WWIH Symposium Tomorrow

It’s almost here! Our first Writing Women in History symposium will kick off tomorrow morning at 10am, with registration in the Wilson Court Common Room in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.

Our programme for the day has a stellar line up of speakers:


The evening’s concert of music by female composers will begin at 6pm in the Fitzwilliam College Chapel, featuring performers from the Royal Academy, London, and Cambridge.

If you are not lucky enough to be able to come, fear not! We will keep our Twitter updated through the day, and we will later be posting reflections and thoughts on the day right here on the blog.



WWIH Symposium Concert: Introducing our performers!

A sound and video recording of the entire concert is available on request, for study purposes only.

Adam Cigman-Mark (piano) is a sought-after pianist and accompanist. He has performed with ensembles and orchestras in venues across the UK, including the Royal Festival Hall, the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, and the Cadogan Hall. As a vocal coach and repetiteur, he has worked on La tragédie de Carmen (Berliner Philharmoniker Baden-Baden Easter Festival), Hector Parra’s Wilde (Schwetzingen SWR Festival), Michel Tabachnik’s Benjamin, dernière nuit (Opéra National de Lyon), and Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang (National Theater Mannheim) and Die Gezeichneten (Opéra National de Lyon). He has played for leading conductors including Mark Elder, John Eliot Gardiner and Marin Alsop. He currently studies Piano Accompaniment at the Royal Academy of Music, where he is taught by Ian Brown and James Baillieu, and previously read English Literature at Clare College, Cambridge. Upcoming projects include developing a 20th century music collective – EntArt – celebrating the work of Jewish composers banned under the Nazis.


Catherine Groom (mezzo-soprano, harp, and recorder) is Director of Music here at Fitzwilliam College. When not engaged in organising concerts, managing things musical around College or conducting in this Chapel, she is a freelance player of historical harps and recorders, a singer and a writer on music. She has worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company (including on their West End run of their adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s acclaimed novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies); in seasons for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; for various BBC and independent television channels; extensively within the liturgical musical world and in opera pits across the UK and further afield in a great many operas by composers from Cavalli, Monteverdi to Handel to Britten and beyond. Her writing on music has been commissioned by many print publications and record labels. Cat read Music at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford and trained as a performer at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at the Royal Academy of Music. She has particular performance-research interests in sixteenth-century Italian convent composition, in Monteverdi opera, in the intersection of plainsong and folksong, and in live-scoring contemporary theatre, and has been known (in collaboration with her one-year-old) to sabotage RhymeTime at the local library with added ninths.


Rachel Kay (cello) is currently studying for an MPhil in Development Studies at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Prior to this, she spent a year at the Royal Academy of Music taking postgraduate studies, where she learnt modern cello with Guy Johnston and baroque cello with Joseph Crouch. Whilst at the Royal Academy she particularly enjoyed learning baroque cello for the first time, and performed with the Academy Baroque Orchestra. This year Rachel has become a member of Endelienta Baroque, a group composed of Cambridge students and alumni with whom she has given performances in King’s Chapel and Jesus Chapel. She is also a member of the Janus Ensemble, a London-based chamber orchestra, and the Façade Ensemble, which specialises in chamber music of the 20th century. She has performed in masterclasses with Bengt Forsberg, Jonathan Manson and David Waterman. Rachel was at Pembroke College for her undergraduate degree in Human, Social and Political Science and graduated with a First Class Honours. An active chamber musician, she was granted a place on the Cambridge University Instrumental Award Scheme through which she received regular coaching from acclaimed chamber musicians. She has given both solo and chamber recitals at major venues in Cambridge including the West Road Concert Hall and Kettle’s Yard. A highlight has been a performance of the Vivaldi double cello concerto with the Cambridge University String Ensemble.


