Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Thomas Bentley

Thomas Bentley edit

Background edit

Thomas Bentley is an English man known for his work ‘The Monument of Matrones’ in 1582. It is assumed that he was born sometime between 1543 and 1546. Title pages and prayers have been studied by modern scholars, but nothing is known for certain of the author beyond his self-identification as a student of Gray’s Inn in 1563.[1] It is assumed that Thomas Bentley was an educated man as this The Monument was a significant publication and therefore the author must have been a man of some importance in London during the 1580s. It is believed that the churchwarden of St. Andrew Holborn is the same Thomas Bentley as the author of The Monument.

Some sources say he was a wealthy gentleman and lawyer from the parish of St. Andrew Holborn. In this case he father is assumed to be Richard Bentley, the owner of Bentley’s Rents, a lodgings for students of Gray’s Inn. Thomas married heiress Susan Maynard around 1572; her father, John Maynard of Poplar, Middlesex, was a wealthy and influential mercer in London. Susan and Thomas had a daughter and two sons, however she died in childbirth with their son in 1581. After being the churchwarden for a year Thomas died in 1585 around the age of forty and was buried on the 14th of December 1585. [2]

Works edit

Thomas Bentley is known for his work ‘The Monument of Matrones’, published by Henry Denham in 1582. It is an over 1500 page compilation and the first comprehensive prayer book for women. It is a major devotional publication of Elizabethan England, containing prayers, biblical extracts, biographies of Old and New Testament women, and writings by Reformation queens, including Elizabeth.[3] It contains writings by women such as Margaret of Navarre, Katherine Parr, Queen Elizabeth, and Anne Askew as well as anonymous ladies.

The Monument is divided in seven chapters, or ‘Lamps’, Lamps One and Seven providing a frame. Lamp One is a collection of twenty excerpts from the Bible. Lamp Seven contains descriptions and lives of various female figures found in the Bible as well as of women mentioned in the third book of Maccabees and in Josephus’s ‘History’. Lamps Two through Six contains the devotional material placed in the context of women and religion going back to Creation.[4]  

Bentley claims to reprint biblical texts however he actually reworks the text to direct women toward submissive, subordinate behaviour.[5]

Reputation/Legacy edit

Bentley’s work is recognisable amongst modern scholars of early women’s writing. The Monument raised questions about practices of reading among Elizabethan women.

The reception of his 1500 page devotional monument is unknown as there is little to nothing known about the author or the publication as the writing remains undervalued, neglected due to a series of assumptions about the purpose, origin and creative worth of the prayers. However, amongst modern scholars the work is often studied as a political and religious piece. Since the ‘Monument’ is dedicated to Queen Elizabeth and contains devotional writing by Katherine Parr, Queen Elizabeth I, and other aristocratic women, as well as by godly gentlewomen such as Lady Frances Abergavenny, Elizabeth Tyrwhit, and Dorcus Martin we can interpret the ‘Monument’ as a progressive piece with an attitude toward women’s religious authority, and universal scripture literacy and spiritual equality between men and women.

Bentley’s work is most often used to analyse women’s works that are found in his compilation. For example, Lady Abergavenny’s collection of prayers are often misinterpreted because of how Bentley framed them. Her prayers are believed to have only been printed once, in Bentley’s Monument, meaning it is the primary analytical tool used to understand her prayers. This results in little space for alternate interpretations. [6]

References edit

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gray%27s_Inn
  2. Hanebaum, Simone. "Sovereigns and Superstitions: Identity and Memory in Thomas Bentley's 'Monumentes of Antiquities'." Cultural and Social History, vol. 13, no. 3, 2016, pp. 287-305.
  3. Atkinson, Colin B., and Jo B. Atkinson. "The Identity and Life of Thomas Bentley, Compiler of the Monument of Matrones (1582)." The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 2000, pp. 323-348.
  4. Atkinson, Colin, and Jo B. Atkinson. “Subordinating Women: Thomas Bentley's Use of Biblical Women in ‘The Monument of Matrones’ (1582).” Church History, vol. 60, no. 3, 1991, pp. 289–300. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3167468. 
  5. Narveson, Kate. "Traces of Reading Practice in Thomas Bentley's Monument of Matrones." Anq, vol.21, no. 2, 2008, pp. 11-18. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/docview/216725797.
  6. Horton, Louise. ""Restore Me that Am Lost": Recovering the Forgotten History of Lady Abergavenny's Prayers." Women's Writing : The Elizabethan to Victorian Period, vol. 26, no. 1, 2019, pp. 3-14.

Further Reading edit

  • ATeKINSON, COLIN B., and WILLIAM P. STONEMAN. ""these Griping Greefes and Pinching Pange": Attitudes to Childbirth in Thomas Bentley's "the Monument of Matrones" (1582)." The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 21, no. 2, 1990, pp. 193.