Flowers for the Book-binder’s Wife: An Investigation of Florilegia and Early Modern Women’s Writing
Master of Arts, English, Wake Forest University, May 7, (2009)
Working under the presumed tutelage of ancient Roman scholars, early modern writers embraced the notion of florilegia, passages or quotations, which once deemed pleasing or insightful were extracted for use in the writer’s own work. The category of florilegia, or flowers, particularly included the subcategory of sententiae, or commonplaces, which were considered sources of wisdom and advice. By their chronic recycling of such maxims, Renaissance writers reinforced the prominence of literary imitation rather than encouraging originality. Thus, when early modern authors employed the childbirth metaphor to describe authorship, painting themselves as mothers and their compositions as the child-like fruits of their labor, they attempted to identify a compositional process based on replication with reproduction. Interestingly, in the early modern era, the term, “flowers,” also euphemistically denoted a woman’s menses, the monthly evidence of her body’s ability to bear children. Using this semantic junction as an entry point, this thesis investigates Giambattista Della Porta’s demonization of women’s menstrual flowers in his books of secrets, Shakespeare’s depiction of the danger of patriarchal sententiae for women, and finally Isabella’s Whitney’s entry into authorship, a venture which captured the early modern opposition between the writer’s ability to replicate and the female body’s capacity to reproduce. By demonstrating the shortcomings of florilegia, especially sententiae, this thesis makes a feminist intervention for the redemptive potency of female menstruation in early modern literature.