Pierre Riley (harpsichord) trained both as a collaborative pianist and as a soloist. After earning degrees in performance from the Université de Montréal under the guidance of Paul Stewart, he furthered his training at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where his teachers included Charles Owen, Joan Havill, and Eugene Asti. In addition to his activity as a recitalist he has taken part in a wide range of musical ventures, including lecture recitals, outreach performances in schools, film score recordings, and interdisciplinary productions combining music and theatre. Through master-classes and other projects, Pierre’s practice as a performer has been enriched by encounters with distinguished pedagogues such as John Perry, Susan Manoff, Pascal Devoyon, Jean-Claude Vanden-Eynden, Iain Burnside, and Graham Johnson. Currently based in Cambridge, he is exploring the performance of Bach’s keyboard works in early twentieth century Britain in the context of a PhD in music. Pierre’s research interests stem from his practice as a performer: in addition to the aesthetic issues surrounding Bach pianism and the present-day pianist’s relationship to the recorded past, he has an active curiosity about collaborative creativity in the context of song accompaniment.


Ella Taylor (soprano) is currently studying for a Masters in Performance at the Royal Academy of Music under the tuition of Elizabeth Ritchie and Iain Ledingham, having graduated from the University of Sheffield with a First Class Honours Degree in Music. Ella has a particular interest in performing and premiering new music. She has recently performed at the Leeds Lieder Festival Composer and Poets Forum as part of the Day of Song, performed Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Freya Waley-Cohen’s We Phonecian Sailors at the Royal Academy of Music, and in opera scenes as Agnès from Written on Skin, as well as premiering Jonathan Higgins’s Schutzwall, playing the character of Susanne Meyer at the Tête à Tête festival. Her other roles include Miles from Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea, and La Contessa in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, as well as performing scenes as the Governess from The Turn of the Screw. A keen recitalist and collaborator, she has an on-going relationship with the ensemble 4 Girls 4 Harps, as well as being a member of the Royal Academy of Music’s prestigious Song Circle and a Royal Academy of Music/Kohn Foundation Bach cantata scholar. She works regularly with the Strand Chamber Orchestra, most recently performing Mahler’s Rückert Lieder with them. She has performed with Ensemble 360 in Music in the Round’s May Festival, singing John Tavener’s Akhmatova Songs. She was commended in the Mozart Singing Competition, and was runner-up the David Clover Singers Platform Recital Prize, as well as the Lesley Garrett Opera Prize. She was also a recipient of BBC Chorister of the Year. Ella is generously supported by the Sheffield Church Burgesses Trust, the Josephine Baker Trust and the Harold Wrigley Alcock Scholarship, awarded by the Royal Academy of Music. www.ellataylorsoprano.co.uk


Anna-Luise Wagner (soprano) is in the second year of an AHRC-funded PhD at Selwyn College, researching the career of seventeenth-century writer, singer, and courtesan Margherita Costa. She completed her MPhil and undergraduate degree reading Italian and French at Clare College and has worked at OneStage Specialist Concert Tours in London. Operatic and theatrical roles include Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (CUOS), Zenobia in Händel’s Radamisto (CUOS), Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte (CUOS), the title role in Holst’s Savitri (CUOS), Alison in Holst’s The Wandering Scholar (CCMS), Marceline in Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro (Brickhouse Theatre), Cléone in Racine’s Andromaque (Pembroke Players), Papagena in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Dew Fairy in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel (Talentwerkstatt 43). She is also preparing for The Artist in Joanna Ward’s new opera Hunger at the Edinburgh Fringe. She has performed as a soloist in Mozart’s Requiem, Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Jenkin’s The Armed Man, and Bach’s Cantata No. 127. During her MPhil, Anna won second prize at the Clare College Song Competition and gave a recital in St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, as part of the scheme. During her undergraduate, she was a Clare College choral scholar under Graham Ross. She still sings with the University Chamber Choir and continues to take lessons with Nicola-Jane Kemp. When not on stage, she drinks wine with her fabulous Writing Women in History research group.

WWIH Symposium Concert: Introducing our early modern women composers!

Sulpitia Cesis (1577 – ?) was an Italian composer and lutenist. She was born in Modena and became a nun at an Augustinian convent in 1593. Her only known work is a volume of eight-part Motetti spirituali, written in c. 1619. No paintings of her survives, but Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait of her sister Elena may give you an idea of what Sulpitia may have looked like in her nun’s garb.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Artist_s Sister Elena Anguissola as a Nun (1551)
Sofonisba Anguissola, Artist’s Sister Elena Anguissola as a Nun (1551)

Francesca Caccini (1587 – c. 1641) was an Italian composer, singer, poet, and lutenist. She was born into a musical family, the daughter of famed Florentine composer Giulio Caccini. By 1614, she was the highest-paid musician at the female-dominated court of the Grand Duchess of Tuscany Maria Maddalena de’ Medici. Her duties included not only singing, playing and teaching, but also composing hymns, songs, madrigals and court entertainments. Her La liberazione di Ruggiero (1625) is considered the oldest opera by a woman composer – very little of her other music survives. Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘The Lute Player’ is strongly associated with her, though there is no concrete evidence that Caccini was the sitter in this portrait.

