“Far beyond her nature and her sex”: The creation of a Protestant hagiography, 1590–1640

Lyndell O'Hara, Fordham University


Between the years of 1570 and 1640, Protestant clergymen mounted a campaign for a godly reformation to eradicate sin from the lives of the English people. Their portrayal of the lives and deaths of elect women from the higher echelons of society in funeral sermons and spiritual biographies played an instrumental part in this campaign. By illustrating the private devotional practices and pious lives of the godly women, preachers set forth a practical model to illustrate the abstract principles of faith and presented an archetype of Protestant religion which bound the church together in a common goal. In their quest, clergymen created a hagiography of elect women, setting forth ideals of sanctity which embodied the cultural, social and religious values of their era. Through a depiction of the lives of select maidens, wives and widows, ministers combined the contemporary societal ideal of femininity with the portrayal of a personal life to create a mimesis for men, women and children to emulate. This portrayal included not only a godly life, but a "comfortable" death, which was viewed as a divine mark of authenticity of a faithful life. Combining elements of the medieval Ars Moriendi with the tenets of Protestant faith, clergymen detailed the deathbed struggles of the women. Through the preacher's portrayal of women in the "lives and deaths," a feminine saint, one cast in the hagiographical elements of the past, yet reflective of the ideals and virtues of the Reformation era, was set forth as a standard. Preachers emphasized intellectual and spiritual apprehension over the limitations of gender and presented godly women who transcended traditional boundaries and entered a realm outside the strictures of society, far beyond their nature and their sex.

Subject Area

European history|Religious history|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

O'Hara, Lyndell, "“Far beyond her nature and her sex”: The creation of a Protestant hagiography, 1590–1640" (2006). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3201136.