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Circulating Sex: Authorship & Textual Production in Early Modern England


Admission requirements

To have completed an BA degree with at least one early modern English literature course.


In 1929, in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf posited that had Shakespeare had a sister in talent, a gender counterpart, she would not have survived – having trawled the Oxford libraries, she had found only two women writers from the seventeenth century, Aphra Behn and Margaret Cavendish, and she roundly criticised the pair of them. In the half century that followed, critics mined the archives for ‘Judith’ Shakespeare, and found hundreds of other women writers from his time. Unbenownst to Woolf, women tended to publish not in print, but in manuscript, circulating handwritten copies of their works, sometimes reaching audiences larger than did the works of male authors in print.

Publishing solely in manuscript – known as ‘scribal publication’ – attracted writers of both sexes, for reasons as diverse as discretion, political expediency, and a sense that manuscript was somehow a more ‘elevated’ medium than print. Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne – next to Edmund Spenser the period’s most significant non-dramatic literary figure – considered the printed word vulgar, and resisted attempts to print his works.

Women also chose scribal publication because, while appearing in print was considered vulgar for both sexes, the very act of writing was often seen as unwomanly (Anne Finch exclaimed ‘Alas! A woman that attempts the pen, Such an intruder on the rights of men’). When Mary Wroth’s prose romance Urania was printed in 1621, for instance, this was enough for Lord Edward Denny to call her a ‘hermaphrodite in show, indeed a monster’ – she had transgressed the boundaries of her sex first by writing and then by publishing in print. Constrained as they were by strict moral and social norms, women were drawn to the elitist and discreet medium of scribal publication.

In many cases, manuscript production can be seen as a form of collaborative authorship as writers of both sexes would often work with scribes who actually put their words onto paper. In this course, therefore, we will consider the enigmatic figure of the scribe, scrivener or secretary by looking at the secretarial manuals of Nicholas Faunt and Robert Beale, for example, and by considering his (they were invariably male) presence in visual and literary texts (such as the paintings of Gerard ter Borch and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi). We will learn about the materiality of manuscripts and the art of palaeography – the study of handwriting. We will consider royal letters and some of Donne’s most provocative poems that circulated in manuscript. We will investigate how minority voices can be uncovered in documents produced for the legal court room and in messy literary manuscript collections such as the miscellany. Finally, to discuss the transition from manuscript to print culture, we will study prolific women writers such as Aemilia Lanyer and Margaret Cavendish, two of the first women to consciously produce works for print rather than manuscript publication. The marginalia that survive in the presentation copy of Cavendish’s works given to the University Library of Leiden – in her own hand – might tell us why she opted for print.

In short, the overall aim of this course is to give participants a sense of how scholarship can become more inclusive by studying how different writers not only manipulated the media of print but also manuscript.

Course objectives

  • To gain insight into the complex issues of literary canonization, and to explore the richness of male-authored as well as female-authored texts of the early modern period.

  • to explore gender issues in a broad variety of early modern texts (canonical as well as non-canonical) in the medium of print but especially manuscript.

  • to be able to discuss and write about these and related matters in a scholarly and authoritative manner.

  • to develop independent research and manuscript skills such as palaeography.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • 2 hour-seminars

  • research and writing

Assessment method


  • paper of 1500-2000 words due in week 7 on a text discussed in weeks 1-6

  • paper of 2500-3500 words due in week 14 on a text discussed in weeks 8-13

  • weekly palaeography assignments in weeks 2-13 of the course

  • participation in weekly discussions in Brightspace based on secondary material prior to the weekly tutorials

  • ResMa only: additional paper of 3000 words (or an extension of the longer paper), which reflects on the theoretical approaches to the primary source material of the course


Element 1: 25%; Element 2: 45%; Element 3: 20%; Element 4: 10%

(for ResMa students: Element 1: 20%, Element 2: 30%; Element 3: 15%; Element 4: 10%; Element 5: 25%)

The final mark of the course is determined by the weighted average.


If the average rate is 5,49 or lower, one or two of the resit papers need to be retaken; the assignment remains the same but students should write on a different text.There is no resit for the elements 3 and 4. All resit papers are due on January 15th 2022.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

The weekly reading schedule will be made available via Leiden’s online content management system (Brightspace). For Week 1 we are using the 2019 Penguin Paperback edition of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It is essential to purchase this particular edition, and well in advance, as the Norton Anthology English Literature only prints an abstract of the text.

Other texts from Norton Anthology English Literature (NAEL I/ Vol. B).

Further materials to be downloaded via the university library digital databases: Early English Books Online; Perdita; State Papers Online; JSTOR; ProjectMuse


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte en Contractonderwijs

Registration Studeren à la carte.
Registration Contractonderwijs.

Not applicable.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal