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Three women gossiping

For International Day of Friendship, which is 30 July, Associate Professor Amanda Herbert from our Department of History explores the importance of friendship between women in the early modern era.

Q: What are your primary research interests?

I describe myself as a historian of the body. That means that I’m interested in anything that went into or made up or shaped people’s perceptions of their physical, emotional, spiritual, and social selves. That includes the things they ate and drank; how they imagined health and wellness; their sexuality and gendered identities; how they talked about skin colour, racial identity, and belonging; and of course their friendships and social networks.

My title at Durham is historian of “early modern Americas,” and my speciality is British and American history. We use the phrase “early modern” as a kind of shorthand, to describe the period from about 1450 to 1800. This was a moment when people around the world began to travel much more expansively. It was a time of wonder and curiosity, but also one of terrible exploitation, racism, invasion, and violence. The contradictions and difficulties of that moment in time are fascinating to me, both as a historian and as a person living today.

Q: Can you explain why friendship between women was so important starting in the 17th century?

In the seventeenth century, people from Britain began travelling with greater frequency and across greater distances. Spurred on by desires to colonise and capture, British women and men from many different walks of life made more journeys across the Irish Sea; they sailed to the Caribbean; they invaded and settled in North America. This kind of expansion was exciting to many British people, but it also seemed threatening and worrisome: what would happen to the bonds that held society together, their friendships, alliances, and networks, when people lived so far apart? What kind of national or cultural or social identity would they share?

Women were expected to hold families and friends together. In this period, women were imagined as more friendly and loving than were men. Gendered stereotypes dictated that women were more emotional, more ‘naturally’ inclined to bigger and more intense feelings. To keep people together in a world that seemed to be driving them apart, early modern philosophers, physicians, and theologians encouraged women to maintain better and stronger friendships and alliances.

The historical record shows us that many women took these encouragements seriously. To make and maintain friendships, they wrote thousands of letters. They talked, read, and prayed together. They took care of each other’s bodies: brushing hair, dressing, napping, and sharing meals. They took care of each other’s children. They hand-crafted clothes and jewellery and confections and gave them to one another as gifts. They shared strategic political information. They made medical recommendations.

Of course, even the strongest suggestions and encouragements can’t prevent people from disagreeing or recognising difference; for all that they were told to cooperate, to play along, and to make friends, many women did have serious conflicts, fighting and shouting, perpetuating emotional and physical violence. But these powerful gendered dictates, these social expectations that a good woman would be loving and kind, left their marks on real women and also on the archive. We can see evidence of early modern women’s friendships and alliances in galleries, museums, and libraries today, in the letters, works of art, clothes, diaries, and recipe books left behind by women who are now long dead.

Q: Why do you feel it is important to use a feminist perspective to research the history of friendship?

Those early modern gendered stereotypes turned out to be really stubborn. Early modern women were imagined as ‘naturally’ more emotional and ‘naturally’ more loving; today we can recognise that these historical stereotypes were limiting, damaging, sexist, unfair. But when we think about our own modern stereotypes, surprisingly little has changed.

In both the UK and in the US, women are still expected to be friendly and kind, loving and sweet, generous and affectionate. They’re expected to be nice. And when the opposite seems to be true – think of the ‘mean girls’ phenomenon – then there’s a public outcry. I’m not advocating for more cruelty. But I do think that we should question our inherited stereotypes, and we should encourage modern-day women and girls to see themselves as whole and complex people, with the capacity to form nuanced, rich relationships.

Q: Can you explain in what contexts ‘friendship’ might mean something other than a platonic relationship?

I’ve done a lot of work on friendship and love, but I’ve also researched queer relationships, sexuality, and eroticism. In the early modern period, women fell in love with other women and men fell in love with other men. Sometimes they called themselves ‘friends’ but their relationships meant so much more. Queer women and men formed life-long bonds that shared many characteristics with traditional or typical early modern heterosexual marriages. Their stories are heart-wrenching, swoon-worthy, and awe-inspiring in turns. Some of the most important work I do is in recovering and celebrating queer stories, lives, and experiences.

Find out more

Set within the magnificent location of Durham’s World Heritage Site, our Department of History is ranked 4th in the UK in the Complete University Guide by Subject 2024. 

Our research and teaching extend from late antiquity and the Middle Ages to contemporary history, from the British Isles and continental Europe to the USA, Africa and East Asia and across social, cultural, gender, visual, scientific, political and economic history. 

Feeling inspired? Visit our History webpages for more information on our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. 

Durham University is a top 100 world university. In the QS World University Rankings 2024, we were ranked 78th globally.