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Changing the Sample: Mothers, Daughters, and Latin in Early Modern England

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

By Elspeth Currie

It was a drizzly Saturday in early April and Skye Shirley was greeting the dozen or so Lupercal members gathered on Zoom. Before we plunged into studying the Roman oratrix Hortensia, Skye spoke eloquently about Lupercal’s mission to provide a space for women and gender non-binary Latinists. As she talked about countering spoken Latin’s male-dominated and intimidating atmosphere, a realization struck me. Ah, this could be why I feel at home in Lupercal. This could explain why, new as I am to spoken Latin, I look forward to learning each Saturday, why there’s such camaraderie between the members. I was delighted, in no small part in realizing that Lupercal is simply continuing the legacy of historical Latin communities for women. From medieval convents to the first women’s colleges, when women Latinists gathered together, learning flourished. 

This phenomenon was not limited to large institutions. As I found in my graduate research on early modern England, it occurred even within the confines of the home. Historians have long known about the Renaissance trend of ‘learned ladies’–elite women like Lady Jane Grey, Margaret More Roper, and Elizabeth I who learned Latin and Greek. Scholars like Sarah Gwyneth Ross have demonstrated that these women owed their classical education to their fathers, men who were willing to follow new humanist ideas and provide their daughters with an education usually reserved for sons. I’d known about this first generation of female Latinists, but the more I studied them, the more I wondered about the lasting effects of their education. Specifically, what did these women do when they bore daughters themselves? Was that classical learnedness passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter and beyond? 

Answering this question proved difficult. Among the first generation, most women either never married, never bore children, died before their daughters could grow up, or left too faint an imprint on the historical record from which to base a claim. Still, where sufficient material exists, the answer appeared to be a resounding ita vero

For the sake of illustration, consider one family I researched: Eleanor Touchet Davies Douglas (1590-1652), her only child, Lucy Davies Hastings, the countess of Huntingdon 1613-1679), and the three daughters of Lucy who lived to adulthood, Elizabeth Hastings Langham (1635-1664), Mary Hastings Jolliffe (d. 1678), and Christiana Hastings (d. 1681). Eleanor (along with her younger sister Maria) learned Latin and may have learned some Hebrew and Greek.

Lucy Davies Hastings

As an adult, Eleanor became a prophet and published many pamphlets writing occasionally in Latin, quoting the Vulgate as well as various classical authors. Lucy in turn learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Spanish. She corresponded with other women and men in Latin and Greek, translated Latin poetry into English, and oversaw the classical education of her own children. When she wasn’t personally instructing them, Lucy hired the best tutors. This included Bathsua Makin, a woman considered by her peers to be the most learned female scholar in England at the time. Elizabeth, Christiana, and Mary would win fame for their knowledge of Latin, Greek, French and Italian; as one contemporary eulogized Elizabeth, she was “Skill'd in the Languages, and in the Arts,/(Acquired learning added to good parts.)“ (Ford, 164).

Mary Hastings Jolliffe

Unfortunately, the trail runs cold after the third generation. Elizabeth and Christiana died childless, and Mary died before her daughter was three. Still, it is noteworthy that when circumstances allowed, these Latinate women in early modern England provided their daughters with classical educations. Moreover, as adults, mothers, and daughters continued to nurture their relationships with each other through intellectual engagement. Before her death, Eleanor would collect, annotate, and bind together forty-four of her pamphlets as a gift for Lucy. In 1649 Lucy would compose an exegetical discussion of the Greek in Philippians 2:6 for her mother who was interested in the verse.

A few years later when corresponding with her own daughters, Lucy would encourage them by saying “y[ou]r writeing an excersize not more for my contentment then y[ou]r owne advantage, w[hi]ch indeede are inseparable” (Hastings, 5747). Within their home, the Davies-Hastings women created for themselves a “School, or rather Academy of Learning, and Nursery of Vertue,” as one contemporary exclaimed (Ford, 137). 

In overseeing their daughter’s educations, Eleanor and Lucy achieved two goals at once. First, they fulfilled the expectations placed upon their gender—to educate the next generation. Second, by raising classically-educated daughters, they nurtured their own intellectual life. These mothers gave their daughters a vivid image of femininity, of “woman as intellect,” to use Ross’s phrase. Mothers and grandmothers—for Eleanor was alive for their granddaughter’s early years—were examples of what a life spent in pursuit of knowledge could look like, and how to negotiate between one’s gender and intellectual identities. Indeed, it should not be surprising to find early modern women mixing their gender responsibilities with their scholastic aspirations. Scholar Leonine Hannan reminds us that “to develop a life of the mind, women had to operate within their given domestic environment and respond to its demands.” Latinate mothers worked with what they had and indeed were encouraged to do so. As Makin herself urged, “I have said before how [mothers] might improve their Children in Learning, especially the Tongues; I mention it again, because it is a reason of so great weight, that it is sufficient (if there was nothing else) to turn the Scale.” (Makin, 27).

On the whole, women in early modern England did not have the educational opportunities of their male peers. If a classical education was meant to inculcate masculinity in boys and prepare them for careers in law, medicine, religion, and politics, then women had little reason to learn Latin. Still, when they did, some women created their own learned communities within which to exist and raised their daughters to do the same. Like Lupercal today, the early modern English household could become a space for Latinate women to think together, to speak, read, learn, and laugh with each other. John Donne, a contemporary of Eleanor Davies once remarked, “as your sons write by copies and your daughters by samples, be every father a copy to his son and every mother a sampler to her daughter, and every house will be a university.” Gendering its educational forms— boys learning by writing on paper and girls by embroidering— I suspect Donne was not envisioning little girls stitching dux femina facti in his vision of a domestic university. I would not be surprised, however, if one day we learned that Elizabeth, Christiana, and Mary Hastings, following the maternal samples set before them, had done exactly that. 

Elspeth Currie teaches high school Latin and ancient history on Boston's North Shore. She loves nothing more than good books and good conversations, both of which she finds at Lupercal. 

Works Cited and Recommended Reading 


Davies, Eleanor. Prophetic Writings of Lady Eleanor Davies. Edited by Esther S. Cope. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ford, Simon. Hesychia Christianou, or, A Christian's Acquiescence in all the Products of Divine Providence Opened in a Sermon. London: 1665 

Hastings, Lucy Davies to Eleanor and Elizabeth Hastings, 19 April >1650, Hastings Correspondence, the Henry E. Huntington Library, 5747.


Allen, Gemma. The Cooke Sisters: Education, Piety and Politics in Early Modern England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

Charlton, Kenneth. Women, Religion and Education in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1999. 

Hannan, Leonie. Women of Letters: Gender, Writing and the Life of the Mind in Early Modern England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.

Pal, Carol. Republic of Women: Rethinking the Republic of Letters in the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Ross, Sarah Gwyneth. The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 


Davies-Hastings Family Tree (Elspeth Currie)

Lucy, Countess of Huntingdon, by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1636–40, oil on canvas (Yale Center for British Art).

Mary Hastings Jollife by Robert White, c.1680, engraving, (Fitzwilliam Museum). 

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