‘An afflicted conscience layed open by example’: Dionys Fitzherbert

This striking and colourful image is an illustration of a celestial vision described by Dionys Fitzherbert, which she interpreted as a representation of the ‘lamentable calamities’ of the Church in her own time, and of the lasting power of God’s promise to man. It is included in an extraordinary manuscript autobiographical account by Fitzherbert, who was born into a gentry family in around 1580 and died in the early 1640s. This narrative, which centres on a vivid account of a period of religious crisis and despair in Fitzherbert’s twenties, is an early example of what would become a much more widespread genre by the end of the seventeenth century: the spiritual autobiography. Associated particularly with the fervent and self-searching piety of early modern puritans, doubt and despair often mark such accounts. So it is with Fitzherbert, who writes of her descent into spiritual affliction, and of her subsequent recovery after an intense inner battle. Yet this powerfully personal text was not what we might consider a ‘private’ one; Fitzherbert had two scribal copies made and in 1633 gave one to the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the other (this copy) to Sion College Library in London. CL

Dionys Fitzherbert, ‘An Anatomie for the Poore in Spirit. Or the case of an afflicted conscience layed open by example’.

LPL: Sion L40.2/E47, fo. 52.

Further Reading

Elizabeth Clarke and Erica Longfellow, ‘“[E]xamine My Life”: Writing the Self in the Early Seventeenth Century’. Introduction to the online edition of Elizabeth Isham’s autobiographical writings; available at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/ren/projects/isham/texts/.

Paul Delany, British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1969).

Katherine Hodgkin (ed), Women, Madness and Sin in Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings of Dionys Fitzherbert (Aldershot, 2010).

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