A 1724 printing of Elizabeth Joscelin, The Mothers Legacy to her Unborn Child (Image credit: Living History)

In this current era of cultural upheaval, I find myself drawing inspiration from the lives of women from the past who were unafraid to speak their mind. Too often, such women are silenced, forgotten, or pushed to the margins of history. But reclaiming their narratives allows us to see their capacity for meaningful change.

One woman who deserves more attention is the seventeenth-century Englishwoman, Elizabeth Joscelin. This “virtuous Gentlewoman of rare accomplishments” wrote a popular advice book entitled The Mothers Legacy to her Unborn Child (1624) that was frequently reprinted throughout the seventeenth century, but relatively few scholars engage with her work these days.

That’s a shame.

Her story reads like a Hallmark movie. Joscelin was probably born about 1595 and married her adored and adoring husband Tourell in 1616. Five years later, she was overjoyed to find herself pregnant with their first child. However, she could not shake the fear that she would die in childbirth. So she ordered a set of burial sheets (just in case) and locked herself away in her writing closet to jot down her thoughts on everything her unborn child must do to live a virtuous life. 

That particular summer of 1622 was a rainy one, so Jocelin had loads of time to write. Accordingly, her book goes into detail on a wide array of topics: the best time of day for prayer (mornings) or thoughtful discourse (noon), the importance of avoiding pride, the best way to celebrate the Sabbath, and general maxims for life. 

Tragically, Joscelin’s sense of foreboding proved to be accurate, and she developed a fever after her daughter Theodora was born. Nine days after giving birth on October 12, 1622, Joscelin held her daughter, blessed her, and then breathed her last. She was twenty-seven years old. 

Someone in the household—most likely her husband—discovered her manuscript, a “small treatise found in her desk unfinished.” The notebook was ultimately given to a close family friend, a clergyman from the Arminian movement of Protestantism named Thomas Goad who took on the task of editing Joscelin’s writings. Arminianism was a reaction to Calvinism that originated in the Netherlands in the early 1600s. The movement’s anti-Calvinist views and those on free will were controversial within the Church of England and were often censored until King James I’s death in 1625. 

Goad was deeply impressed with Joscelin’s intelligence and her moral virtues, but that didn’t stop him from “fixing” her prose when he thought she was wrong—particularly when she started making particularly bold claims about the status of women within the church or the nature of religious authority. In fact, readers who picked up a copy of The Mothers Legacy to her Unborn Child were reading a book that sometimes took aim at the author’s own ideas.  

In seventeenth-century England, the religious role of women was a point of intense debate, even as it is today throughout the world. Many devout women struggled to resolve the dilemma posed by clergymen, who praised the obedient subservience of the wife even as they lauded the spiritual leadership of the mother. A woman like Joscelin could get away with telling her child what to do, but calling herself equal to the men in the church? That was a step too far.

An engraving from the first illustrated edition of Elizabeth Joscelin’s The Mothers Legacy to her Unborn Child. This book was printed in the Netherlands in 1699.

So when Goad set about to prepare The Mothers Legacy for publication, he aimed to keep Joscelin in her place. For instance, in one passage describing the dangers of wearing “proud” fashions, Joscelin cautions her daughter: “oh the remembrance of misspent time; when thou shall grow in years and have attained no higher knowledge, then to dress thy selfe.” For Joscelin, thinking about fashion is a diversion from the more suitable goal of advanced learning. Goad, however, emends the passage to read “no other knowledge,” suggesting that “higher” knowledge should remain within the masculine sphere.

A similar move happens later when Joscelin suggests that a woman’s virtue can easily correspond with her intellect: “if the time mends not before you come to understanding you will hear a well dressed woman … more commended than a wise or learned or religious woman.” To Joscelin, there is no reason why learning, wisdom and religion cannot coexist peacefully within the righteous woman. But Goad disagreed, rewriting the line to read “a wise or honest, or religious woman.” By choosing the “honest” woman over the “learned” woman, Goad seems to think that women’s learning is suspect.

Goad also considered it important to defend religious leaders from critique, so when Joscelin noted that ministers sometimes make mistakes, he aimed to minimize the damage. Consider the moment when Joscelin urges her child to pay attention in church:

and though thou hearest a minister preach as thou thinkest weakly yet give him thine attention and spend not the time in reading or any other meditations, and thou shalt find that he will deliver something profitable to thy soul either that thou hast not heard before or not marked or forgotten.

Even as Joscelin urges her reader to listen to ministers, she acknowledges that they are not perfect and provides a list of alternative practices that dissenters might follow (i.e., reading and private meditation). But in Goad’s version the clergy are shielded from blame:

And though perhaps thou hearest a Minister preach, as thou thinkest, weakly, yet give him thine attention, and thou shalt find that he will deliver something profitable to thy soul, either that thou has not heard before, or not marked, or forgotten, or not well put in practice.

Goad cuts Joscelin’s list of alternate spiritual practices, a change that diminishes the influence of the laity and augments that of the minister. And while he keeps Joscelin’s acknowledgement that some ministers might preach “weakly,” he slips in the word “perhaps” to soften the blow. He also suggests that clerical shortcomings are not a failure of the clergy, but of the laity who did ”not well put in practice” the ministers’ sound guidance. All of this is a stark contrast to Joscelin’s suggestion that she may critique her minister when appropriate.

These are just a few representative examples of the quiet debate that took place between Joscelin’s text and Goad’s editing. Joscelin’s manuscript makes a case for an educated female laity that maintains the right to disagree with church authorities. Goad’s edited version presents the reader with a more muted female voice that praises women for their honesty and piety, but maintains a skeptical attitude toward their ability to have an impact on matters of religious importance. 

If we overlook the ways that Goad altered the text, then we miss the partially buried remains of a fierce intellect and a strong will. By tracing the variations between Joscelin’s Legacy and Goad’s Legacy, we find the glimmer of an independent woman and a mother who remains lively long after death.

Rebecca Stark-Gendrano is an independent academic and freelance writer with a focus on seventeenth-century British literature, women’s writing, and editorial theory.