Orazio Gentileschi, Il suonatore di liuto (c. 1612)

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) was a French composer, harpsichordist, and organist. She was born into a family of musicians and instrument-makers in Paris. As a child prodigy, nicknamed “la petite merveille”, she made her first appearance at the court of King Louis XIV at the age of about five. She was the first woman to compose an opera in France – many of her other works have now been lost. We will be performing an aria from her sacred cantata Le Passage de la Mer rouge (1708). Her portrait was painted by François de Troy.

François de Troy, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre
François de Troy, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre

Marianna Martines (1744-1812) was an Austrian composer, singer, and pianist. The poet Pietro Metastasio lived with her family, and she had the opportunity to study keyboard with Joseph Hayden and composition with Nicola Porpora, both of whom lived in her apartment building. While still a child she began performing for the Imperial court as a singer and pianist, and was soon known throughout Europe not only as a performer, but also as a classical composer. Her surviving works include masses, motets, oratorios, cantatas, concertos and one symphony. Her portrait was painted by Anton von Maron.

Anton von Maron, Marianna Martines (c. 1773).jpg
Anton von Maron, Marianna Martines (c. 1773)


Also, read up on Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) and Florence Price (1887-1953), two of the composers featured in our concert in articles from The Guardian and The New Yorker.

The Guardian on Pauline Viardot: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2006/feb/24/classicalmusicandopera

The New Yorker on Florence Price:


Lent Term Session 4: Hairy Women on Display in Early Modern Spain

 Come and join us for drinks, nibbles, and the fourth discussion on this term’s theme: ‘Women & Medicine’! Our fourth session of Lent term will be taking place on Tuesday 13th March in Walker Room 21 at Fitzwilliam College (please, note the change in location!) from 5.30pm until 7pm. The room is in the same building as the Porters’ Lodge. If in doubt, you will find a map of the college here: https://www.fitz.cam.ac.uk/about/map-college

We will discuss the textual and visual representation of the ‘monstrous’ medical condition of hirsutism in early modern Europe, bridging the gap between this term’s and next term’s theme – ‘Monstrous Women’. Our starting point will be Shelly Velasco’s article ‘Hairy Women on Display in Textual and Visual Culture in Early Modern Spain’ (South Atlantic Review, 72.1 (2007), 62-75) and a series of depictions of hairy women in early modern Europe.

You don’t have to have been along before to join us: we are always happy to welcome new faces to the reading group! Nor do you need to be familiar with the history of medicine, please do come and share your own area of expertise – comparison and interdisciplinarity are at the heart of what we do.

We look forward to seeing you on Tuesday!

José de Ribera, La mujer barbuda (Magdalena Ventura con su marido) (1631)

Smelly Remedy: Womb Fumigation Illustrated in Seventeenth Century Print

Fantastic exhibition on display at Cambridge University Library until 31 March: ‘Smelly Remedy: Womb Fumigation Illustrated in Seventeenth Century Print’. Curated by one of our members!

Online exhibition here:


In the seventeenth century, the womb was regarded as a troublesome and unpredictable organ. Women were believed to be afflicted with ailments including ‘suffocation’ or ‘strangulation’, where the womb supposedly moved away from its natural place. The womb could compress neighbouring organs or release noxious vapours that could cause difficulty in breathing and numerous other complications. To pacify the wild womb, marriage was usually prescribed, but a favoured short-term remedy was fumigation.

Like a second nose, the womb was considered to be attracted to pleasant perfumes and repulsed by stench. A womb could therefore be coaxed back to its rightful place through wafting fragrant ingredients beneath it. Women were recommended to simultaneously smell rancid substances to chase the womb downwards.

