The History Woman's Blog

The woman who almost became queen

Posted in Early Modern, History, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on December 23, 2013

Sophia MemoirsI got an early Christmas present this year when the Memoirs (1630-1680) of Sophia of Hanover landed in my pigeonhole about a week ago. They arrived unexpectedly, but my curiosity soon got the better of me, and I was not able to resist the life story of the woman who nearly became queen of England.

As the granddaughter of James I by his daughter Elizabeth and her husband Frederick, the German elector Palatine and king of Bohemia, Sophia was the next Protestant in line to the English throne when the Act of Settlement (1701) was drawn up, so the right of succession was transferred to her and her heirs. Alas, she died in 1714 only seven weeks before Queen Anne, the last Protestant monarch of the House of Stuart, and in the event the crown fell to her son George Lewis, who was to become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.

Sophia’s Memoirs, edited and translated by Sean Ward for the Toronto Series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe offer a rare glimpse this remarkable woman, who enjoyed life at the centre of the German nobility with pragmatism, wisdom and a good sense of humour. Consequently, as her editor notes – and despite a number of biographies – Sophia ‘tells the story [of her life] better herself’ (p. 26) to convey her acute observations and highly entertaining sense of mischief.

As a youth in The Hague she apparently enjoyed to play practical jokes on unsuspecting courtiers, including Mr. de Zulestein, the ‘natural child of Prince Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau’, whose head received ‘a good dousing’ from a handkerchief soaked ‘in a chamber pot’ (p. 40). Thus, through Sophia’s eyes we get a look at the humans behind seventeenth-century European politics and their struggles and mishaps beyond the limelight.

Marriage politics also play a key role in her Memoirs. Not only does Sophia let us know that she was once intended as a wife to Charles II, whom she met at The Hague during the 1650s, she also tells us of her betrothal to Duke George William of Brunswick-Lüneburg, then duke of Hanover (pp. 65ff) and her pragmatic transfer to his younger brother Ernest Augustus, when the former decided he preferred to live as a bachelor (p. 69). In Sophia’s own words, the only love she had felt ‘was for a good establishment’ and she would ‘have no difficulty trading the older brother for the younger’ (p. 75), not least because the older brother was willing to leave the Brunswick-Lüneburg possessions to her children. Love in these arrangements, it seems, followed later. As Sophia lets her readers know, ‘Resolved to love him, I was delighted to find him lovable.’ (p. 79). But not all were so fortunate. (more…)

Selling French books in Enlightenment Germany*

Posted in Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, History, Reviews by thehistorywoman on July 21, 2013

Books_without_bordersJeffrey Freedman’s engaging Books without borders in Enlightenment Europe (2012) looks at the French book trade in the German-speaking territories during a pivotal period in the European history of ideas. This French book trade did not just cater for a small elite of princes and courtiers, it was absorbed by a variety of well-educated German speakers from scholars to doctors and lawyers and a variety of other professionals and thus played an important role in spreading and popularising the Enlightenment. By the 1770s, the French segment accounted for some ten per cent of all books sold on the German market.

Among the works sold by the German agents of French-language printers and booksellers were also many unlicensed and prohibited books. But thanks to the political fragmentation and the many administrative quirks of the German lands, censorship laws were virtually unenforceable, so that heterodox and libertine works could reach their readers relatively easily. The ban of a work often only served to make it more popular and more desirable to ‘procure the forbidden pleasure’ (118) as no one less than the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked recalling the burning of a French book in his native Frankfurt.

Following in Darnton’s footsteps

Books without borders feels in many ways like a sequel to Robert Darnton’s seminal Business of Enlightenment (1979), not just because Freedman draws on the same depository of sources of the Swiss Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), which here represents ‘a slice of the French book trade in Germany’ (11) but also because he, like Darnton (who was his PhD supervisor at Princeton), offers the reader a carefully researched and well-informed book history intermixed with numerous little personal stories of the STN’s correspondents in the German lands, zooming in and out of the bigger picture.

Some of these personal stories are quite detailed, and readers might be inclined to skim read them. But this would mean to miss the colourful picture Freedman paints of the lives, successes and struggles of eighteenth-century printers and their agents. Occasionally, we even get a rare glimpse of their political inclinations and the convictions that might have driven the latter to get involved in the business of books.

