Skip to main content Accessibility help

Subordinating Women: Thomas Bentley's Use of Biblical Women in ‘The Monument of Matrones’ (1582)

  • Colin Atkinson (a1) and Jo B. Atkinson (a1)

In Chaste, Silent and Obedient, Suzanne Hull lists 163 English books written for women (by both sexes) published between 1475 and 1640. Of the eighteen books she classifies as devotional, the second (chronologically) is Thomas Bentley's The Monument of Matrones (1582), an immense book—over 1500 quarto pages—containing prayers and meditations for a variety of occasions, extracts from the Bible, and brief lives of biblical and other model women. Hull has aptly commented that, “In fact, The Monument of Matrones comes close to being an entire female library between two covers.” The iconography of various illustrated pages and some prayers have been analyzed, and some writings by women such as Queen Margaret of Navarre, Queen Katherine Parr, and Lady Jane Dudley, have been anthologized, but the book has not been studied as a whole. Bentley, in his introduction, “To the Christian Reader,” describes the book as a collection of “diuers verie godlie, learned and diuine treatises, of meditationes and praier, made by sundrie right famous Queenes, noble Ladies, vertuous Virgins, and godlie Gentlewomen of al ages” (Bl) which had gone out of print. But is it simply an anthology of standard devotional material? Because it was directed to women, is it an affirmation of egalitarian impulses in Reformation English religious thought? Or does it prescribe the limited range of virtues acceptable to an increasingly patriarchal authority in late sixteenth-century society? It goes without saying that a book as rich and complex as the Monument will contain different, even conflicting, points of view, as the following, necessarily brief, summary will suggest.

Hide All

Parts of this essay were read in a paper “The Appropriation of Biblical Women in Thomas Bentley's “The Monument of Matrones,” delivered at the Annual Conference of the York University Medieval and Renaissance Association in Toronto, Ontario, in March 1988.

1. Hull, Suzanne, Chaste, Silent and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475–1640 (San Marino, Calif., 1982).

2. THE MONUMENT OF MATRONES: conteining seven severall Lamps of Virginitie, or distinct treatises whereof the first five concerne praier and meditation: the other two last, precepts and examples, as the woorthie works partlie of men partlie of women; compiled for the necessarie use of both sexes out of the sacred scripture, and other approoued authors by Thomas Bentley of Graies Inne Student. Printed by Denham, H. [1582], Bl. Short Title Catalogue of English Books, 1475–1640 (hereafter referred to as STC), 18921893. Where The Monument is not paginated we provide a signature reference. All future signature or page references will be made in the text.

3. Hull, , Chaste, Silent and Obedient, p. 92.

4. Included, for example, are such works as “A Godlie Meditation of the inward loue of the soule towards Christ our Lord: composed first in French by the vertuous Ladie Margaret Queene of Nauarre: aptlie, exactlie, and fruitfullie translated by our most gratious Souereigne Ladie Queene Elizabeth” (STC 4827?) and “Godlie Praiers and Meditations, wherein the mind is stirred, patientlie to suffer all afflictions heere;collected out of holie works, by the most vertuous and gratious Princesse KATHERINE, Queene of England, France, and Ireland” (STC 4818). There are 252 pages in this lamp, and some of the prayers are attributed to unnamed virtuous gentlewomen. We are currently tracing sources and preparing a modern edition of the Monument. The Monument has been excerpted recently in collections of writings by women. See Travitsky, Betty, The Paradise of Women: Writings by English Women of the Renaissance (Westport, Conn., 1981), pp. 3637; and Beilin, Elaine, Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance (Princeton, 1987), pp. 6486. In “The Godly Woman in Elizabethan Iconography,” Renaissance Quarterly 38 (1985): 4184, esp. 70–79, and more recently in Tudor Royal Iconography: Literature and Art in an Age of Religious Crisis (Princeton, 1989), pp. 243256, John N. King has discussed the title pages of the various lamps of the Monument as part of his analysis of an Elizabethan iconographic tradition.

5. Johnson, Lynn, in “Elizabeth, Bride and Queen: A Study of Spenser's April Eclogue and the Metaphors of English Protestantism,” Spenser Studies 2 (1981): 7981, assumes Bentley to be the author both of the epistle to the queen in the front matter and of “The Kings Heast, or Gods familiar speech to the Queene,” which Bentley claims to be drawn from the psalms as they are “learnedlie expounded by Theodore Beza.” See also King, , Tudor Royal Iconography, pp. 243256.

6. Atkinson, Colin B. and Stoneman, William P., “‘These griping greefes and pinching pangs’: Attitudes to Childbirth in Thomas Bentley's The Monument of Matrones (1582),” The Sixteenth Century Journal 21 (1990): 193203.

7. Anderson, Bonnie S. and Zinsser, Judith P., A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present, 2 vols. (New York, 1988), 1: 238. See also Jardine, Lisa, Still Harping on Daughters (Brighton, Sussex, 1983), pp. 5051.

8. Erasmus had complained in The Praise of Folly that Mary was being placed above her son by her worshippers, but eliminating the Blessed Virgin had not been Martin Luther's intention; on the contrary, though he did subordinate her to God the Father, he still gave her a “unique place among all mankind, among whom she has no equal” and allowed her title of “Queen of Heaven.” See Brooks, Peter Newman, “A Lily Ungilded? Martin Luther, the Virgin Mary and the Saints,” The Journal of Religious History, 13 (1984): 136149.

9. Levin, Carole, “Women in The Book of Martyrs as Models of Behavior in Tudor England,” International Journal of Women's Studies, 4 (1981): 196207. There were fifty-five women out of the 275 Protestant martyrs of Queen Mary's reign, p. 207, n. 33.