The interest in fumigation may have increased in popularity as European merchants returning from distant lands imported greater quantities of fragrant ingredients to stock apothecaries. These substances delighted the nose and in turn increased the desire for fumigation, as their exoticness yielded great therapeutic potential.

Although womb fumigation has been practiced since at least 2,000 BC, the printed illustrations displayed here evidence some of the earliest instances that the remedy was visually represented to a wide readership.

This exhibition was curated by Lizzie Marx, PhD student, and winner of the Art History/University Library Curatorial prize 2018. See Lizzie talk about her research on the movable womb in this video.

WWIH Symposium Concert: A Celebration of Female Composers

Join us in a celebration of women composers through the centuries! The Writing Women in History Symposium will conclude with an evening concert to be held at 6pm on the 16th March in Fitzwilliam College Chapel, Cambridge.

Our stellar lineup of performers from Cambridge and London will bring to life musical gems by Sulpitia Cecis, Francesca Caccini, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Marianna Martines, Pauline Viardot, Florence Price, Elizabeth Maconchy, and Ellen Zwilich.

Adam Cigman-Mark (piano), Royal Academy of Music
Catherine Groom (mezzo-soprano, harp and recorder), Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Rachel Kay (cello), Pembroke College, Cambridge
Pierre Riley (harpsichord), Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
Ella Taylor (soprano), Royal Academy of Music
Anna-Luise Wagner (soprano), Selwyn College, Cambridge

The concert is open all, not only conference attendees. Entry is free, but places are limited and advance registration is highly recommended: https://wwihsymposium2018.wordpress.com/concert/

For more details on the symposium (10am-5pm), please consult our conference website: https://wwihsymposium2018.wordpress.com/

 WWIH Concert Poster, updated composers

Session summary – pregnancy and portraiture

A snowy February evening saw us gather to discuss Ulinka Rublack’s ‘Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Female Body in Early Modern Germany’ (Past and Present, 150 (1996), 84-110) alongside a rather wonderful set of pregnancy portraits.

English pregnancy portrait

English ‘pregnancy portrait’ of an unknown lady, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts, c.1595

We began by interrogating Rublack’s notion of the female body, its limits and its definition. The stated aim of the article, to construct new understandings of the private/public nature of childbirth, seemed necessary, and there were some compelling arguments evinced. We found it problematic, however, that hints of essentialism seemed to creep in around the eliding of womanhood with motherhood. The definition of the body, and an early modern understanding of the need for a woman’s body to ‘flow’, especially in childbirth, appeared insufficiently theorised and/or referenced. We were also troubled by the idea that miscarriages could give women a language with which to evince love and respect from their husbands (p.104).

The combination of micro-history and theory we found useful in a certain sense although we worried to a certain degree to what extent particular stories could be broadened to generalising arguments. It explored an interesting range of alternative sources however. If anything, the range was broad enough that several articles could have been developed from them, on the role of husbands and wives, and on the political power afforded by pregnancy. We went on to discuss the intercessionary role which pregnant women could play in the judicial system, wondering to what extent this was a ‘true’ form of power, and to what extent it was merely tapping into someone else’s power because carrying a child is a necessary part of continuation of the patriarchal system.

Furthermore, we wondered how a pregnant woman was defined in the early modern period. Given that amenorrhea was typical for many malnourished, or poor women, knowing when one was pregnant was not always easy, nor quickly obvious.

From here, we went on to discuss portraits of overtly pregnant women which crop up occasionally in the history of art. We wondered exactly how they were used: to whom did a woman send them? How and where were they displayed? Why would you choose this style of portraiture over any other?


Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady Known as Smeralda Brandini, 1470s.

Particularly touching were portraits that were likely painted posthumously (specifically, after the sitter had died in childbirth). They seemed to emphasise the fragility of the women, and tread an unsettling line between celebrating the woman herself, and celebrating the woman for her childbirthing abilities.

The central tension we found was around the ideological implications of drawing out female agency during pregnancy. Is the woman herself granted agency, and what does that mean for understanding of what it was to be a woman in the patriarchal structures of the time?


Symposium registration open now!

