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Using the Bookshelves at Home: The Formation of the Letter-Writing of Margaretha van Godewijck in the Dutch Republic

Aron Ouwerkerk

University of Amsterdam

The role of learned and writing women in the early modern period has been increasingly studied since the 1970’s, when pioneering scholars started questioning whether, briefly put, women, too, had a Renaissance (Kelly 1977). For the Low Countries, studies focusing on the literary output by women from this period were centered around a selected few until as recently as the 1990’s, when an effort was made to compile most of the women writers between roughly 1550 and 1850 (Schenkeveld-van der Dussen et al. 1994). This resulting work has both challenged and precipitated many more publications in subsequent years (e.g. Jeu 2000), and it is in this line of thought that my paper will explore and scrutinize previously overlooked material, consisting of two letters written by Margaretha van Godewijck (1627-1677), a woman poet from Dordrecht, who was compared to the famous scholar Anna Maria van Schurman during her lifetime (Balen 1677). Two manuscripts from her own hand have survived. Recently, almost all of her work has been the object of inquiry in a study by de Annelies de Jeu (see also Stevenson 2005b, 353–54). Some of van Godewijcks writings, however, were excluded from consideration among the data de Jeu has used. The reason for this can be found in the nature of these writings themselves, making them a rarity even within the specialized field of women literature of the Dutch Republic: they were written in Latin. 

The two Latin letters of van Godewijck offer the unique prospect of painting a broader, synthetic, historical picture of her as both a learned and learning woman in the Dutch Republic of the mid-seventeenth century. Admittedly, this quantity of letters that survived is a very modest one, especially compared to the epistolary corpora of van Godewijck’s male contemporaries.  However, if we wish to incorporate under-represented voices into the historical narrative, and examine what the classical tradition meant beyond just the Erasmuses and Scaligers of the time, we cannot afford to dismiss female works as unimportant simply because they do not match up the quantity of male literary output.  

Though just two letters, these epistles offer up incredible insight when engaged patiently and properly. For instance, I argue that these letters showcase van Godewijck engagement with the contemporary literature of her time. One of them, the de Opuscula Hebraea Graeca Latina et Gallica, prosaica et metrica, was authored by the aforementioned, renowned women scholar van Schurman (1607-1678) and contained, inter alia, her well-known Dissertatio De Ingenii Muliebris ad Doctrinam, & meliores Litteras aptitudine (“Dissertation on the Aptitude of Women’s Intellect for Instruction and Literature”). The implications of this borrowing still have to be further considered, as the relationship between van Godewijck and van Schurman is still a matter of active debate (e.g. Jeu 2000, 48; Beek 2010, 148). My paper will provide a fresh perspective to this discussion by considering what exactly van Godewijck read. 

The other book that van Godewijck had at her disposal, and silently relied on for her letters (Godewijck 1636), allows us to examine the important role the domestic sphere played within the education of a young learning woman in a fortunate family. This small work, occasioned by the death of Johannes Westerburgh (1599-1636), an important scholar and preacher in the city of Dordrecht, was written by van Godewijck’s father, Pieter Govertsz. van Godewijck, who himself was praeceptor at the flourishing Gymnasium of Dordrecht between 1619 and 1669. Hence, far from just copying and paraphrasing Ciceronian phrases ‘directly’ from antiquity, we get a picture of van Godewijck engaging with contemporary literature displayed on the bookshelves at home, diligently contemplating the writings of her father, alongside other prominent women of her time.  

In short, what emerges from these two Latin letters of van Godewijck is a better account of how an ambitious early modern woman could self-fashion a learned image of herself through epistles. Though just a case study, van Godewijck demonstrates the possibilities to transgress the highly gender-defined social norms through participation in the dominant discourse of the Latinate world. Undoubtedly, much remains to be done when it comes to investigating further the role of women in the Republic of Letters. Van Godewijck offers a tantalizing and fresh start.

Session/Panel Title

The World of Neo-Latin: Epistolography

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