Censorship and self-censorship

There is, for instance, the ‘native Parisian and Freemason’ François Mettra, who had his shop in Münz, near Cologne, and moonlighted as a ‘radical journalist’ (63); or Charles Fontaine in Mannheim, the semi-educated ‘son of a fisherman’ who is unlikely to ‘have read many of the books in his own bookshop’ (75); and finally Johann Conrad Deinet in Frankfurt, who ended up as the Empire’s book commissioner (or chief censor) despite having had various run-ins with the authorities himself for dealing in prohibited books. But as Freedman points out, ‘it would be a mistake to assume that in the eighteenth century, censors and booksellers were always on opposite sides of the ideological barricades and that if booksellers obeyed the law, it was only because they feared the consequences of transgressing it.’ (110) Many exercised a certain amount of self-censorship too, selling prohibited material, but drawing the line, say, at ‘atheism and pornography’. (110) (more…)

On the economic power of God’s invisible Church

Posted in Early Modern, History, Religion, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on March 12, 2013

Brethren in Christ‘Brethren in Christ’ was the common form of address in correspondences among Calvinist elites in early modern Europe as they asked for each other’s support and solidarity, in particular in times of displacement and hardship caused by bouts of intolerance sparked by the Counter-Reformation. Among those forced into exile for their faith during the sixteenth century were four families from Lucca: the Calandrinis, Burlamachis, Diodatis and Turrettinis. Uprooted and displaced multiple times from Italy, France, the Netherlands and Germany by such key events as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre or the Thirty Years War they travelled around Europe like the Israelites escaping Babylon and more often than not found at least a spiritual home in their ‘new Jerusalem’, the Swiss city of Geneva.

Ole Peter Grell’s most recent book Brethren in Christ: A Calvinist Network in Reformation Europe is not a work about Calvinist rhetoric, as the first half of its title might suggest. It is a work of social history dealing with networks and collective biography, or rather lots of short biographies that add up to one bigger story, showing that the aim for a grand(er) narrative does not have to go at the expense of detail, or rather that a certain amount of detail is sufficient to make a bigger point.

Thus, as we follow different generations of Calandrinis, Burlamachis, Diodatis and Turrettinis across Reformation Europe we get a sense of how things hang together, how the Counter-Reformation in Tuscany led to an exodus of wealthy merchant-bankers to Lyon and Paris, how the St Bartholomew Day Massacre in France subsequently made them move on to the United Provinces, England and Germany, and how Frederick V’s acceptance of the Bohemian crown did not just trigger the Thirty Years War, but also caused a refugee crisis in the Imperial city of Nuremberg, which was overrun by exiles from the Palatinate, and finally how Calvinist elites managed the relief effort by appealing for money and triggering collections in the stranger churches of London and elsewhere. (more…)

The Holbein Stare and Other Works of Art

Posted in Art, Early Modern, News, Reviews, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on November 3, 2012

Derich Born, 23-year-old merchant of Cologne, by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533).

Be prepared for the Holbein stare. His sitters will look right at you, or through you – like Derich Born. Serious beyond his years, wealthy and confident, the 23-year-old merchant of Cologne was the youngest member of the London Hanseatic League and seems remarkably lifelike as his dark brown eyes look out from underneath his black cap. Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497-1543) painted him in 1533, and as with most of Holbein’s portraits, it is the eyes that hold the viewer’s attention, be it in the sketch of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor Thomas More (c 1526-27) or in the painting of ‘Hans of Antwerp’ (1532).

While most of the attention is usually on the paintings, I often prefer the chalk, pen and ink drawings. They are like shadows or ghosts of people who once lived and have all but faded out. I was particularly taken by the ethereal looks of a beautiful, young Lady Parker (c1540-3), possibly one of Jane Seymour’s attendants who gazes out from the white background with her big round eyes. There is also a drawing of a young ‘Lady’ Mary (c. 1536), demoted from her position as ‘Princess’ after the birth of her younger brother Edward, Prince of Wales, in a frame alongside hers, aged one (c 1538).

