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Women Writing Saints: Proto-feminist Discourses in Religious texts written by Women in Counter-Reformation Italy

Project description

Proto-feminists challenge Reformation, preaching alternative theology

Women's contribution to religious production has been significant throughout the centuries. In Italy, the age of print opened up in 1500 with the first complete collection of Saint Catherine's letters, a model of writing as well as of religious and political commitment. In the end of the 16th and throughout the 17th century, that coincided with the Counter-Reformation period in Europe, female writers engaged extensively with the new possibilities that the new era of restoration, paradoxically, had created for them in literature. The WomenWritingSaints project delves into the hagiographical production of religious women who infused the life of saints with proto-feminist and political discourses and were able to disguise elements of civil history to them in their writings. The project will attempt to recast the counter Reformation period.


WomenWritingSaints is an interdisciplinary project exploring the religious literature authored by different categories of early modern women writers in post-Tridentine Italy (1563-1700), bringing together literary studies, cultural history, the history of ideas and women’s studies. The sacred writings authored by women writers provides extraordinary grounds for challenging the misapprehension that the Counter-Reformation was an era of overarching repression and censorship. WomenWritingSaints will argue against this premise through an inquiry into the hagiographical production of lay and religious women that will disclose unexpected proto-feminist and political patterns in their writings. By exploring a diverse range of understudied material, including prose writing, hagiographical texts, letters and autobiographical confessional accounts, the fellow, Dr. Stella will revise our understanding of the Counter-Reformation and thoroughly recast the accepted picture of post-Tridentine religious production through a close focus on the key role of female agency.

The research, to be based at the Norwegian Institute in Rome, will encompass extensive archival searches in Central Italy (Rome, Florence and Perugia) and will create an open-access database with valuable data on the circulation and ownership of the materials examined. The project will be supervised by Unn Falkeid, Professor of History of Ideas at the University of Oslo, who manages the international interdisciplinary research project, ‘The Legacy of Birgitta of Sweden’ funded by the Research Council of Norway (2018-2021). There is undoubted potential to generate significant valuable research synergy given the overlap in aims and time frame between the two projects. Beyond its scholarly value, the project aims to disseminate important alternative narratives of the history of women, countering oppressive patriarchal discourses which still pervade parts of contemporary Italian and European society.



Net EU contribution
€ 202 158,72
Problemveien 5-7
0313 Oslo

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Norge Oslo og Viken Oslo
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Other funding
€ 0,00