Blog Post

September 2016 – Transnationalism and the Study of Early Modern Women

Allyson M. Poska for the SSEMW Blog

Transnational scholarship is all the rage, but luckily for us, study of early modern women and transnationalism are natural partners. In fact, in many ways, early modern women’s scholarship was at the forefront of this scholarly trend. Long before intellectuals employed the term, many of the most prominent scholars in our field were intuitively led towards what has become known as transnational scholarship. By looking across borders, they hoped to move beyond the biographical focus on exceptional women and find like-minded and similarly situated women with whom they could make comparisons and reveal connections. Of course, since those early days of women’s history, both fields have evolved. Although in the current academic context, there are many ways to define transnational, in an article in Early Modern Women Journal, Merry Wiesner-Hanks argues that, in the context of the early modern, when nation- states were in their infancy, a very broad definition of transnational that focuses on cross-border interactions, exchanges, and associations across borders has proven to be particularly useful. [1] Using that definition, I want to lay out some of the many places where scholars have already or might more intentionally explore the lives of early modern women by thinking transnationally.

María de Agreda

Without a doubt, early modern religious women present a prime opportunity for transnational study. Catholic religious orders were the great transnational organizations of the early modern period and nuns traversed borders as a part of the establishment of new foundations and the provision of charity and education. From English nuns who took refuge in France and the Low Countries after the solidification of Protestantism in England to the Ursulines in New France and Capuchins in Peru, religious vocation transported women far from their homelands and facilitated the transnational transmission of faith. Even women who never left the convent participated in transnational communities. They corresponded with sisters around the globe and a few, like María de Agreda, even bilocated.

But Catholics were not the only women whose faith prompted them to cross borders and create transnational communities. Among others, Quaker women crisscrossed the Atlantic to preach and individual women left their homes in search of new spiritual communities.

Maria Sibylla Merian
Maria Sibylla Merian

For instance, think about the transnational journey of Maria Sibylla Merian, who moved from her home in Frankfurt to the Dutch Republic to join the Labadist sect (and of course, her work later took her to Surinam). The study of Jewish and Converso women has also proven to be fruitful ground for transnational study. Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi whose peripatetic life took her from Portugal to Antwerp to Venice and Constantinople is but one example of a woman whose complicated life was marked by her relationships with Europe’s transnational Jewish and Converso communities.

Anna Maria Von Schurman
Anna Maria Von Schurman

For many others, early modern Europe imperial structures, the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the Spanish Portuguese, English and French empires, by nature created zones for transcultural and transnational interactions. Shifting and porous national (and I use that term loosely) borders meant that large numbers of peoples lived at one point under one monarchy and at others under another. Take for instance, the duchy of Milan, which lost its independence to Spanish conquest and was independent until 1525 and then under Spanish rule, and Rosellón which was at times under French rule and at others part of Spain. When war and diplomatic negotiations left them under the rule of a foreign king, peasant women, merchants, artisans, and aristocrats suddenly became transnational actors without ever leaving their homes. Of course, women writers, especially multilingual women like Anna Maria Von Schurman and women who wrote in Latin, lived transnationally through their correspondence. Here too, even if they never left their native lands, these women became central participants in the movement of ideas across borders.

Sofonisba Anguissola
Sofonisba Anguissola

Women of all classes and races were transnational actors. Take for example Philip II of Spain’s four wives. His Portuguese, French, and Austrian wives all facilitated cultural and economic interactions between Spain and their native lands. Even his marriage to Mary Tudor brought large numbers of Spaniards to the English court. Moreover, in their roles as patrons, royal women created artistic communities that transcended national boundaries. The French Elizabeth of Valois brought the Italian Sofonisba Anguissola to paint at her court in Madrid. In Italy, Isabella D’Este brought the most illustrious music instructors from across Europe to her court at Mantua. For these women, their transnational interactions were a sign of their power and the universality of their aesthetic.

Isabella d'Este, by Leonardo da Vinci
Isabella d’Este, by Leonardo da Vinci

Even non-elite women were remarkably mobile, regularly crossing borders in search of new opportunities, more reliable husbands, and even adventure. In addition to the Sephardic diaspora, Spanish and Portuguese women followed commercial opportunities to France, wives of soldiers followed their husbands across the continent, and single women moved to urban areas regardless of national boundaries in search of work.

Transnational mobility took on new meaning as women moved to the far reaches of the globe as part of early modern European expansion. In their new homes around the world, they acted as agents of empire, carrying with them European products and foodways and sex and gender expectations. While many of these moves were straightforward journeys from metropole to colony, others moved on to other colonial settlements. In places like colonial Florida, Spanish women moved easily into English territory, and English men took Spanish wives. Dozens of Portuguese women who agreed to settled in Mazagão on Africa’s west coast later crossed the Atlantic when the Portuguese crown decided to move the colony to Brazil.

Mazagão today
Mazagão today

While many women migrated in the company of their husbands and sons, many other widows and single women made the transatlantic journey to the Americas. Of course, not all women became transnational actors of their own volition. Millions of women were enslaved and then forcibly moved from one “nation” to another, but even in their enslavement they acted as transmitters of language, culture, and experience.

Engraving of an enslaved woman in Guiana by Francesco Bartelozzi, 18th century

Often modern scholars feel bound by linguistic constraints, disciplinary conventions, and a very modern and deterministic emphasis on national borders; but early modern women did not. Amy Stanley, in a recent American Historical Review article on maidservants in Japan, reminds us that these women’s stories “produce chronologies and geographies that confound expectations.” [2] We should use those confounded expectations to our advantage. In the current academic context, there is considerable value in explicitly articulating our work as transnational. Using the term and thinking transnationally not only helps us establish connections with other fields, but it also moves the study of early modern women in new and exciting directions. By thinking transnationally, the possibilities are limitless.

Allyson M. Poska is Professor of History at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia and the author of a number of books on early modern women: Gendered Crossings: Women and Migration in the Spanish Empire (New Mexico, 2016);  Women and Authority in Early Modern Spain: The Peasants of Galicia (Oxford, 2005), winner of the 2006 Roland H. Bainton Prize for best book in early modern history;  Women and Gender in the Western Past (coauthored with Katherine French, Houghton-Mifflin, 2006), as well as the coeditor of  The Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Ashgate, 2013).  She was president of SSEMW in 2012. 

Publication date: 09/15/2016

[1] Merry Wiesner-Hanks, “Early Modern Women and the Transnational Turn,” Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 7 (2012): 191-202.

[2] Amy Stanley, “Maidservant’s Tales: Narrating Domestic and Global History in Eurasia, 1600-1900,” American Historical Review 121:2 (April 2016): 460. doi: 10.1093/ahr/121.2.437

6 thoughts on “September 2016 – Transnationalism and the Study of Early Modern Women

  • Pamela Allen Brown

    Great blog post, which pointed me in new directions. Mary Ward is another example of transnational religious women. Another relevant category is that of hypermobile female entertainers (actresses, singer-dancers, specialty acts, and mountebanks). Some divas of the commedia dell’arte, for example, performed at ducal courts in northern Italy, Imperial court in Vienna and Prague, and royal courts in Madrid, Paris and London. The forthcoming issue of Renaissance Drama will feature a Roundtable on Transnational Female Performance, which covers some of these women (including Mary Ward). Thanks for the post!

  • Thank you for very intriguing essay. I am currently writing about trans-regional artisans in the Baltic Sea region and I would like to refer to this essay, so I was wondering if you could add a publishing date? Greetings from Finland!

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