Excerpt of a miniature portrait of Aemilia Lanyer
Painted by Nicholas Hilliard (d. 1619) (Wikimedia)
Today I was reading up on Pilate’s wife and came across a poem written by Aemilia Lanyer. It’s called Salve Deus Rex Iudæorum (“Hail, God, King of the Jews”) and was published four hundred years ago in 1611. The second section of the poem is entitled “Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women.” The word “apology” is used here with the sense of a formal defence against an accusation.
Pilate’s Wife Pleads for Equality
As part of the apology, Pilate’s wife speaks to her husband. She tells him that having Jesus condemned to death is worse than Eve’s sin which resulted in the subordination of women. I was delighted to hear Aemilia speak through the character of Pilate’s wife and ask for freedom and equality for women:
Then let us have our liberty again,
And challenge to yourselves no sovereignty;
You came not in the world without our pain,
Make that a bar against your cruelty;
Your fault being greater, why should you disdain
Our being your equals, free from tyranny?
If one weak woman simply did offend,
This sin of yours has no excuse nor end.
Scythian Warrior Women
Further along in her poem, Aemilia writes about famous women from ancient times. Some of these women are from the Bible but others are not. One example is Scythian warrior women, thought by some to be the legendary Amazons.
Though famous women older times have known,
Whose glorious actions did appear so bright,
That powerful men by them were overthrown,
And all their armies overcome in fight;
The Scythian women by their power alone,
Put King Darius unto shameful flight:
All Asia yielded to their conquering hand,
Great Alexander could not their power withstand.
In this stanza, Aemilia presents women who are strong and who overpowered fierce and famous warlords, but her information is not historically accurate. The Scythians who fought against Darius and Alexander were predominately, or all, male. And Alexander was ultimately victorious over the Scythians.
Godly Women and Guilty Men?
Apart from Eve and Pilate’s wife, some of the Bible women Aemilia writes about are Deborah, Judith, Esther, the Queen of Sheba, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the women from Galilee who were at Jesus’ crucifixion. These women are all justly portrayed in a positive light. She also writes positively about several men in the Bible but she states that men are the ones ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death: Adam for accepting the forbidden fruit, Pilate for not releasing Jesus, and Judas Iscariot who is mentioned briefly in the poem.
Like Aemilia, I believe Eve has been unduly blamed by the church as being the one primarily responsible for the Fall. Unlike Aemilia, I do not think it’s right or helpful to place all the blame for Jesus’ death on men. Genesis 3 shows that Adam and Eve both ate the forbidden fruit, both are responsible for sin coming into the world. Most Christians today do not blame one sex for Jesus’ death. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to discover that a Christian woman who lived four hundred years ago tried to promote equality for women in her writing.
 Aemilia Lanyer (1569–1645) nee Bassano, was the daughter of a musician employed in the court of Elizabeth I, and she became the wife of another court musician. It was an unhappy marriage and her husband squandered her money. Aemilia wrote her volume of poetry with the hope of gaining much-needed patronage, and she included ten dedications to ten aristocratic women in her book. Unfortunately, she was not offered patronage by any of these women. Aemilia was not an aristocrat herself, but she seems to have been well-connected and she was clearly well-educated. It is thought Aemilia received much of her education when she stayed with Susan Bertie, Countess of Kent. Bertie believed that women should receive the same education as men. Aemilia has the credit of being the first English woman to publish a volume of original poetry.
 Unlike what most egalitarians believe, Aemilia held that Adam was stronger and had more authority than Eve, and so he had a duty to prevent the Fall.
But surely Adam cannot be excused,
Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame;
What Weakness offered, Strength might have refused …
It is difficult to reconcile her account of weak Eve with the strong Scythian women. It’s also difficult to reconcile her view of weak Eve with what it says in Genesis 2-3 where she is called an ezer kenegdo.
 Archaeologists have uncovered graves of warrior women, as well as warrior men, around present-day Russia and Ukraine, but there is no credible evidence that there was a society made up of only Amazonian warrior women with no men.
 The book of Judith is included in the Septuagint but is not included in the Hebrew Bible or modern Protestant Bibles. It was included, however, in the King James Bible, published the same year as Aemilia’s book. More about Judith here.
 Sadly, Aemilia’s poem was not widely read until the twenty-first century.
Salve Deus Rex Iudæorum can be online read here.
More about Aemilia Lanyer on Wikipedia here.
More about Aemilia’s apology of Eve on the CBE International website.
© Margaret Mowczko 2017
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2 thoughts on “Aemilia Lanyer: 17th-century Christian feminist & author”
Wonderful post! As far as I am concerned it was ALL of humanity’s SIN that caused Jesus’ death. However, if you / we want to blame then place it on satan. > alison
Thanks, Alison. And I agree about the cause of Jesus’s death and about where to place the blame.