LANYER, Aemilia

Aemilia Lanyer was a poet and advocate for women's equality in early mod­ern England. Lanyer's social position differed markedly from that of other well-known women writers of the time, such as Mary Wroth* or Elizabeth Cary.* They were members of the aristocratic classes, whereas Lanyer's family mem­bers were middle-class professionals who made their living as artists or providers of entertainment. Lanyer's father was Baptist Bassano, a Jewish lutenist from Venice and one of Queen Elizabeth's* musicians; her mother, Margaret Johnson, was English. Lanyer became the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, the queen's lord chamberlain. Because Hunsdon was a patron of William Shakespeare's* acting company, one critic believes that Lanyer is the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets; there is little evidence to support this speculation. When she became pregnant, Lanyer was married for appearance's sake to Alfonso Lanyer, another of Elizabeth's musicians, in 1592. Her son, Henry, followed family tradition to become a court flutist. A daughter, Odillya, died at nine months.
Both Lanyer and her husband were ambitious for social advancement. In addition to his court employment, Alfonso participated in the earl of Essex's expedition to the Azores and Irish campaign in the hope of financial and social rewards. He eventually received some income from a patent granted by James I.* Aemilia, on the other hand, took to writing. Her Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611) contains dedications to a number of prominent noble and royal women, including Queen Anne. In some copies, dedications are in different orders or omitted, suggesting that they were tailored for different recipients. Alfonso gave one to the lord chancellor of Ireland. There is no evidence that such appeals for patronage succeeded, however, and after Alfonso's death in 1613, Aemilia's financial position grew precarious. She fought her husband's family over the patent in the courts for more than twenty years; her attempt to support herself by running a school ended in legal disputes after a short time. Lanyer died in 1645 at the age of seventy-six.
Salve Deus is remarkable for many reasons. Lanyer's multiple dedications to potential female patrons are highly unusual in women's writings. Its "To Cook-ham" is the first English country-house poem. Like other nonnoble writers seek­ing the patronage of social superiors, Lanyer had to prove herself worthy of their favor. Salve Deus displays both a desire to be among the elite and anger at her exclusion. Lanyer's claims to have been at Cook-ham with the countess of Cumberland and to have known the countess of Kent in her youth have not been substantiated. "To the Vertuous Reader" is a defense of women against male (and female) detractors; it belongs to the "woman controversy" or querelles des femmes tradition. The longest section both narrates the Passion of Christ and praises the spiritual virtues of Margaret, the countess of Cumberland. It argues not only for women's central role in Christian biblical history, but also for their spiritual superiority to men; Lanyer's account of the Passion emphasizes women's empathy with Jesus and makes men responsible for his death. Lanyer, like many early modern writers, offers her own interpretation of Adam and Eve's fall. Lanyer's is more radical than most. She argues that Pilate's responsibility for Christ's death more than cancels out Eve's sin, and thus women's submission to men (one consequence of the Fall) should cease.
M. Grossman, ed., Aemilia Lanyer, 1998.
A. Lanyer, The Poems ofAemilia Lanyer, ed. S. Woods, 1993.
Gwynne Kennedy

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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