The irony of the heresy trials in England in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was that, although women were banned from preaching in society, the trials gave them a forum to do exactly that, while generating some of the earliest records of women's literature.
In her book "Heresy Trials and English Women Writers, 1400-1670" (Cambridge University Press 2012), Genelle Gertz, associate professor of English and writing program director at Washington and Lee University, analyzes the interrogations of several women to chart the complex dynamics behind the emergence of women's writing from the procedures of heresy trials.
Gertz explained that many heresy trials took place in chapels, chapterhouses and other ecclesiastical buildings. The women's interrogators were often some of the most powerful leaders in church administration. A heresy judgment, without an accompanying admission of error, usually led to death. But rather than actively seeking the women's deaths, the interrogators hoped to gain a defendant's submission to articles of faith so that she could be "reconciled to the church."
The words of the defendants were therefore particularly important, with both sides focusing intently on their meaning. The women defended themselves using speech usually reserved for preaching, which made the trials the only occasion when women were allowed to preach and be listened to by men. Some women were required to provide a written confession, and in a few cases they turned their confessions into full-blown accounts of their trials. These trial narratives are among the first and often the only compositions authored by English women.
"I'm really interested in how the trial itself became a forum for argumentation, debate and preaching, and how writing emerged from this procedure, and then autobiographical writing about belief came out of that," explained Gertz.
Gertz studied women's accounts of their trials across Catholic, Protestant and Sectarian communities as well as the medieval/early modern divide. She makes the historical argument that similar conditions and similar experiences of being dissenting or nonconformist, resulted in these women writing about their beliefs. "Their portrayals of their trials show they figured themselves as religious leaders and preachers and as equals to the men in their congregation who were directing theology," said Gertz.
"I'm interested in all those little historical details that are suggestive of what was happening, because we don’t know for sure," she added. "I've tried to recover a lot of the context and tease out what it would have been like to be a woman who was part of a dissenting religious group in this time period."
Gertz acknowledged that, of the women she writes about, she most admires Anne Askew. She was a Protestant who was burned at the stake for heresy under Henry VIII in 1546. The account she wrote of her interrogation before priests and privy counselors greatly influenced later texts by other prisoners accused of heresy.
Gertz also explores the trial accounts of four women who were less educated than Askew: Margaret Clitherow, a Catholic butcher's wife; Alice Driver, a plowman's daughter; Agnes Prest who seems to have been a domestic; and Elizabeth Young, who smuggled books about the reformation from Germany into England.
"Elizabeth Young is fascinating because she went up against this churchman who really abused her in terms of how he spoke to her. He was very angry with her lack of education, lower class status and the fact that she was a woman. So I love all the ways in which she offended him and still comes across as a forceful character. She was never killed because they couldn’t get enough evidence, so we have her story because she survived and told about the nine examinations she endured."
The four women differ from Anne Askew in that their accounts are all biographical. While the narratives were written by someone else, the accounts of Elizabeth Young's trials are particularly interesting since they change into the first person voice at times, which indicates that they are a transcript of an interview with Young.
Even the texts written by women were edited by men. "There's this overall question of how much of the women's voices we are actually getting," said Gertz. "I'm trying to make a strong argument about the importance of these texts because they survived, while at the same time I don't have the autographed manuscripts. Based on other archival work I did, I found out that a lot of people attended these trials and were interested in what was being said, and that there was a network of people who were copying out trials within the prisons."
Gertz spent 10 years examining historical and archival sources such as original trial accounts and John Foxe's "Book of Martyrs," first published in 1563. Many manuscripts did not survive, so Gertz based her research on those that did. She also researched the actual procedures of the heresy trials.
"It was a lot of painstaking work trying to figure out how the heresy trials worked because they varied so much," said Gertz. "That was partly because of regime and policy changes, but they also varied based upon a person's class standing and connection with the court. It was extremely dangerous, particularly in the 16th century, to have a belief that was different from what was being prescribed, which would change all the time, especially under Henry VIII. Heresy trials became more prevalent under Queen Mary, and 270 Protestants died during her brief five-year reign."
Gertz's research was funded by a fellowship from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. and by Lenfest and Glenn grants from Washington and Lee.
Gertz received her B.A in English and philosophy from Wheaton College. She received her M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.A. and Ph. D. from Princeton University
"Heresy Trials and English Women Writers, 1400-1670" is available at the University Bookstore or find it on their website at http://bookstore.wlu.edu