Renaissance and Reformation Aemilia Lanyer
by
A. Eliza Greenstadt
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0434

Introduction

Aemilia Lanyer (b. 1569–d. 1645) was one of the first women in England to publish her original literary compositions. Her book, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, printed in 1611, was the first volume of English poetry that appeared with the female author’s full name on its title page. The book set other precedents as well: its final poem, “The Description of Cooke-ham,” is the earliest known English “country house poem.” The volume contains nine dedications in verse and prose, all addressed to prominent women, making it the first English publication both written by and exclusively dedicated to members of the female sex. One of these, “The Authors Dreame to the Ladie Marie, the Countesse Dowager of Pembrooke,” addressed to the poet Mary Sidney, is the earliest extant poem in English written by a female author in praise of another woman’s literary achievements. The topic of the volume’s title poem, a retelling of Christ’s Passion, is less unusual; however, Lanyer takes a distinctively gendered approach to the story. In her version, the men surrounding Jesus repeatedly prove themselves obtuse, weak, unreliable, or treacherous, while the women, in contrast, are perceptive, caring, and loyal. At the climactic moment when Pontius Pilate condemns Jesus to death, Lanyer inserts a defense of Eve, claiming that the male sex’s culpability for Christ’s crucifixion cancels out any guilt women once bore for original sin. On this basis the narrator calls for the end of female subordination and a new era of gender equality. In addition to its significance for the histories of authorship and feminism, Lanyer’s work has received critical attention for its engagement with religious authority, including conventions of devotional poetry and scriptural interpretation. Scholars have further examined how Salve’s author navigates differences of gender, religion, race, nationality, class, and desire to achieve a public voice. This scholarly interest has been recent, however: only one edition of Lanyer’s book was printed in her lifetime, and there is no evidence that it had a wide influence. Since then, her work was forgotten until the 20th century, when she became one of many neglected female writers to be reclaimed for literary history. Thus, with the exception of one dissertation from the 1930s, the research on Lanyer begins in the 1970s.

Biography

Born Aemilia Bassano, Lanyer was the daughter of Baptist Bassano and Margaret Johnson. Baptist, who migrated from Venice to serve as a musician in Queen Elizabeth’s court, died when Aemilia was seven. Aemilia probably then served in the household of Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. There she received an education until the age of twelve, when the countess left Elizabeth’s London court. Aemilia’s mother died when she was eighteen, and around that time Aemilia became the mistress of the sixty-two-year-old Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, cousin and Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. When Aemilia became pregnant, Carey arranged her marriage to Alphonso Lanyer—like her father a court musician. Aemilia gave birth to a son, Henry, and a daughter who died in infancy. Aemilia’s husband died in 1613, two years after the publication of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum. In 1617 she established a school in the wealthy suburb of St. Giles in the Field, which closed in 1620. She survived her adult son, who left a wife and two children, and died a “pensioner,” suggesting she had some income. This minimal history derives from official documents and two principal sources: Aemilia Lanyer’s book and the diary of the astrologer Simon Forman (b. 1552–d. 1611), whom Lanyer consulted in 1597. We are indebted to the historian A. L. Rowse for having discovered the latter source (which is available online, see Kassell, et al. 2016), as well as for publishing the first modern edition of Salve (see Rowse 1979, cited under Editions). Unfortunately, Rowse did so to promote the spurious claim (first presented in Shakespeare the Man and revisited in Rowse 1974) that Lanyer was the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Some writers have continued to elaborate this theory (see, for example, Roger Prior’s chapter in Lasocki and Prior 1995), though Bevington 1998, among others, has demonstrated its flaws. (The idea also lives on in popular culture, for example in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s 2018 play Emilia.) Another theory, proposed by Prior, is that the Bassano family was Jewish (see Prior 1983 and his chapter in Lasocki’s book). Though this claim has more merit than the “dark lady” identification, it is still speculative; nonetheless, some scholars have cited it as fact. For the best information on Aemilia Lanyer’s life, Woods 1999 continues to be the definitive source. On Lanyer’s relationships with the women to whom she addresses her dedications, see Barroll 1998, Kemp 2007, and Malay 2013, all cited under Patronage.

  • Bevington, David. “A. L. Rowse’s Dark Lady.” In Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon. Edited by Marshall Grossman, 10–28. Studies in the English Renaissance. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Exposes the flaws of arguments in Rowse 1974 and Rowse 1979 (cited under Editions) that Lanyer was William Shakespeare’s “dark lady.”

  • Kassell, Lauren, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, et al., eds. “The Casebooks Project: A Digital Edition of Simon Forman’s & Richard Napier’s Medical Records 1596–1634: A Digital Edition.” Casebooks. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge, 6 June 2016.

    E-mail Citation »

    Database including Forman’s diaries, a main source of information on Lanyer’s biography. (Search under “Emilia Lanier.”)

  • Lasocki, David, with Roger Prior. The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531–1665. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Addresses the history of the Bassano family, including their instrument-making and musicianship. Two chapters are on Lanyer.

  • Prior, Roger. “Jewish Musicians at the Tudor Court.” Musical Quarterly 69 (1983): 253–265.

    DOI: 10.1093/mq/LXIX.2.253E-mail Citation »

    Provides evidence that Lanyer’s father, Baptist Bassano, may have been Jewish.

  • Rowse, A. L. Sex and Society in Shakespeare’s Age: Simon Forman the Astrologer. New York: Scribner, 1974.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides a detailed discussion of Forman’s diaries, as well as a chapter arguing that Lanyer was the “dark lady” of William Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

  • Woods, Susanne. Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contains an extensively researched chapter on the author’s life and subsequent chapters comparing her writing and career with those of her contemporaries.

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