The Reception and Circulation of Women’s Writing 1550 – 1700

An interview with Professor Marie-Louise Coolahan, NUI Galway

Maeve Mulrennan

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Viscountess Ranelagh, Dorothy Moore, Olivia Elder. These names may not be on the tips of everyone’s tongues, but in their lifetimes their writing was read and transmitted. A lot of recovery work has been done on women’s writing from the 18th Century onwards, and particularly in the 20th Century, with New Island, Stinging Fly and Tramp Press in Ireland alone publishing recovered works. This recovery research has also been done internationally with women’s writing pre-printing press. The next phase for academia in this area is looking at who read this work, how and where it was transmitted, who were the leading figures in literature, letters, science, religion and philosophy between the 14th and 17th Centuries?

One of the biggest research projects in this area is situated in Galway. RECIRC is producing a large-scale, quantitative analysis of the reception and circulation of women's writing in Anglophone countries from 1550 to 1700. The results will enable analysis of how texts, ideas and reputations gained traction in the early modern period. The focus includes writers who were read in Ireland and Britain as well as women born and resident in Anglophone countries; the subject of study is not limited to authors who wrote in English. RECIRC is organised in four interlocking work packages: transnational religious networks; the international republic of letters; the manuscript miscellany; and book/manuscript ownership. RECIRC currently comprises of 10 researchers based at the National University of Ireland, Galway. The project runs from 2014 to 2019. Marie-Louise Coolahan is the Principal Investigator of RECIRC and Professor of English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is the author of Women, Writing, and Language in Early Modern Ireland (Oxford UP, 2010), as well as articles and essays on various subjects and genres relating to Renaissance manuscript culture, early modern identity, and textual transmission, in journals such as Critical QuarterlyEarly Modern WomenThe Seventeenth Century, and Eighteenth-Century Ireland. She is also currently Co-Investigator, ‘Women’s Poetry in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, 1400-1800’ (

I interviewed Prof. Coolahan to give an overview of the project and what is next for research in the history of women’s writing, texts and the history of reading.

On the homepage of the following questions are asked; Which female authors were read? How did texts by women circulate?  How did women build reputations as writers? At its core, these are the research topics of RECIRC. However the project is vast, encompassing the reception of women’s writing in its broadest sense. The project includes ‘non-elite’ forms of writing: letters circulated within correspondence networks, accounts of martyred priests, book ownership and author attribution all work together to not only give a clear picture of reading in this time period but with the use of technology, the researchers in RECIRC are able to ask new questions of their collected data, as increasingly sophisticated technological software can allow them to venture further.

I asked Professor Marie-Louise Coolahan to begin by differentiating RECIRC from more commonly known recovery research projects of printed texts by women;

“We’re trying to find out who were the women that were being read in an Anglophone context plus what was Irish authored. RECIRC is building on previous recovery projects from the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of that has been done for the Anglophone context so we were very quickly able to skip that stage for RECIRC. We know who the women writers were now in all kinds of forms; histories, science, letters as well as poetry and prose. Our starting point is to see whether they were read widely, who was read, were there particular genres that were being read. Were there particular women who had high profiles - were they aristocrats or not? We’re coming to the end of the data gathering phase. We currently have roughly 4000 different examples of a woman’s writing being received in that period, so it’s pretty big. When I say ‘received’ it’s that we have proof of the writing  being read, disseminated, copied or translated.”

A section of RECIRC focusses on religious writing. The research timeframe includes the Reformation. At this time there were a multitude of manuscripts moving around Europe as well, from letters arguing why a monastery or convent should or shouldn’t fall in line with a particular Bishop’s ethos to counter-Reformation accounts of martyrdom. Prof. Coolahan also explains that individual, non-elite forms of writing by men and women on religion were prevalent: “With the Reformation people were being encouraged to read the Bible for themselves. The Protestant take on things was that you should be thinking about your own relationship with God, you should be keeping an account of your life to make sure that you’re being pious enough and that you should be writing notes on sermons at local services you attend. The kind of writing that emerges at that point is not trying to be showy, it’s very utilitarian. However some people do begin to write very simple religious poems because they have the model of the Psalms. It is acceptable as it is not writing poetry to draw attention to themselves but to honour God by writing. That's where autobiography for the non-elite classes comes from as well, people starting to think about themselves in a different way. In order to become a member, some of the independent Protestant churches would have expected you to tell them about your life and usually the narrative of that life involves being in sin and then finding the way and being saved by God. Religious writing isn’t always or even often trying to be impressive accomplished writing per se but is deeply involved in trying to make sense of the world and trying to make sense of oneself in that world. It is both personal and God-related.”

Regarding literature, Coolahan points out a social commentary poet in Ulster in the 18th Century called Olivia Elder (1735-1780). She was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and a farmer’s wife, certainly not an ‘elite’ writer of the time. An edition of Elder’s poetry was published earlier this year by  Andrew Carpenter [1] RECIRC can show that Elder was part of a thriving poetry community.

There is an Irish-language strand to the research project also. The date range covers an extra century in order to include work entering the written tradition after being exclusively within the oral tradition. Professor Coolahan explains: “There are fewer traces of verse, song and poetry in the Irish language material and crediting authors starts later. The work that tended to be preserved in manuscript form by scribes was elite bardic poetry. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that there were much more bawdy travelling itinerant minstrel singer poet bands around Ireland. Very little of their work was preserved in written format. What we find then by the 18th Century that people are starting to realise that their whole culture is dying out. Scribes therefore start preserving materials written and composed by the lower classes as well as the elite class. That means what is preserved is hit and miss but what we can say is that it was definitely received and circulated, because all we have is the reception -  we don’t have contemporary examples of how a song would have been performed in, for example, 1624, but we do have a 1712 version saying it was originally created in 1624 and these are its components. The most famous Irish keen would be the Lament for Art O’Laoghaire / Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire which has been reproduced in most anthologies of Irish poetry for decades:  it’s a real established part of the canon. It is allegedly attributed to Daniel O’Connell’s aunt Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill but the first actual written version of it that we have comes from the early 1900s. We know that Art O’Laoghaire died in 1773, so it survived in the oral tradition for over a hundred years before it was ever written down. That tells you it was popular but also raises questions as to what the first version of it was. We have no way of knowing as the oral tradition was all about adding and editing.”