More often than not, these drawings were studies for paintings; and it is particularly interesting to see one next to the other, as in the case of the portrait of Sir Henry Guildford (1527), who was one of Henry VIII’s closest friends and Comptroller of the Royal Household. As a court painter, meanwhile, Holbein was not beyond the art of flattery. The exhibition blurb informs us that Guildford’s slightly chubby-drawn face was lengthened on the painting for ‘a more flattering expression’. (more…)

Men and Women in the English Revolution

Posted in Early Modern, History, Politics, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on October 28, 2012

Elizabeth Cromwell, née Bourchier (1598-1665)

Over the summer I agreed to review two books on the English civil wars. One Blair Worden’s God’s Instruments (2012), the other Ann Hughes’s Gender and the English Revolution (2012). The first, aside from a few fleeting references to Lucy Hutchinson, deals almost exclusively with Oliver Cromwell and other men who fought in the Civil War and determined the politics of the country in its aftermath. The second focuses mainly on women, though never studying them separately from the men they supported and challenged.

What I conclude from this is, that nearly half a century after the emergence of women’s history, it is still possible to write history books that largely ignore women, while it is virtually impossible to write anything at all that ignores men. I.e. as far as high political history is concerned, gender is only a ‘relational concept’ with regards to women.

I do not blame Blair Worden. In fact, I admire his work and frequently cite it in my own. Besides, I am no less guilty of having written entire book chapters or journal articles without mentioning a single woman. Political correctness and indeed the contribution of women to politics and political decision making easily slip our mind when the evidence is so much focused on a male political sphere – especially for students of the early modern period. But I still think we should try and change our practice and ask ourselves every time we look at a political issue: and what was the contribution of women? (more…)

The First Actresses and some of Charles II’s mistresses

Posted in Art, Early Modern, Eighteenth Century, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on December 13, 2011

I finally managed to see the First Actresses exhibition on a late Friday evening trip to the National Portrait Gallery after a hard day’s work at the British Library. It was entirely worth it.

The NPG has a number of beautiful pictures of Nell Gwyn, Moll Davis, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson and others together with the women’s intriguing stories.

Eleanor Gwyn (1650-87) and Mary Davis (1648-1708) of course were actresses as well as mistresses to Charles II. Nell, who was probably the most famous Restoration actress and a great celebrity on and off the stage, gave the King two sons, Charles and James Beauclerk. Ironically, they were given the first names that should have been given to the legitimate sons and heirs to the throne the barren marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza never produced. (Who knows, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 might never have happened!) The actress, singer and comedian Moll bore the King a daughter, Lady Mary Tudor, whose two sons (another James and Charles) both became Jacobites and were later executed for treason.

Up until the Restoration period, boys had played all female parts in the theatre, as acting was not seen as a respectable occupation for a woman. Any young girl associated with the theatre would immediately come under suspicion of being a prostitute or as easily available to much wealthier and much older men. They often were. Yet, despite their libertine lifestyles, the women were never exclusively defined by the men they were associated with.

Mary Robinson as Perdita by John Hopper

Mary Robinson as Perdita by John Hopper

Mary Robinson (1757-1800), who became mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) after enchanting him with her role as Perdita in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, would later become a successful poet, novelist and playwright, while also defending female intellectual capacities in A Letter to the Women of England (1799). The Welsh actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), née Kemble, was the wife of fellow actor William Siddons. But their marriage ended soon in an informal separation, while Sarah became celebrated in her own right as a Shakespearean actress, most notably for her role as Lady Macbeth. It was women like her who made the profession respectable.

The actresses’ portraits by leading artists of the period, including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hopper and James Gillray, are impressive and beautiful. More importantly, however, the women depicted ooze elegance, talent, and self-confidence.

In the end I was a bit disappointed that the exhibition was so small. I managed to get through all the pictures (while also conscientiously reading all the labels) in less than an hour. But maybe back then there weren’t quite as many independent women – widely known in their own right – as one might have wished.

