Women of the Reformation

My husband keeps me well supplied with good books – primarily biographies. At the moment, I’m working through two collections of biographies of women: James Good’s Women of the Reformed Church, and Roland Bainton’s Women of the Reformation in France and England. Neither are recent publications; Bainton’s has been around for almost 40 years, and Good’s, initially published as a series of articles in a church periodical, first came out as a single volume in 1901. Both have helpful insights into the lives of women who helped shape the church, and as a bonus, both books have covers free from the typical flowers, lace, and wistful looking females that often clutter the front of women’s books.

The list of women with whom Good deals stretches from Calvin’s wife, Idelette, to an Victorian American lady. Though the women are so diverse, they tend to share two traits in addition to being Reformed: amazing hospitality and a dedication to educate themselves and their children. Despite having a strong Victorian flavour, Good’s writing is conversational, simple and easy to absorb between folding laundry and making supper, even with kids running around. Good wrote hoping that “the lives of these Reformed Saints will stimulate the ladies of our Church to greater interest in our splendid Church history, and to greater activity in missions and the practical work of the Church”. (2) These sketches, though lacking depth of detail, certainly did whet my appetite for more about these remarkable women, and make me want to imitate their piety and service.

Bainton supplies all the detail and support for his work that Good does not – footnotes, bibliographies, and period woodcuts round out each substantial chapter. These make it more of a “when-the-kids-are-in-bed” read. If you are prepared to work at understanding all the intermarriage and sometimes complicated lines of succession in Reformation Europe’s courts, it’s worth the time. Bainton’s beautiful style and wit make it pleasant work. Although he deals with both Protestant and Roman Catholic women (Bainton even includes Bloody Mary in the list), all of his subjects impacted the process of Reformation in some way. Because of “a paucity of material” (9) on pastor’s wives, the biographies deal with noble and royal women. In this volume of his series, part of Bainton’s purpose in writing is to explore the idea that “the individualizing of faith made for the personalizing of marriage”. (8) There is certainly much to learn not only about their marriages, but also how they used their positions in family and court, often for the good of the church.

If you have already started a Christmas wish list, both of these books would be good to add to it.