Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Christopher Orchard, D.Phil.

Second Advisor

Michael T. Williamson, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

David Downing, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Adrian Wisnicki, Ph.D.


Although ontology has permeated discussions of early modern literature in recent decades, the related philosophical branch epistemology has received little critical attention in literary scholarship. However, epistemic foundations such as knowledge acquisition, confirmation, and conference, continuously influence the generation of ideas and textual production. This thesis locates the relationship between biblical exegesis and epistemology as crucial to the analysis of early modern English texts, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and before the rise of modern philosophy. Additionally, this thesis addresses ways that epistemic questions, especially as related to the idea of certainty, both fueled and troubled reformist efforts in England. Rather than a cohesive and monolithic Reformation with a distinct beginning and end, England experienced a series of reformations, both religious and political, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, throughout which various factions sought to gain control of a Reformation narrative to direct future continuations of reform. Within this time of ideological change, women recognized an unprecedented chance both to participate in and shape this conversation through their devotional writings, personal narratives, private correspondence, and poetry. Their strategy was twofold: to contribute to the Protestant reaction against the centralized authority of the church and to react in a broader sense against the exclusive authority of men to engage in epistemic discourse. I argue that attention to epistemology clarifies literary, historical, and theological intersections with profound results for the study of early modern women, who found in the intangible space between knowledge and belief a powerful opportunity to reinstate female authority in religious discourse and knowledge production. Consequently, my thesis will include a wide array of early modern women writers, including Anne Askew, Katherine Parr, Anne Dowriche, Elizabeth Joceline, Elizabeth Isham, Aemilia Lanyer, and Rachel Speght, to support my argument for their engagement of epistemology against and along with male discourse and within an evolving English Reformation. Additionally, my thesis will demonstrate how a critical framework that attends to epistemology can avoid the conflation of contemporary ideas with overly broad application to primary texts, as well as avoid the privileging of contemporary presuppositions over historical ones.