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The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern’s Women’s Writing, 1550-1700

Final Report Summary - RECIRC (The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern’s Women’s Writing, 1550-1700)

This project has produced a large-scale, quantitative analysis of the ways in which women’s writing was received and circulated in the early modern period. Building on the recovery phase of feminist scholarship, in which women writers were retrieved from history, RECIRC sought to evaluate the impact made by such authors. How did texts by women circulate? Which female authors were read? Who read them? How were they read? How did women build reputations as writers? And how did gender shape ideas about authorship? Existing reception scholarship had focused on case studies of individual, usually canonical and male, authors. Quantitative studies tended to prioritise print culture – an understandable bias, given the more straightforward digitalisation of print – but one that neglected the realities of textual transmission in a period when manuscript circulation retained its broad appeal, especially for women.

RECIRC overcame the logistical challenges by focusing on four categories of textual production: Catholic religious orders (as transnational channels of circulation), the international republic of letters (scientific correspondence networks), the manuscript miscellany (manuscript compilations of miscellaneous works), and book ownership (library catalogues). Each was tested as a means of identifying where female-authored texts went and how they were engaged with. Our findings were structured in an online database, so that we could compare and quantify the kinds of reception and circulation we found. This database was re-designed for public users and released as an open-access resource in January 2020 ( Users can explore our dataset – which contains 4,845 receptions of female authors and their works by 678 identified people in 1,431 different sources – by looking for individual women or works, particular kinds of reception or circulation, or different kinds of sources. Results can be visualised as tables or network graphs, and exported in different formats. RECIRC’s online resource makes available the largest dataset relating to early modern reception and circulation, and invites users to manipulate its data as they wish.

What we have found is not only that women writers and their texts circulated widely, in a range of different ways, but that there is far more evidence available than this project had time to capture. This challenges earlier assumptions that women’s penetration of the literary field in this period was limited. By focusing on textual reception rather than production, RECIRC has shifted thinking on the intellectual impact made by early modern women. It has advanced reception history by classifying and analysing the modes of engagement deployed by early modern readers, translators, and book collectors. It has applied tools such as social network analysis to understand how reputations were established and consolidated. It has brought a gendered understanding to ‘the invention of the author’ by investigating anonymous and pseudonymous, as well as historically verified, female authorship.

The project’s findings have been published via 3 special issues of journals, 1 book, 19 articles and essays and 1 PhD dissertation, as well as a major exhibition, ‘Readers & Reputations’. A further 2 books, 3 essays, and 1 PhD dissertation are underway.