The exhibition is still on until 8 January 2012.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons at the National Portrait Gallery, Wolfson Gallery, Tickets £11/£10/£9

Eric Nelson’s Hebrew Republic and the Importance of Jewish Sources

Posted in Early Modern, Political Thought, Religion, Reviews, Seventeenth Century by thehistorywoman on September 13, 2010

In his book on The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson sets out to refute the commonly held assumption in early modern historiography that political science came to be separated from religion over the course of the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the concept of the respublica Hebraeica was seen as authoritative by many political thinkers, and that in particular three elements of God’s commonwealth were influential: the republican form of government, the redistribution of property by means of agrarian laws, and religious toleration. In their pursuit of the ideal government, seventeenth-century authors did not just rely on the authority of the Bible, but also on the works of the rabbinic tradition. In the three chapters that constitute the main body of his book, Nelson then goes on to prove each of his points in turn.

First, he argues that republican authors came to consider popular government as the only legitimate form of government instead of seeing it as one possible form only. Secondly, Nelson shows that republican authors, most famously James Harrington, came to put more emphasis on the necessity for a redistribution of property by means of agrarian laws influenced by rabbinic scholarship. And finally, he shows that the pursuit of toleration, usually attributed to a process of secularization which involves a separation of state and church, was perfectly compatible with an Erastian church, i.e. a church under government control. For in God’s commonwealth, Nelson argues, there was no separation between the religious and civil spheres, and God gave his laws to the secular ruler.

If you want to buy Nelson’s argument or not, you have to admit it is well put. His work is clearly structured, the prose flows well, and the book is so highly readable that you don’t want to put it down. A must for everybody interested in early modern religion and political thought.

Eric Nelson, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel at the V&A

Posted in Art, News, Reviews by thehistorywoman on September 9, 2010

The Raphael Cartoons at the V&A are quite impressive works of art in their own right. Roughly four metres wide and three metres high they show scenes from the lives of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, such as  The Miraculous Draught of Fishes or The Sacrifice at Lystra. They are powerful reminders of the impact these men had on early Christians and of their role in the creation of the Church. They were fishers of men and brought hope to the poor and to the sick. Looking at what has become of their Church now, The Healing of the Lame Man and the other scenes depicted seem to have happened in a different world altogether. But the images are still alive.

With their bright colours barely faded it is hard to believe the cartoons are nearly 500 years old. Commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X and painted by Raphael and his assistants, they are full-scale designs for tapestries at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Four of these tapestries can now be seen right next to their desgins at the V&A. They are on loan from the Vatican to mark the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. Whether or not they will help to boost the popularity of the institution to which they belong remains to be seen.

However, what is so impressive about this show at the V&A is that the cartoons and corresponding tapestries probably have not been seen in the same room together since the latter were woven in Brussels. In fact, there are two sets of tapestries. For the then Prince of Wales, and later King Charles I, brought the cartoons to England in 1623 to have his own tapestries made at Mortlake. Charles was a great art collector, but his love for all things popish did not endear him to his protestant subjects.

Anyway, the most interesting thing about the artworks themselves is the opportunity to compare them to each other. There are slight variations between the cartoons and the original tapestries (aside from the fact that they are mirrored) and between the original tapestries and the English set (of course the weavers of Mortlake had not seen the tapestries in the Vatican). For instance, on the cartoon the healed man from the Sacrifice drops his crutch, while the Vatican tapestry shows a discarded wooden leg; and the colours used in the Vatican tapestries are much brighter than their gloomier counterparts of the English version.

It is a shame I did not have more time to study the tapestries next to their cartoons. The V&A make you book your tickets in advance for an allocated time, and I booked mine for 5pm on Thursday evening only to be told as I went in that the museum was about to close in 30 minutes. They did not think that one through. Maybe I  will go back for another look.

Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, V&A, London, 8 September – 17 October 2010.

Charitable Hatred, or the Trouble with Tolerance in Early Modern England

Posted in Early Modern, Religion, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on August 10, 2010

In her book on ‘tolerance and intolerance’ in early modern England Alex Walsham takes a swipe at the Whiggish notion of the ‘rise of toleration’ (7) and the domination of the field by the history of ideas. Emphasisng the point that it was the moral duty of every good Christian at the time to correct any deviance from true religion in their neighbours, Walsham considers persecution itself as some kind of ‘charitable hatred’. Toleration, however, meant no more than ‘to permit or license something of which one emphatically disapproved’ (4). The relationship between ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance’ was therefore much more complex than the dominant Whig interpretation suggests.

