are often conflated, but disentangling them allows us to discuss manuscript evidence more precisely and to identify important patterns. When an early modern work entered manuscript circulation, it usually did so anonymously—whether it was written by a woman or a man. Even when a text is accompanied by a name, it does not always identify the individual we might expect. Moreover, the names above and below poems that we identify as ascriptions may not be—and may not have been intended to be—as straightforward as modern conventions might lead us to assume. The idea that an ascription recorded an empirically true fact about a literary work and its composition was only beginning to take hold in the seventeenth century.

Axes of uncertainty

The desire to recover a large and diverse canon of women’s writing is sometimes at odds with evidence contravening appealing ascriptions..Consequently, attributing women’s manuscript poetry involves placing it in relation to three overlapping continua, which I am currently calling “axes of uncertainty”: gender, authorship, and ascription. I have chosen “axes” as a kind of Cartesian metaphor. Like a spectrum, it is meant to suggest continuity—or, rather, several continuities that intersect, giving each text its own distinct coordinates. 

  • Gender: Queer theorists like Judith Butler have long advocated treating gender as a spectrum rather than a binary. If gender is constructed and contingent, how can we best define “women’s writing” as a category? How does one deal with anonymous and pseudonymous verse in a woman’s voice?
  • Authorship: Jeffrey Masten has recently argued that it is impossible to distinguish between early modern authorship and imitation.“Dress[ing] up as Judith Butler doing attribution studies,” Masten argues that “all writing is drag, just not always volitional drag.” Although Masten’s discussion focuses on Marlowe and Shakespeare, his words are doubly resonant when one considers manuscript poetry written in the female voice. If the gender of a text is not contiguous with the body of its author (or indeed, nothing is known about the historical author’s body), gendered authorship can only be studied as a performance.
  • Ascription: In-text ascriptions can be as minimalist as initials, but I consider some maximalist approaches too. It If all authorship is performance, perhaps the humble ascription is the costume that enhances the illusion. It can be put on, taken off, and changed as the occasion suits. But its flexibility does not diminish its signifying power and may indeed enhance it. 

In short, a compiler’s decision to ascribe a poem to anyone is meaningful. To ascribe a poem to a woman, correctly or not, is to place her in the history of women’s writing.


A jangling quatrain that had circulated since 1568, “’Twas Christ the Word that spake it,” began to be ascribed to Elizabeth more than a decade after the queen’s death. Of the twenty-two surviving manuscript copies, nine include Elizabeth’s name and seven are attributed to various men. Marmaduke Rawdon transcribed it in two locations in his miscellany (BL Add. MS 18044) with two different ascriptions: one copy is attributed to Elizabeth and another appears in a section headed “Out of Dr Dunns Poems.” 

Manuscript of quatrain ascribed to Elizabeth by Marmaduke Rawdon

BL Add. MS 18044, f. 83. Photo by Sajed Chowdhury.

The poem also appears in at least eight seventeenth-century printed books, with the attribution to Elizabeth catching on in the 1640s. 

Despite the seventeenth-century tendency to attribute the verse to Elizabeth, there is little sixteenth-century evidence to support it—and much to challenge it. Balancing inclusion and caution, Leah Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose print the poem in their edition of Elizabeth’s works but warn that the attribution is “uncertain.” This is consistent with their policy of including all plausible works, and it is not inconsistent with RECIRC’s policy of examining all works readers might have believed to have been written by women. On its own, the poem tells us little about how Elizabeth’s reputation as an author in the early modern period—certainly less than canonical poems like “The Doubt of Future Foes,” which George Puttenham praised as “most sweet and sententious”—but it does highlight the way Elizabeth signified within the miscellanies in which it is attributed to her. In other words, it shows what early modern readers thought, or wanted to think, about Elizabeth. 

