By Emma Anderson, Library Graduate Trainee.

In Queens’ Old Library, we are fortunate to have two copies of Elizabeth Elstob’s 1709 translation of Ælfric of Eynsham’s English-Saxon Homily on the Birth-Day of St Gregory [E.9.15 and C.20.10]. This is a spectacular work of trilingual academia, featuring annotated translations and commentaries between Old and contemporary English and Latin. Elizabeth Elstob, the translator and scholar, was noteworthy in many ways, not in the least for being a published author and scholar at a time in which men dominated academia. The President of Queens’ College at the time, Henry James, was a subscriber of Elstob’s work, which accounts for the presence of her book in the Old Library; this shows that societal interest in women’s education was becoming increasingly widespread, and had supporters even in male-only institutions such as Queens’ was in the eighteenth century.

Title page of Elstob’s work.

Elstob was born into an affluent merchant family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 29th September 1683. She commentated later that Old English had been easy for her to learn, as it had commonalities with the language that she had heard in the North as a child. She was educated at home, in subjects including Latin, which was unusual for women in the period. In 1702 she moved in with her brother in London, and along with him became a member of a scholarly community interested in Anglo-Saxon texts. Elstob built a large network of subscribers and patrons from this community, including Old English scholars such as George Hickes and Humfrey Wanley, and the literary figure and politician Robert Harley. She forged connections with scholars at The Universities of Cambridge and Oxford to expand her circle of patrons and to gain access to the Old English manuscripts held at those institutions. She also participated in the circle of intellectuals headed by the writer and philosopher Mary Astell (1666–1731). By 1709, she had amassed 268 subscribers for the English-Saxon Homily on the Birth-Day of St Gregory, 116 of which were women. Ultimately, through Robert Harley, she successfully petitioned Queen Anne for the funding to publish her work.

Elstob’s skill as a translator and commentator is immediately evident on leafing through the pages of her text; she offers side-by-side translations, an Old English alphabet, and extensive notes on the historic nations of Anglo-Saxon England and the influence of Old English on contemporary language. Further, Elstob’s work is clearly signalled as her own. At the beginning of her translation, Ælfric’s original text is marked out with an engraved initial featuring an image of his face. Elstob’s translation is marked out as her own with a similarly engraved initial depicting her own face. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, certain writers and scholars – both female and male – had begun to champion the cause of women’s education, seeing it as beneficial for society. In 1694, Mary Astell published an outright plea for an institution for women’s higher education, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest; notably, this not only about women, but addressed to women. Against this background, the image of Elstob’s face at the head of her work becomes a visual reminder of the movement declaring women’s right to, and suitability for scholarly pursuits.

Engraved portraits of Ælfric and Elstob, showing them side by side and at the head of their respective texts.

However, in this publication, she goes a step further than simply demonstrating women’s intellectual capacity. In her dedication, addressed to Queen Anne, she describes the spiritual genealogy of Christianity through important women, highlighting their fundamental role in effecting the conversion of empires and nations. She points out that:

‘the introduction of the Christian Faith, into the Roman Empire, was effected by the ever glorious Helena, and the conversion of the English much promoted, by the endeavours of the first English Christian Queen Berhta…’

– Elstob, p. 5
Initial ‘I’, surrounded by Mary, Jesus, Helena the mother of Constantine, Queen Bertha and Queen Elizabeth.

She links the achievements of these ‘two truly Royal Ladies’ (p. 7) to the ‘Restitution of [Christianity] from many corruptions, by Your illustrious predecessor Queen Elizabeth’, arguing that women leaders had an essential role in ensuring the success of Christianity both in England and beyond. This idea is charmingly illustrated in the engraved initial ‘I’ that opens the dedication. Five figures surround the initial: Jesus, Mary, and three female figures, who are identifiable as the three women discussed in the dedication. This opens the book with a visual statement of the authority of women in spiritual matters. The ‘I’ in the centre appears almost like another figure, implying that Elstob herself is one of their companions. The notion of women as scholars and promoters of Christianity is presented not as something new or deviant from any norms, but as a long-established universal truth.

It is interesting that such a text is present in the collection in Queens’ Old Library. Like many Cambridge colleges, Queens’ specialised in providing an education for future clerics, who at the time could only be male. The education of women was unlikely to be something in which many fellows or students had much interest. An answer may be found in the list of subscribers included at the end of the book. Subscription was a common method of financing the publication of books in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it constituted an agreement between the bookseller and/or author on one hand and a number of individuals – subscribers – on the other, who would contribute towards the cost of the production of the book. The subscribers would then receive a copy or copies of the book upon publication. The list of subscribers at the back of the English-Saxon Homily includes one ‘Dr. James, Master of Queens’ College, and Regius Professor of Divinity, at Cambridge’ (Elstob p. [184]). It is highly probable that this refers to Henry James, who was President of Queens’ from 1675 to 1717, and the copies of Elstob’s book in the Old Library are likely to be the copies that he received as a subscriber. It it is worth noting that a President of Queens’, an institution devoted to the education of men, had been in contact with Elstob, and presumably had some interest in women’s scholarship.

Elstob’s other publications included a Latin Athanasian Creed containing an Old English interlinear gloss (1708) and The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715), which was the first grammar of Old English published in Modern English. Unfortunately, her brother’s death in 1715 left Elstob destitute. Then, as now, it was difficult to make a substantial living writing extremely specialised scholarly works; further, the sponsorship for the English-Saxon Homily fell through, as Queen Anne died before she paid it. Elstob attempted to open a school, which was a financial disaster despite demand. She then ran a small school in Evensham for some years, during which time very few records of her exist. Accounts of her reappear in 1739, when she took a position as governess to the children of Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715–1785), duchess of Portland. Margaret Cavendish Bentinck was a member of the mid-18th century women’s intellectual circle known as the Bluestockings, and was an avid collector in the realms of botany and porcelain. From her final letters, Elstob seems to have become despondent about the future of women’s education and scholarship in general, reflecting that her contemporary society valued other virtues. However, she remains an inspiration for her perseverance and commitment to academic pursuits, and for her determination to take up space in a male-dominated environment.


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