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This article is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

Chasing Women Jane Stevenson

For the last ten years, I have been working on a book on women writing in Latin. Since the received opinion is that they didn't, I have had to go and look for the evidence, a process which gradually turned into an Odyssey around Europe, visiting archives and libraries, and raking out evidence of women's participation in the culture of their times. Latin is important: before the eighteenth century, anyone who did not read Latin was a second-class citizen in the republic of letters. Therefore to assume that women never used Latin is to assume that all women were marginalised and disempowered relative to all men, and asking, 'but what if they weren't?' is a question with some far-reaching implications.

The answer has turned out to be that throughout the Latin-using world, from the Renaissance onwards, a minority of women did in fact write Latin and study learned authors, and by and large, they did so as acknowledged exceptions, with a subaltern but recognised place within the intellectual life of their respective places of origin. So very few women published a book in Latin, either prose or verse, that those who did are seen as monstrous exceptions. This is not the case; but the evidence which lets me say this so confidently is not easy to find. The evidence for the existence of learned ladies of the European past is mostly in forms such as elegies, answers, congratulatory verses, and letters, and is concentrated in books which ...


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