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Genelle Gertz, Heresy Trials and English Women Writers, 1400-1670 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). ISBN 978-1-107-01705-4, 258pp. HBK. £55.00.

Reviewed by Naomi McAreavey


[1] Genelle Gertz’s Heresy Trials and English Women Writers charts the emergence of women’s writing from the experience of heresy trial in the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, recovering a tradition of women’s trial narratives spanning the medieval and early modern periods. Analysing the trial texts of women as historically removed and religiously diverse as Margery Kempe, Anne Askew, Alice Driver, Elizabeth Young, Agnes Priest, Margaret Clitherow, Katharine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, Gertz connects them through a culture of heresy prosecution that extends through the religious upheaval of three centuries and which, she argues, ‘played an important role in shaping women’s homiletic voices, both oral and written’ (p. 13). Scrupulous in locating the women within their specific social, political, and religious contexts, and meticulously attentive to the particularities of each text, Gertz nevertheless identifies common strands running through the women’s trial narratives – most importantly, a tradition of preaching and scriptural exegesis.

[2] Chapter One, ‘Belief papers and the literary genres of heresy trial’, introduces the central argument of the book that ‘heresy trial encouraged authorship about belief’ (p. 20). The chapter opens with the illuminating example of Cecily Ormes, who in 1557, following the execution of Protestant friends, commissioned a letter to the diocesan chancellor who had presided over a trial in which she had abjured heresy, withdrawing her earlier recantation. Ormes’ letter is an example of what Gertz calls ‘“belief papers”, documents written by defendants, such as confessions of faith and articles of belief, that convey religious convictions worthy of dying for’ (p. 21). The Chapter describes two inquisitorial genres that influenced the writing of belief papers – articles (a list of heresy charges) and abjurations (the defendant’s court-driven response to these charges) – and Gertz persuasively demonstrates the connections between these official court documents and the self-authored belief papers exemplified by Ormes’ letter. She concludes the Chapter by showing that trial narratives are extensions of ‘belief papers’ because they not only allowed women to document their beliefs but, by assuming the importance of the trial, facilitated women’s representation of their own eloquence and strength in the face of male clerical authority. Trial narratives therefore depict women participating in learned culture and assuming an authority equal to male clerics and this argument is fundamental to Gertz’s analysis of specific trial narratives.

[3] Chapter Two introduces her first case study, the late medieval visionary, Margery Kempe, and the numerous arrests and interrogations depicted in The Book of Margery Kempe. Kempe is never indicted for heresy, yet the Chapter attends to questions about illegal preaching, a practice barred to women and, itself, viewed as evidence of heresy, which seem to form the substance of her interrogations. Drawing attention to diverse definitions of preaching in the Middle Ages, Gertz shows that throughout her interrogations Kempe uses occupatio, or a denial of something in the hopes of drawing attention to its possibility, to both defend herself and simultaneously to  assume for herself a preaching role. In doing so, Gertz argues that The Book of Margery Kempe ‘portrays an illiterate, laywoman’s thorough co-optation of the rhetorical skills of the priestly class’ (p. 62).

[4] Moving to the Henrician martyr, Anne Askew, Chapter Three identifies a similar rhetorical strategy adopted by the later writer in the use of occupatio on the question of whether she preaches. Throughout the Chapter Gertz makes explicit comparisons between two women divided by more than a century, and in common with her analysis of Kempe, Gertz compares Askew’s trial narrative with that of contemporary men – in Askew’s case, William Thorpe, John Frith and Robert Barnes. As it draws connections with her male co-religionists, this approach is useful in showing how Askew’s trial narrative is shaped by her gender, particularly through their different use of scripture, and in doing so, Gertz beautifully illuminates the literary qualities of Askew’s writing. Ultimately Gertz argues that Askew wrote to claim the status of preacher, and fulfilled that role through her writing.

[5] Chapter Four, ‘Sanctifying ploughmen’s daughters and butchers’ wives’, examines the trial narratives of three Protestants, Alice Driver, Elizabeth Young, and Agnes Priest, and compares their texts to that of the Elizabethan Catholic, Margaret Clitherow. The value of this comparison is in showcasing the extent to which theological debate is fundamental to the writings of Protestant non-conformists; the Catholic Clitherow, by contrast, utilizes the rhetoric of silence throughout her trial. Of particular appeal in this Chapter is its attention to relatively unknown women of lower class status, and the way it shows how they claimed an authority not befitting their gender and class through the experience of religious prosecution. But the Chapter raises bigger questions about the kinds of text it examines. These women had little or no control over their trial narratives, which in all cases were featured in biographical accounts of the women written by men. Gertz’s argument, however, maintains that these biographies ‘reveal demeanors, interpretive practices, and performative styles that were surely representative of the women whose lives were being recorded’ (p. 110). This is an interesting and provocative argument and one that I hope other scholars will take up in relation to these particular writers and to texts like these.

[6] Chapter Five, ‘Exporting inquisition’, was the least engaging in the book, perhaps only because its subjects, the Quaker missionaries Katharine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, make no bones about their preaching role, which (as the Chapter demonstrates) was endorsed by the Quaker belief in the Inner Light. Since a key achievement of the book is its demonstration of a long history of women’s preaching and scriptural exegesis that existed before the sectarian women of the mid-seventeenth century, the Chapter on Evans and Cheevers reads more as an afterward than offering new insight on these women writers. Yet the Chapter does pick up some interesting themes that run through the book, such as the role of male editors (there is some interesting, albeit tentative, work on David Baker’s editorial interventions by comparing his printed text with Evans and Cheevers’ original manuscript), and women’s responses to St Paul’s proscription on female teaching, an authority that, as Gertz shows throughout her book, all the women are forced to engage with and do so in different ways. For this reason, the Chapter is useful for reviewing the book’s key arguments and for filling in the gap between the 1580s, when Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death for heretical beliefs, and the 1660s, when Evans and Cheevers languished in a Maltese prison.

[7] Overall, Heresy Trials and English Women Writers is a stimulating and interesting book, which expertly achieves its aim by demonstrating a tradition of female preaching preceding the mid-seventeenth century and illuminating the importance of the genre of trial narrative in the development of women’s writing. This book proves the value of traversing the medieval and early modern periods by identifying similarities between the writings of women divided by centuries. It also reveals the gendered nature of women’s trial writing and, once again, shows that to fully appreciate women’s literary traditions scholars must be willing to challenge  artificial distinctions between historical and literary forms and to examine non-traditional literary genres.

[8] Surprisingly, the book does not treat trial narratives as a sub-genre of women’s life writing, yet much of its arguments make significant contributions to debates in that field. In Chapter Four, in particular, but throughout the book as well, Gertz complicates ideas of self-writing, especially when texts are not penned by the women themselves or are otherwise subject to different degrees of editorial intervention: this issue has application far beyond the genre of trial narrative. Gertz treats the individual texts in her study with sensitivity and care, and is attentive to the mechanics of mediated or collaborative writing, especially examining the complex relationship between female voice and male pen. Yet I was not always convinced that she coped with the challenges that some of her texts pose to the book’s binding category of ‘women writers’ (I am thinking in particular of those in which the women had little or no control over the production of texts). Disappointingly, Gertz stops short of providing a theoretical model for addressing this kind of ‘female-authored’ text. Yet she is to be commended for raising the issue, which is crucial to women’s writing scholars who work on highly mediated texts like depositions and petitions but is also relevant to researchers of collaborative writing generally. I have no doubt that exciting work will be done in response to the provocative questions raised by this important book.

University College, Dublin, July 2013