This study explores the female experience of death in early modern England. By tracing attitudes towards gender through the occasion of death, it advances our understanding of the construction of femininity in the period. Becker illustrates how dying could be a positive event for a woman, and for her mourners, in terms of how it allowed her to be defined, enabled and elevated. The first part of the book gives a cultural and historical overview of death in early modern England, examining the means by which human mortality was confronted, and how the fear of death and dying could be used to uphold the mores of society. Becker explores particularly the female experience of death, and how women used the deathbed as a place of power from which to bestow dying maternal blessings, or leave instructions and advice for their survivors. The second part of the study looks at 'good' and 'bad' female deaths. The author discusses the motivation behind the reporting of the deaths and the veracity of such accounts, and highlights the ways in which they could be used for religious, political and patriarchal purposes. The third section of the book considers how death could, paradoxically, liberate a woman. In this section Becker evaluates the opportunity for female involvement in dying and posthumous rituals, including funeral rites and sermons, commemorative and autobiographical writing and literary legacies. While accounts of dying women largely underpinned the existing patriarchy, the experience of dying allowed some women to express themselves by allowing them to utilise an established male discourse. This opportunity for expression, along with the power of the deathbed, are the focus for this study.
Table of Contents
Contents: Death in Early Modern England: Facing death: The fear of death: pious publications; Death as God's will: acceptance and preparation; Recording death: rehearsing and revising; Early modern women and death: Witnessing death: the domestic deathbed; Wives, widows and mothers: transition and transformation; Women as healers: medicine and superstition; Death as a gendered experience: blurring the boundaries; The creation of posthumous female images: Patterns for posterity: selecting and editing; Dying mothers: blessings and instruction; A public death: exposure and judgement; Contrasting Images: Women dying badly: Recording poor deaths: private and public writings; Female weakness: physicality and irrationality; Controlling femininity: popular pamphlets; The crime of self-murder: sin and despair; Upholding the patriarchy: education and social cohesion; Women dying well: Women and the family: wives, mothers and daughters; Women and politics: propaganda and persuasion; Religious propaganda: assertion and negation; The upholding of gender: praise and condemnation; Enduring Images: Death as an Opportunity: Women and the rituals of death: Funerals: sermons and sanctification; Commemoration: private grief and public memorials; Execution: assertion and repression; Female martyrs: leadership and idolatry; Female identity in death: wills and posthumous marital status: Women's wills: expression and conformity; Posthumous marital status: temporal and spiritual husbands; Women's writing and death: Women and publication: writing and revealing; Female authorship: challenges and solutions; Autobiographical writing: creation and introspection; Mothers' literary legacies: parenting and authoring; Conclusion; Bibliography; Index.
'... a careful treatment of a wide variety of primary materials... the variety of examples (wills, poetry, commonplace books, sermons, letters, treatises, diaries, memorials) lends authority to her claim of a culture-wide picture... will give you a richer understanding of the complexity and contradictions implicit in early modern death and mourning.' Clio