Professor’s new book redefines girlhood during Medieval, Renaissance era

Black woman reading book

Author and Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) Professor Deanne Williams investigates the overlooked roles of girls in theatre – and performing arts in general – from the 10th through 17th centuries in her new book Girl Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Performance and Pedagogy (Bloomsbury, 2023).

Williams’ research cites eyewitness testimony, stage directions, paintings and even records of payment to explore girls’ appearance in dramatic performances, as well as their contributions to writing and translating plays, singing, dancing and performing music. While previous histories of the actress have begun with the Restoration in 1660, this book charts this history all the way back to the Middle Ages.

Deanne Williams
Deanne Williams

Through its close analysis of plays from this time frame, as well as the broader cultural environments that produced them, Girl Culture demonstrates that girls were active and influential participants in dramatic culture, rather than passive observers.

“Girls have occupied a marginal role in theatre and cultural history, because of the assumption that performance was largely restricted to boys and men,” Williams explains. “But Girl Culture shows that they played an important role in medieval religious drama, Tudor pageants and royal entries, Elizabethan entertainments, and the Stuart court and household masque.

“My research shows that girlhood was a time of comparatively greater freedom for girls. Performing parts at home or in the schoolroom was a significant part of their education and they participated also in religious as well as civic performances. This book reveals medieval and early modern girlhood as a time of tremendous creativity and intellectual development,” she adds, before girls were “restricted by the expectations placed upon married women to run households and bear children.”

For over twenty years, Williams has devoted herself to research and redefining medieval and early modern girlhood. Her work includes staging readings of Jane Lumley’s Iphigeneia, the first-ever translation of the Greek drama into English, as well as Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam, the first female-authored original play (published in 1613), with Tom Bishop of the University of Auckland. With John Edwards, artistic director of the Musicians in Ordinary, she produced a podcast recording of Milton’s Comus and they are currently working with noted stage director Paul Hopkins on a film production of Elizabeth Brackley and Jane Cavendish’s play, The Concealed Fancies. With her colleague Bernice Neal and research assistant Asra Khonsari, Williams is also putting the finishing touches on a database called the Girls on Early English Stages (GEES) Project.

Girl Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance
Girl Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Performance and Pedagogy (2023) by Deanne Williams

Williams has also explored how even Shakespeare, whose plays were performed on an all-male stage, was influenced by girl culture and the participation of girls in the public sphere. In her previous study, Shakespeare and the Performance of Girlhood (2014), Williams devotes “entire chapters to Ophelia and Juliet, as well as to lesser-known girl characters, such as the Queen in Richard II.

In [that] book, I argue that girl characters are key to Shakespeare’s plays, and that Shakespeare’s ideas about girlhood developed over the course of his career and shaped our own ideas about girlhood today,” Williams says. “My new book, Girl Culture, takes a very different approach. Rather than exploring the influence of Shakespeare on girlhood, it locates the influence of girls on Shakespeare, whose lived experience of the girl actor, and girls’ significant cultural presence, shaped his conceptualization of girl characters such as Juliet, Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, Marina in Pericles, and Emilia and the Jailer’s daughter in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen.”

Among many other examples Williams hopes readers will be pleasantly surprised by, she highlights Anne Boleyn – whose life was marred by tragedy – as being a far more literary person than sordid histories tend to let on.

“[Boleyn’s] reputation was tarnished by Henry VIII, but her girlhood was bookish, pious and extremely musical,” she says. “I also think readers will be astonished to learn about Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, who wrote six Latin plays to match those of Latin comic playwright, Terence, in order to educate the girls of Gandersheim Abbey. I think she was horrified by what she found in Terence and wanted to provide her girl readers – and actors – with better role models.”

In her graduate and undergraduate teaching, Williams always seizes the chance to share the updated history that’s uncovered in Girl Culture and bring to light the seldom discussed influence on the arts by girls of a bygone era.