In A Woman’s Hand? The Question of Medieval Women’s Holograph Letters

In A Woman’s Hand? The Question of Medieval Women’s Holograph Letters

Tarvers, Josephine Koster

Postscript, Vol. 13 (1996)


“Who was the first woman to write in English?” This question, posed informally by John Hurt Fisher almost two decades ago, has so far defied answer. Our fragmentary knowledge of medieval educational practices, the problem of manuscript survival, and the absence of most systematic record-keeping before the reign of Henry VII all combine to make a certain identification difficult. Nonetheless, it ought to be possible with careful study to arrive at an approximate identification of the first extant English document in a woman’s hand. This article attempts such an identification. Let me . say at the outset that I may well be wrong, and I hope I am: dating the earliest surviving holographic text by a woman in English to the mid-fifteenth centry can only remind us-painfully-that much of the history of women’s literacy is lost forever. Still, I hope that by providing the evidence as far as I have found it, I may inspire other scholars to extend my search, and to help discover earlier examples of women’s holographs, thus adding to our fragmentary knowledge of this tantalizing and important subject.

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