Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 4305
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Smol , Anna.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: The Female Critic and the Mother Tongue: Elizabeth Elstob's Anglo-Saxonism [Thirtieth International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, May 4-7, 1995. Thirtieth Symposium on the Sources of Anglo- Saxon Culture, co- sponsered by the Institute and CEMERS, Binghamton University. Session 134].
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 28, 3 (Spring 1995):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Elstob, Elizabeth, Scholar (1683-1756) Old English Language Scholars
  • Award Note:
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 18
  • Primary Evidence:
  • Illustrations:
  • Table:
  • Abstract: She was referred to as "The Saxon Lady" and "our Saxon Nymph" by deferential antiquarians who treated her as if she herself were a rare artifact. Others, whether in censure or in admiration, called her the "most unfeminine of scholars" and a woman of "masculine abilities." In one way or another, then, Elizabeth Elstob was made acutely aware of the traditional boundaries of her gender and the ways in which she transgressed them. In one of her letters, she proudly points out her unique position as a female Anglo-Saxonist when she offers a friend "a small Transcript from the Saxon, written I believe by the first Woman that has studied that Language since it was spoke." In other letters, Elstob's pride in her scholarship is replaced by apologies for writing at length and fears of being thought a "Babbler." Such alternations are typical of Elstob's anxiety over authorship, and she looks persistently for justification of her endeavors, primarily through her attempts to find and fix a tradition of female learning and patronage with its origins in an Anglo-Saxon past. Elstob always tries to find, as Virginia Woolf put it, mothers to think back through; one result is that Elstob highlights the roles of certain Anglo-Saxon women in a way that has not happened often since then. In examining Elstob's works, I focus on the ways in which she uses the figure of the mother to express her views of the origins of her language, church, and nation; how this maternal image then allows Elstob to make a space for female scholarship; and how it characterizes Elstob's primitivist beliefs about Anglo-Saxon culture. For example, her repeated references to Old English as "this Original of our Mother Tongue" imply a "natural" connection to women which is made explicit on the title page of her grammar: "Our Eartbly Possessions are truly enough called a Patrimony, as derived to us by the Industry of our Fathers; but the Language that we speak is our Mother-Tongue; and who so proper to play the Criticks in this as the Females." She defends the Mother Tongue's "simplicity" and "plainness," its "genuine" and "natural" qualities, which make it appropriate, in Elstob's view, for the expression of the "first Notions of things," as if it were the language actually spoken by mothers to their children who are learning to express themselves for the first time. Such views of the language's primitive simplicity persist well into nineteenth-century philological studies. What changes, though, is Elstob's "satisfaction." Her idea of Old English as an ideal subject of study for women is replaced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the reality of university-trained philologists concerned about making English studies difficult enough to be taken seriously in their universities [Reproduced by permission of Robert Schicler, the “Abstracts of Papers in Anglo-Saxon Studies” editor, and the editors of the “Old English Newsletter.”].
  • Author's Affiliation: Mount Saint Vincent University
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 1995.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973