Sarah Dunnigan, C. Marie Harker and Evelyn S. Newlyn, eds. Woman and the Feminine in Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xxx+238pp. ISBN 1 4039 1181 9.

Jon Robinson
University of Northumbria

Robinson, Jon. "Review of Sarah Dunnigan, C. Marie Harker and Evelyn S. Newlyn, eds. Woman and the Feminine in Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Writing." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 8.1-5<URL:>.

  1. In the introduction to this collection of essays from well-known and some less familiar names, Sarah Dunnigan suggests that the collection is a preliminary step toward a fuller understanding of women and literature in medieval and early modern Scottish literature. To a certain extent the collection adequately fulfils this remit through suggestive, imaginative readings and analysis of both canonical and non-canonical Scots texts, such as the frequently studied Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, and the newly discovered verse of Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross.

  2. The distinguishing mark of this collection is its serious negotiation on multiple fronts with the way in which ‘woman’ was portrayed by male authors in their literary works and the thoughtful exploration of the way in which feminine selfhood could be both an explicitly gendered and non-gendered form of identity in the works of female writers. In the first section of the tripartite-structured collection, “Written Woman”, the six essays explore, within the paradigms of feminist theory, new historical and contextual readings, how the representation of ‘woman’ in late-medieval and early sixteenth-century Scottish poetry, prose and drama is imbued with aesthetic, cultural and political meanings that are underpinned by the misogynistic theology, culture and philosophy of the dominant patriarchal ideology of Europe.

  3. The essayists adopt varied and at times contradictory viewpoints. In the first essay Elizabeth Ewan provides a fairly conventional feminist delineation of how sixteenth-century chronicle writers, such as Sir Richard Maitland, under the pressure of political exigencies, vastly diminished the heroism of the historical female figures of Lady Seton of Berwick, and Agnes, Countess of Dunbar. In doing this Ewan argues that they reinforced the patriarchal ideal of male heroism and contained the threatening possibility of female excess. The following essay similarly addresses how literary works could be used to contain transgressive females. In an interesting analysis of the two fifteenth-century poems ‘Chrystis Kirk on the Grene’ and ‘Peblis to the Ploy’, C. Marie Harker places anxieties concerning female behaviour evident in the misogynistic themes and tone of the poems within what she argues was a clash between the wealthy burghal class and the lower-class women of the surrounding rural countryside. Another interesting essay in this section is Garrett P. J. Epp’s, ‘Chastity in the Stocks’, in which he suggests that Lyndsay is preoccupied throughout Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis with a misogynistic drive to regulate sexual desire and determine the proper definition of gender. Janet Hadley Williams, however, discreetly but forcefully disagrees with such readings and many of the assumptions made by many of the essayists in the collection. Williams is careful not to overestimate the misogynistic element of Lyndsay’s poetry and drama, and in a particularly sophisticated, nuanced and progressive feminist analysis of Lyndsay’s portrayal of women in his works, she shows how vested interests, strategies of praise and the contexts of courtly, cultural and political relationships inform his writing in ways that were far from being cynically misogynistic.

  4. The second section of the collection, “Writing Women”, looks at the works written by female writers during the early modern period. It continues the suggestive and imaginative feminist approach of the first section with an article by Evelyn Newlyn in which she expands upon her previous studious and invaluable work on the Maitland Quarto manuscript to argue that much of the anonymous verse in the manuscript may have been written by a woman and in particular, quite possibly Mary Maitland. Certainly, the argument Newlyn puts forward is credible, and as Dunnigan suggests in the introduction, uncovers a rich potential in the Maitland manuscript , but Newlyn’s methodological approach is tenuous and more convincing criteria for deciding what texts were written by female writers are necessary if her claims are to be seen as little more than a feminist means of appropriating anonymous writing into the canon of women’s writing.

  5. The six essays that complete this section vary greatly in subject matter: from Morna Fleming discussing the politically charged and rhetorically nuanced letters exchanged between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth of England, to that of Gordon DesBrisay and David George Mullon’s examination of Scottish women’s religious writings. Of particular interest is the essay by Colm O Baoill on Scottish Gaelic women poets and the political and social world of the panegyric codes of clan poetry in which they produced and performed their songs: an area of Scots literary culture that has received little critical attention. Much of the material that this section discusses is indeed being introduced to the wider scholarly community for the first time and will provide invaluable insight into possible avenues of future research for those interested in Scottish women’s writing during the early modern era.  The two essays that make up the final section of the collection, “Archival Women”, would have been more appropriately included as appendices. Jamie Reid-Baxter’s five and a half-page claim to have found new verse by Elizabeth Melville in the MS volume of sermons by Robert Bruce, and Suzanne Trill’s ‘checklist’ of early modern women’s writing in the Edinburgh archives – which to be of any real value should have included brief annotation of the texts she lists – are far from being essays. This collection’s major distinction is the complex intellectual energy that the essayists infuse into their work and the heterodox nature of their criticism. As I mentioned at the outset of the review, the collection adequately fulfils its remit and will hopefully help to stimulate further interest in the literary and historical value of Scottish women’s writing of the late medieval and early modern era. 

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