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A Jew, a Protestant and a Catholic

· ​The book ·

This is a history book that differs from the other Women on the Margins: it begins with a theatrical prologuein which the author seeks to respond to the imaginary remonstrances of the women whose biographies she has written. Glikl bas Yehudah Leib, a Jewish merchant in Hamburg, Marie de l’Incarnation, an Ursuline mystic, foundress of the first school for Native Americans, and Maria Sibylla Merian, a German Protestant painter and naturalist, indignantly ask the author why she decided to juxtapose their lives in such an arbitrary fashion. Natalie Zemon Davis answers: “I have put you together because I wanted to discover the resemblances and differences between you”.

Maria Sibylla Merian in an engraving based on a drawing by her son

Seemingly brought together only by the century in which they lived, the 17th century, these three women moved in different and widely separated contexts. At the age of 14 Glikl married a rich merchant and brought 14 children into the world, of whom eight were still young when her husband died. She did not lose heart when widowed but continued and developed her husband’s business, travelling across Europe until she settled with a new husband in Metz, where she died at the age of 78. She travelled, she did business and in the meantime she wrote. In 30 years she wrote seven books in which she tells of her life, her family, the births, the deaths, the strength needed in order to face them and the sins into which she falls: in a word: “she conversed with God”.

Marie de l’Incarnation wrote too: notebook after notebook in which she explained why, having been widowed, she abandoned her 11-year-old son in order to enter the Ursuline convent; she described her love for God and “the way God directed her”, she described her mystical visions and apparitions of the devil; she told of how she left France to become a missionary in Canada, not only in order to obey the orders of her spiritual director but also to respond to the callings of a spirit “which could not be enclosed”. Her journey, her meeting with the Hurons and the Algonquins and learning their languages, as well as the teaching she imparted to the “young savages” were, Marie wrote, “such a source of pleasure that if anything I sinned in loving them too much”.

Maria Sibylla Merian also wrote and travelled. She painted as well, not out of religious passion but out of scientific passion. This did not lead her to abandon her daughters: it was her husband, a painter from Frankfurt, whom she abandoned in order to join the Labadists, a Protestant community which had put down roots in the Dutch Province of Frisia, to experiment with renunciation and detachment from all goods and earthly preoccupations. However after several years, perhaps unable to tolerate the hierarchies of the communities or her separation from the world, Maria Sybilla departed once more, again with her daughters, and settled in Amsterdam. This still did not suffice: the passion that burned within her was for the study of insects, on which she wrote illustrated volumes well known throughout Europe. Moreover in the New World there were still insects and plants which required analysis. Thus in 1699 she left with her youngest daughter for Suriname, where Africans and Native Americans were to help her in her research and studies and where she was to write her most important work, the Metamorphoses of Insects in Suriname. She then returned to Amsterdam, where she died in 1717.

These three women thus had different lives, but with many points of contact: a spirit of initiative, a propensity for travel and adventure, a passion for Scripture, a profound spirituality and a religious sense which led them to know and to express the innermost parts of themselves.

Margherita Pelaja





St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 21, 2020