Registration is now open for our symposium on Friday 16 March! You can sign up here:


for a day of discussion, music, laughter and debate. As if that weren’t enough, registration is completely free, there will be a wine reception, and an evening celebration of music by female composers. The programme is pretty stellar too:


It will be held at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, followed by dinner in Strada at the city centre.

We hope to see you there!

Session 3: Pregnancy and portraiture

Our third session of Lent term will be taking place next Tuesday 27th February in the MML Grad Boardroom (room number 336 on the top floor), Raised Faculty Building, Sidgwick Site, from 5.30pm until 7pm. Come and join us for drinks, nibbles, and the third discussion on this term’s theme: Women & Medicine.
We will be discussing pregnancy, using as our starting points Ulinka Rublack’s article ‘Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Female Body in Early Modern Germany’ (Past and Present, 150 (1996), 84-110) and a series of pregnancy portraits (these, and a summary sheet, are attached). Rublack reassesses the notion of pregnancy and lying in as a private and closed time, instead showing how husbands played an important supportive role, as did the wider community. She also explores the notion of the female pregnant body as a ‘liminal space’, permeable to external factors such as socially induced shocks, and how women (pregnant or not!) could turn this to their advantage.
We will also be looking at a series of pregnancy portraits roughly contemporaneous to the period discussed in the article, considering why such images were produced and the function they served.
Here’s a sneak preview…
Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain, probably pregnant with the future Philip IV, born in 1605. A variant of her standard official portrait.


Sign up to our mailing list now by emailing writingwomeninhistory@gmail.com for the full materials for next week. Hope to see you there!

UL visit: medical textbooks

The University of Cambridge’s University Library is, needless to say, a treasure trove of knowledge, and we were lucky enough on the 13th February to have a glimpse into some of its treasures which are normally hidden away deep in the depths of the basement. With the help of the wonderful staff in the Rare Books room – of the UL’s 8 million books, about 1 million are ‘rare books’ from before 1900 – we saw a selection of nine medical textbooks dating from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century.

The early works in particular showed many similar themes. The same stories of monstrous births crossed religious and medical boundaries, demonstrating the interrelatedness of these two discourses in the early modern period. The story of a pair of Siamese twins born in Wittenburg featuring in Luther’s 1523 anti-Catholic polemical pamphlet Deuttung der czwo grewlichen Figuren, Bapstesels czu Rom und Munchkalbs czu Freyerbeg ijnn Meysszen funde recurred alongside practical advice on childbirth in the first English edition of the most influential midwifery manual of the 16th century, the Byrth of Mankynde (1540) and in the 1704 English version of Aristotle’s master-piece : or the secrets of generation display’d in all the parts thereof … : very necessary for all midwives, nurses and young-married-women.

from Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica (1555)

Particularly impressive was Vesalius’ masterpiece of an anatomical textbook: De humani corporis fabrica (1555). It is when images from a work such as that are set alongside contemporary publications that you realise just how ground-breaking his creations were, even if, interestingly, his depictions of the genitalia were nothing like we’d recognise today from our own biological textbooks. Similarly impressive was Ryff’s Omnium humani corporis (1541) well-thumbed sixteenth-century Latin textbook whose margins had been covered in dense marginalia in Latin and Greek, by a 16th-century Cambridge University doctor who clearly knew his topic well!

Moving into the eighteenth century, we examined Hunter’s Anatomia uteri humani gravidi tabulis intricately detailed engavings of the gravid uterus. These disturbingly combined the gestation of new life with the decomposition of the dismembered corpse, as Hunter completed his etchings from the body of a dissected female criminal, and did not fail to include her severed flesh, bones and hair alongside the depiction of her internal organs. We wondered where the line lay between education and voyeurism in these depictions of the female body.

An uncomfortable examination… from Spratt’s Obstetric Tables (1823)

Finally, we took a look at Spratt’s Obstetric Tables (1838), and were amazed by the appearance of delicately (it not a little queasily) coloured lift-the-flap textbooks, which gave the curious reader a better three-dimensional understanding of gestation and its stages. Moreover, as the photo below shows, it also gave detailed instructions on procedures related to childbirth – enough to make one hope any physician brought some practical experience to bear too!

We would like to extend our thanks to the staff of the Reading Room for their help once again – it was a thoroughly enjoyable visit!