Walsham also emphasises the often contradictory behaviour of the population towards deviant groups, in particular Catholics. Since post-Reformation Catholicism had a political dimension Catholics were usually considered ‘traitors rather than hereticks’ (22) , and anti-popish prejudice could ‘inflate Catholicism to menacing proportions’ (27). Nevertheless, many people who hated ‘papists’ in the abstract could still get on perfectly well with their Catholic neighbours. The uniformity in religion seen as so crucial for national unity meanwhile seemed like a utopian goal, even though this was not publicly acknowledged before the passing of the 1689 Toleration Act.

Unsurprisingly, many at the receiving end of persecution were ‘foreigners and strangers,’ and there was a clear ‘xenophobic dimension of contemporary intolerance’ (141). The experience of persecution, meanwhile, led to both ‘active forms of resistance’ (177) and ‘concessions to repressive regimes through conformity and dissimulation’ (188) – a response that is often neglected by the historiography.

Overall, however, there was a considerable amount of negotiation between people of different faiths and confessions and a great willingness of neighbours to get on with each other. Like the rest of Europe, England underwent a process of ‘confessionalisation’ as the people slowly began to understand that ‘religious pluralism’ (301) was there to stay.

Walsham’s book is an excellent work of synthesis, covering much of the available literature on the topic as well as bringing together the social history of religion with the history of ideas and political history. Not all of its facts or insights might be new, but the way in which they are presented and brought together certainly is. A great introduction for all newcomers to the subject, and an eye-opener for many specialists in the field.

Alexandra Walsham, Charitable hatred: tolerance and intolerance in England, 1500-1700 (Manchester: MUP, 2006; paperback ed. 2009).

The ‘Monarchical Republic’ and its Critics

Posted in Early Modern, Reviews, Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth Century by thehistorywoman on June 5, 2010

Patrick Collinson first set out his idea of ‘The Monarchical Republic of Queen Elizabeth I’ in a journal article in 1987. In this article he emphasised in particular two ways in which Elizabethan subjects conceived themselves as ‘citizens’ and displayed considerable self-governing capacities. First, there were Elizabeth’s Privy Councillors at the centre, who were hatching plans for a possible Interregnum in the case of the Queen’s sudden death. And secondly, there were the ‘chief inhabitants’ of localities such as Swallowfield, who made arrangements to govern themselves at their parish meeting because their governors were so ‘far off’. The first group was motivated by humanist ideals of the vita activa and counsel to the prince, the second group by a native English sense of independence as well as a Puritan concern for the community.

Some twenty years after Collinson’s seminal article, John F. McDiarmid has gathered a number of responses to his thesis of the ‘monarchical republic’ in a small volume of extremely useful and refreshingly short essays. None of them exceeds 20 pages, and most of them are immensely clear and readable.  As with the majority of volumes produced ‘in honour’ or ‘in response’ to an eminent historian, the essays treat Collinson’s ideas with great respect, and most of them show further examples or new aspects of the ‘monarchical republic’ in action.

Dale Hoak, for instance, argues that the monarchical republic of Queen Elizabeth actually had its origins in the earlier reign of Edward VI, when courtiers like Sir William Cecil and Sir Thomas Smith realised that the monarchy depended on the support of Parliament and the people. In particular, parliamentary backing was necessary for ‘a royal Reformation’ (54). The volume editor John F. McDiarmid similarly stresses the link between the leading thinkers and statesmen of the Edwardian and Elizabethan ages. He claims that these ‘Edwardo-Elizabethans’ (55), in particular Thomas Smith and his Cambridge circles, were ‘significantly informed by classical republican thought, especially Cicero’ (56), and that there was a clear ‘link between language and the polity in the Ciceronian tradition’ (59). Both, he argues, arose from the people and depended on their consent, and both language and the res publica were ‘the work of a community’ (59). However, as different communities spoke different languages, so different communities had different political structures. And these structures, like languages, were open to change and shaped by the community itself (60). (more…)


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