Women's Writing Before Woolf: A Social Reference/Thomas Bentley (2)

Background edit

Little is known about Thomas Bentley’s life beyond his publication of Monuments and his attendance of Gray’s Inn. However, a speculative account of Thomas Bentley’s life has been assembled. This account suggest that Thomas Bentley was the son of Richard Bentley, a landowner[1]. He was of considerable wealth and was married to Susan Maynard in 1572-1573, the orphaned daughter and co-heiress of the former sheriff of London, John Maynard. The two gave birth to daughter Hannah Bentley in 1574 and son Samwell Bentley in 1577. Susan died in 1578, her cause of death is unknown[1]. Bentley was a puritanical Anglican and acted as churchwarden at St. Andrew Holborn. While speculation has previously suggested that the publishing of The Monuments of Matrones marked Bentley’s desire for court patronage, new account suggest that rather it was indicative of Bentley’s desire to “record, not without nostalgia, the fabric and the customs of his parish church…”[1].

Notable Works edit

‘The Monument of Matrones: Conteining Seven Severall Lamps of Virginitie, or Distinct Treatises; Whereof the First Five Concerne Praier and Meditation: the Other Two Last, Precepts and Examples’ (1582) commonly referred to as ‘The Monument of Matrones' was a compilation of prayer, biblical extracts and devotional works mainly authored be women writers[2]. The compilation was developed by Thomas Bentley and is his only surviving work, although evidence suggests that he also wrote a history of St. Andrew Holborn[1]. The compilation contains extracts from many female writers of the period, such as: Lady Bergavenny; Queen Catherine Parr, Anne Askew, Lady Jane Grey, Queen Elizabeth and others[1]. The text is split into seven ‘lamps’ the first and last of which act to frame the contents of the compilation: positioning the compilation as a female oriented and driven reflection on religion[2]. The compilation is considered a significant example of early female authorship.

Legacy edit

There is insufficient evidence to hypothesize about the reception to The Monument of Matrones and therefore the reception to the piece is largely modern. While more information has come to light about Thomas Bentley in recent years, the context and influences have been historically obscure. Broadly, The Monument of Matrones is observed as an early example of female authorship, however the compilation has received heavy criticism from modern scholars.

The compilation is mainly viewed as a ‘library’ of early female writing, rather than considered as a compilation or considered in relation to Thomas Bentley. In fact, most criticism stems from the notion that Bentley misappropriated or misrepresented the documents compiled within it to promote female subservience and reinforce the patriarchy as “[Bentley] not only emphasizes those biblical women who illustrate the sins that most threaten patriarchy, but also manipulates the biblical text when relating their stories … In some cases he expands the biblical narrative by silently folding in text from the marginal commentary or from passages other than those he cites as his sources. There are places where we cannot find his source and conclude that he probably added his own word.”[2]

Despite these criticisms, the compilation is often used as a tool to decipher the attitudes, perspectives and habits of the era. One such interpretations focuses on the nature of female readership and suggests that “…readers freely pursued their own interests in their reading, despite attempts by authors and printers to direct the reading experience. Bentley's agenda ... was to promote a conservative vision of women's godliness. That agenda seems to have been lost on this reader, who used the work for personal devotional purposes and ignored completely the way that Bentley framed the work with volumes of prayers and lives from scripture to create a focus on godly women”[3]. Another such usage was in analyzing perspectives and attitudes towards motherhood and childbirth in this time - this has situated the compilation uniquely, not just as a work of literature but also as a tool for sociological investigation[4].

  1. a b c d e The Identity and Life of Thomas Bentley, Compiler of The Monument of Matrones (1582) on JSTOR
  2. a b c Subordinating Women: Thomas Bentley's Use of Biblical Women in "The Monument of Matrones" (1582) on JSTOR (newcastle.edu.au)
  3. Traces of Reading Practice in Thomas Bentley's Monument of Matrones - ProQuest
  4. "These Griping Greefes and Pinching Pangs": Attitudes to Childbirth in Thomas Bentley's The Monument of Matrones (1582) on JSTOR