10. For an excellent essay on the importance of the scriptures to “ordinary” people, see Wilson, Derek, The People and the Book: The Revolutionary Impact of the English Bible 1380–1611 (London, 1976).

11. “The single most important feature of the Geneva Bible, to both the laity and the clergy, consisted in the marginal notes.” Berry, Lloyd E., “Introduction to the Facsimile Edition,” The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison, Wis., 1969), p. 15.

12. New, John F. H., Anglican and Puritan: The Basis of Their Opposition, 1558–1640 (Stanford, 1964), p. 64, and Lake, Peter, Anglicans and Puritans: Presbyterianism and English Conformist Thought from Whitgift to Hooker (London, 1988), pp. 17, 23.

13. Haugaard, William P., Elizabeth and the English Reformation: The Struggle for A Stable Settlement of Religion (Cambridge, 1968), pp. 121122. In 1578 the “Puritan camp” published a new edition of the Geneva Bible, bound in with which was a revised Prayer Book, not the one authorized by the Act of Uniformity. “Every ceremony and observance to which the Puritans objected had been excised … the services of private baptism, confirmation and the churching of women had been dropped. This double volume went through many editions and the ‘improved’ services were obviously practiced in many churches.” Wilson, Derek, The People and the Book, p. 138. On the other hand, Douglass, Jane Dempsey in Women, Freedom, and Calvin (Philadelphia, 1985), pp. 4849, argues that Calvin's objections were not to women as baptizers but to infant baptism which he saw as unnecessary for salvation.

14. The emphasis on the sinfulness of dancing is typical of the period. John Northbrooke, Spiritus est vicarius Christi in terra. A treatise wherein dicing, dauncing, vaine playes or enterludes with other idle pastines etc. commonly used on the Sabboth day, are reproved by the authoritie of the word of God and auntient writers (1577?), p. 136, calls dancing “the vilest vice of al.” Quoted by Patrick Collinson, who points out that, “In reserving their heaviest guns for dancing, the moralists expressed hostility for a pastime in direct competition with church-going, by which the youth was lured away from sermons…. But the reformers had less to say about football, which the court records suggest could lead to mass desertion of Evening Prayer by the men of the parish.” The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society 1559–1625 (Oxford, 1982), pp. 224225.

15. King, , “The Godly Woman in Elizabeth Iconography.” p. 72, and Tudor Royal Iconography, p. 246.

16. See Greaves, Richard, Society and Religion in Elizabethan England (Minneapolis, 1981),“Women and the Household,” pp. 305306, about the desirability of women staying home and not leaving the house.

17. King, , “Godly Woman,” pp. 7779, and Tudor Royal Iconography, ch. 4.

18. John Aylmer (later bishop of London) had seen the Good Woman of Proverbs as a type of Elizabeth in his famous response to John, Knox'sThe First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women in 1559. See King, , “Godly Woman,” p. 58.

19. Kelly-Gadol, Joan, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” Becoming Visible: Women in European History, Bridenthal, Renate and Koonz, Claudia, eds. (Boston, 1977), pp. 137164.

20. Herlihy, David in “Did Women Have a Renaissance?: A Reconsideration,” Medievalia et Humanistica n.s. 13 (1985): 122, agrees that women were marginalized in almost every area of life, but he finds an “alternate route to personal fulfillment and social leadership” for women through religious charisma leading to sainthood. However the presence of the few exceptional charismatic women in the fifteenth century mentioned by Herlihy really does not address the issue raised by Kelly-Gadol.

21. Monter, William, in “Protestant Wives, Catholic Saints, and the Devil's Handmaid: Women in the Age of Reformations,” in Becoming Visble: Women in European History, 2nd ed., Bridenthal, Renate, Koonz, Claudia, and Stuard, Susan, eds. (Boston, 1987), p. 218, concludes that the most important factors influencing women's history in the age of reformations were “independent of religious differences,” but he ends with the question: “did they constitute a Reformation for women?”

22. King, John N., The English Reformation: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, 1982), pp. 45, 124.

23. For an overview of women's participation, the books by Bainton, Roland H.: Women of the Reformation: In Germany and Italy (1971),In France and England (1973), and From Spain to Scandinavia (1977) (all Minneapolis) are useful. See also Warnicke, Retha, Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation (Westport, Conn., 1983).

24. Jardine, , Still Harping on Daughters, p. 39, and Cahn, Susan, “Changing Conceptions of Women in Sixteenth Century England” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Michigan, 1981), p. 212.

25. Levin, Carole, “Advice on Women's Behavior in Three Tudor Homilies,” International Journal of Women's Studies 6 (1983): 176.

26. The one possible exception to this was the encouragement of upper-class women to translate religious works. At the same time they were discouraged from writing original works. See Hannay, Margaret, ed., Silent But For the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works (Kent, Ohio, 1985), pp. 114, and also Beilin, , Redeeming Eve, pp. xiii–xxii.

27. “In medieval Europe, there were more restrictions by class than by sex, but the gap between men and women in education, political influence, and economic power grew wider in the Renaissance,” Weisner, Merry, “Beyond Women and the Family: Towards a Gender Analysis of the Reformation,” Sixteenth Century Journal 27 (1987): 318. See also Jardine, , Still Harping on Daughters, p. 43.

28. Ezell, Margaret J. M., The Patriarch's Wife: Literary Evidence and the History of the Family (Chapel Hill, NC., 1987).

29. Ezell, , The Patriarch's Wife, pp. 63100, 101126.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed