Notable Renaissance women: some context for ‘Emilia’

MA Renaissance Studies student Tim Griggs recently undertook an internship at the Globe Theatre. He writes about Emilia Bassano, the subject of a new play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm shown recently on the famous stage, and other educated, ambitious women of the Renaissance period.

“Men, who forgetting they were born of women, nourished of women, and if they were not of the means of women, they would be quite extinguished out of the world, and a final end of them all: do like vipers deface the wombs wherein they were bred.”

(Emilia Bassano, ‘To the Vertuous Reader’, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, 1611)

To explore the figure of Emilia Bassano, usually known by her married name of Aemilia Lanyer (or Lanier), a new work, Emilia, created by playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, made its debut in the Globe Theatre in August 2018. The play explores the life and influences of the woman described by the Globe’s new Artistic Director Michelle Terry as ‘often beguiling and always fascinating,’ and whom some consider to have been a muse and inspiration for Shakespeare.

While Bassano’s life has been described in, for example, Susanne Woods’ 1999 Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet, the claim by A L Rowse in 1973 that she was indisputably the ‘Dark Lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets has subsequently been widely challenged and discredited, as for example in the 1985 work of Schoenbaum (pp.74-79.) and 1999 work of Wynne-Davies (p.360.). But Bassano’s central achievement is not disputed: her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, of 1611, is one of the first among texts by what scholarship now understands to be a substantial output of poetry by women in the seventeenth century.

As part of the background development work undertaken in support of this new work at the Globe, Humayra Yasmin and I were asked to research the lives and influences of a selection of contemporary Elizabethan and Jacobean women, as useful scene-setting context for the life of the relatively little-known Bassano (1569-1645). She was the daughter of an Italian Jewish musician who came to London in the 1530s: her married name was acquired by her marriage in 1592 to Alphonso Lanier, a Court musician of French origin.  Her status is succinctly summarised by Lanyer editor and critic Woods: ‘Lanyer was the first woman writing in English who clearly sought professional standing as a poet’ (Woods, p.vii). As Woods notes, Lanyer was preceded by Elizabethan female poets such as Anne Vaughan Lock, Isabella Whitney and Anne Dowrich, and can be described for the quality of her work as ‘a credible peer’ of her early seventeenth-century contemporaries Jonson and Donne (Woods, p.x).

What emerged from a relatively brief process of enquiry was an intriguing and complex picture, countering conventional assumptions about Renaissance women as being ill-educated, powerless and silent. In preparing a series of short biographies of ten notable women of the period, to inform the play’s early development, we discovered a number of instructive themes which tended to run counter to this conventional narrative.

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke 1561-1621
By Nicholas Hilliard
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The first of these themes was the number of women born to power and position who, through family circumstances or the influence of family members, had received significant education despite their gender, and had used this to advantage.  Lady Agnes Campbell (1526-c.1590), influential in the Irish resistance to English colonisation, had been educated at the Scottish Court and was fluent in English, French and Latin, and proved an able negotiator and diplomat with the English Court. Mary Sidney Herbert (1561-1621), Countess of Pembroke and the sister of Philip Sidney, with whom she translated the Psalms, was an accomplished poet and translator. She received a classical education, was trained in rhetoric and was fluent in French, Italian and Latin: her father had been educated alongside Edward VI and educated his own children without regard to gender.

The second theme to emerge might be characterised as influence accruing from longevity. Bassano herself lived to the then-considerable age of seventy-six, and many of the women studied exhibited similar qualities of survival. Lady Elizabeth Russell (1528-1609), who enjoyed Court patronage through two marriages and was influential from the 1560s to the 1590s, lived to eighty-one; Lady Dorothy Stafford (1526-1604) survived Elizabeth by a year and died at seventy-eight; Lettice Knollys (1543-1634), Countess of Essex and then of Leicester, and despite incurring the Queen’s displeasure in the 1560s at her relationship with Robert Dudley, lived to ninety-one.

Closeness to power, and an adroit willingness to use it, whether through the Court or through diplomatic influence, was evident in several of the women studied. Dorothy Stafford was for forty years a senior member of Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber, and herself a Plantagenet with her own claim to the English throne: she efficiently used her position to advance the interests of her family – one son became Ambassador to France and another served as an equerry to Elizabeth. Not all were successful, however: by contrast, Lady Arbella Stuart (1575-1615), though born a Lennox and a first cousin of James VI/I, seen until the early 1590s as the preferred successor to Elizabeth, failed to turn her position to advantage. Though described as ‘not very beautiful but highly accomplished’, she incurred the disapproval successively of Elizabeth and James, and proved unable to gain the approval of either for marriage.

A degree of literary recognition, despite what has been described by Margaret Patterson Hannay as the period’s ‘cultural injunctions to female silence’, could also be found in the period. Mary Sidney, after her brother Philip’s death in 1585, and despite being barred from his funeral on account of her gender, served as a literary patron to those who wished to honour his memory. She supervised the publication of editions of his Arcadia, and wrote poems to praise him. She travelled widely and continued her literary patronage, though on a reduced scale, in later life. (Hannay, ODNB).

And finally, perhaps reflecting a recognition of the educational endowments they had received early in their lives, many of the lives examined showed a strong interest in creating and supporting educational institutions. As examples:  Joyce Frankland (1531-1587), a London-born commoner whose two marriages had left her considerable wealth, continued the work of her mother in endowing scholarships, lectureships and other benefactions to Cambridge University. And Frances Radcliffe (c.1531-1589), an aunt to Philip and Mary Sidney, became Lady Sussex by marriage, founded Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge and endowed a lectureship at Westminster Abbey.

Some of these characters would have recognised, and possibly provided fuel for, Bassano’s sharp description of men as ungrateful ‘vipers’.  For example, despite her untiring promotional efforts on their behalf, both Dorothy Stafford’s sons were arraigned in the 1580s: one on account of a scheme in support of Mary Queen of Scots, and the other was involved in a plot to assassinate the Queen herself. Agnes Campbell, despite her diplomatic and linguistic skills, was described slightly waspishly by an English courtier as ‘dutifully [using] herself to further the Queen’s service as if she were a natural-born subject’. Lady Agnes’ response to this summary is not recorded.

The women we examined in our researches were intelligent, often well-educated, and ambitious: clearly, the late sixteenth century was not populated purely by subservient females.  Emilia Bassano herself, though a commoner, was brought up and educated by Susan, the dowager countess of Kent, whom she addresses in her writing as ‘the noble guide of my ungoverned days’: the environment to which she was thus exposed was strongly Protestant humanist, and she is believed to have read widely. Her poetry can be seen to bear the traces of such an education. According to one biographer, the central poem of her volume of 1611 ‘is remarkable for managing to avoid identifying female virtue with chastity, articulating in its place a feminine mastery of […] the humanist ideal of masculine virtue’. This is a radical departure from the norms of the early seventeenth century.

The depiction of the elusive Bassano and her worldview in Emilia was generally well-received in its run at the Globe. Reviews remarked on the principal character’s qualities as “a subversive feminist spirit” (Independent), and as a “freethinker and writer of imagination and ambition” (Daily Telegraph). Perhaps the play has helped Emilia Bassano finally to be seen in the tradition of the powerful, expressive Renaissance women who preceded her.

Bibliography

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [www.oxforddnb.com]
  • Rowse, A L, Shakespeare The Man (London: Macmillan 1973)
  • Schoenbaum, Samuel, Shakespeare and Others (Washington D.C: Folger Shakespeare Library 1985)
  • Woods, Susanne, Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet (Oxford: OUP 1999)
  • Wynne-Davies, Marion, ed., Women Poets of the Renaissance (New York: Routledge 1999)
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Why governments loosened their grip on EU treaty making

Dr Dermot Hodson, Reader in Political Economy in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics, discusses the rise of parliaments, the people and courts in EU treaty making, the subject of his new book with Prof. Imelda Maher.

Treaty making is a site of struggle between those who claim the authority to speak and act on international matters. Being closely connected to questions of war and peace, the power to make treaties in medieval times lay to a large extent in the hands of monarchs. Modern treaties are negotiated by states, although not exclusively so. The conference that produced the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, for example, had more than 25,000 delegates drawn from governments, international organisations, NGOs and civil society.

The European Union (EU) is fertile ground for students of treaty making. This is not only because the Union’s frequent recourse to treaty amendment is so publicly contentious, as evidenced by the Eurosceptic backlash against the Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon Treaties. The EU has also witnessed fierce competition over who has the right to negotiate treaties. The 1951 Treaty of Paris, the EU’s founding treaty, was negotiated in a tightly sealed intergovernmental conference. Today, the European Parliament and national parliaments, have a seat at the table alongside governments when major EU treaty revisions are negotiated.

This competition extends to the question of who should approve EU treaties. National parliaments endorsed the Treaty of Paris on the basis of simplified majority votes. No member state held a referendum and none saw court challenges before the treaty took effect. Now, most member states need a parliamentary majority of three-fifths or higher before they can approve a major EU treaty. Treaty-related referendums are relatively commonplace in the EU, as are prior constitutional reviews of treaties before higher courts.

The UK, although it is leaving the EU, exemplifies the changing constitutional rules and norms surrounding EU treaty making. Citizens have already used the courts to reaffirm the need for parliamentary approval of the UK’s withdrawal treaty. The campaign for a second referendum, meanwhile, shows that Parliament’s right to decide on the terms of Brexit is heavily contested.

This book explores this transformation of EU treaty making over the period 1950 to 2016. Drawing insights from EU law, comparative constitutionalism and international relations, it considers how and why parliaments, the people and courts have entered a domain once dominated by governments. It presents qualitative and quantitative evidence on the importance of public trust and political tactics in explaining this shift and challenges the idea that EU treaties are too rigid.

Our study shows how governments, having tentatively deviated from the traditional intergovernmental conference format in the 1950s, did so conclusively from the 1990s onwards. This shift was driven not only by the European Parliament’s insistence that it be involved. It also reflects a turn to more participatory modes of treaty making as the problems of legitimacy facing the EU mounted.

The involvement of parliaments, the people and courts in approving EU treaties is sometimes seen as an attempt by national governments to boost their bargaining position. Our analysis of the changing constitutional rules and norms surrounding treaty making in the EU’s 28 member states over six decades supports this view. The EU thus offers a rare case of governments ‘tying their hands’ in international negotiations, something that Robert Putnam theorised in his work on two-level games but which has rarely been seen in practice.

Trust is at play here as well as tactics, our findings suggest. Member states that saw declining public trust in national government tended to give their parliaments a greater say in EU treaty making. Those that saw declining trust in the EU were more likely to allow referendums and constitutional challenges. In this sense, member states are not only engaged in a two-level game when they revise EU treaties. They face, what we call, a problem of two-level legitimacy. Governments, though they remain key players in EU treaty making, do not legitimate this process as they once did because their own legitimacy and that of the Union is open to question.

Should the EU make treaties differently? The consensus in the literature is that EU treaty making should become easier, with recurring reform ideas including the approval of treaties by a majority of member states, restrictions on national referendums and a pan-European referendum. We question this consensus. Our findings show that the rate of treaty revision has slowed as parliaments and the people have assumed a more prominent role in this domain but that it has by no means ground to a halt.

Viewed from a two-level legitimacy perspective, there is a case for making it more rather than less difficult to revise treaties. This book explores a range of reform ideas, including citizen-led treaty making, time-locks on treaty reform and greater judicial and parliamentary oversight. It asks whether allowing EU treaties to fail, rather than saving them at all costs, is a more appropriate response to the problems of legitimacy facing the EU.

Dermot Hodson is Reader in Political Economy in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. Imelda Maher is the Sutherland Full Professor of European Law, University College Dublin. Their book The Transformation of EU Treaty Making: The Rise of Parliaments, Referendums and Courts Since 1950 is published by Cambridge University Press.

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Constitutional crisis?

Robert Singh, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, defends the US constitution at a time when many say it offers more problems than solutions. His ideas are explored further in his new book In Defense of the United States Constitution, available from Routledge. 

According to that eminent politics scholar, Morrissey (Spent the Day in Bed), we should stop watching the news, “because the news contrives to frighten you.” As far as politics in the United States goes, he surely has a point. Breathlessly excitable news coverage and learned academic pronouncements of the “death” of democracy together induce a sense of bewilderment, producing more heat than light about what ails America. And invariably this is traced to the ultimate political “original sin,” the US Constitution, faulty more by defective design than cack-handed execution.

Nowhere more is this true than the Trump presidency, whose macabre logic – feed a craven media that thrives on outrage with its daily dose of “controversy” – rarely fails to produce the desired ratings hit. Opinion surveys confirm the resulting disenchantment: in 2017, only 46 percent of Americans were satisfied with how democracy was working. In 2018, a mere 50 percent said their system was basically sound. 81 percent thought the Founders would be upset with the functioning of federal institutions while only 11 percent imagined they would be happy. Four in five Americans were either dissatisfied (60 percent) or angry (20 percent) at Washington.”

But is the Constitution, as many scholar-activists assert, the source of, rather than the remedy to, US problems, from gun violence to agitated air passengers invoking the “right” to travel with “emotional support animals”? Does Trump’s presidency again reveal its inherent fragility, proclivity to periodic crisis and the hollowness of eighteenth-century parchment promises? These altogether more problematic claims are triply doubtful.

First, we should separate politics from constitutionalism and beware the all-too-promiscuous use of the term “crisis.” A genuine constitutional crisis requires a disagreement about constitutional obligations that is impossible to resolve via constitutional means. The Civil War was the one undisputable such crisis in US history: an existential conflict posing a choice between alternatives that allowed no compromise. Others, from Watergate and Iran-Contra to Monicagate and today’s lurid charges, are more resolvable political crises with constitutional dimensions.

Second, while Trump has undermined multiple norms and conventions previously taken for granted, the extent to which these indict the constitutional design is questionable. Even if a Democratic House of Representatives begins impeachment proceedings against him in January 2019, the question of whether Trump’s alleged violations of statute law rise to the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanours” is ultimately a political, not a legal, one. Trump’s tempestuous encounter with the Constitution has proven only his most recent and important instance of serial infidelity. But it has damaged, not endangered, the republic.

Third, there exists a powerful case – which impeachment would vindicate, not repudiate – that “the system worked.” The political circus since January 2017 may have been compelling viewing in its car crash qualities, but it also demonstrates certain enduring structural strengths of the US design. Trump has not had his way on public policy, despite his own party controlling both houses on Capitol Hill. The courts have been able and willing to strike down laws and executive actions they deemed unconstitutional. Civil society remains a cacophonous and vibrant force.

None of this is to suggest that all is right with things constitutional. The Constitution is far from flawless and some modernizing fine-tuning would not go amiss, regarding the composition of the US Senate, the method of allocating votes in the Electoral College, and the amendment process. But it merits neither rubbishing nor romanticizing. A rare focus for unity in an otherwise fractious polity, the Constitution is not the source of today’s problems (the Second Amendment, for example, does not prohibit strong firearms regulation). Nor are constitutional “fixes” the solution. Radical change, where feasible, is mostly undesirable, and where desirable, mostly unfeasible. It is politics – above all, the deeply entrenched partisan polarization that preceded and will outlast the 45th president – that is responsible for contemporary maladies.

On most comparative metrics, the Constitution performs well and emerges much better than others. An effective constitution should provide a stable framework for government by channelling societal conflict into everyday politics, allow the expression in law and policy of majority preferences while safeguarding protections for individual rights and liberties, ensure the peaceful transfer of power, and permit the means of its own revision through amendments and interpretation. The Constitution meets these core requirements, and its own Preamble’s six objectives, now more fully than at any time in US history. It is not merely adaptive but “antifragile”: gaining strength from the tests to which it is periodically subject.

All of which suggests: Keep calm and carry on constitutionalizing. The republic has not been read the last rites. The Constitution has not been trampled under goose-steps. American democracy is not in its death throes. The news might frighten you, but the US Constitution should be a cause for enduring comfort rather than disquiet.

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Burnout in the NHS: what happens when doctors become patients?

Dr Kevin Teoh, Lecturer in Organizational Psychology, discusses burnout and mental health trends in NHS consultants – which is the subject of a new paper, co-authored with Dr Atir Khan, Dr Juliet Hassard, and Dr Saiful Islam.

Not many days go by where there isn’t any discussion on the current state of our National Health Service (NHS) – whether it is increasing patient demands and numbers, concerns around funding, patient safety, or Brexit. However, as one of the largest employers in the world, the changes across the NHS can have significant ramifications for its workforce. In the press, there is increasing concern about how healthcare staff are coping in light of these changes.

One of the main topics of discussion is burnout, which consists of three components – emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion refers to being emotionally drained and exhausted in the workplace, while depersonalisation is a psychological withdrawal from relationships and the development of negative and cynical feelings towards people. Reduced personal accomplishment represents a lack of work effectiveness due to emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation.

