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Aemilia Lanyer: Defending Eve in the Seventeenth Century

On March 14, 2016

“Then let us [women] have our liberty again,

And challenge to yourselves [men] no sovereignty.

You came not in the world without our pain,

Make that a bar against your cruelty;

Your fault being greater, why should you disdain

Our being your equals, free from tyranny?”[1]

The poet Aemilia Lanyer (sometimes spelled Emilia Lanier) wrote the lines above in 1611 in her book of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum (Hail, God, King of the Jews). Much of the poetry in her volume recounts the passion of Christ, but Lanyer includes about a hundred lines of verse in defense of Eve.

In this section, “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women,” Lanyer argues that women are not more to blame than men for the fall, and that in fact, Adam might have been more at fault than Eve. But as the above lines show, for Lanyer, this is no abstract theological point. She challenges a patriarchal system that upholds itself, in part, on the idea that women are more sinful than men.

I just finished teaching Aemilia Lanyer’s poetry in one of my classes. Each time I teach her poetry, I am more fascinated by the way she resists the patriarchal social structures and theologies that constrain her liberty.

As a woman who argues that the spiritual equality of men and women before God ought to be reflected socially, she deserves wider recognition. She is one of many women throughout history who laid the foundation for those of us today still making the same argument about social equality for women.

Aemilia Lanyer is hardly the only woman in early seventeenth century England who wrote in defense of women. A pamphlet published in 1615 titled The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women (every bit as misogynistic as the title suggests!) prompted more than one spirited response from women. The tradition of defending women against misogyny has deep roots in medieval literature. But Aemilia Lanyer is unique in several ways that will become clear if we consider the situation of women in this period of history.

Lanyer lived in England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, both Protestant monarchs in an era when questions of theology contributed to armed conflict across Europe. In Protestant theology, the emphasis on individuals’ unmediated access to God applied to both women and men. This emphasis, especially when joined with the growing importance of education, meant that women along with men in both the aristocracy and the growing middle class could receive good educations.

However, women were barred from the final stage of a Renaissance education, the study of rhetoric (persuasive speech-making), because it was seen as inappropriate for women to participate in the public sphere, including both public speaking and publishing.

In part because of long-established patriarchy and in part because women speaking publicly was judged inappropriate, few reformers allowed women to fully participate in the ministry of the church by leading or preaching. Furthermore, most Protestants rejected the monastic life as a legitimate vocation for Christians, so Protestant women, unlike their Catholic counterparts, did not have any option for a religious vocation.

Yet because education was so highly esteemed, many women were well-educated and some were even willing to push against constructions of ideal womanhood and put themselves into the public sphere through their writing—which brings us back to Aemilia Lanyer.

The daughter of a court musician who served Elizabeth I, Lanyer was not a member of the aristocracy, though she seems to have had an excellent education. By the time she was in her 40s, however, Lanyer found herself married to a man (another court musician) who wasted her money and left her in debt. In order to raise money to support herself, Lanyer drew upon her education and wrote her volume of poetry, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum.

Publication in this period was seldom a route to financial success. However, Lanyer hoped that her work would secure a patron who would support her continued literary efforts. Lanyer’s volume of poetry is prefaced with ten dedicatory poems to various noblewomen well-known for their support of the arts.

Lanyer’s attempt to gain patronage was conventional for men, but Lanyer was among the first women writing in English to seek a career as an author. By choosing to retell a biblical story, Lanyer treads a conventional path—poetry that retold a biblical narrative was more acceptable for women writers, because these texts rested on God’s authority rather than the authority of women.

Yet, Lanyer’s section defending Eve is anything but conventional and it, along with her bold request for patronage, displays her willingness to push against the socially accepted place of women.

In her apology for Eve, Lanyer does accept the premise that women are the “weaker vessel.” In her account, Eve is less able to resist the advances of the serpent or discern his ill intent. Yet, far from condemning Eve, Lanyer turns this weakness into an indictment of Adam: “What weakness offered, strength might have refused.”[2]

Moreover, in Lanyer’s telling of the story, Eve ate the apple out of a desire for knowledge—foolish perhaps, but a desire many find admirable. Adam, however, ate because he found the apple attractive.

Lanyer sets up the comparison thus: “If Eve did err, it was for knowledge sake; / The fruit being fair persuaded him to fall.”[3]

The final defense Lanyer offers for Eve is the defense of good intentions. Eve’s “fault was only too much love” as she desired to give to Adam that which she had gained.[4]

With this multi-layered defense of Eve, Lanyer attempts to show that Eve’s sin did not emerge from a nature more flawed than Adam’s. Rather, Eve, in her weakness, was deceived and in her innocence, acted out of love for Adam and a desire for knowledge. Eve, and through her all women did not deserve to be oppressed in the name of theology when men stood equally culpable (if not more so, in Lanyer’s argument) for the Fall.

A quick glance around CBE’s website—or any number of egalitarian or Christian feminist resources—will reveal that Lanyer’s argument is, in many ways, quite different from the points we make today in favor of the full participation of women in society and in the church. But Lanyer’s core contention that women are not spiritually inferior to men is one that continues to be relevant today. Her reevaluation of the role of Eve in bringing sin into the world cuts to the heart of many arguments for the necessity of male leadership.

Unfortunately, Lanyer’s bold venture into the public realms of publishing and theology failed to secure a patron or financial stability. Lanyer largely drops out of the historical record after the publication of her volume. It’s likely that she drew again on her excellent education to found a school that would have provided her with financial support but little time or incentive to continue writing.

But despite her abbreviated literary career, Lanyer remains an example of the ways in which women, drawing on the education encouraged by the church, pushed against the theologies that considered them inferior to men.

Notes

[1] Aemilia Lanyer, Salve Deus Rex Judæorum, lines 825-30. From The Broadview Anthology of British Literature, vol. 2 (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2010).
[2] Lanyer, Salve Deus, line 779.
[3] Lanyer, Salve Deus, lines 797-8.
[4] Lanyer, Salve Deus, line 801.

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