By Erin Anne Sadlack
PhD Dissertation, University of Maryland, 2005
Abstract: Examining significant moments of women’s letter-writing from throughout the late medieval and early modern periods, I argue that the epistolary genre enabled fifteenth- and sixteenth-century women to craft representations of themselves on paper that preserved their modesty yet allowed them to intervene in the public sphere. I also contend that women’s letters drew legitimacy from the literary traditions that first established the epistolary genre as appropriate for women’s use. My dissertation is one of the few works of medieval and early modern literary scholarship to examine the developing intertextual dialogue between fictive and historical letters.
The introduction provides a brief survey of literary depictions of letters, noting that works by Ovid, Chaucer, and Gower suggest that letters are the often the best means for women to communicate. In the first chapter I assert that Christine de Pizan specifically chose the epistolary genre for her political and social commentary because of the authority of its classical, literary, and humanist traditions and because of the flexibility of its conventions. Christine is unique among medieval female letter writers in that she not only writes letters, but also writes about them, signaling her command over the epistolary genre itself.
The second chapter studies Mary Tudor Brandon’s letters to her brother Henry VIII; they reveal affinities with literary letters from works by Chaucer, Ovid, and Malory. Given her careful attention to audience and the extent to which her letters reflect fictional concerns, Mary’s letters are an excellent case study of women’s political and literary activity during the period. In chapter three, I study the rhetorical strategies of women’s petitionary letters to Elizabeth I and her Privy Council, in which they ask for monetary relief, patronage, or legal assistance, and I contend that the letter was the foundation of one of women’s earliest political rights, the right of petition.
Ultimately, I argue that women used letters to establish a connection with men and women in power, and thus, to let their voices travel to places they could not, to garner influence on political, social, and economic affairs.