But why is burnout in the NHS so important? And what are the factors in the work environment that precede it? We sought to examine these questions in a sample of NHS consultants drawn from England, Scotland and Wales. Consultants represent the most senior and well-trained doctors in the healthcare workforce. Through their role as supervisors and educators, they are also pivotal in the development of the current and future healthcare workforce. Far less is also known about the working conditions of consultants, when compared to their junior doctor and nursing colleagues.

We focused on two aspects of work – work-related pressure and autonomy. The first reflects the workload and pressure that consultants are under, with considerable evidence from other sectors that link it with the health outcomes of workers. The latter actually reflects a potential positive work aspect as high-levels of job autonomy may be beneficial to consultants (and workers more generally). This is because job autonomy gives consultants the flexibility to manage their workload, work on tasks which they find more interesting and problem solve.

In addition to the working conditions and burnout relationship, we also wanted to see how these linked in with staff outcome measures, including the levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms that consultants were experiencing as well as their intention to retire early from the NHS.

The results paint a worrying picture. Out of the 593 consultants who took part, about a third of NHS consultants had poor-levels of psychological health, including emotional exhaustion (38.7%), depersonalisation (20.7%), anxiety symptoms (43.1%), and depressive symptoms (36.1%). These figures not only highlight that our consultants are struggling; they also suggest that poor mental health among consultants has increased in the years since they were last measured.

As expected, both aspects of work that we measured – (high) work related pressure and (low) job autonomy – predicted adverse psychological health. But what are the implications of poor working conditions and burnout among consultants in the NHS?

Our findings suggest that the impact on both severe mental health issues (i.e. symptoms of anxiety and depression) and an intention to retire early. This means that when consultants in the NHS experience high work-related pressure and job autonomy, the subsequent development of burnout could lead to more severe downstream issues.

From a psychological perspective, this does make sense. Consultants struggling in an environment where they have little autonomy and high work-related pressure requires energy and coping resources. Continual exposure then takes a toll on consultants’ psychological resources, which leads to burnout over time, as doctors feel exhausted and they depersonalise from the people around them. When doctors burn out, it exacerbates even further this demand on their psychological resources. What then happens is the manifestation of further mental and physical symptoms, such as the development of depressive and anxiety symptoms. Also, consultants may choose to leave that difficult work environment to protect their remaining psychological resources – which is why we see that when consultants report higher levels of burnout they are also more likely to intend to retire early.

While it is important to note that we did not diagnose actual anxiety and depression in our sample of consultants, the measurement of symptoms is strongly associated with it. Consultants struggling with such symptoms are more likely to be impaired in their performance, which is consistent with the growing research evidence base linking poor mental health among doctors with lower standards of patient care. Should the prevalence of depression and anxiety among consultants go up, it would inadvertently increase the demands on the NHS as doctors become patients themselves.

The intention to retire early is something that should be of concern to us all, especially as the NHS is currently facing a shortage of healthcare staff, including consultants. If consultants do go on to retire early, this would not only reduce the number of doctors in the NHS but would lead to a skills gap in the healthcare service. This might then generate a continuous downward spiral where consultants experiencing poor working conditions burnout, leading to the development of more severe mental health issues and/or early retirement from the NHS. In turn, this further increases the demands on the health service that impacts the remaining consultants, thereby continuing this cycle.

Managers and policymakers need to be aware of the current state of poor psychological health of NHS consultants. They also need to recognise that decisions and changes made to the working conditions of doctors (and healthcare staff in general) not only impact their burnout levels. Where it is not feasible to alleviate some of the work-related pressures, then ways to increase the level of consultants’ job autonomy should be considered.

These findings, along with some of our other research in this area, emphasise the need to address the systematic issues within the work environment that influence the working conditions of NHS consultants. Although more individual-focused interventions, such as resilience training, may have a role to play, on its own this is clearly insufficient. In the UK, there has been limited research looking at interventions to manage the working conditions of doctors. Nevertheless, growing research from elsewhere in the world provide some examples that may be relevant to the NHS here.

Ultimately, as potential users of the NHS, the mental health state of consultants and their working conditions really should be of concern to us all.

The full study, Psychosocial Work Characteristics, Burnout, Psychological Morbidity Symptoms And Early Retirement Intentions: A Cross-Sectional Study Of NHS Consultants In The UK, is published by BMJ Open.

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