Such an approach also helps us read the wide range of material attributed to anonymous and pseudonymous women. Scholars like Michelle O’Callaghan and Elizabeth Harvey have considered bawdy ventriloquies that use a female voice to project male desires. But what of poems that lack these obvious tells? BL Add. MS 22601, an early Jacobean miscellany, contains a poem headed “A Gentlewoman that married a yonge Gent who after forsooke whereuppon she tooke hir Needle in which she was excelent & worked vpon hir Sampler thus.” Only five of the 134 items in the miscellany are ascribed, and only this poem is linked to a woman, suggesting that the compiler believed that the identification was important to the poem’s interpretation. The speaker describes her desire to render a complaint about her own abandonment in needlework:

Comme giue me needle, stitch cloth, silke & chaire
that I may sitt and sigh and sow & singe
For perfect coollours to discribe the aire
a subtile persinge changinge constant thinge

This poem lacks the bawdy elements that would immediately mark it as a possible male ventriloquy. Instead, it embraces the language of needlework, a distinctly feminine textual practice, and focuses on the symbolic value of material details like stitches and thread colors. Nothing about this language is so specific as to exclude a male author, and it does recall adaptations of Philomela’s story. But it seems telling that the speaker reveals little about the situation that precipitates her complaint, condemning all men rather than offering voyeuristic detail; only the heading provides context to make the “Mayden no more” comment legible. We don’t know anything about the body of the historical author, but the poetic speaker’s voice is compelling and plausibly feminine.

Future directions

This returns us to the three axes of uncertainty: ascription, authorship, and gender. These coordinates are independent of each other and give each female-ascribed or female-voiced text a unique position in the space of manuscript circulation. “T’was Christ the Word,” though frequently ascribed to Elizabeth, is somewhat imitative but not particularly gendered. The sampler poem is vaguely ascribed and not particularly imitative, but it is highly gendered. As Rosalind Smith has suggested, paratexts offer a way forward.[2] Thus, “T’was Christ the word” and the sampler poem may be considered under the aegis of women’s writing because their paratextual signals designate them as such, and there is no clear or obvious evidence to the contrary.

Model of the axes of uncertainty

The “axes of uncertainty” in action.

When I presented this work at the London Renaissance Seminar, we discussed whether it might make sense to add a fourth axis: quality. A passel of poems is variously attributed to women at the Elizabethan court and Nicholas Breton, and discussions of their authorship tend to focus on their perceived quality. On the other hand, at the Mahindra Humanities Center’s “Women and Culture” seminar, the audience wondered whether the spatial metaphor was the most effective way to frame these overlapping questions or if it worked against the sense of continuity I am trying to represent. I’d appreciate any insight SSEMW readers might have.

Ultimately, I would like to argue that attributions reflect the readers’ and editors’ desires above all else. They are, at times, informed by contemporary ascriptions. But given the relative infrequency of ascriptions, it is tempting to imagine that manuscript compilers experienced a frisson of pleasure when they recognized a poem. This same desire can also make recognition disconcerting. When I began this work, I was deeply ambivalent about questioning widely accepted attributions like those for “Death be not proud” and “T’was Christ the Word.” Is this what fourth-wave feminist scholarship would be: dismantling the canon our predecessors worked to build? But I would propose that my axes of uncertainty, or whatever they evolve into as I revise this essay, give us a way forward. They allow us to consider poems that perhaps did not originate in the minds of a historically identifiable woman but that were nevertheless read as “women’s work” at some point in their reception history. They also allow us to take seriously a large body of lesser-known, but fascinating, verse that might otherwise be ignored as mere curiosities. Anonymous and pseudonymous female-voiced verse offers a rich site for exploring what early modern readers imagined women might be capable of thinking, feeling, producing. Uncertainty is not, I have realized, inherently bad. From these gaps in our knowledge, in what is knowable, we can recover new texts and new evidence about historical perceptions of women and their writing.

[1]Peter Beal, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology, 1450–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 24, 28–29.

[2]Rosalind Smith, Sonnets and the English Woman Writer (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 120–21.

Erin McCarthy is a lecturer at the University at Newcastle, Australia. She is a digital humanist and literary historian specializing in the histories of reading and the book, and can be followed on Twitter @erinannmcc.

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