Renaissance and Reformation Margaret More Roper
by
Jaime Goodrich
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0429

Introduction

Margaret More Roper (b. 1505–d. 1544) was the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas More and Jane Colt, More’s first wife. More was a vocal proponent of humanism, and he set up a school in his home to teach his four children—Margaret, Elizabeth, Cicely, and John—Latin and Greek as well as arithmetic, astronomy, philosophy, and theology. While More’s commitment to educating his daughters was truly pioneering, it did not reflect a proto-feminist commitment to women’s equality. Rather, More aimed to enhance all of his children’s piety, and to prepare his daughters in particular for their domestic roles as wives and mothers. By all accounts, Roper was the star pupil of this school, and she gained a national and even international reputation as one of the foremost learned women in England. Roper exchanged letters with the prominent humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, who dedicated to her his commentary on two hymns by Prudentius (1523). Perhaps in response to this compliment, Roper translated Erasmus’s treatise on the Lord’s Prayer (A Devout Treatise upon the Pater Noster, 1524) from Latin into English. Published quasi-anonymously, this text popularized Erasmian piety in the vernacular while also advocating for the value of women’s education according to humanist tenets. Roper also drew on her classical learning to compose a number of works in Latin that have since been lost: letters to her father and Erasmus, declamations, and poetry. In 1521 she married William Roper, a lawyer and a friend of her father, and she soon became a mother, giving birth to five children: Elizabeth, Mary, Thomas, Margaret, and Anthony. Like her father, Margaret Roper educated her children according to humanist standards, and her daughter Mary Basset became known in her own right for her English translations of Latin and Greek works. As Thomas More’s favorite daughter, Roper also played an important role in his personal piety and his final years. She alone washed the hair shirt that More wore for devotional purposes, and only she was allowed to visit him after he was imprisoned in the Tower for refusing to accept Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Three of the English letters that she wrote during his incarceration are extant, including the important Alington letter, which dramatically recounts her unsuccessful efforts to persuade More to change his mind. After More’s execution, she preserved his writings and his severed head, safeguarding his legacy until her own death in 1544.

General Overviews

From the start, scholarship on Margaret Roper has been dominated by biographical and historicist methodologies. In the initial stages of the feminist recovery of early modern women writers, these approaches were essential, because scholars were actively piecing together the lives of these forgotten and neglected authors. Some of the first critical treatments of Roper emphasized her importance as a foundational figure for the emerging canon of women writers. Warnicke 1983 focuses on the groundbreaking nature of her humanist education, positioning Roper as a model of the new learning for women. Through this lens, Roper’s erudition appears to anticipate the modern feminist push for equal treatment of the sexes, thereby reflecting the feminist desire to find proto-feminist foremothers. Beilin 1987 likewise draws attention to Roper’s role as an innovator by identifying her as the first figure within the emerging canon of early modern women writers. In the wake of post-structuralism, scholars began to consider the critical problems posed by Roper’s life and writings. McCutcheon 1993, for example, explores the issues involved in editing and studying a woman writer whose corpus is so fragmentary. More recently, scholars have reaffirmed Roper’s importance within the feminist canon by incorporating her into critical works that survey the lives and writings of early modern women. Like Beilin, Demers 2005 situates Roper within a tradition of female authors, paying special attention to the literary strategies at work within her translation of Erasmus. Ross 2009, meanwhile, places Roper within an international framework by comparing More’s school with similar household academies in England and Italy. The burgeoning scholarly interest in the history of the book has also begun to shape the way that critics view Roper. Johnston 2011 provides an introduction to Roper’s translation of Erasmus that pays attention to the biographical circumstances of this work as well as its complex print history.

  • Beilin, Elaine. Redeeming Eve: Women Writers of the English Renaissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    A thorough discussion of Margaret Roper’s education and career, focusing on how the later myth of Roper as the ideal learned woman resulted from the efforts of Thomas More, her tutor Richard Hyrde, and Roper herself. Pays special attention to Roper’s association with feminine virtues such as obedience and modesty.

  • Demers, Patricia. Women’s Writing in English: Early Modern England. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442627376E-mail Citation »

    An economical discussion of Margaret Roper’s reputation as a learned woman serves as a preface to a concise but detailed treatment of her translation of Erasmus. Provides careful attention to Roper’s translation strategies, such as onomatopoeia, expansion, and simplification.

  • Johnston, Hope. “Desiderius Erasmus, A Devout Treatise.” EEBO Introductions Series. Early English Books Online, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short introduction to Margaret Roper’s translation of Erasmus, situating this work within her humanist accomplishments and biography. Places special emphasis on the text’s print history, paratexts, and critical reception.

  • McCutcheon, Elizabeth. “Life and Letters: Editing the Writing of Margaret Roper.” In New Ways of Looking at Old Texts: Papers of the Renaissance English Text Society, 1985–1991. Edited by W. Speed Hill, 111–117. Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    A short discussion of the author’s views on her edition of Margaret Roper for the anthology Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation (1987). Provides an explanation of her editorial rationale even while gesturing toward larger questions about the scholarly reception of Roper’s authorship and the problems inherent in dealing with such a fragmentary corpus.

  • Ross, Sarah Gwyneth. The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    A discussion of Margaret Roper’s education within the household academy of Thomas More, as well as her contemporary reception as a learned woman. Demonstrates that the Mores were one of several intellectual families in early modern England and Italy that promoted humanist training for women.

  • Warnicke, Retha M. Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    A brief exploration of Margaret Roper’s literary importance that situates her within a largely educational framework. Views Roper as an idealized humanist who was at the cutting edge of the new learning within England.

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