Humility: A Catholic Female Virtue

Humility: A Catholic Female Virtue

'These ladies, like Dryden's Eleonora, are seen descending to the depths of humility in order to scale the heights of sainthood...'

Of all the virtues practiced by English Catholic women writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, humility is by far the most relevant (and perhaps most controversial). At the time, women were expected to be quiet, subservient, and not stir up trouble or cause a scene. This idea of staying humble while still crafting contentious and sometimes outlandish texts caused some dissonance among both writers and readers of these documents. Humility, defined by Merriam-Webster as "the quality or state of being humble" (or modest), is an important ideal to consider when creating works in the 1600s and 1700s. 

"According to St. Thomas Acquinas, there are three levels of humility: 'sufficient humility,' or subjection to superiors; 'abundant humility,' or subjection to equals; and "perfect humility," or subjection to inferiors" (Gardiner 2). This means that one could achieve one of three ranks. Sufficient humility meant that one possessed enough modesty when it came to those of higher social standing. Abundant humility would be having enough meekness in regards to one's equals. Perfect humility, or the ideal state of humility, meant subjecting to those lesser than oneself. Jesus Christ himself embodied this virtue by washing his apostles' feet.

Humility is one of the seven cardinal virtues in the Christian faith. Its corresponding sin, its opposite, is pride. According to James Kellenberger, humility can be classified as "having a low opinion of oneself...having a low estimate of one's merit...having a modest opinion of one's importance or rank...absence of self-assertion..." (Kellenberger 322). The list goes on. While the technical definition may be debated on, it can be universally agreed that humility plays a large role in the Christian religion, both now and in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Another source that influenced my decision to pursue this topic was the lecture "Dancing in a Chalk Circle: Authorship in English Benedictine Convents, 1600-1700" by Dr. Jaime Goodrich. In this talk, Dr. Goodrich discussed the way nuns had to fit within a "textual circle" that circumscribed them when producing work. An example would be Barbara Constable of Cambrai (1617-1684). She feared she was falling into idleness, and was troubled by her inability to conform to Benedictine ideals. Struggling to attain virtue, she assumed a radical position of authority while still emphasizing her own humility. Similarly, Anne Neville of Pontoise (1605-1689) referred to herself as both an "unworthy abbess" and a "humble servant." Considering she helped found the cloister and was therefore rightly in a position of authority, this humility was so extreme as to almost be misleading.

  • Madonna of Humility...
  • ...or The Virgin Mary
  • Madonna by Sassoferrato

The Virgin of Humility

Madonna of Humility, also known as "The Virgin of Humility," refers to the Virgin Mary depicted in art. She can be seen praying alone or holding baby Jesus on her lap, surrounded by saints and disciples. She is also usually seated, either on the ground or atop a cushion. These portrayals reflect the virtue of humility women were expected to practice in their daily lives. The word "humility" comes from the Latin "humus," or earth, hence why she is seated. The idea was that the closer she was to the ground, the sooner she would be able to rise into sainthood.

About This Exhibit


Erica Bradshaw


An analysis of humility as a virtue in English Catholic women’s practices, as well as an exploration of the conduct these women were expected to abide by both inside and outside of the church.

According to St. Thomas Acquinas, there are three levels of humility...

...Anne Hyde had shown 'The Spirit of Primitive Christianity' in being humbly willing to face "the loss of Friends, of worldly Honours, and Esteem..."


Anne Hyde, Duchess of York

Anne Hyde, James II's first wife, explores the idea of humility in her conversion narrative, "Firmly I Believe and Truly." She emphasizes that no one influenced her decision to convert to Catholicism, be it man or woman. She then goes on to discuss that this "blessing" is one she owes entirely to God, as she prayed daily that she might discover the true meaning of religion before she died. She finishes the text by stating that she is willing to lose all credit and friends as a result of this decision; she merely hopes no one will suffer because of it.

Poet John Dryden (1631-1700) commented on Hyde's work. He wrote a paper in response, entitled "Defence of the Duchess's Paper," in which he defends Hyde's decision and goes so far as to say she "had shown 'The Spirit of Primitive Christianity' in being humbly willing to face 'the loss of Friends, of worldly Honours, and Esteem...'" (Gardiner 2). For a man to comment on a woman's work so publicly, let alone praise it, was almost unheard of. He even called her "a Saint" (Gardiner 2). Dryden believed that humility was a strictly Catholic virtue, evident in his writing Eleonora, a lyrical poem he dedicated to the late countess of Abingdon.

According to this Catholic definition, humility "involved recognition of one's place in a vertical order of reality" (Gardiner 3). That is, one had to recognize where they stood in a hierarchy of mankind. The word "humility" comes from the Latin "humus," or "earth." Therefore, humility equaled being grounded and beneath one's superiors (Gardiner 3). 

