Editing Women’s Agency in Early Modern Europe

Date published: 2024-01-10

This special issue, Women’s Agency in Early Modern Europe, has its roots in an interdisciplinary symposium ‘Women and Agency: Transnational Perspectives, c. 1450–1790’, held virtually at the University of Oxford in June 2021. The symposium, comprising a keynote lecture, seven panels, and a roundtable discussion, sought to explore how women’s agency was negotiated and expressed within the context of the wider social structures in which early modern women lived. The panels (‘Creating Agency’, ‘Crafting Agency’, ‘Embodying Agency’, ‘Mobile Agents’, ‘Networks of Agency’, ‘Challenging Representations’, and ‘Confronting Power’) showcased myriad ways in which agency was experienced, imagined, and produced through social practices and cultural production, as well as assessing the concept of agency itself, and the extent to which female agency could impact patriarchal structures to effect change.

As the symposium was necessarily broad in nature, the process of putting together the special issue involved honing-in on some key questions that arose during those discussions. Particularly productive conversations had focused on how our definitions of ‘agent’ and ‘women’ come under pressure once they begin to be thought of through the lenses of history, literature, and transcultural exchange. Fascinating case studies had prompted us to think anew about how female agency was expressed in different spaces, networks, and media. Moreover, the symposium had provided an opportunity to take stock of the impact new methodologies had upon our understandings of agency, in particular, the digital and material turn in recent scholarship.

With this in mind, we set out to compile an issue that showcased the potential of using agency as a ‘conceptual tool’, a starting point, rather than a predefined notion, for opening up an expanded range of domains and models of female agency. Accordingly, we aimed to place these discussions of agency in the wider context of transnational travel and transcultural exchange. The three sections of the issue (‘Materials of Agency’, ‘Networks of Agency’, and ‘Methodologies’) were chosen to collect a fresh range of agents and practices, and to challenge our perception of the scope of agency. Over the course of the special issue, we move from the microscopic—Mary Somerset’s seeds—to the macroscopic—a nascent database mapping patterns of transnational female travel. ‘Materials’ focuses on the material tools of agency, along with their representations, and reflecting the ‘material turn’ in both history and literary studies. ‘Networks’ considers how women navigated social networks and expressed agency through collective or collaborative enterprises. ‘Methodologies’ seeks to highlight how archival, digital, and critical methodologies have contributed to thinking about women’s agency—and vice versa.

Our Special Issue begins with an essay by Merry Wiesner-Hanks, which first formed part of her keynote speech for the symposium. Bringing together recent thinking about the concept of agency, ‘Women’s Agency: Then and Now’ outlines the understanding of agency more broadly, as well as in scholarship of women’s and gender history. It draws attention to fields in which agency has emerged as a prominent theme and ends with a discussion of the impact of the COVID pandemic on women’s lives. In complicating our discussion of agency, Wiesner-Hanks argues, we should equally account for individual actions and their relationship to wider social, political, and cultural ideals. We see this prominently in Bernadette Andrea’s examination of ‘the Muslimwoman’ (miriam cooke’s neologism) which she uses as a heuristic device for exploring the literary, political, and religious influence of Muslim women on early modern English culture. The article, drawing on research and questions Andrea raised at the symposium roundtable, models a methodological approach that emphasises survival and resistance, suggesting that the concept of agency itself can be extended to include existence as well as activism. Here, Andrea’s approach leads us to question how we might interpret the agency of ‘absent present’ Muslim women in histories, polemics, and plays, most notably elite women from the Ottoman dynasty.

Alongside Wiesner-Hanks and Andrea, we are delighted to have been able to showcase the work of a number of early career researchers whose articles have sought to respond to Wiesner-Hanks’s call to use agency as a conceptual tool. These articles all seek to open up new conversations, between early modern women’s and gender history, art history, material culture, travel and mobility, literature, and networks of agency. Within the broader theme of ‘Materials of Agency’, Olin Mocztecuma examines Mary Somerset’s compilation and exchange of seed lists as a fascinating demonstration of how aristocratic women could contribute to botany within and beyond the domestic sphere. Addressing the theme of ‘Networks of Agency’, Emily Stevenson begins the next section of the Special Issue with the case study of Rose Lok Hickman Throckmorton as an example of women’s contributions to mercantile communities in sixteenth-century London. She complicates the discussion of agency by showing how it manifested across transnational networks, most notably by highlighting the pivotal role that women had in acting as ‘go-betweens’, engaging in record keeping, managing assets, and developing social credit. Much like Andrea, in the ‘Methodologies’ section, Higgins concentrates on the theme of women as mobile agents while also unlocking the potential for scholarship to uncover examples of women’s agency using new, digital and archival methodologies. Higgins analyses a database of over 2,100 journeys made by English women to Europe between 1558 and 1630 to reveal the prominence of female mobility in early modern Europe. His survey highlights the need to re-evaluate our assumptions of female travel as a heavily restricted activity.

Drawing the Special Issue to a close is Liza Blake’s Afterword, entitled ‘After Women’s Agency in Early Modern Europe’. Not only does this essay quite literally come ‘after’ the articles, but also it ruminates on what may be possible ‘after agency’, that is to say what thinking ‘beyond agency’ may look like in early modern women’s studies. Using an example from her own research, that being the history of materialism and Margaret Cavendish’s natural philosophical and poetic works, Blake highlights the concept of posthumanism and the ability to challenge ‘the masculinist model of agency as individual power, as the ability to act’. She takes the essays in this Special Issue and demonstrates the ways in which they already begin to re-imagine agency, and in doing so she highlights the multiplicity of theories of agency. Of particular interest is the refusal for the articles to present agency as an individual act or even as a way of transcending norms. Blake ultimately prompts questions for future scholarship: How do we think about the concept of agency itself? Do we continue to think about it as ‘the touchstone by which we assign value to lives and stories of historical women’? What should we actually value when we write of historical actors?

From early modern women’s artistic manuals and antiquities collections to female mercantile communities and mobile seed-lists emerging from cross-cultural cooperation, together the articles of this Special Issue consider the diverse productions and iterations of female agency in the early modern world and further complicate what constitutes agency in the first place.

by Kate Allan and Nupur Patel