Remember, remember

Since it is exactly four hundred years ago that Guy Fawkes and his men attempted to blow up the houses of Parliament, and since I know that Sharon Howard will be hosting a conspiratory carnival on plots and politics at Early Modern Notes tomorrow, a post on the Gunpowder plot is called for today! This post, therefore, is on women and the Gunpowder Plot.

Women? Of course, no women were involved in the plot — at least, no women were executed for participating in Guy Fawkes’s treason. The cultural imagination of early modern England nevertheless associated the Gunpowder Plot with women “and their sneaky, cunning schemes” (47), writes Frances Dolan in her cultural history of Catholicism and gender Whores of Babylon. Although no women were among the conspirators, many wives and female servants were imprisoned and questioned after the attempted attack on the houses of parliament. Anti-Catholic discourse associated Catholics with disorderly women. One of the causes of this association, Dolan argues, is that post-reformation English culture figured Catholicism as a rebellious and treasonous wife. Since women who murdered their husbands were by law convicted of “petty-treason,” traitors were by analogy compared to rebellious wives. Catholics in English society were represented as what Dolan in a previous book termed “dangerous familiars”: like wives who secretly poison their husbands in domestic tragedies, they are part of the community, “intimate, proximate, yet unknowable” (44).

The association of the Gunpowder plot with women occurs also in the drama. Dolan cites a passage from Webster’s The Devil’s Law Case (1617) in which Romelio speaks of his mother:

[H]er pretence
Of a grieved conscience, and religion,
Like to the horrid powder-treason in England,
Has a most bloody unnatural revenge
Hid under it. Oh the violencies of women! (4.2.285-89)

Dolan argues that the leap Romelio here makes from his mother, to the Gunpowder plot, to the general “violencies of women” seems quirky, but is explained by inserting a missing link: the priest. Especially Jesuit priests were thought to be behind Catholic schemes, and wives as well as other women were “assumed to be in cahoots with the priests” (48). I would like to suggest a different explanation for the slip from Guy Fawkes to the violence of women, a cultural-historical explanation that hinges on the “bloody unnatural revenge” mentioned in line 88.

For some representations of female vindictiveness in early modern culture associate women’s revenge with the sort of secrecy, hidden motives and bloody violence that link it to the Gunpowder Plot. Let’s go to one of the icons of bloody unnatural revenge in early modern culture: Medea. In John Studley’s translation of the play (1566), the nurse gives Medea the following advice on how best to plan her revenge:

For godsake (Madame) I you pray your tongue to silence frame.
Eke hyde your privy languishing and greefe in secret vayne:
Who with a modest minde abides the Spurs of pricking payne,
And suffereth sorrowes paciently, may it repay agayne
Who beares a privy grudge in breast, and keepes his malyce close.
He leeseth opportunity who vengeaunce doth requyre,
That shewes by open sparkes the flame the heate of kindled fyre.

The nurse — in quite archaic English — bids Medea to keep silent about her grief. “Remember, remember” she seems to tell her mistress, “but not openly so.” If Medea were publicly to declare her desire for revenge on Jason, and show her sparks of anger, she would lose the opportunity for a carefully planned vengeance. On the other hand, if she should suffer her sorrow patiently, and were to bear her grudge privately and secretly, this would gain her more time to plot her revenge. That the latter strategy is considered a typically female way of approaching revenge, appears also from Richard’s Brathwait conduct book addressed to the English Gentlewoman:

What a furious and inconsiderate thing is Woman when Passion distempers her? How much is her Behaviour altered, as if Iocasta were now to be personated? True it is, some with a bite of their lip, can surpresse an intended revenge: and like dangerous Politicians, pleasingly entertaine time with one they mortally hate, till oportunity [sic] usher revenge, which they can act with as much hostility, as if that very moment were the Actor of their injury.

Women and dangerous politicians alike, Brathwait states, are able to contain their passion, to bite their lip and secretly plot their revenges. Then, when the right moment presents itself, they can strike in their “bloody unnatural revenges” with as much anger as if they had just been dealt the injury. Here, I would argue, is the missing link between women’s revenges and the gunpowder plot: it lies in women’s alleged capability to brood on their revenge secretly and privately, without giving their husbands or other men any indication of their anger, and then to execute a bloody revenge when the time is ripe. Like the terrorists of 9-11, women are here represented as capable of conforming to the ruling order (wearing Western clothes, pursuing a study at University) – while secretly harbouring plots for revenge. Also with respect to their revenges then, women were considered in early modern culture as both intimate and unknowable: as dangerous familiars.


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