The Seven Christian Virtues and Sins

  1. Charity / Greed
  2. Chastity / Lust
  3. Diligence / Sloth
  4. Humility / Pride
  5. Kindness / Envy
  6. Patience / Wrath
  7. Temperance / Gluttony
  • Anne Hyde, Duchess of York

Jane Barker and Love Intrigues

"...a heroine who actively chooses an alternative to the conventional marriage plot that triumphs in much of British amatory fiction written in the early eighteenth century..."

  • One of Jane Barker's works

Jane Barker's "Love Intrigues" provides another example of expectations about the behavior of English Catholic women in the 17th and 18th centuries. In this story, Barker's first novel published in 1713, the aunt and niece duo of Galesia and Lucasia live in St. Germain-en-Laye in France. Galesia is a celibate, Catholic woman, providing the reader with "a heroine who actively chooses an alternative to the conventional marriage plot that triumphs in much of British amatory fiction written in the early eighteenth century" (McArthur 596). While most stories at the time focused on love, in which the woman finds herself a man, Galesia is a welcome change.

On the Continent, the first English cloister was founded in the late 1500s in Brussels, with twenty-two following over the next century. All of them were founded, directed, and lived in by aristocratic, English Catholic women. These women are representative of noncompliance with English law, society, and religion. Additionally, because the convent was classified as an institution, it helped "in preserving this history of resistance" (McArthur 597). Barker's convents provided a safe haven for a variety of women: those who were married and those who were not, pariahs, and the like. This lifestyle was an alternative to married life or motherhood. It gave these women an outlet to practice religion safely and legitimately.

The politics of sex and gender are examined in this novel. The dynamic between Galesia and her former lover, Bosvil, are representative of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, as well as the Jacobites and those opposed to them (McArthur 598-599). As a result of the Jacobite risings of 1745, an attempt to regain the Stuart throne, cloisters gained an entirely new meaning and purpose in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature. Instead of serving as catalysts for heroines to interact with the men in their lives (such as Aphra Behn's The History of the Nun), or depositories for those deemed completely irrelevant, they provided Barker's women with "real options available for English women who find community, security, and spiritual direction within them" (McArthur 597). 

The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope

Although Alexander Pope was a man, his heroi-comical poem "The Rape of the Lock" comments directly on female behavior in the early 18th century. Through the beautiful and charming character Belinda, the idea that Catholic women were mere objects is explored. Throughout the five cantos, Belinda's allure is consistently highlighted. As she leisurely rises from her bed around noon in the beginning of the poem, she makes her way over to her vanity and begins what can only be described as a ritual: "Trembling, begins the sacred Rites of Pride. Unnumber'd Treasures ope at once, and here / The various Off'rings of the World appear" (Pope 1.128-1.130). Her vanity and use of treasured, expensive objects (like tortoise and ivory combs) exemplify the idea that men only viewed women as objects, made for primping and enhancing their physical appearance.

Throughout the poem, Belinda serves as a glowing image of beauty, though she does not have much else going for her. She assumes the role of the damsel in distress, requiring protection from Ariel and her guardian sylphs. In spite of this security, she still ends up losing something very precious to her: her coveted lock of hair. This is further commentary that women only valued material items and their looks. Additionally, Belinda's friend Thalestris delivers a moving and intellectual speech that falls on deaf ears. Her reasoning is basically ignored, further proof that women should have been seen and not heard.

  • The Rape of the Lock

Works Cited

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"File:Anne Hyde, Duchess of York, 1662 by Lely.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, 1 Dec. 2016,,_Duchess_of_York,_1662_by_Lely.jpg.

"File:Botticelli+P.Pollaiolo - theological and cardinal virtues - Uffizi.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, 5 Dec. 2016,

"File: Domenico di Bartolo - Madonna of Humility - WGA06414.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, 30 Nov. 2016,

"File:Jane Barker's Exiles.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, 5 Dec. 2016,'s_Exiles.jpg.

"File:Lorenzo Monaco - Madonna of Humility - WGA13602.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, 29 Nov. 2016,

"File:The rape of the lock pg 62.jpg." Wikimedia Commons, 7 Dec. 2016, 

"Humility." Def. 1. Merriam-Webster Online, Merriam-Webster, n. d. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.

Gardiner, Anne Barbeau. “John Dryden's ‘Eleonora’ and the Catholic Idea of Humility.” Religion &Amp; Literature, vol. 34, no. 1, 2002, pp. 1–20.

Hecht, Ilse. “Madonna of Humility.” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1973-1982), vol. 70, no. 6, 1976, pp. 10–13.

Kellenberger, James. “HUMILITY.” American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 4, 2010, pp. 321–336.

McArthur, Tonya Moutray. “Jane Barker and the Politics of Catholic Celibacy.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 47, no. 3, 2007, pp. 595–618.

Pope, Alexander, and Aubrey Beardsley. The Rape of the Lock: An Heroicomical Poem in Five Cantos. New York: Dover Publications, 1968. Print.