Amy E. Leonard and David M. Whitford, eds.

Embodiment, Identity, and Gender in the Early Modern Age

Routledge, 2021

250 Pages


Review by Michael Vaclav

Examining gender within the context of Medieval and Early Modern Europe is no less critical today than it was in 1986 when Mary Wiesner-Hanks released her landmark book, Working Women in Renaissance Germany. Today, this discourse takes place within the established scholarly field that Wiesner-Hanks’s vast body of work created and maintained. Embodiment, Identity, and Gender in the Early Modern Age is a collection of essays organized by acquaintances and colleagues of Wiesner-Hanks and centered around her expansive Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, the fourth edition of which was released by Cambridge University Press in 2019. As a tribute to Wiesner-Hanks and her influence on Early Modern Studies, this collection is itself both wide-ranging in topic and nuanced in method. Through the lens of gender—both in its social construction and its physical manifestations—this collection explores a constellation of moments from Early Modern Europe that bring into sharp relief the productivity and necessity of such scholarship.

The first section of this collection focuses on “the body and manifestations of gender,” examining the role and importance of embodiment, both as physical evidence and external proof of spiritual experience. Beginning with a chapter by Joel Harrington on the continued use of bleeding corpses (cruenation) in murder trials from the twelfth- through the early nineteenth-centuries, the tone is set both for this section and for the collection as a whole. Bodies become sites of discovery and memory. Although this introductory essay is one of only two that does not cite Wiesner-Hanks directly, Harrington establishes the physical body as a viewable locus of status and state power. This theme carries throughout the collection. Similar concern with the physical body as a site of preternatural and divine intervention appears in a later chapter engaging with the legacy of St. John of the Cross and a follower entrusted with resolving the battle over the saint’s remains, including the task of dismembering the saint’s corpse to distribute relics. Martin Luther casts a long shadow over this collection—as indeed he must—and two chapters in this section examine his gendered approaches to both the concept of virginity and the figure of Eve respectively. Both chapters take up Wiesner-Hanks’s call to examine both male and female gendering in the Middle Ages, and Martin Luther’s theological preoccupation with sex and procreation is the perfect stage to do so. Engaging a human Luther, formerly celibate man who came to have a wife and children, allows both chapters to delve into his doctrinal work on a level recognizable to modern audiences. Finally, the reputation of women and their role in political processes is examined in seventeenth-century German localities by Marc Forster and on the broader scale of England’s national politics by Carole Levin as she reveals King James’s aversion to reminders of Queen Elizabeth.

Examining “women between reform, subversion, and self-determination,” the second section of this collection is primarily concerned with the confessional divides brought about by the Protestant Reformation and the attempts of women to integrate the changes determined by patriarchal church authorities. Many of these chapters address the shock experienced by female religious communities as they were forced to dissolve and relocate on the orders of male theologians. These upheavals came both on account of public pressures, as Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer describes in “Protestant and Catholic Nuns Confronting the Reformation,” and from external dangers, such as the Thirty Years’ War, examined by Sigrun Haude. Often, these communities became sites of resistance and theological debate, as Elizabeth Lehfeld describes in “Conflicts Between Male Reformers and Female Monastics.” As Ecclesiastical authorities evaluated convents and recommended reforms, male influence intruded into otherwise closed female spaces, and recommendations were often resisted with different degrees of success. The remaining chapters in this section are concerned with the ways in which women expressed their religious devotion in the Netherlands, both as Catholic exiles within a Protestant state and as adherents to Calvin’s doctrines.This collection concludes with a consideration of how gender influenced perceptions and experiences of travel in the Early Modern period. These experiences encompass both religious exile, as Nicholas Terpstra examines the effect of women and entire families being forced into exile—an experience previously reserved for the male head of a household—and voluntary travel. The most intriguing turn in this section is a focus on 

Jesuits and their concept of an adventurous and devotional masculinity. Kathleen Comerford and Ulrike Strasser each delve into the Jesuit focus on evangelism and conversion. Both scholars portray the Jesuit ideal of an eager foray into the unknown, seeking out potential converts to Christianity and braving the dangers of maritime travel along the way as proof of their devotion to and confidence in God. The remaining chapters in this section are concerned with the gaps in the archival record and the ways in which women are inevitably found filling essential roles that were never recorded. From the records of poor relief in sixteenth-century Germany to accounts of “idle” women in eighteenth-century Spain, women were left unnamed and the work they did to provide for their families—both in the absence of a male partner through death or imprisonment and in the sense of traditional agricultural labor—went unrecorded.

Embodiment, Identity, and Gender in the Early Modern Age is situated as a tribute to the work of Mary Wiesner-Hanks, and it must be said that it accomplishes that goal. Most chapters engage with her work directly, citing her scholarship and making clear connections to her more influential theoretical moves, and the seemingly eclectic topics are held together by the consideration of gender and the physical body on established topics within Early Modern Studies. These chapters give prominence to underappreciated or wholly unheard voices in a way that makes them accessible to a wide audience through their proximity to better known figures and events. It is in this consideration of a larger audience that the collection hits both its most significant hurdle and achieves its greatest success. The breadth of the volume is expansive; indeed, it must be given the range of topics addressed. The specificity of its theoretical focus, which primarily engages a singular scholar, clashes with that broadness. Many will find something of interest in this collection, while the entire spectrum of topics will appeal to a limited few. Despite the tension between specificity and generality, this volume deftly draws its audience in regardless of their expertise and introduces the work of Wiesner-Hanks in a manner simple enough to be quickly grasped and yet nuanced enough to stay engaged. With this consideration, the placement of its first chapter on the bleeding corpse is perhaps its most crucial moment. Beginning an edited collection dedicated to Wiesner-Hanks with a chapter that does not cite her work appears an odd choice, but it introduces the audience to embodiment and gendered power dynamics in a way that avoids potentially alienating those less familiar with Wiesner-Hanks and her work. At the same time, this chapter demonstrates clearly the foundation laid by Wiesner-Hanks and the inescapable nature of her legacy even for those readers who might not know her by name. The greatest achievement of this volume therefore may not be the well-deserved tribute it makes to the legacy of Wiesner-Hanks’s scholarship but the introduction it will provide to those not yet familiar with her foundational body of work.