It was always envisaged that RECIRC would be a digital humanities research project, but the methodologies employed both digitally and conceptually have evolved, including the kind of research questions people are asking. The different research elements and the method of data gathering and analysis of RECIRC are part of a new phase of Digital Humanities internationally. RECIRC is at the point now where it is initiating dialogue with other cognate projects internationally, for example the Women Writers Project[2] based in Northeastern University in the USA and The Archaeology of Reading[3]. The latter has a research strand focusing on ‘marginalia’  - the study of writing in the margins. RECIRC also includes marginalia as one of their categories and Coolahan is keen to connect with this: “We are looking at a way to get their database and ours connected. They are built on very different digital structures, but even connection at top level - creating some kind of flag with another history of reading would be great. No one is at the level where we can share all of our analysis but if we can get our databases talking to each other digitally it’s a start. That’s the next phase. Also as more projects come on stream we are keen to share our methodology used so when our database goes online it can inform people interested in the history of reading in another context not only conceptually but methodologically. Now there is a portal that’s run by an American university connecting digital humanities research internationally. As long as you can provide your meta data in a certain format then they will carry that and then send people to our full database for us. At the moment it’s the signaling and sharing of metadata, building up a complex and connected spider's web of research. We’re just past the early days where emphasis was placed on making facsimiles of full texts and data available digitally. That work is still happening but now we’re at a much more exciting at next level: what questions do you and can you ask? We’re now in the phase of playing with existing texts tools for further creative and research work rather than solely cataloguing and reproducing.”

Advances in technology and the connections between different projects internationally mean that new research questions are being created. Professor Coolahan cites the aforementioned Women Writing Project as an example: “They are field leaders for recovery research in women writing. They started in the 1990s by finding published women writers from the period 1500 - 1900 and making their full texts freely available digitally. Having done that they are now at the next step: how can they manipulate this data to show different things about the cultures of reception and intertextual networks between the women they have in their database. We are talking to them in regard to conceptually what can we do together but at a very basic level we’re starting to flag where we have women in common and we share identifiers for those. It’s not at a deep level just yet where we can explore wider connections and networks but that’s the next step.”

An example of technological advances increasing new avenues for research is Social Network analysis that present the female writers who were receiving other's’ work. The research paths and time frame includes 17th Century pre-Enlightenment scientific writing. RECIRC has just finished the data gathering phase with scientific correspondence networks. Coolahan explains how their initial research has now turned specifically to women in the Hartlib Circle: “Again we’ve found that a lot more women than had been realised had been participating in early scientific debates. We’ve focused on Samuel Hartlib, a Prussian polymath living in England who took it upon himself to be at the centre of a scientific circle. People would write to him with their latest ideas and he would extract it, copy it and send it out to other people. We started there because we knew there were women involved in that network but we’ve ended up focusing on it for three years because there were so many women in that network. We’re finding that the extent to which their ideas were circulated is much greater than was understood before.”

Ph.D researcher Evan Bourke has been able to show via social network analysis that Katherine Jones and Dorothy Moore were much more central and important to the Hartlib network than people have realised. One of the various kinds of measures showing how central they were is how often they are mentioned in other people's letters, not just how much writing they themselves are outputting. Prof. Coolahan adds; “What people have been able to do before is say, well there are a certain number of letters written by her to Samuel Hartlib that means she’s important but what Evan has been able to do is create measures for the whole network including letters who ostensibly aren’t to or from women at all, and from that see how often these women are being mentioned in other people's letters. Suddenly she’s much more central in this network. This then leads Evan to new questions: why are they important, what are the quality of these mentions - is it an informal mention or a critical appraisal of her work? This level of quantitative analysis is enabled by having the digital infrastructure and it can show new things that you didn’t think were the case so it really draws you back to the primary material. It allows you to find out what questions should be asked of the primary material.”

Professor Coolahan also hopes that there will be development in methods of digitally analysing handwritten texts, as the manuscripts they work with are difficult to analyse quantitatively through optimal character recognition. Prof. Coolahan finishes: “There are a few projects trying to digitally analysis manuscripts but nothing yet has come to fruition so we are trying to find a way of doing this for manuscripts. A particular type of manuscript that we thought would be the most interesting and would yield the most results for reception is called the Miscellany - collections of writings by different authors that were deliberately put or bound together. We are trying to look for where women's writing is being copied: into what type of miscellany, what the juxtapositions and contexts are. For example, the writer Margaret Cavendish was extremely prolific. If somebody is keeping a miscellany manuscript of scientific writings and they have Margaret Cavendish in it, what other writers is she being associated with? Are there other excerpts from this author there: is it her scientific writing, her poems or her plays? Is there a particular excerpt that's the most commonly circulated from her?”

The next move for this strand of the project is to move away from social connections and networks and into networks of ideas and genres of text. RECIRC are interested in the connections between particular types of receivers and what it is they’re receiving: what kinds of translations are most popularly being circulated, and where were they going. The software will be tested out to see if analysis and findings on textual rather than social networks is possible.