Women and The Reformation Part 2 – Women In Action

This is part two in my series on the Reformation and it’s impact on women. You can read part one here. 

What The Reformers Thought About Women

Before continuing to examine how the Reformation changed things for women, I want to pause and take a look at what the Reformers themselves thought and said on this issue. As always, there is a mixed bag of opinions, with contradictory opinions sometimes expressed by the same Reformer. This is a very quick overview, not a detailed analysis, but is neccessary to show the framework the Reformers, including female Reformers, were often dealing with.

John Calvin saw the commands given by Paul about women remaining silent in the church as coming under adiaphora or ‘things indifferent’ – things that could be changed as circumstances also changed. While he did not have women taking on roles of leadership, he was opened to the possibility that churches in a different culture might permit it, or that it would be necessary in times of crisis.

Luther held seemingly contradictory views on women – naming them flighty, vain and weak, yet loving and valuing not only his wife and daughter but many women he worked closely with, as well as defending women publicly, advocating marriage to take more of a shape of a partnership and working to increase educational opportunities for women. For example, he once proclaimed “would that every town had also a girls’ school, in which girls might be taught the gospel.” He established a school in Wittenberg to train young girls in reading, writing, mathematics and music. But Luther viewed education not as a pathway to other vocational opportunities, but as a way to train girls to be good mothers and wives.

Writing

The translation of the Bible into ‘common’ languages (not Greek and Latin) meant that theologians and preachers began preaching and writing in the vernacular as well. This made thoughts on theology available to women for the first time, as previously not even wealthy women were educated in classical languages. This also enabled women to become more involved in writing and publishing because of the Reformation. The Reformation allowed women to write about a ‘masculine’ subject: theology.

Katherine Zell wrote at length about clerical marriage, having married a priest herself, she corresponded with leaders of the Reformation throughout Europe and she wrote a book of meditations on selected Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. Marie Dentiere is another example of a woman who was writing at this time – she published the first Protestant history of the Genevan Reformation. More importantly, she wrote to Marguerite of Navarre, asking her to protect the persecuted Calvin and Farel, and included a detailed explanation of the woman’s right to read and interpret the Scriptures, which will be looked at in detail in the next section of this series. These women are examples of what was happening all over Europe – women were reading the Bible for themselves, and were able to write and speak on theological subjects, expressing their thoughts and opinions on important matters in a way that had not been available to them previously.

High Profile Protestant Women 

High-profile women were also becoming more involved in writing and reformist thinking. Marguerite of Navarre, the sister of Francis I of France, wrote the Mirror of a Sinful Soul. Similarly, Katherine Parr, the last queen of Henry VIII, wrote a book called the Lamentations of a Sinner which was the first devotional text written in English by a woman.

Marguerite of Navarre had reformist leanings but saw herself as orthodox – Katherine Parr, on the other hand, maintained that people needed live their lives according to the doctrine of the Gospel. She wrote on the evils of the Papacy, and promoted the reading of Scripture and the marriage of priests. She was also around at the same time as several key Protestant woman in England, such as Anne Seymour, the Countess of Hertford, Katherine Brandon, the Duchess of Suffolk and even the Protestant martyr Anne Askew.

Anne Askew was a female preacher, who explained the word of God in English to any who would listen. She was arrested and tortured. Despite this, she refused to recant or name others, and eventually was burnt as a heretic.

Katherine Parr went on to help pave the way to a Protestant regency for her stepson, Edward the Sixth. She also had a key role in guiding Elizabeth of England’s education, teaching her to value the Scriptures. Elizabeth translated Marguerite of Navarre’s Mirror Of The Sinful Soul into English as a present for Katherine, and then the following year translated the first chapter of John Calvin’s Institutes into English. Clearly both women had a shared interest in reformed theology.

Katherine Parr also influenced Jane Grey, who was her ward for a time after the death of Henry VIII and Katherine’s remarriage. I’m going to finish this section of my series on Women and the Reformation with Jane’s story.

She was intended as a Protestant bride for the new boy king, Edward, but when the Edward’s health failed, the succession was rewritten to place Jane next in line – as a great niece of Henry VIII and a great granddaughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.

The events of Jane’s short-lived reign generally show a young girl placed in an impossible situation by adults who should have known better. But her faith in the period after this was truly remarkable for a girl only sixteen years old. Mary, the new Queen, daughter of Henry VIII, promised to pardon Jane from the sentence of treason and the punishment of death if she converted to the Catholic faith. But she was staunch in what she believed, knowing that faith and Scripture alone were enough to save her from a fate worse than death. She is a true example of the kind of education the Reformation opened up to women – if Jane had lived a hundred years earlier, she never would have had access to the tutors, books and learning she did. These things gave her confidence in Christ and certainty in what she believed about his death and resurrection to face turmoil and death without fear.

References

Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe: https://tudorblogger.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/assess-the-effects-of-the-reformation-on-the-lives-of-women-in-sixteenth-century-europe/

Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History – Diana Lynn Severance

Reform and Conflict: From the Medieval World to the Wars of Religion – Rudolph W. Heinze

The European Reformations – Carter Lindberg

The Education of Women in the Reformation (History of Education Quarterly) by Lowell Green

The Protestant Education in the 16th Century: https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-protestant-education-in-the-xvith-century/

The Influence of the Protestant Reformation on Education (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences) by Mihai Androne

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